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Should We Train the Rectus Abdominis?

My goal today is simple: To blow your minds.

I have two basic things we’re going to focus on today:

  1. Why you SHOULD train your rectus abdominis, and
  2. A more effective way to train your lower traps.

Yes, I realize it’s hard to blow your minds if you don’t read the post, so please! Bear with me on this one. I promise the end result will change the way you look at core and upper back training.

Chest Up? Ribs Down? Or Both?

When I was just getting started in the industry, I was obsessed with keeping the chest up.

Squats, deadlifts, RDL’s, good mornings, you name it, and the cue “chest up” would improve it.

If you watch most people move, they have a tendency to collapse and lose their lumbar curve in an effort to get more range of motion.

Unfortunately, that increased range of motion comes at the spine, versus the hips, which is definitely not a good thing.

Over the years, though, we see more and more clients and athletes that come in who are locked in lumbar extension. And not just in their lower back, but in their thoraco-lumbar junction.

The “Ribs Down” Cue

One of the cues we’ve been using more and more frequently at IFAST is “ribs down.” This may sound tricky, but we actually want the chest up and out (thoracic extension), but we want the lower portion of your rib cage to stay flat.

Rib flare

If your lower ribs are sticking out like this, it’s called rib flare, and it’s not a good thing.

If you’ve picked up a copy of my Complete Core Fitness webinar series, you already know that two of the most important components of core stability are proper function of the diaphragm, coupled with proper alignment of the rib cage and pelvis.

For starters, if you can’t take a quality belly breath and expand your midsection forward, laterally, and even backwards, you’ve got work to do. The diaphragm is the ignition for proper core stability.

Furthermore, we need proper alignment between the ribcage and pelvis to properly engage not only the inner, deep core muscles but the bigger, stronger outer core muscles to boot.

What we’re used to seeing is this combination of lower rib flare, coupled with an anteriorly tilted pelvis, which Charlie Weingroff calls a “scissored” posture.

This posture leads to dominance of the:

  • spinal erectors
  • and hip flexors;

along with lengthening and weakness of the:

  • rectus abdominis,
  • external obliques,
  • gluteals,
  • and hamstrings.

(Need a primer on all this geeky stuff? Read my free T-Nation article, Hips Don’t Lie.)

We’ve done a great job of addressing the lower part of the equation. Rebuilding someone’s stabilization patterns via tall- and half-kneeling exercises has allowed us to gain control of our pelvis, which is awesome!

The missing ingredient

But we’re still missing an integral part of the equation: Alignment and control of our rib cage.

So how do we do that?

We train our rectus abdominis!

See, this is where I need to call myself out. I’ve been bad over the years of vilifying a muscle (or muscles) without looking at the big picture.

If anything, I’ve learned in my time that every single muscle has an important role in movement. The key is figuring out what that role is and learning how to effectively train it.

Now keep in mind, it’s not just the rectus abdominis we’re training, and it’s not using the motions that most would assume (crunches, sit-ups, etc.)

Please don't do this to train the rectus abominis!

Instead, we need to train our rectus abdominis and external obliques to contract isometrically to resist extension of the thoraco-lumbar region.

We need to teach our upper abs to control our rib position so that we can maintain optimal alignment of the rib cage during exercise and daily life.

This is a much better choice, as is a plank.

This all came together for me a few weeks back while reading Dean Somerset’s blog. Well, it wasn’t so much the blog post that did it, but trying the exercise started to put the pieces of the puzzle together for me.

Here’s the post I’m talking about, along with a video of the exercise I’ve been working on:

If you’re not at the gym, though, try this.

Wherever you are sitting, scoot to the edge of your chair and stick your chest out.

Keep in mind, I don’t care if you do it wrong – in fact, doing it wrong now will help you better understand where I’m going with all this.

So for now, stick your chest out by extending your lower back.

Now feel your lower rib cage. Chances are if you’re hyper-extending the back, you’re going to feel your lower ribs have become prominent.

Using your hands as a guide, try to keep your chest up but now drive your ribs DOWN. When you do this, you should feel a change in your mid-back.

Instead of feeling the extension/compression in your lower back, now you feel it in your mid back. And it’s not longer a compression, so much as it is a muscular tension.

Do you know what we just did?

We just turned on your lower traps!

Closed-Chain Lower Trap Function?

I started thinking about this a few years back while attending a DNS seminar. Pavel Kolar was talking about how important the lower traps are, but said that all the open-chain training we were doing wasn’t the best option.

In open-chain, the lower traps do a handful of things, including:

  • Depress the scapulae,
  • Work as a synergist towards upward rotation.

But think about the closed-chain function of the lower traps. Instead of moving the scapulae, what if they are there to help extend the thoracic spine???

This is where all this stuff starts to come together.

I think as we’ve progressed along the way, we get so focused on one spinal segment that we forget about what’s going on at the others.

Keeping us in a neutral lumbar position immediately improved our outcomes working with clients and athletes who suffered from lower back pain.

Next, we started looking at the neck. We learned that if you can squat and deadlift with a more neutral, packed neck, you get the lumbar spine out of hyper-lordosis and increase neural drive to the glutes and hamstrings.

But the thoracic spine tends to get lost in the mix.

And this is a huge mistake.

Think about it in a different fashion. We choose exercises like push-ups and inverted rows because they tie together or unify our upper and lower bodies.

The thoracic spine is quite similar in that regard. We get so caught up and focused on neck and lower back position (the areas where most people feel or perceive “pain”) that we forget about the thoracic spine, the area that unifies those two portions of our spine!

Coming Back to Neutral Spine

It’s easy, but that’s why simply using a PVC pipe to coach neutral spine on our exercises is so powerful. We don’t coach one section of the spine at the expense of others.

(Here’s a video about neutral spine:)

If you’re using a PVC pipe or broomstick, every section of the spine has to be in a more ideal alignment.

Regardless of whether you’re coaching an RDL, good morning, squat or deadlift, start using the PVC pipe to get an idea of where people’s spines are in space.

If they have three points of contact, take it a step further. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Can you slide your fingertips in between their lower back and the pipe, up to approximately knuckle height? If so, their lordosis is good.
  2. Can you feel a bony prominence at their lower ribs? If not, then their thoracic spine is in an ideal position.

Summary and Actionable Item

I’m going to do a video post about this soon, but for now, focus on getting true thoracic spine extension while keeping your rib cage down in the gym.

Whether you’re rowing, face pulling, RDL’ing, squatting, deadlifting, whatever – keep that T-spine extended and work to control your thoraco-lumbar region.

Chances are you’re not only going to feel stronger and more stable, but you’re going to be stronger and more powerful over the long haul as well.

Stay strong,

MR

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  • Tomas Janicek

    Interesting stuff as always Mike.
    I found interesting that in therapy specially LBP we usually try to relax upper part of rectus abdominis along with external obliques which more often than not compensate for lack of proper diaphragm postural function and unactivity of Ta/internal obliques specially above ASIS.
    Ribs down position is usually achieved when rectus abdominis and external obliques are relaxed, cage is held in caudal position, breathing to belly side and back will facilitate core unit to hold it down. Then progressed to more challenging movements.

    • Mike

      Tomas – Keep in mind we’re not talking about a high-threshold contraction/bearing down here. We’re simply trying to maintain optimal alignment of the rib cage so that the diaphragm is optimally aligned.

      MR

  • PJ Striet

    Excellent post Mike.

    • Mike

      Thanks PJ! Much appreciated

  • Tomas Janicek

    Mike,I didn’t mean high threshold strategy either. In patient scenario, it is more compensation pattern. They wouldn’t squeeze their abs to do it, those muscles get overactive as result of mentioned above.

    Overactivity of external obliques will often make lateral expansion of rib cage close to impossible, resulting to altered intraabdominal pressure in areas around.

    well as I think about it, it is high threshold strategy to use movers as stabilizers ;-)

    This was just how I understood explanation from DNS folks. Overactivity of those muscles mentioned would classify as dysfunction and should be treated accordingly.

    • Mike

      Tomas – I think we’re essentially saying the same thing. Maybe the word “contract” or “activate” isn’t the right way to put it. I know exactly what you mean about activation of the RA/obliques impeding breathing patterns.

      Regardless, the premise is the same – if the ribs aren’t down and properly aligned over the pelvis, you won’t be able to maximize internal stability.

      Maybe I’ll be more clear in the future – still trying to find a clean way to present this.

      Thanks!
      MR

  • http://www.kylegrieve.com Kyle

    Very interesting article Mike. I feel this ties in nicely with the FMS as well. Especially the TSPU. As I’m sure you know, the majority of people are already lordotic in the start position. I would assume if they were able to keep their rib flare under control, this would go a long way into fixing up the screen. On another note, I’ve been trying to fix my own hip hinge, and I feel this ties in nicely. Exercises like the deadbug and McGill curl-ups work optimally when you focus on getting those ribs down. Excellent work as usual Mike!

  • David Haas

    Hi,
    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?
    David

  • http://www.deansomerset.com Dean Somerset

    Thanks for the shout-out Mike!!

    • Mike Robertson

      You’re the man Dean – keep pumping out the great content!

  • Cameron

    Great article mate! First time I have thought about the closed chain action of Lower Traps. When I did the exercise on the edge of a chair I felt it straight away. Look forward to more reading to come!

    • Mike Robertson

      Awesome Cameron – thanks for the kind words!

  • Will Levy

    Great post Mike.
    After getting the pelvis sorted and cueing “glutes tight” for pretty much everything, I’ve been working with the cue of “join the bottom of your rib cage to your pelvis” to try to prevent rib flare, especially in upright posture such as half-kneeling or split stance. This of course usually leads to a crunch-like posture, and then the “chest up” cue comes back, and we end up bouncing back and forth till we find the sweet spot.
    I’ll have a play with some of these cues and techniques and see how we go.
    Cheers.

  • http://www.reidhealthsolutions.com Charlie Reid

    Great Post, Mike! You read my mind about rib position. As a strength athlete, i know that end range extension or flexion can irritate the spine while also limiting IAP.

    This has excellent implications for the Bench Press as well, as powerlifters tend to have altered scapular mechanics due to the extreme arch placed on the spine during the the lift. I’ve been fooling around with some of my assistance drills in the developmental 3 and 6 month positions focusing on TL stabilization (i.e.-floor presses and triceps extensions). Training the “down and back position” of the scapulae is paramount to a big bench, however, maintaining physiological (as opposed to anatomical) function of the scapulae in conjunction with TL stabilization is also a relatively untouched topic in the strength game and should be addressed as a supplement to healthy training.

    Thanks for posting,

    Charlie

    • Mike

      Charlie –

      GREAT points! And you’re right; I think the upper back stuff is incredibly important as well. Maybe another blog post should cover that?

      Thanks again and great feedback!
      MR

  • http://www.reidhealthsolutions.com Charlie Reid

    Definitely! For powerlifters specifically doing heavy work in the arched position is of course essential to good performance, however, in ADLs and sport having good TL stability while the shoulder is in motion (throwing, reaching overhead, etc) is also important. The Prague folks call this anatomical vs. physiological function.

    Context is everything, of course, in regards to movement. For powerlifters, perhaps doing some lighter assistance work like no-money drills, triceps extensions, pullovers, rear delt work, etc could be a valuable part of one’s training arsenal. I use heavy pullovers with a kettlebell before squats and goodmornings with a kettlebell before as a way to warm-up the trunk, get my mind on board with neutral spine and activate all the trunk muscles for healthy squatting. Pair that with kettlebell hinges/swings and you got a dynamite warm-up for squatting heavy. I believe Louie Simmons also likes to do heavy ab pulldowns to warm-up the trunk as well before squatting, however, i find it’s easy for folks to cheat on a standing cable pulldown if they don’t know how to control the TL junction supine first. Start as a baby would on it’s back and work up to standing a la the DNS developmental sequence as one can own the stability and position.

    Cheers,

    Charlie

  • http://www.ambitiousathletics.com Carmen

    Great stuff as always, Mike! I learned a lot of this stuff through the FMS live course a few years back. Nice touch for the cueing segment regarding “chest up, ribs down” while demonstrating on the edge of the chair; spot on.
    All the best, Carmen

  • Tim

    Mike,

    This post was bar none the best blog post this year. It did completely blow my mind! In regards to weightlifting(OL), though,what do you make of most athletes need to exaggerate the lumbar spine curvature into extension in the initial pull? My feeling, after reading your post is that they are compensating for a lack of thoracic extension, but if you “let go” of the neutrality of the spine in the lift, you’ll find it will immediately provide your power production and hip extension. Similarly the head is never packed. Anyway, in regards to exercise that train the rectus abdominus in the way you’re suggesting, i’d look at progressions of Mcgill’s cable pull and single leg pull from his performance video. Obviously, his intention is to train the hip hinge and torso stability, but the application to training proper rib position in bilateral and single leg stance is easily seen. I’m sure, too, you could make it more difficult by adding a press with the cable, but that may be “too much of a good thing, you’d have to test it out.” Thanks again Mike. T

  • Damian

    I liked the explanation and I also especially liked the linked video file which I believe will come in useful for one of my elite sprinters who has the aforementioned posture, he can use it as an activation exercise option pre nuts an bolts workout to remind him of his posture, I believe his posture does inhibit his athletic performance at times.

  • http://www.upstatebootcampforwomen.com Jason N

    Great stuff! I’ve been obviously wearing out the “chest up” cue. I did your “sit with the chest up”, I felt the hyperextension, I used my hands to help in keeping my chest up but pulling my rib cage down, felt my hyperextension go away and felt/heard two crackles in my t-spine haha. I can see my lower shoulder blade poking out a bit so I know I definitely need to work on lower trap activation. Thank you for the post!

  • http://tylerenglishblog.com Tyler English

    Mike,

    Great coaching cues and reminders on the importance of clarifying those coaching cues to clients and staff.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Brett

    This is great information, thanks Mike. Just practicing the cues now I realise that I always try to keep the rib cage down has come at the expense of the t spine, with the chest up cue I can feel a dramatic difference.

    Thanks

  • Jake Venes

    Just a quick point of reference in regard to your first paragraph; the lumbar vertebrae actually have more ROM than the thoracic vertebrae.

    • Mike

      In flexion/extension, sure. But not with regards to rotation.

  • Hollister Struck

    This was a great article Mike. I was just talking with a few of the athletes I work with the other day about some of this. Neutral spine cuing seems to be a quick light bulb for them when we’ve spent some time talking about low back extension and when one might use that in an exercise or in sport… and more importantly the “rib down” cue to help them stay out of excessive low back extension on many of our lifts.
    Thanks Mike!

  • http://Toughs.wordpress.com Laura DeVincent

    Mike,

    Do you cue ribs down even when doing unloaded mobility work? i.e. supine t-spine extensions on a foam roller?

    • Mike

      Yes absolutely! I think it’s critical, actually.

      Great question!

  • http://www.thebodymechanic.ca Greg Lehman

    Hi Mike,

    I like this post and most of your content. It gives us a lot to think about. The comments are great too. Two questions/comments:

    1. You wrote: “Instead of feeling the extension/compression in your lower back, now you feel it in your mid back. And it’s not longer a compression, so much as it is a muscular tension”

    I’ve often wondered about this. Why do we want to extend the thoracic spine? Do you mean extension past neutral? Do you think your athletes might actually be flexed in the thoracic spine and the cue is just bringing the thoracic spine to neutral. If we go into extension we just put more load bearing responsibility on the facets and if we are actively cocontracting the trunk muscles then we are just cranking up more compression. There is always a compressive cost to stability when we get it from co-contraction.

    2. Do you think the lower trap activation feeling may just a perception from some other muscles being active and the added compression we have put through the thoracic spine facets. We could certainly be cranking up any of the erector spinae in that region as well serratus posterior inferior. The upper portion of the serratus posterior inferior certainly parallel the lower traps.

    I’m being a bit academic with these pain in the ass questions. The coaching cues seem bang on regardless.

    Thanks Mike,

    Greg

    • Mike

      Greg –

      Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for your writing as well. We always need stuff to keep us thinking critically.

      To answer your questions:

      1 – This could be semantics (or unclear writing on my part), but I want to get them back to thoracic neutral, vs. extension. However, to get there, most need to get more extension (i.e. they’re in flexion and need to extend to get back to neutral).

      It would like someone who is in a pelvic anterior tilt – they need to posteriorly tilt the pelvis to get back to neutral, but I don’t want them to go into a true posterior tilt.

      2 – It could be, and it would be really hard to determine without EMG. However, if you follow the DNS/PRI stuff at all, I think they would argue it’s more about improving lower trap function than anything else.

      Good stuff man – thanks!
      MR

  • Bryan

    Hey Mike,

    Great article. I actually read this the first time around but referred back to it today. In my own situation I am having problems getting into this “ribs down” and “chest up” position despite the variety of mobility drills I used.

    I came across a video posted by Nick Tumminello which showed a variation of the foam roller t-spine extension. Basically set up on a foam roller as you normally would. But instead of trying to extend the upper half of the body to gain thoracic extension, you kept the “top half of your body” lifted and dropped the bottom half and focused on working to bring the rib cage down. Here is the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veU-_xDg0F0&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PLFD6B494F467AF64B

    This method seems like its based on the same approach that Dr. Craig Liebenson shows in his thoracic hypomobility video.

    Anyway, after playing with this particular mobility drill, it seemed difficult, if not impossible to get motion in the right segments (T4-T8) which would be right inline with the chest up and ribs down position. However after using the same cue you discussed in this post (making the lower traps work in closed chained vs open chain) I could feel and see the difference in thoracic spine positioning.

    It all really makes sense after connecting this with Eric Cressey’s recent blog post on lat length, overhead positions, and lumbar hyperextension. After thinking about it, my thought process goes:

    If we do not have adequate scapular mobility (upward), we will compensate by hyper-extending at the T-L junction to get that extra range of motion so that we can get that weight overhead. By hyperextending the lower back we may able to avoid impingement but at the cost of losing stability. Like you said this would alter diaphragm positioning, ultimately causing dysfunction in “inner core”

    What is also interesting is that I have shoulder pain and lower back pain on the left side (same side). On the this side, I have a winging scapulae and a decreased ability to reach overhead. Following the above thought process, it is easy to see why the left side shoulder dysfunction could lead to the back pain I was experiencing as well.

    Sorry for the long post, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • fern

    I amd a 44 year old female, mother of 4 & have a very pronounced rib flares from scoliosis…I also have an 8 pack when I flex my abs. I will never be aligned, some people will never be, but we can still have killer abs. Doubt? Google fern assard and see for yourself.
    take care :)

  • Ernesto

    Great blog! The info has helped but my ribcage is shifted to the right due to poor breathing mechanics in the past. Breathing is improved now but it’s hard to fix my ribcage onto my pelvis because it’s shifted to the right. Any ideas on what I can do to create more symmetry? I can definitely tell my external obliques are weak and my QL, hip flexors, pec minor, and scalenes are tight.

  • nick

    Just was injured 2 days ago squatting. 4 ribs out of alignment. My lower trap wasn’t tight because I started squatting with my neck neutral which lost the tension and I pulled my rhomboid/lower trap as a result. Excellent article. I will definitely be implementing more static core training to stay tighter on my squats.