Washboard Stomach Revealed

Washboard Stomach Revealed

It is the calling card for every exercise enthusiast (not to mention fitness cover models). The six-pack has long been promised to us with decades’ worth of fitness videos and training programs; eventually impressing us with visions of hundreds upon hundreds of sit-ups or crunch variations as the sole way to give us washboard abs. Or is it?

For the most part, when we think of “abs” we envision those belonging to said cover models. What we are actually seeing on the surface of these washboard abs is the outer layer of the Rectus Abdominis.  Much of our core is actually hidden beneath the six-pack and these muscles, including the internal Obliques, Transverse Abdominals, Multifidus, Diaphragm, Pelvic floor and many other deeper muscles.This group of muscles work to stabilize our lower back; and thus it is important when building strong abdominals to learn how to best engage all of these muscles to create balance within our core. 

The first step to building a strong core (which can be done during almost any exercise) is learning how to brace and stabilize one’s spine. This does not mean simply sucking in one’s stomach, as this itself will not sufficiently engage your core. Instead, one method is to exhale as you draw in your belly button towards your spine and engage the muscles of the pelvic floor. To engage these muscles, imagine that you need to urinate and hold it, better known as “Kegaling”.  In professional bodybuilding there is also similar contraction popularized in the 1970’s by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane called the Vacuum Pose. This was used to exaggerate the waist to ribs ratio creating the look of an exceptionally tight waistline. To execute this pose from a standing position, place hands on hips, exhale all the air out of your lungs and visualize touching your navel to your spine. Hold, rest and repeat. You can do these moves anywhere, sitting, standing, during exercise and while at rest. However it is very important when engaging your deep core to maintain normal breathing and not hold your breath, which causes intra-abdominal pressure through what is called the Valsalva Maneuver (or forcefully attempting exhalation against a closed airway). 

Once you’ve practiced and mastered engaging your core, brace your spine during the following core stability exercises:

  • Farmer’s Walks,
  • Suitcase Carries,
  • Squats,
  • Deadlifts, 
  • and for more advanced lifters, Olympic lifts. 

You may have noticed that all of these moves are done from an upright position. It makes sense that these upright exercises (as opposed to the sit-up) strengthen the core, since functionally speaking most human movement is done while standing. For example, Suitcase Carries are one of the less common, yet most effective ways to engage your core. This is due to the uneven load principle. In order to maintain normal posture while carrying an uneven load, your core muscles engage to keep your torso from falling to the weighted side. The most common exercise found in almost any program is the squat and you should adhere to the above protocol when performing a squat. When you load your torso with weight it can put a large strain on your back and spine if your stomach is not properly engaged. Practicing bracing your core during lifts will vastly improve your overall core strength.

Lastly, if you’re faithful to the sit-up and its legion of modifications, by all means continue to work these into your regime but know that by not incorporating some of the core exercises listed above your core development will be incomplete. Applying mindfulness to a variety of core training techniques, along with proper diet will no doubt reap the desired six pack results.