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Form & Function: Your Abdominals

Your Abdominals

When you think of working your abs, you most likely feel you're training one muscle. You know, that muscle that burns in your stomach, especially during Hundreds.

However, your abdominals are more than just one muscle, they are a GROUP of muscles made up of FOUR primary muscles:

rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique and the transverse abdominis.

To truly be strong in your abdominals, you must be strong in all four areas. And of course, each has its own set of operating instructions...

Rectus Abdominis:

This is the one that burns during Hundreds, and what most people think of as their "abs"- or the coveted "6 pack". Imagine a line drawn from the bottom of your breast bone (the sternum) to your pubic bone. On either side of that line are the 2 long muscle bands that make up your rectus abdominis (rectus).

Your rectus has several important jobs: 1.) Supports holding your organs in, 2.) Supports good posture for stability and movement, 3.) Performs spinal flexion, forward bending.

Pilates Exercises that utilize the rectus abdominis:

any move that includes forward flexion of the thoracic spine.


Hundreds, Coordination, Standing Roll-down, Roll-up on the mat, Short Box/

Round Back

External Oblique:

This one helps to define our waistline! That perked your ears, right? These muscles run laterally on either side of their good friend rectus abdominis, and extend into the side body. They connect along the 5th through 12th ribs, run all the way down rectus to the pubic bone, and along the top of the hip bones (iliac crest). You can think of them as a rectangular muscle.

Their primary jobs are: 1.) lateral flexion your spine, 2.) rotation of your spine, 3.) Pulling the chest downward, which helps to compress and support the abdominal contents (keeps your organs in).

Pilates Exercises that utilize the external oblique:

Any move where we do lateral flexion, side bending.


Short Box/Side-overs, Mermaid, Star and Side-bend on the mat.

Internal Oblique:

Like the external oblique, this muscle also helps to define your waistline. It is a smaller muscle then it's counterpart the external oblique, and sits just underneath it (deep). The internal oblique has 2 primary jobs: 1.) Assist in respiration by acting as the antagonist, or opponent to the diaphragm, 2.) rotation and flexion of your torso, by partnering (synergist muscle) with the external oblique

Pilates Exercises that utilize the internal oblique:

Any move that includes flexion and rotation.


Criss-Cross, Snake, Short Box/Around the world, Side-bend & reach on the mat.

Transverse Abdominis (TVA):

This is the key that pulls it all together, yet it is often the most ignored of the abdominal muscle group, leaving us weak and "pouchy" in our abdominal wall. The transverse abdominis is the famous "corset muscle" we talk so much about in the Pilates community. It has long been thought that you cannot have a truly flat stomach without having a toned TVA.*

The TVA is a very deep muscle that runs horizontally, underneath the internal oblique, from the cartilage of the lowest 6 ribs, along the connective tissue (fascia) of the lumber, to the top of the hip bone (iliac crest), and between the lowest point of the breast bone (xiphoid process), and the pubic bone. In other words, this muscle wraps around the body, like a corset. I also like to think of it as the deep hugging muscle.

When it is activated it hugs your spine and organs safely inside you! Its jobs include: 1.) Pelvic stability, 2.) thoracic & lumbar spine stability, 3.) Supports the contents of the abdominal wall (organs), 4.) Supports breathing, in the exhalation, 5.) Aides in urination, defecation, vomiting and vaginal birth.

Pilates Exercises that utilize the transverse abdominis:


Yup in every single Pilates exercise we engage the TVA.

Or at least we are supposed to!

Is there ever a class or exercise where your teacher does not stress, "navel to spine"?That is the cue to activate your TVA. The proper use of this muscle is so important to the success of your Pilates practice, and to your overall health & function.

You can practice this as at home. Lay down on the floor with your knees bent, your feet flat and about hip-width apart. Your arms are long by your side. Establish your neutral pelvis, where your two hip points (ASIS bones) and your pubic bone are all in the same plane. Maintain this position throughout. Take a gentle inhale (laterally), then exhale fully focusing on drawing your navel down towards your spine. As if you were hollowing out your abdominal wall. Remember your pelvis does not move-- this is not a pelvic tuck. Repeat 5x's 1-2 times daily.

* Surgeons' Hall Journal Vol. 10, No. 2. March 1947

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