If achieving a trim and taut tummy seems less likely than a blue moon, then the fitness industry's best-kept secret may just shed some light on the dark matter...
While men may be from Mars and women from Venus, one pursuit that unifies the genders is the seemingly arduous quest for a flat stomach. Affectionately yet ironically referred to as a ‘muffin top’ or 'love handle,' it’s the stubborn distended gut that’s cited as a problem area that eclipses all others.
So where are we going wrong? While many avid gym-goers have incorporated some form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) into their workout routine, by virtue of its fat blitzing merits, a flat, taut tummy also requires a strong core. However, as many a frustrated gym bunny can testify, countless crunches and the most poised of planks aren’t necessarily the answer. The solution, however, comes down to cold, hard (and surprisingly simple) science.
There are six abdominal muscles in total. The external and most superficial muscle, the rectus abdominis, is responsible for the six-pack abs sported by the fittest of folk but it’s the deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis (TVA), that is key to a cinched waist and flat stomach. The TVA wraps around the torso and acts like a corset on the midsection, with its function being to pull in the abdominal wall. When the TVA is strengthened you essentially tighten the inner corset resulting in a smaller, flatter and more taut middle.
So what’s the easiest way to tighten that transverse abdominis, we hear you cry? The answer: stomach vacuuming.
WHAT IS STOMACH VACUUMING?
Stomach vacuuming is a gentle breathing exercise that targets the TVA via an isometric contraction, which is simply a muscular contraction that isn’t accompanied by the movement of a joint.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
Besides flattening and cinching-in your midsection, strengthening the deepest abdominal muscle will also stabilise the spine and as a result will reduce and prevent lower-back pain, as well as improve posture.
HOW DO YOU STOMACH VACUUM?
Fitness Expert Rich Sturla , Owner & Director of Personal Training at Results Health & Performance , recommends starting with the Supine Stomach Vacuum, the easiest version of the stomach vacuum exercise - or as it's known in the clinical world, the “Abdominal Drawing-In Manoeuvre." This simple TVA exercise is often credited for its ability to yield significant and visible results, relatively quickly.
Supine Stomach Vacuum
From an adherence standpoint, Sturla suggests doing all types of stomach vacuum exercises first thing in the morning, upon awakening. Not only does this make it easy to create a habitual routine, but it's also advantageous in that your stomach will be empty. Your midsection will therefore be naturally flatter, so it will be a lot easier to get a nice, full contraction of the TVA.
- Start by lying on your back with your hips and knees flexed so that your feet are flat on the floor or bed.
- Next, exhale as much air as possible. This raises your diaphragm and, much like an empty stomach, allows for maximum contraction of the TVA.
- Lastly, pull your navel in as close to your spine as possible. The more your navel draws in, the more the TVA is contracting.
Sturla says, “In the beginning, you should aim to hold the vacuum for 15 seconds on each set. As with any exercise, you'll want to progress over time. Work up to holding the vacuum for 60 seconds each set. Also, don't let your inability to hold your breath keep you from doing the longer sets - take small breaths as needed. Start with three sets and, over time, work up to five sets for serious results.”
Quadruped Stomach Vacuum
Once you’re able to do five, 60-second supine stomach vacuums, Sturla suggests progressing the exercise via the quadruped variation i.e. on your hands and knees. The quadruped vacuum is a bit more difficult than the supine version, primarily because you'll be working against gravity.
- Begin in the quadruped position (on your hands and knees) with your shoulders vertical over your elbows and wrists, hips over your knees, and your neck in a neutral position.
- At that point, the execution is essentially the same as the supine version, as in 1) exhale and 2) pull your navel in as close to your spine as possible
“After working up to doing sets of 60 seconds on the supine stomach vacuum, begin with sets of 30 seconds for the quadruped stomach vacuum,” explains Sturla. “Again, work up to doing at least three sets of 60 seconds. Do five sets if you suffer from back pain or have a tendency to relax your midsection.”
Seated Stomach Vacuum
“Taking only gravity into account, the quadruped vacuum should be the more challenging exercise, but due to the fact that other spinal stabilising muscles come into play, the seated version is actually more difficult,” says Sturla.
- Begin by sitting on a stable surface, without leaning against anything.
- As with the other versions, exhale and pull your navel in toward your spine.
Work up to three sets of 60-second vacuums. To speed up progress, perform your seated vacuums on an unstable surface like a Swiss ball.
Functional Stomach Vacuum
This version of the vacuum exercise essentially concerns how you use your TVA throughout the day. Firstly, be sure to pull your navel in while you're seated throughout the day.
According to Sturla, “The primary difference here is that you're holding it in (lightly contracting your TVA) indefinitely, and obviously breathing throughout the movement. It's simply a matter of being conscious of your TVA and not allowing it to relax when seated, which is typically what we do. Make sure you're lightly contracting your TVA when standing, too. It'll soon just come naturally and you’ll feel much better for it.”
TVA & Rectus Abdominis Co-Contraction Exercise – Pulldown Crunch
Finally, Sturla suggests adding movement. “To up the intensity and functional-carryover of your vacuum training, do some exercises where you're contracting the transverse abdominis and the rectus abdominis (six-pack) at the same time. Simply put, you'll first do a vacuum, and then you'll do a crunch-type manoeuvre (spinal flexion). The Pulldown Crunch is perfect here.”
- Seat yourself in a cable pulldown station in the gym and grab the bar overhead as if you were going to do Pulldowns (you can just as easily do this at home with the assistance of a resistance band).
- Now inhale very deeply and suck in your tummy as hard as you can. Try to push your abs against your spine. Next, blow all your air out as you crunch down. These are excellent for gaining control of your abs and for those who suffer from a distended abdominal wall.
You could also do a more basic, supine vacuum-crunch exercise. Simply contract your TVA by drawing in your navel and then crunch, making sure to exhale as you contract up and keep your neck in a nice neutral position.
Of course it goes without saying that, despite its physique and functional benefits, performing any stomach vacuum exercise alone won’t outpace a bad diet and poor exercise habits. That said, if you’re eating, moving and training well, the stomach vacuum strategy can significantly boost your health and fitness, getting you the flat and taut tummy results you’re looking for.
For female-focussed health & fitness advice from Fitness Expert Rich Sturla, check out his Specialist Health, Physique Transformation & Sports Conditioning PT Gym Studio, Results Health & Performance .