You ever notice how old school bodybuilders like Arnold had insanely flat, almost concave stomachs?
Having massive, blocky ab muscles was important, but having a striking torso to waist ratio was a major point of emphasis.
Legend has it a lot of them used a special, and kind of odd, exercise to get their stomachs so lean.
It’s called the stomach vacuum (fitness infographic below). Benefits include, not only tightening up the ol’ belly, but also strengthening the support system around the spine, which carries over into a variety of big lifts.
(Arnold has even openly discussed the vacuum, both as a bodybuilding pose and as a technique for keeping a slim stomach)
If you want to learn how to take this “secret weapon” of legendary bodybuilders and use it to get a tighter midsection, you’ve come to the right place.
The Magic of the Stomach Vacuum (Fitness Infographic)
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Stomach vacuums are an isometric exercise that work the transverse abdominis (TVA) through static contraction.
What the heck is the transverse abdominis?
- These are the ab muscles behind the ol’ six pack
- They’re also sometimes called the “corset muscle” because they protect the spine and quite literally hold your gut in
What do stomach vacuums do?
- Build rock solid posture and stability
- Protect against injury during heavy lifts
- Improve core engagement during other ab exercises
- Fight protrusion of the stomach for a flatter tummy!
Alright, how do I do stomach vacuums? (How to perform the vacuum properly)
You can do stomach vacuums pretty much any time, anywhere, and every single day if you want. Here are the basic steps:
- Exhale completely while standing
- Pull in your stomach as hard as you can from the belly button
- Hold as long as you can go without a breath
- Take a few breaths and repeat
- Start small and work your way up to longer holds and more reps
A good structure of stomach vacuum sets and reps to follow: Try 3 sets of 10-20 second holds at first. It will be hard, but as it gets easier, bump up the time of the holds to 30 seconds or more. Eventually you may be able to do multiple sets of minute-long holds, or even more.
A little real talk about stomach vacuums:
- Stomach vacuums won’t burn fat without regular exercise and a solid diet
- Their slimming effects will be strongest on people who are already somewhat lean
- The good news? Their posture, stability, and strength benefits will work for everyone!
Quick tips for stomach vacuums:
- Always do stomach vacuums on an empty tummy (food will make it hard to fully contract the muscles)
- Pump your stomach in and out during holds without taking a breath for extra work
- Try them lying flat on the ground, on all fours, or sitting to ramp up the difficulty
How long to see results with the stomach vacuum?
Most experts say you can expect to see some noticeable differences in your midsection within just two to three weeks of doing the stomach vacuum exercise, even claiming you’ll knock off as many as three inches off your waistline.
I think that’s a wee bit ambitious, and I’d temper expectations just a little bit.
Results with the stomach vacuum will vary for everyone, but the key will be consistency in your training.
I think it’s far more likely that the results will be more visual and aesthetic then measurable, especially that early, but over time you may see a significant difference in the flatness of your stomach.
Again, though, one of the keys is going to be staying lean and maintaining a low body fat percentage to get the full benefits of the stomach vacuum.
However, many of the benefits of the exercise will be unseen, like better support for your spine and improved posture.
My experience & before and after with stomach vacuums:
I’ve been doing stomach vacuums casually for a few weeks now and have noticed a few things:
Greater control over the movement. I’m starting to really be able to get my stomach to curve in under my ribcage more and more, as a result of those TVA muscles getting stronger.
Some people get so good at this movement that they can control expand and contract individual ab muscles, which looks super freaky but is way impressive!
Extra tightness. Like I said, the vacuum won’t burn fat, so a lot of the visual difference in my stomach is due to leaning down (I’ve lost about 7 pounds over the past two months).
But there is a certain tightness and… elevation? for lack of a better word there that wasn’t there before. I see what people mean about the TVA acting as a bit of a corset and holding your stomach in tighter to your body.
How do you do a stomach vacuum with a twist?
If you want to add a little bit of a twist and try a new variation of the vacuum exercise, try this!
- Perform the stomach vacuum as normal
- Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, draw your belly button in toward your spine
- Now place your hands over and behind your head and rotate your torso from side to side
This is a great way of getting some extra engagement in your obliques (side ab muscles) and challenging your core and transverse abdominis even more.
Are there good alternatives to the stomach vacuum? What are other good exercises for the transverse abdominis?
If you find the vacuum exercise uncomfortable, or have been doing it for a while and not seeing results, there are plenty of other excellent ways of targeting the same muscles.
In fact, like almost all forms of exercise, it’s good to rotate in different variations and hit your muscles in different ways from time to time!
If you’re looking for some other good transverse abdominis exercises or alternatives to the stomach vacuum, try:
Lay down on the ground, then move into a push-up position. Keep your spine straight, core tight, and hollow your abdomen.
Hold this position for as long as you can! Multiple sets of 30-60 second holds are great. You can even add weight to your back (with the help of a partner) to make this even more challenging.
You’ll definitely feel the burn throughout your entire core, but your transverse abdominis or inner ab muscles will really be hit hard.
Lay flat on the ground, then slide your feet directly under your knees (your shins should be perpendicular to the floor).
With hands planted firmly at your sides, push your hips and butt up into the air, keeping your spin straight.
Hold for 1-3 seconds and then lower your hips back to the ground.
This is a great exercise for the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and core. You can also add weight to this when you’re ready for more of a challenge.
These are HARD!
If you can do Russian twists well, you’ve got some serious core strength.
Sit on the ground to begin. With your legs out in front of you and knees slightly bent, lift your feet off the floor a few inches. Lean back slightly so your torso is at an angle.
You should be resting only on your butt at this point.
Now rock your torso from side to side with hands in front of you, centered at your chest. Get good, deep rotations and you’ll feel an awesome burn in your abs and obliques.
Do multiple sets of 15-20 reps, depending on your fitness level.
Hope this guide helps!
And remember, stomach vacuums aren’t the end all be all to getting the six pack you’ve been dreaming of.
Your best bets are still regular diet and exercise, along with traditional strength training and ab work.
But stomach vacuums are an excellent and WAY underutilized method of getting that extra 10% of definition and slimness that can make a big difference.