What are the abdominal muscles?
Your abdominal muscles are a set of strong bands of muscles lining the walls of your abdomen (trunk of your body). They’re located toward the front of your body, between your ribs and your pelvis.
There are five main muscles in the abdomen:
- External obliques.
- Internal obliques.
- Rectus abdominis.
- Transversus abdominis.
What are the functions of your abdominal muscles?
Your abdominal muscles have several important jobs:
- Help with essential bodily functions, including urinating, defecating, coughing, sneezing, vomiting. They help also increase the intra-abdominal pressure facilitating child birth.
- Hold your internal organs in place and protect them (including your stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver and gallbladder).
- Maintain consistent internal pressure in the abdomen.
- Maintain posture and provide core support.
- Support your spine and body during sitting, standing, bending over, twisting, exercising and singing.
Where are your abdominal muscles located?
There are five main muscles in your abdomen. Two are vertical (up and down) muscles located toward the middle of your body. Three are flat muscles stacked on top of each other, situated toward the sides of the trunk.
The two vertical muscles are:
- Pyramidalis: This vertical muscle is small and shaped like a triangle. It’s located very low, in your pelvis. It helps maintain internal pressure in your abdomen.
- Rectus abdominis: This pair of muscles goes down the middle of your abdomen from your ribs to the front of your pelvis. The muscles hold your internal organs in place and keep your body stable during movement. The rectus abdominis may form bumps sometimes called a “six-pack” when someone has a trim, fit abdomen.
The three flat muscles are:
- External obliques: The external obliques are a pair of muscles, one on each side of the rectus abdominis. They are the largest of the flat muscles and at the bottom of the stack. They run from the sides of your body toward the middle. The external obliques allow the trunk to twist side to side.
- Internal obliques: The internal obliques are a pair of muscles on top of the external obliques, just inside your hip bones. Like the external obliques, they are on the sides of the rectus abdominis, running from the sides of your trunk toward the middle. They work with the external oblique muscles to allow the trunk to twist and turn.
- Transversus abdominis: The transversus abdominis is at the bottom of the stack. This pair of muscles is the deepest of the flat muscles. They stabilize the trunk and help maintain internal abdominal pressure.
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions can affect the abdominal muscles (‘abs’)?
The most common condition affecting the abdominal muscles are abdominal strains or pulls, which occur with:
- Overstretching of your muscles.
- Overuse of your abs.
- Quick, violent twisting of the trunk.
Strains can involve tiny, minor tears in the muscle fibers to severe pulls that can even detach the muscle.
This type of injury is more common in sports that require twisting, such as tennis, football, baseball and golf. Symptoms of a significant strain include:
- Difficulty moving.
- Muscle spasms in your core.
- Trunk pain while exercising, laughing, coughing or sneezing.
- Swelling or bruising.
- Trouble breathing in severe cases.
Treatment for an abdominal strain may involve:
- Local compresses (ice pack/heat).
- Gentle stretches, as long as they don’t hurt.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (oral or topical cream).
- Physical therapy.
- Compression (binders) (check with your doctor regarding their indication and length of use).
What other conditions can affect the abdominal muscles?
Another health issue in the abdominal muscles is a hernia. A hernia is when an internal organ pushes through a weak spot in the muscle. For example, the small intestines may push through a weakened abdominal muscle in the groin area, causing an inguinal hernia. Symptoms of a hernia include:
- Aches or pain at the site of the hernia.
- Bump or bulge that you can see and feel, more visible with straining.
- Heaviness, ache at the site of the swelling.
- Pain and/or bulging when lifting something.
How can I keep my core safe and healthy?
Several strategies can help you prevent ab injuries:
- Avoid sudden, jerky movements of the trunk.
- Be careful when lifting heavy objects. For example, lift with the legs or ask for help.
- Use good form when playing sports, lifting weights and participating in other exercises.
- Don’t overdo exercise.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and plenty of water. This will encourage regular bowel movements and minimize constipation risk, which can help prevent a hernia.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Perform a variety of ab-strengthening exercises regularly.
- Rest when you feel discomfort or pain.
- Stretch every day, as well as before and after exercise.
- Tighten your ab muscles when you cough or sneeze.
- Warm up before you exercise, increase intensity gradually, then stretch well at the end.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I call a healthcare provider about problems with my abdominal muscles?
If you have symptoms of a significant abdominal strain, call your healthcare provider, especially if you have trouble:
In addition, if you can see or feel a bulge in your abdomen or in the groin, you should be evaluated for a hernia.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your abdominal muscles are essential in keeping your abdominal organs safe and stabilizing your body during movement. Problems with the abdominal muscles are common. If you think you’ve strained an abdominal muscle, call your healthcare provider, especially if pain interferes with normal activities. If you can see or feel a bulge in the abdomen/groin, you should be evaluated for a hernia.
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