Flat abdominal muscles are probably near the top of most people's wish lists. But what about achieving flat abs without having to work much at it? That hope charts even higher. You may have heard that merely tightening your ab muscles while standing, sitting or lying down is an effortless, if not magic way, to get drum-tight abdominals.
Although it sounds too good to be true, there are simple stomach-tightening exercises that can indeed contribute significantly to the muscle tone of your abdominal wall. Just don’t expect to get a rippling rectus abdominus out of it if stomach tightening is all you’re going to do.
“If you’re squeezing your belly, then you’re working the muscle,” says Los Angeles-based personal trainer David Knox, author of Body School: A New Guide for Improved Movement in Daily Life. “If you squeeze it hard enough, it will get tighter. But will it give you six-pack abs? No.”
Stomach Tightening Methods
The muscle-toning benefit from stomach tightening exercises is real, despite not giving you a washboard abdomen. The two main approaches to doing this are called “hollowing," and “abdominal bracing.” Both have been shown to increase abdominal muscle mass, according to studies in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation in April 2013 and the Journal of Physical Therapy Science in February 2014. What’s more, consciously tightening your stomach while doing abdominal exercises enhances activation of the muscle fibers, adding to your progress. Exercise researcher Dr. Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico suggests that even visualizing your stomach muscles in a state of taut contraction will add to your workout.
The study in the April 2013 <ahref="http: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov="" pmc="" articles="" pmc3836508="" "=""> </ahref="http:>Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation examined the effects of the hollowing exercise, which researchers found to be effective for reducing lower back pain. The exercise can be performed sitting, standing or lying down.
To do the move, draw the navel deeply into the lumbar region while breathing shallowly. The stomach should be contracted slowly; avoid movement of pelvis and chest. The exercise is also known as “abdominal hollowing” and the "stomach vacuum."
Researchers found that both hollowing and bracing strengthened the transverse abdominus, which is the deepest-lying abdominal muscle and which is often implicated in lower back pain. Hollowing also strengthens the internal and external obliques.
Abdominal bracing is the second way to strengthen your stomach with simple tightening maneuvers. To do the move, imagine preparing your stomach muscles for a punch in the gut. You’d automatically contract and stiffen your midrift to brace for the jolt, right? That’s abdominal bracing, which is a key component of plank and its many variations, as well as push-ups. Abdominal bracing activates all three layers of the entire abdominal wall, causing them to bind together. It works both the deep and superficial muscles.
Unlike hollowing, bracing doesn’t require you to suck in your gut. Another way to think about it is clinching your waist to lock in a belt hold that’s just a little too tight. Like hollowing, bracing can be done standing, sitting or lying down.
While they might not give you totally chiseled abs, abdominal-tightening exercises are a great way to improve your muscle tone when you’re otherwise sedentary. They’re also a good way to ease into ab work when you’re recovering from an injury or after a surgery.
- Body School: A New Guide for Improved Movement in Daily Life, by David Knox
- University of New Mexico: Superb Ab Manual, by Len Kravitz, PhD
- Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation: The Effects of Abdominal Draw-In Maneuver and Core Exercise On Abdominal Muscle Thickness and Oswestry Disability Index in Subjects with Chronic Low Back Pain
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: Comparison of the Effects of Hollowing and Bracing Exercises on Cross-sectional Areas of Abdominal Muscles in Middle-aged Women