Core abdominal muscles are often referred to a variety of exercises. “Keep your core pulled in!”, “Engage your core!”, and “Tighten up your core!”, are all common commands  in fitness and workout classes. So what exactly are they talking about? A lot of us follow this command by sucking in our tummy and trying to breathe without letting it go. And bless us for the good effort, but this isn’t exactly effective and it’s definitely not following orders! In truth the act of “engaging your core” – especially your core abdominal muscles – requires a lot of concentration and energy. In fact you can get a pretty decent work out by just sitting and practicing engaging your core (engage, release, engage, release, etc until your start to feel the burn).

The main core abdominal muscles include the Rectus Abdominis (what we see as the six pack muscles), the Oblique muscles (helping us get that nice “V” cut just above the hips), and the Transverse Abdominis (the unsung hero of core ab muscles, helping us pull it all in). The other two components of the core ab muscle group are the Psoas and the set of Quadratus Lumborum. The Psoas acts to help us bend at the waist from the legs – and example of this movement is the Pilates Double Leg Lower or Single Leg Lower (the Psoas resists the weight as our legs lower, and then helps us pull them back up). The Quadratus Lumborum is affectionately known as the “hula” muscle – it helps you hike your hips up to the side like when you’re doing the hula, or stepping over a fence. Your can read more about these two muscles here . As for the others, let’s dive right in.

The Rectus Abdominis is commonly seen as the “six pack” muscles. However, we’re mistaken to think that the six-pack is 6 separate muscles – in fact the Rectus is one single muscle that’s divided into six sections by connective tissue (like the stuff that makes up tendons and ligaments). It’s the top-most layer in our ab muscles, which is why we can see it so clearly when it’s nice and strong and there’s low body fat. This muscle helps us bend from the trunk, like when we’re doing a sit up or the Chest Lift Exercise.

The Oblique muscles are next – the Internal Obliques and the External Obliques, to be more precise. These muscles help us rotate or twist our upper body and ribcage, like when we turn our shoulders to face someone to our side but we keep our feet planted in the same spot. These muscles also help us bend to and lift up from the side, as in the Side Tilt exercise.

I say the Transverse Abdominis is the unsung hero of the core ab muscles because it does a lot of work, but it’s buried underneath those other muscles so we don’t get to see it when it’s strong. But believe me, we definitely feel it. The Transverse Abdominis acts like a corset, pulling us in on both sides of our torso when we engage it. In this way it helps keep everything (internal organs, etc.) in, like toothpaste in it’s tube – plus it helps to support the spine. We engage our Transverse every time we engage our core correctly – To make sure you’re engaging your core correctly, watch this demonstration and practice a few times..

And there we have it! The core abdominal muscles dissected (haha, anatomy jokes… but seriously). I hope this helps you understand your ab muscles a little deeper (I’ll stop, I promise!). From here on, whenever your trainer tells you to “tighten your core” you’ll know just what they’re talking about. It’ll make your ab workout that much more fun when you can tell exactly what muscles you’re working with each exercise! Well, maybe that’s just me, but now you know which muscles you’re working when you’re working out, and which abdominal muscles are a part of your Core Anatomy!

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