6-Packs and Athleticism: Social Media vs Reality

Check out our video on training abdominals here!

One of the most frequently asked questions from our athletes is how to achieve the six pack abs that are seemingly everywhere you look.  Unfortunately, this thought process is focussed solely on the visual and very little on the abdominal strength required to move heavy loads and change direction more efficiently.  In reality, there are 3 separate layers of abdominal musculature that play different roles in stability and athleticism. The three layers in order of discussion are the rectus abdominis, the obliques, and finally the transverse abdominis.  As you read on, consider your own views on abs and whether your way of thinking is helping you to meet your athletic goals.

The first layer of abdominals is referred to as the Rectus Abdominis (RA).  These muscles are the “washboard abs” that so many dream of having. The primary role of the RA is to flex the spine (think about your typical sit-up or crunch).  While the RA plays a small role in preventing extended posture (bubble butt), their larger role in athletic performance is relatively small. In fact, the visual appeal of these abs is primarily achieved through nutrition. With that said, visible ridges in your abs can be symbolic of your body fat percentage, which may need to change depending on your sport’s requirements.  While a football-playing offensive lineman and a cross country athlete may be polar opposite in appearance, it does not mean that the runner has strong abs.

While the rectus abdominis makes up the most clearly visible layer of the abs, the obliques come in as a close second.  The obliques are comprised of an outer, external layer, as well as an internal layer below them with muscle fibers running in the opposite direction.  This “X” shape created by the obliques plays a significant role in supporting the spine and allowing us to stand upright. The obliques also provide stability during side bending and rotation of your torso.  When your coaches talk about getting 360-degree expansion with you brace, the obliques make up a big portion of the area you are trying to fill with air. The obliques work in conjunction with the third layer of the abs, the transverse abdominis, to create intra-abdominal pressure (the pressure you create with your breathing), the most important aspect of athletic stabilization.

The final, and arguably the most important layer of the abdominals is the transverse abdominis.  The TA sits deepest inside the body and refers to the muscles we are trying to activate when your coach tells you to brace against a belly breath or shrink your ribcage.  There is a part of the TA below each of the muscles mentioned above, almost acting as the glue the holds everything else together. While this layer sits deepest into the body and is therefor invisible to the naked eye, it’s proof that there is far more to strong abs than the stereotypical beach body.  

There exists a saying in the athletic world that proximal stability will allow for distal mobility.  What this technical expression means is that if your abs are stable, you allow for your hips, shoulders, and everything farther away from the middle of your body to function optimally.  If you as an athlete can learn to breath and brace efficiently, you have the potential to move safely and become significantly more athletic. Stop worrying about the six pack and start thinking about the success you want on the court or field.

Reference Photos:

Rectus Abdominis: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/95/Rectus_abdominis.png/250px-Rectus_abdominis.png

Obliques and RA:


Transverse Abdominis: