There are a wide range of goals people can have when it comes to their workouts and their fitness. Some people want to gain muscle mass, others may want to lose weight. Some might want to get stronger while others want more stamina. All these people would train differently for their various goals. There is one goal that does seem to be universal. Everyone would like a smaller, tighter midsection or waist. A small waist gives the visual impression of health and fitness. It is both prized in men and in women. In men, it gives the illusion of wider shoulders and of athletic ability. In women, it presents a better hip to waist ratio making them look healthier.
To get a smaller waist, nothing beats getting leaner. When we retain excess body fat, women typically store fat in their midsection, and men tend to store even more in their midsections. Getting leaner with activity and good diet will do much to shrink your waist. Abdominal and oblique exercises, done properly, will strengthen and tone or build those muscles, but they will not help shrink the waist.
If you want to work on the muscle that shrinks your waist, you need to focus on a muscle that most people don’t even know exists. This muscle is called the transverse abdominus, or TVA for short. The TVA wraps around the waist like a corset or weight belt. It squeezes IN and AROUND your waist when it contracts. Working this muscle can make it stronger and tighter, thus making your waist smaller. When you “suck in your stomach,” you are activating your TVA muscle.
Weak TVA muscles can cause core weakness, contribute to low back pain, and can make the lower part of your waist seem flabby. This is most common in women who have recently had a baby. While they were pregnant, their TVA muscles need to stretch and atrophy (weaken and shrink), to allow room for the baby to grow. Once they have the baby, they are left with a TVA muscle that is still weak and stretched out. Doing traditional ab exercises helps a little, but if the TVA is not properly targeted, they are usually left with strong abs with frustrating lower belly pooch.
The good news is that the TVA is relatively easy to target. One exercise great for strengthening the TVA muscle is called a stomach vacuum. This movement has been practiced for decades by bodybuilders wishing to give the illusion of a small waist on stage. If practiced regularly, results are seen relatively rapidly. The key is to do vacuums properly and to practice them for short periods, frequently.
To do a vacuum simply stand up and suck in your stomach as hard as you can. Try to make your waist as small as possible. One cue to focus on is to try to get your belly button to touch your spine. Hold this squeeze HARD for 5-20 seconds. While holding the squeeze, hold your breath. Rest for 30 seconds then repeat until you feel like you can’t squeeze in anymore. Once you can do this relatively easily with good control, you can advance by holding the squeeze WITHOUT holding your breath. Squeeze and breathe with slow controlled breath. The next level is to add resistance by performing this same exercise while on the floor, on your hands and knees. In between squeezes, rest by letting your belly fall and catch your breath, then repeat.
The best way to accomplish this movement for most the effective results, is to practice this vacuum exercise daily for 10-15 minutes at a time. This approach is more effective than longer, but less frequent sessions. I have had clients take an inch off their waists within a month of daily vacuum exercise practice. The key is frequency and the intensity of the squeeze. The harder you attempt to squeeze in the vacuum, the better.