We’re all guilty of sucking in our stomachs every now and then to look a little leaner. (C’mon, you know you’ve done it.) But now, an extreme version of this move — known as the stomach vacuum — is sweeping the web. A decades-old phenomenon that recently resurfaced, stomach vacuuming, which involves drawing in in your abs as hard as you can while standing or lying down, purportedly promises to help you sculpt a six pack with nary a single crunch, plank or Pilates move.
Popularized by brawny legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane, the move was originally used by bodybuilders during competition. While striking a pose, Schwarzenegger and his cohorts would pull their stomachs concave, showing off tiny waists and serious six-packs (or in some cases…16-pack). “You’re trying to give the appearance of a thin and lean physique,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S, founder of Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts.
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Fans of the stomach vacuum, which is typically held for 20 seconds to one minute, claim that it will activate your transverse abdominis — the deepest, hardest-to-reach layer of your abs that hide beneath your obliques. Plus, one older study circa 1999, suggested that isolating the transverse abdominis might help alleviate back pain, since it wraps around the spine, helping with overall stability. Yes, the stomach vacuum sounds like a dream — but is it legit?
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To Stomach Vacuum, Or Not?
Here’s the problem. While Gentilcore says the concept of stomach vacuuming is sometimes useful in post-injury rehab, it’s nearly impossible to pull off without the help of a pro. That’s because it’s hard to know if you’re actually engaging your transverse abdominis, without someone to guide you through the move and watch your form. Plus, research from Dr. Stuart McGill, a spinal expert, solidified the notion that improving back health isn’t about targeting a single muscle, the way stomach vacuuming does, but rather about strengthening your core as a whole.
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“For lower back health and spine health, it comes down to working [muscles together],” Gentilcore says. In other words, learning how to properly engage your entire core by practicing Pilates, or other ab-strengthening moves, like planks, is probably more effective. In fact, something as simple as bracing your core when lifting heavy objects can help, he says. “That will get everything to fire and stabilize, transverse abdominis included.”
We hate to break it to you, but sucking it in won’t give you those abs you’ve been dreaming of. “When people start talking about, ‘Oh I want to get a six-pack,’ isolating or vacuuming the transverse abdominis is really a waste of time in my opinion,” Gentilcore says. You’re better off sticking to regular movements you know are effective, he adds. “You’re working your core even during traditional exercises, like squats or overhead presses. You have to isolate that area in order to train it.”
So unless you’re prepping to bare (almost) all in a bodybuilding competition soon, leave the stomach vacuuming to The Governator.