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Why Your Abs (‘6 Pack’) are Important. Part 2

Your rectus abdominus, commonly known as your ‘6 Pack’,  has another more interesting function than those discussed in Part 1 (read my post on why your abs are important, Part 1) of this series of articles on this muscle.

Considering that the most common exercise we perform to strengthen our ‘6 Pack’ is the sit up (read my post on sit ups and lower back pain), it’s not surprising that we think the main function of this muscle is to bend ourselves double.  Few of us are though are gymnasts, thus we don’t normally use this muscle for bending our trunks, unless we’re performing situps or pikes in the gym (and if you’re picking up objects in this manner, please stop, you’re going to injure your back – another topic I’ll post about in the future).  In other words, bending our trunks is not the every day way in which we use this muscle in our daily lives.

 

Pike, gymnastics, rectus abdominus function
“2015 European Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Uneven bars” by Pierre Yves Beaudoin under Licence CC BY 4.0

What then is the more important function of the rectus abdominus (‘6 Pack’) in our lives? To understand more, we need to have another look at how this muscle is built.

The ‘6 Pack’ is a long muscle that extends from the lower few ribs and inserts into the top of the pelvis.  Because we think of it as a long muscle, we think of its main function as bending us in half.  What we forget, however, is that the muscle is ‘tethered down’ by tendinous tissue giving us the ‘6 Pack’ distinctive look (when it’s not covered by blubber as mine currently is).

The important effect of these tendinous tethers along the length of the rectus abdominus is that, far more important than making your abdominal area look really ‘fit’, these tethers create stored spring like (elastic) energy in the abdominal area when you contract this muscle.

6 Pack, Abs, Rectus Abdominus
Image by Pixabay under Public Domain

 

Rectus Abdominus, 6 Pack, Abs, Abdominal Anatomy
“Abdominal Wall” by Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body under Public Domain

 

The stored elastic energy that is created when you contract your rectus abdominus is helpful in many ways during everyday life.  Firstly, it helps increase our intra-abdominal pressure, which is important in coughing, vomiting and emptying our bowel and bladder.  People who have been extremely unfortunate to suffer a spinal injury and no longer have function of their rectus abdominus (‘6 Pack’) can testify to how difficult it is to cough or forcefully exhale without this muscle’s function.  They often have to resort to external means such as leaning forwards or using their arms to press into their abdominal area to help replicate the function that our rectus abdominus normally performs for us.

It’s also important to understand that you don’t need to bend over to contract this muscle.  We are all able to contract our rectus abdominus while remaining upright.  This type of static contraction is called an isometric contraction.

In terms of sport and exercise though, this elastic energy also adds force and power to movements that occur at our hips or shoulders in activities such as throwing something (e.g. javelin throwing) or tennis serving or springing forwards as a sprinter and many many more examples.

 

Javlin throwing
“Bregje Crolla during Europacup 2007” by Erik van Leeuwen under GNU Free Documentation License.

The next question to ask then is, how am I training this muscle? Am I training it in a one dimensional capacity (e.g. performing sit ups or pikes), or am I training it in a functional way that will enhance my sporting performance.  Remember:  what you train, is what you get!

 

Reference:

McGill S. (2010).  Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.  Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3), 33-46.

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Why Your Abs (‘6 Pack’) are Important? Part 1

I’m intrigued by the ‘6 Pack’.  Not the one that sits in the fridge, but rather the one that joins your rib cage to your pelvis.

From my experience, I have the impression that people focus on their ‘6 Pack’ quite a lot in the gym.  As a physio, I have some reservations regarding how much people focus on their rectus abdominus (abs) as well as some of the exercises people engage in to work this muscle, since some of these exercises can actually be detrimental to spinal health (read my post on sit ups and lower back pain).

However, the 6 pack is a part of our body and it is important.  The point is, how important?  What does do your abs do for you?  What happens if you over work your abs, or if your abs are weak or damaged?  In my blog I’m going to explore this muscle in more detail in future posts.

6 Pack, Abs, Rectus Abdominus
Image by Pixabay under Public Domain

Our starting point needs to be where your abs (‘6 Pack’/ Rectus Abdominus) are found in your body and what their basic function is.

Let’s start with where your abs are found.  If you look at the illustration below, you will see that the ‘6 Pack’ extends from the rib cage to the pelvis and is found in the front of the body, in the area commonly known as the ‘trunk’.

Rectus Abdominus, 6 Pack, Abs, Abdominal Anatomy
“Abdominal Wall” by Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body under Public Domain

What are the basic functions of your abs (‘6 Pack’) ?  What does it do for us?

1.  Your abs/ ‘6 Pack’ help to form the front boundary of your trunk, keeping your abdominal contents from falling out.  Quite an important job I would suggest – nobody wants stomach contents gurgling around their waist as they walk.

2.  In addition, when you contract your  abs/ ‘6 Pack’, the force of this muscle increases the internal pressure in your abdominal cavity (the area below your diaphragm and lungs and above your pelvis).  You use this increased pressure when you cough, laugh, empty your bladder and bowels, vomit (nice) and forcefully exhale.  All in all, important activities at specific times in our daily lives .

3.  We also use our abs/ ‘6 Pack’ to help us sit up from a reclined position, especially when our hands are not available to help us push up.  Mothers are very familiar with this particular function, especially when they’re getting up after lying down with a sleeping baby in their arms.

4.  Contracting your abs/ ‘6 pack’ also helps you to perform impressive gymnastic maneuvers such as the headstand ‘pike’ in this video.

Pike Headstand by Carl Paoli.  Used with written permission.  http://www.nakaathletics.com/

5.  Furthermore, on a superficial level, your abs are often used as a tool when looking for a mate.  Nothing shouts fit and healthy quite like lean, muscular abs.  Don’t believe me?  Take a walk along the beach, watch people in the gym, or watch the latest Calvin Klein ad.  That should assuage any doubt.

6.  Lastly, your abs/ ‘6 Pack’ is involved in your core muscle activation and its affect on producing/reducing lower back pain.  Since 80% of us humans are going to suffer from lower back pain in our lives, it might be worthwhile to understand how our stomach strength and exercises are helping or hindering us in this matter.  I will look at this more in a future post.  Want to read more?  Read my post on Why Your Abs are Important Part 2.