The Forgotten Ab Exercise

By Peter Gratale, DC


My wife, Lisa, is the director of our Energy Pilates studio, which shares space with our chiropractic office.

As such, I can constantly hear the instructors directing their clients to lift their abdominals IN AND UP as they contract them.

This longstanding exercise cue can be forgotten because of its simplicity, but never underestimate how important this verbal / mental cue is to really feeling your abs working completely with full stimulation.

Most people who exercise know the feeling of “bracing” the abs as done in the popular ab crunch exercise.

A bodybuilder will do the same thing when flexing the abs in an abdominal pose or when you bear down on your abs when resisting a punch to the gut! This activates your six pack muscles, the rectus abdominis, as you flex slightly forward in this ab contraction.

But to really trim the waist and feel the full contraction of our core, we need to activate the transversus abdominis (TA) muscles.

They are the deepest abdominal muscles closest to our core. They form your spine's natural “weight lifting belt”, and some even refer to them as “Spanx” muscles.

What we want to do is the “abdominal vacuum”.

But first, let’s look at the anatomy…

Notice how the TA wraps around your waist fully like a girdle and fills the waist space from ribs to pelvis. When you learn to contract your TA muscles properly, you start to build tone in those muscles which creates a hollower waist for you, much like a strong cinching girdle. Yes, your belt size will reduce with this exercise!

So, let’s review the cue you’ll tell yourself to help you feel these muscles contracting. That cue is pull to your navel (center) IN AND UP!

Much like Arnold in the featured image. Or, like this classic pose by Mr. Olympia, Frank Zane…

You can try this ab vacuum maneuver standing, seated, or lying supine. As you breathe out, pull your center in and up, and try not to use your chest and shoulders to pull up. You will immediately improve your posture with this move and stand a little bit taller.

After a few reps, you should feel a nice burn at the sides of your waist and ribs.

One of my favorite places to complete a few reps is sitting in my car at stoplights on my morning drive around town. I get a good workout and the red lights seem to turn faster! I suggest you do sets of five repetitions holding for a ten count on contraction. As you breathe in, let your abs and waist relax as much as possible to get a full range of motion.

Action Step

Perform the ab vacuum by pulling your navel in and up as you exhale.

Do it 3 times per day in varying positions like when driving, watching TV, standing in line, as part of your exercise routine.

Perform 3-5 repetitions and hold the vacuum position for 5-10 seconds.


  Dr. Peter A. Gratale is the Director of Energy Chiropractic & Pilates, a private chiropractic health care practice and exercise studio in Teaneck, NJ since 1986. “Dr. Pete” is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

You’ve seen him as Co-Host of ESPN’s BODYSHAPING and Lee Haney's Championship Workout fitness shows. He was awarded the International Chiropractor’s Association’s Outstanding Sports and Fitness Chiropractor of the Year 1999.  



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