April 18, 2022
Most exercisers, beginner and experienced alike, want a flat belly and ripped abs. Some get there through diet, proper training, and genetics...and some don’t. Either way, if you do ab training consistently, you need to remember it is not just about making your abdominals pop and core stronger. After a hard ab session, they tend to get tight. Like any other muscle, you train your abs by contracting through resistance, so sometimes, stretches will be required to decrease tightness, improve mobility, and speed up recovery.
Yes, you read that corrects - stretch your abs. Just like other muscles, when the abs are tight, overworked, or both, stretching the abs can assist in returning them to their resting length sooner and can aid in training recovery.
Here we’ll explain how the abs function, why they get tight, the benefits of stretching your abs, 10 great ab stretches, and some programming suggestions to incorporate these stretches into your training.
The most recognizable ab muscle is the rectus abdominis (aka the six-pack muscle). But there are a couple of other important ab muscles that you don’t see. Here are the major players of the abs with their anatomy and function.
The rectus abdominis is what most people refer to as the six-pack muscle. This muscle runs vertically up the front of the torso, and its main functions are spinal flexion and anti-extension (sit-ups and planks, etc.). The Rectus originates from the pubic symphysis, pubic crest, and pubic tubercle and inserts on the xiphoid process and costal cartilages of the 5th to 7th ribs.
This muscle is resilient to fatigue because it mainly consists of slow-twitch muscle fibers. The rectus abdominis plays an important role in posture, breathing out, protecting internal organs, and assisting in hip flexion.
The obliques are made up of two muscles: the internal and external obliques. They’re beside the rectus abs and run from the hips to the rib cage, wrapping around the sides of your torso. As the name suggests, the internal obliques run directly under the external obliques, and the muscle fibers travel opposite of each other.
Internal obliques originate from the Inguinal ligament, Iliac crest, and the lumbodorsal (back) fascia and insert on linea alba, pectineal Line of pubis, and ribs 10-12. The external oblique originates from the external surfaces of ribs 5-12 and inserts the linea alba, pubic tubercle, and anterior half of the iliac crest around the pelvis.
Both the external and internal obliques work to stabilize the core through anti-lateral flexion and anti-rotation. They also work to rotate the core. However, they fire off opposite of each other. For example, your right external obliques will work with your left internal obliques to create the same movement.
It’s helpful to think of the transversus abdominis like a belt you tighten your loose pants with. It sits under your rectus abdominis and wraps around your entire torso to your spine. It originates from the Internal surfaces of costal cartilages of ribs 7-12, thoracolumbar (lower back) fascia, and the anterior two-thirds of the iliac crest, The TA inserts on the linea alba, aponeurosis of internal oblique muscle, pubic crest, pectineal line of the pubis.
The TA’s main function is maintaining abdominal tension which helps you increase intra-abdominal pressure and protects your entire spine under heavy loads.
For the purpose of this article, we are focusing on stretching the rectus abdominis, as this is the muscle that usually gets tight for people. However, some of these stretches will also involve the other abdominal muscles, so it's good to know how things work.
When you feel tightness in your abs there are a couple of explanations for this.
If it's your actual stomach that feels tight, that could be related to anxiety, digestion, or some other health issue. No stretching is going to help your actual gut.
Nevertheless, it's pretty easy to tell the difference between tight abs and a tight gut.
Let’s concentrate on a few physical and performance reasons why your abs may be tight.
If that sounds like you then you will benefit from stretching your abs.
If your abs are chronically tight or even just uncomfortably tight after a hard ab session, then you will benefit from stretching them and returning them to their ideal length.
Here are several important benefits of stretching your abs when they are tight:
Here are 10 of the best ab stretches. You'll notice that other muscles will also be stretched for many of these stretches, and that's great, but the main focus of each will be on the abdominals.
This backward abdominal stretch is performed in a tall kneeling position. It not only stretches the rectus abs, but this stretch opens up your chest muscles and the tall kneeling position engages the glutes as well. Be careful not to overarch the lower back to touch the back of your heels. This movement needs to come from the hips and the upper back, not the lower back.
Muscles Stretched: Rectus abdominals, chest, anterior shoulders, and biceps.
How to Do the Kneeling Backward Abdominal Stretch:
Programming suggestions: Either hold this stretch for time between 20-60 seconds or perform dynamically for reps - dynamically being, hold the stretch for a few seconds and go back to the starting position, then repeat.
The cat-cow is a yoga stretch that targets the abs during the cow position. This helps open up your upper back and mobilize your spine. Now the stretch on the abs feels great but be careful if you suffer from any lower back pain. Just move into as much spinal extension as you comfortably can. Over time, you should be able to normalize your range of motion.
Muscles stretched: Upper back, lower back, and rectus abs
How to Do the Cat-Cow Stretch:
Programming Suggestions: Do this pose at the end of your training as an act on recovery.
The prone abdominal stretch is also known as the cobra pose. This stretch will not only stretch your upper region of the abs (which is often where you will feel the most tightness), but work on your hip mobility, open up your chest, and train shoulder stability. If you feel this too much in your lower back, work on stretching out the length of your spine and don’t overarch the lower back to achieve this stretch.
Muscles Stretched: Rectus abs and chest
How to Do the Prone Abdominal Stretch:
Programming Suggestion: Do this stretch at the end of your training as an act on recovery.
The lying rotation stretch is a great stretch for your obliques and opening up your abs. Having the stability of the floor allows you to ease into this stretch too. This move opens up your chest and anterior shoulder and trains thoracic mobility, the ability to extend your upper back. Extending the upper back is needed to keep a neutral spine during heavy-loaded exercises like the barbell squat and deadlift.
Muscles Stretched: Internal and external obliques, front deltoid, and chest
How to Do the Lying Rotation Stretch:
Programming Suggestions: This is a great dynamic stretch to perform at the start of your upper body training for 10-15 reps on each side.
Sitting down here allows you to focus on stretching both your obliques and the quadratus lumborum. Putting your hands behind your head ensures upright posture to ensure you get the most out of this stretch.
Muscles Stretched: Obliques and the quadratus lumborum
How to Do the Seated Lower Trunk Lateral Flexion Stretch:
Programming Suggestions: Either hold for 30-60 seconds on each side or performed as a controlled dynamic stretch for 15 reps on each side.
Similar to the backward abdominal stretch, this stretch stretches the rectus abs opens up the chest and provides a slight stretch of the lats. If you have trouble performing the backward ab stretch, this is a great alternative to maximize the stretch of the upper and lower region of your abs.
Muscles stretched: Rectus abs, chest, and lats
How to Do the Hip Extension Supported Backward Ab Stretch:
Programming Suggestion: Do this stretch at the end of your training as an act of recovery.
When the obliques get tight it hinders your ability to twist and for them to engage for anti-rotation purposes. Enter the standing oblique twist which had you twisting side to side for either reps or holding for time. Be careful again of over-twisting the lumbar spine and make sure the movement comes from the obliques. Hips should remain mostly squared forward.
Muscles stretched: Internal and external obliques
How to do the Bodyweight Oblique Standing Twist:
Programming suggestions: You can hold this stretch for time or perform dynamically as part of your warmup. Either hold for 30 seconds at a time on each side or go back and forth holding for a few seconds for 15 reps on each side.
The standing hip circle is a dynamic stretch that stretches the entire abdominal wall and will get you ready for the work ahead in the gym and on the playing field. Be careful to perform the hip circles with control and concentrate on keeping a neutral spine. Momentum will take the benefits away.
Muscles Stretched: Obliques, rectus abs, and to a lesser extent the chest
How To Do the Standing Hip Circle:
Programming Suggestion: Perform 10-15 reps in each direction as part of your warm-up.
Like the other backward ab stretches above, the standing lean back stretch moves you through hip extension and spinal extension, which means both the upper and lower regions of the rectus abdominis will be stretched effectively. Because when a stretch is painful it negates the benefits.
Muscles Stretched: Rectus abs
How To Do the Standing Lean Back Stomach Stretch:
Programming Suggestion: Perform at the end of your training to help your abs go back to their resting length.
The rotating stomach stretch is similar to the lying pose abdominal stretch except you are moving from side to side and bringing the obliques into play. This is performed either as a dynamic stretch as part of your warm-up or hold for a time to improve your ab flexibility.
Muscles Stretched: Rectus abs and obliques
How To Do the Rotating Stomach Stretch:
Programming Suggestions: Do this as part of your warm-up going from side to side with control for 10-15 reps. Or hold the stretch for 30 seconds on each side at the end of your training.
Like with most things, it depends. When your abs are tight it’s a good idea to stretch them for around 10 minutes. After training works best because your muscles are warm and are more receptive to stretching.
Do light and dynamic stretches before a workout if your abs are feeling tight.
When you’re incorporating ab stretches as part of your stretching routine, performing two or three of these ab stretches for a minute each works well. Again, stretching at the end of your workout works best here.
Try to pick one each that works on spinal extension, hip extension, and rotation. That will cover all your bases for that mobility and stretching session. For example:
Abs are not the first muscle that comes to mind when you think of stretching but if your abs are tight then stretching will help. You’ll feel better, look better and move better when your abs are at their ideal length.
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