People tend to get more ab focused in their workouts the warmer the weather gets. It’s understandable since it’s beach season and flat stomachs are culturally perceived as “sexy” (this is a whole other subject I will avoid ranting about). However, a lot of people go about gaining a flatter stomach by doing hundreds of situps/crunches and other similar variations of these popular abdominal exercises. The problem is that these exercises further ingrain postural deficiencies, as well as exacerbate pain by placing excess stress on regions such as the lower back. Moreover, popular ab exercises tend to work your rectus abdominis. However, in terms of specific core muscles to target when focusing on the abdominal region, the pivotal but often ignored muscle is the transverse abdominis (TVA).
I like to think of the TVA as a corset, since it is the innermost core muscle whose main function is to compress the abdomen, but also stabilizes the spine. Corsets were historically worn to hold in the torso in order to emphasize the hips and chest (creating a more optimal “womanly” figure). To me it’s crazy to think that on the quest to look skinny, people ignore the muscle that basically acts as a natural corset. I’d like to note that I am not endorsing the notion that skinniness is the ideal we should all be chasing, but realistically skinniness is what a lot of people go to gym to attain (hooray for skewed cultural perceptions of “sexiness”).
Many people tend to have a weakened TVA due to sedentary lifestyles and improper training of the core (focusing solely on crunches). A weak TVA can cause bulging of the abdomen wall which causes the pelvis to rotate into an anterior pelvic tilt thus contributing to an increased lordosis in the spine. From a vain standpoint, an anterior pelvic tilt is not good because protruding bellies do not look good in a two piece bikini. But more importantly, anterior pelvic tilts aren’t good because they lead to lower back pain, lots of sub-optimal muscle compensations, and increased risk of injuries if you are an athlete with an anterior pelvic tilt.
Ever since learning this line of reasoning, I stopped doing crunches in order to solely focus on TVA activation. The easiest way to activate my TVA is by sucking my belly button into my spine while lifting my ribcage. The best thing about this is that strengthening my TVA can be done anywhere. I do it while walking to class, while standing in line etc. Optimal posture requires a strong TVA. Moreover having a strong TVA helps with bio-mechanical performance, whether you’re running, doing Muay Thai etc. When I focus on TVA activation when doing padwork, I immediately feel like my punches have more power. Having a strong TVA is also key in helping reduce lower back pain, which is a connection that most people are unaware of. So while doing crunches can increase back pain and not necessarily make your stomach look flat, the TVA activation will reduce back pain while making your stomach look flat.
So, from a superficial limbic brain train of thought, activating the transverse abdominis seems like a better alternative since it helps you attain a slimmer looking body. However, from a logical neocortex train of thought, activating your transverse abdominis still seems like a better alternative since it reduces lower back pain and helps give the body structural support to attain optimal posture.