Also known as the lying draw-in maneuver, the tummy vacuum is a simple move that will strengthen your transverse abdominis muscle. The transverse abdominis is the deepest, innermost layer of all abdominal muscles located underneath your rectus abdominis (the six-pack stomach muscle). To read more about the importance of the transverse abdominis muscle, check out:
If you perform this exercise daily, you will notice a slimmer and firmer waistline, better posture, decreased back pain, improved core strength and increased body confidence.
The Lying Draw-In Maneuver (Tummy Vacuum Exercise)
If you dread or despise crunches, you are in luck! To develop and strengthen the transverse abdominis (TVA), you will not have to do any flexion or extension exercises. To build strength in your TVA muscle, you will need to know how to activate it through a series of “draw-in” abdominal maneuvers. “Drawing in your abdominal muscles” is a conscious process and takes a lot of practice, but once you get it, you will see great results.
My goal for you with the tummy vacuum exercise is that you will improve the neural drive from your brain down to your stomach muscles. I am hopeful that with consistent practice, the neuromuscular connection between your brain and your core will get stronger. I want your brain to get to the point where it instinctively sends messages through neural pathways to your stomach, telling the core muscles to be engaged and do their job of protecting the spine and organs.
Here is how to perform the tummy vacuum exercise:
Things you will need
- 1-2 large, rolled towel(s)
- 1 foam roller or 1 small ball (ball can be squishy)
- 2 hockey pucks, 1 toy block, 1 roll of athletic tape, or another small object like a deck of cards
- Fitness or yoga mat (optional)
- Lie on the floor on your back. If need be, support your head and neck with a rolled towel.
- Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. You should be in the same position as the man in the photo below. (Note that in this photo, the man is not using a towel to support his neck and head.)
- Place a foam-roller, small ball, or a rolled towel between your knees.
- Place a small object such as 2 hockey pucks taped together, a toy block, or a deck of cards on your stomach in line with the hip bones. (Any household object can be used. Just make sure it is light in weight and has enough height that will allow you to watch it move as you perform the tummy vac exercise.)
- Without holding your breath, squeeze the foam roller, ball or towel between your knees and attempt to draw the pucks down into the abdomen without initiating a crunching action. This means you should pull the belly-button down toward the floor. Tighten your abdominal muscles as if you were trying to fit into a really tight pair of jeans (or as if you are bracing yourself before someone punches your belly). The point of this exercise is to fire the transverse abdominis without firing the rectus abdominis muscle.
- As you pull down and tighten your abdomen, aim to flatten your back onto the floor.
- As you perform the tummy vacuum, observe the object(s) on your belly. You want the object(s) to lower down/sink toward the floor, and not up toward the ceiling. If they are moving up toward the ceiling, you are not fully recruiting the transverse abdominis muscles. You do not want to be doing a pelvic tilt during this exercise. You only want the abdominal muscles to move.
- Hold this tummy vacuum position for the amount of time listed below.
- Relax and let the objects on your tummy rise for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Repeat steps 1-7 for the suggested amount of reps and sets below.
Reps and sets
- During this tummy vacuum exercise, never hold your breath. Breathe normally, but hold the “vacuum” position. It may help to count out loud. When you are counting, you are breathing.
- Letting go of the tummy vacuum counts as one repetition.
- You can start with 5 repetitions of tummy vacs, each held for 5 seconds.
- Relax and let the pucks or blocks rise for 2 to 3 seconds between repetitions.
- Beginners should perform 2-3 sets.
- Once you have mastered the first level, advance to the next phase.
- Perform 3 sets of 8-12 contractions held for 5 – 20 seconds each.
Some visualizations to help you draw in the abdomen
This seems like a simple exercise, but it can be rather confusing. When you are performing the tummy vacuum, here are some cues/visualizations to help you perform the exercise correctly:
- Attempt to pull the bellybutton down through to the spine and in the direction of the floor.
- Visualize squeezing yourself through a tight space between two objects at waist height.
- Imagine zipping up the world’s tightest pair of pants.
- Do not rush through this transverse abdominal exercise. A slow and controlled movement is all that is necessary for the exercise to work. The slower you perform tummy vacuums, the better your form and the more effective the exercise will be.
- As you pull your stomach in, you should notice the objects on your stomach sinking. If they rise as you do this maneuver, you should stop, reset and try again until they sink.
- This exercise may also be performed while in a “table-top position” with your hands and knees on the floor. In this position, keep your back flat. Your bellybutton should be facing toward the floor. When performing the tummy vacuum, tighten your abdominals and pull your bellybutton up toward your back, or the ceiling.
- Once you master tummy vacuums on the floor, you can perform these while sitting or standing. You can do them while you are driving in the car, standing in line at your local coffee shop or while you do your grocery shopping. The best thing is that when you do them like this, no one will even know you are doing them! Isn’t that brilliant?
- It may take 3 to 6 weeks of consistent training for you to fully master this exercise. If you have a background in yoga, pilates, or martial arts, you will find these exercises simpler than those who have been taught to only work the rectus abdominis muscles through crunches and other abdominal exercise. Stay patient throughout the progressions and be consistent. Consistency is key when it comes to getting the toned and strong core muscles that you want!
Tummy vacuums are one of my favorite ab exercises. I have all of my clients master tummy vacs before graduating to more complex abdominal movements. Everyone, regardless of his/her fitness level, should incorporate this exercise into their daily regimens. The tummy vacuum exercise is such a straight-forward, no fuss movement that can be performed anywhere, any time and if you are consistent with them you will see fantastic results.
- Have you added tummy vacuums to your fitness program yet? If yes, what do you think of them?
- Are you struggling with any parts of the exercise? If yes, what are you having a difficult time with?