By Michael Behnken, MS, NASM-CPT-PES, CSCS
Every day around the globe, countless people spend frustrating hours doing abdominal exercises like crunches and sit-ups in a valiant effort to build rock-solid abs. At the end of the day, they're left wondering why these exercises just don't seem to pay off. Would it sound too good to be true if you heard there was one exercise which, if combined with a healthy fat-burning eating plan and cardio regimen, would help break through barriers and build a much tighter, stronger midsection? Would it also sound too good to be true if you could do this exercise anywhere, at work, in the car, at a movie, or even while doing cardio, in just about five minutes a day?
Meet the Vacuum
The vacuum is that exercise, and it has nothing to do with carpets or liposuction. Sometimes referred to as the long lost abdominal exercise, the vacuum was used extensively during the early days of bodybuilding. Famous bodybuilders that swore by the vacuum include Mr. Olympia winners Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you look at the aforementioned bodybuilders compared to today’s bigger-bellied monsters, the difference in their midsections is evident. Zane and Schwarzenegger had slim waistlines.
Core Anatomy: Finding the Transverse Abdominis
But before you attempt the vacuum, you need to understand the basic anatomy of the core. The rectus abdominis is what people commonly refer to as the abs or abdominals. It is the most superficial (closest to the skin) muscle in your midsection. The action of the rectus abdominis is to flex your torso forward at the hip, which is the crunch motion that goes on at the gym.
The rectus abdominis is just one part of the core. The core consists of many muscles, including a movement system and stabilization systems. The superficial movement system includes muscles such as the external obliques, rectus abdominis, and illiopsoas, which move your torso in different directions.
The core's key stabilization muscles are the transverse abdominis, internal obliques, multifidus, and diaphragm. These deep (closer to the spine) muscles work synergistically to stabilize your trunk. The transverse abdominis is most important. It draws in your entire midsection, supporting your spine and making the smallest waist possible. Form is absolutely crucial when working your transverse abdominis. And the vacuum is the best exercise to work your transverse abdominis.
How to Perform the Vacuum
The first time you perform the vacuum, start in an upright standing position. Let your arms relax at your sides and take a few deep breaths. To begin, exhale completely, blowing all the air out of your lungs. Next, expand your chest and assume optimal posture by squeezing your glutes (buttocks) and groin muscles. Make sure your chest is expanded and you are standing upright. Draw in your core by squeezing your belly button in towards your spine as hard as you can.
Sounds easy, right? It isn't. Hold this position for as many seconds as you can. Be sure to breathe occasionally as you hold. As the seconds tick by, depending on your fitness level, you should begin to experience an intense burning across your entire midsection—most people's bodies aren't used to targeting these muscles.
After you perfect the form, perform the vacuum every other day, following this build schedule:
- Week 1: Do 3 sets of 20-second holds with about 30 seconds rest in between sets
- Week 2: Do 3 sets of 40-second holds with about 30 seconds rest in between sets
- Week 3: Do 3 sets of 60-second holds with about 30 seconds rest in between sets
Once you get accustomed to doing the vacuum with your hands at your sides, you can progress to some variations, such as performing the vacuum with your hands behind your head, and then performing the vacuum while lying supine (face down) on the floor—pictured in the video at right above. After you are able to perform the vacuum from multiple positions you can try some of the more advanced techniques.
Advanced Diaphragm Technique
When you are able to hold in your transverse abdominis tight for a minute at a time, you are ready to try some advanced techniques. The first advanced technique is a contraction of your diaphragm (pictured in the second half of both videos above). Perform the basic vacuum, and then increase the difficulty by sucking your diaphragm up under your ribcage. A complete suction of your abdominal cavity will cause your ribcage to protrude; your stomach will appear to be concave.
Extreme Rope Thrust Technique
The most extreme variation of the vacuum requires total abdominal control and a low body fat percentage. The abdominal rope thrust or roll is a contraction of your abdominals in which you propagate the contraction horizontally forming what looks like a rope. To perform this you need to be able to perform a full vacuum while controlling your abdominals completely and relax and contract different parts of the muscle at once so it appears your abdominals look like a rope.
Only a handful of people will ever advance this far. And don't despair if you can't do this: RealJock's model for this article—an experienced trainer with a strong core—was not able to do this very advanced technique. Luckily, there's YouTube: Check out the extreme version of the vacuum we found from Berlin-based YouTuber SixPackBN. It's impressive in that "crazy things people can do with their bodies" kind of way:
Benefits of the Vacuum
If you practice the vacuum over a period of weeks, you will develop a stronger and more powerful core, decreased waistline, and increased abdominal muscle control. The best benefit of the vacuum is the increased muscular control. If you apply the vacuum to your current abdominal routine, over time all of your abs exercises will be more effective.
When done properly and often, the vacuum has helped people lose inches off their waistline in as little as a month through increased muscular control and realignment. It makes your body more proportional by decreasing the size of your mid-section in relation to the rest of your body. That said, it's important to note that the vacuum does not
burn fat, so if you have a little beer belly or extra padding and want to see the full visual benefits of your new slim and solid midsection, you need to add a healthy eating
and fat-burning cardio training
program to your regimen.
Questions for the Trainer
Do you have questions about the vacuum? Post them in the Vacuum Q&A Forum