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Training the Abdominal Musculature

One of the most misunderstood parts of the body is the mid-section or front of the torso - the part that hangs over the belt or the top of their pants.


  1. a) Do you have anyone in your class whose goal is to shape up and tighten that belt?

  2. b) Have you ever watched someone pat this area and heard the words "I want to train my "stomach" muscles?

  3. c) How many people think that imitating "land sit ups" in the water will actually tighten this area?  

  4. d) All the above:

If your answer is d) All the above, it is your job as an Instructor to educate and help these clients understand a little about their bodies.

First of all explain that the stomach is NOT a muscle that can be trained with exercise. Webster's Dictionary definition of the stomach is: "A saclike enlargement of the alimentary canal .......an organ for storing, diluting and digesting food."   SO - maybe the best exercise for the stomach is to keep the refrigerator door closed.

The stomach is contained within the abdominal cavity, controlled by large muscles known as the "core" or powerhouse of the body needed for functional movement. Four of these large muscles comprise the abdominals - the muscles that can assist to flatten a bulging stomach, improve back health, and generally hold the body in safe alignment for all activity.

The Rectus Abdominis - straight muscles that allow us to bend forward and provide the "six pack" down the front.

The Transverse Abdominis -run horizontally, located underneath the Rectus. These are used practically every time we move, cough, sneeze or otherwise breathe diaphragmatically.

The Internal Oblique - a pair of muscles on either side of the torso allow us to reach and bend sideways and assists with breathing.

The External Oblique
- the larger pair muscles on the outside of the torso. They allow us to rotate the body from side to side as when twisting the torso to look behind.

To shape up these muscles need to be strengthened on a regular basis.

It goes without saying that there is never enough class time to incorporate "sets" to specifically strengthen all the major muscles groups individually so it is important to use time wisely to include exercises that will "multi-task" to incorporate functional movement during the entire program.

To help the "All the above" participants, let's take abdominal training as an example.

Rectus and Transverse Abdominis : If all exercises within a program are cued AND executed in good posture one can assume that both of these muscle groups will be used practically 100% of the time. Therefore the two sets of Obliques should become the focus for "core" training either by using specific strengthening sets or incorporating within "multi-tasking" movements. Water exercise makes working both sets of obliques more comfortable because we stand vertically in the water instead of using the supine position to imitate laying on the floor.  

INTERNAL OBLIQUES: The muscle fibers run in a diagonal pattern upwards and downwards from the iliac crest on both sides of the body. When one side is contracted (strengthened) the opposing side is expanded (stretched). The functional Range of Motion is 30 degrees from the anatomical (upright) position of zero.

The Internal Obliques help create a waistline with lateral "crunching" so are automatically used and targeted with any sideways movement. Cue to focus on form; crunch the ribs towards the hips keeping the abdominals tight. Do not bend the body forwards, imagine working between two large panes of glass to stay in good side alignment. Think of the possibilities.

For a warm up segment basic moves such as side to side rocking for active stretching . a side-slide walking-squat movement ,using arms and legs in unison, can be used to introduce the modified rebound working position, use side falling to train recovery balance skills, add the "love'em and leave'em arm movement to train for assistance or resistance side travel.


For good cardio try jogging sideways against resistance; add ROM and leap sideways the lead arm submerged and outstretched for resistance , cross country sideways leaning into the line of travel, or, for the more energetic, lean into the move to "free-wheel" one leg or completely suspend the move. Always remember to repeat back across the pool to balance out the opposing side. There are numerous side travel patterns that be incorporated into cardio sets.


For specific strengthening it is important to overload each side of the Oblique set separately. Here are a few examples - Use a noodle to press down at the side. Keep knees soft to take stress off the spine. Slide the noodle down the side of the body. The joint action brings the ribs towards the hips , the noodle provides increased drag resistance when the arm pulled down by the action of a sideways bend of the waist.

Try the noodle to fall to the side to travel across the pool (note - be sure to keep the noodle down at the side to protect the shoulder) jump side to side


Use a side jump-kick to laterally flex and touch the hand towards the ankle on the same side and crunch at the waist. Do not rebound nor jump out of the water. Be sure to stay in a neutral working position or keep the body under the water (especially the shoulders). Perform at least 8-25 repetitions on each side and at least 3-5 sets in total of oblique work (to make these exercises effective.)

For an advanced exercise try the Diamond Pendulum. Use the hands to scull for support to control the movement. Externally rotate the hips (putting the soles of the feet together in a diamond position) to disengage the strong hip flexor muscles. This will allow the obliques to engage more effectively. Start the exercise side to side to get the joint action while working down against the buoyancy of the water. Swing across from 3 o'clock to six o'clock to nine o'clock and reverse. To overload stay on one side 6-3 for 8-15 reps and then move to 6-9.

THE EXTERNAL OBLIQUES: Extend from the lower half of the ribs around and down to the pelvis. They have the same biomechanical function as the Internal Obliques in that as one side is strengthened the opposing side is stretched. They provide rotational movement to compress the abdominal cavity and increase intra-abdominal pressure.

The External Obliques work through the transverse plane of movement i.e. work the upper body against the lower to pull the chest, diagonally downwards to the opposing side. Any movement through this plane automatically includes this muscle group. Most daily activities include some kind of rotation, such as dressing, vacuuming, cooking, rotation is needed to put on a seat belt, and for many sports and social activities such as dancing. Therefore, just as with the Internal set, the External Obliques can be incorporated frequently during an aquatic program. Many of these daily moves can be imitated to increase agility, coordination as well as for specific strengthening.

For a Warm Up segment: Walk forwards with a wide knee lift alternately touching the opposite hand down to the opposite knee. This also works on balance and posture. Change forward to back rocking for active stretching to a diagonal direction. In deep sit in a V to reach to touch opposite hand to toe (or close).

For good cardio: Use a diagonal cross country move by cuing the arms to reach across the chest alternately instead of straight ahead. Play hopscotch by combining a JAX move with an opposite ankle touch. Jog and change direction from corner to corner. Jump in neutral to add a mogul twist from side to side.

For specific strengthening: Work from one side to chop both hands down towards the opposite knee. In deep practice the Pilates "Saw" - but stay on one side for enough reps before sawing towards the opposing foot. Use a paddle or a bar bell to reach across and use a one hand power pull back on the diagonal to as you target the Rhomboids, again target each side separately.  The illustration on the right shows a chop with an air-filled ball. Push down and across and control ascent.

In the old days wale-bone corsets were part of everyday dress. These were pulled in tight to show off a tiny waist line. Today you can help your participants develop a "built in" waist line by training the Oblique Abdominal core(set).

Training Abdominal Muscles (PDF)

Training the Internal Obliques

Check out our DVD Library 
DVD039 - Awesome Abdominals  
click here

DVD059 - Fun with Function click here

DVD071 (2 Discs)Shape Up and Water Train - click here

DVD078 ( 2 DVDs) Entry Level Program for Non-Swimmers  click here

DVD079- Walk -Move You  Way to Health - (2 DVDs) click here

DVD090 - Arthritis Mobility & ROM Tutorial (2 DVDs) click here

DVD091- Aquatic Rehabilitation for General Populations Tutorials (6 DVDs) click here

DVD095 -Aquatic Boot Camp (available in March 2016)

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