crunches, sit-ups, hanging leg raises and flexing in front of the mirror,
hoping to see that elusive six-pack. And women are the biggest consumers of
infomercial gimmicks that promise 'Flat abs in just a few minutes a day!' In
fact, the desire for an aesthetically pleasing midsection is so great that
you can now find 'Ab-Blast' classes in many gyms. However, these classes are
devoted to trashing the abs, and are not conditioning them for improved
function or aesthetics.
The first step in core conditioning is to realize that there are actually
two functional units that make up the abdominal wall. The outer muscles,
which are the ones you see in the mirror, constitute the 'outer unit'. These
muscles are some of the prime movers of the trunk, but exercising them will
not actually lead to flat abs. The inner layers of muscles comprise the
transversus abdominis (TVA) and the internal oblique (IO) (Fig. 1). The TVA
and posterior portions of the IO act like a girdle, producing a 'drawing-in'
action, which is reflected by the belly button moving inwards towards the
spine when the 'inner unit' is activated. It is this drawing-in action that
creates the flat ab look that everyone desires.
Aside from flattening your tummy with its girdle-like actions, the inner
unit serves many other key functions that are essential to maintaining
optimal health, including:
- joint stiffness and segmental stability. The inner unit (Fig. 1) has
been shown by scientific studies to be vital for producing and regulating
joint stiffness in the torso, and greatly influences joint stability in the
extremities (Chek P. Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course.
Vista, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1993-2007; Chek P. 'How to be back-strong and
beltless', in Testosterone Web Magazine, 8 September 2000; online at
- visceral support. The abdominal wall plays a critical role in
supporting the internal organs. Although the organs are supported by an
intricate network of ligaments, it is the abdominal wall that keeps them
from falling downwards and forwards under the influence of gravity. However,
as the abdominal wall weakens (especially the inner unit), the organs begin
to droop, resulting in a condition known as 'abdominal ptosis', which has
been linked with such maladies as low-back pain, painful menstruation, poor
circulation, digestive disorders, constipa-tion, pelvic floor disorders and
chronic dysfunction of the respiratory system (Goldthwait JE et al. The
Essentials of Body Mechanics in Health and Disease, 5th edn. Philadelphia,
PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1952).
- respiration and the abdominal wall. The abdominal muscles are
stabilizer muscles that assist with respiration, while the diaphragm is a
respiratory muscle that assists with stabilization (Fig. 1) (Lewit K.
Manipulative Therapy in the Rehabilitation of the Locomotor System, 2nd edn.
Boston, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1991). However, when abdominal ptosis is
present, especially when combined with an accumulation of abdominal fat, the
ribs are pulled downwards into a position of expiration. This disrupts
respiratory movement of the diaphragm and commonly results in an increased
ventilation rate (number of breaths/minute). Increasing the vent-ilation
rate alters blood pH and is linked with an increased tendency towards muscle
cramping (Massage & Bodywork, 2000; Aug/Sept: 12-15, 18-21).
- inner unit support for circulation and immune function. During
activities such as walking or swimming, there is a cyclical contraction of
the inner unit. This contraction causes constant alteration of the pressures
within the intrathoracic and intra-abdominal cavities. Similar pressure
fluctuations occur while breathing. These pressure variations, in concert
with the pumping action created by the contrac-tion of muscles that are
pushing blood through the veins towards the heart, serve to ease the load on
the body's circulatory system.
In addition to the increased circulation of blood by these actions, there is
an increased efficiency of lymph circulation. Lymph fluid is necessary to
carry away the protein particles that too large to enter the microvessels of
the circulatory system. Without an efficient lymphatic system, there would
be a decreased return of fluids via the circulatory system. The result would
be stasis in the tissues, which is otherwise known as 'edema'. If the
lymphatic system were to fail for even a few hours, life could not be
sustained (Guyton AC. Textbook of Medical Physiology, 8th edn. Philadelphia,
PA: W.B. Saunders Co., 1991).
Bacteria, viruses and other unwanted entities are dumped out of the tissues
and into the lymphatic system, making it where much of our immune-system
functions take place. Should there be stasis of the lymphatic system, the
body could not effectively fight off infections and rid itself of the
byproducts of immune activities. Again, if the lymphatic system is not
functioning correctly, disease is likely to ensue.
Given the heavy concentration of lymph nodes in the abdominal region, the
action of these muscles is critical to our health and vitality. In fact, it
has been stated that a person's youthful appearance, health and efficiency
are correlated with the tone and health of the abdominal muscles (Millard
DO. Applied Anatomy of the Lymphatics. Mokelumne Hill, CA: Health Research,
Digestion and elimination
The cyclical actions of the abdominal corset that occur with respiration and
movement of the body, such as exercise, greatly aid in both digestion and
As you are probably aware, it is the rhythmical contraction of the digestive
tract that moves food through the system. These contractions of the smooth
muscles of the stomach and intestines are, however, influenced by the
ingestion of stimulants (from food or drink), by psychological and physical
stress, and by a multitude of other factors, including respiration.
An individual with a poorly functioning abdominal wall will not receive the
supportive benefits from cyclical and acyclical contractions that result
from optimal respiratory mechanics and move-ment. This means that, in cases
of abdominal ptosis, there is not likely to be an efficient passage of
foodstuffs through the digestive system, and constipation is the likely
result. When the body cannot eliminate efficiently, the liver often becomes
overworked and begins eliminating toxins through the skin. This typically
results in a strong, unpleasant body odour.
By now, it should be evident that developing and maintaining a functional
inner unit of muscles is essential for far more than how you look in the
mirror. Furthermore, having a sixpack for abs doesn't necessarily mean that
the inner unit is working either correctly or health-ily. I have served as a
consultant to many unhealthy athletes and performers who looked beautiful
and healthy to the untrained eye.
A functional core
One of the most effective ways to get the inner unit working optimally is to
use breathing exercises. The Four-Point Tummy Vacuum (Fig. 2) is an
excellent exercise that will both tone the TVA and exercise the inner unit
as a breathing apparatus.
Once you can perform the Tummy Vacuum exercise in a standing position for
three sets of 10 repetitions each, you are ready to begin training the inner
unit with functional movements. Begin by tying a piece of string around your
waist at belly-button level. Draw the belly button slightly inwards towards
the spine and tie a knot in the string (Fig. 3).
To begin your functional, inner unit training, wear the string to the gym
and perform all your favorite exercises using a load you can lift 20 times
or more. If your inner unit is working correctly, you will not feel the
string tighten or dig into your sides as you perform the exercise. If your
inner unit is lazy, it will push out as you do the exercise, resulting in an
uncomfortable digging of the string into your stomach and sides. This should
serve to remind you to draw your belly button inwards until the string
Another way to functionally train your inner unit muscle system is to
perform your exercises and chores around the house using the string until
you automatically keep your tummy drawn in. Once you are doing this
naturally, you can begin lifting heavier weights in the gym.
Adapted from How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! by Paul Chek, founder of the
C.H.E.K Institute in Encinitas, CA, and an internationally recognized
lecturer and educator in the fields of orthopaedic rehabilitation, and
corrective and perfor-mance exercise. For more information, call 01924 566
091 (UK) or visit his website at www.chekinstitute.com
Vol. 20 08 November 2009