A firm, toned midsection not only looks amazing but a strong core helps stabilize your entire body. When your core is strong, you can generate more power when you play sports. Plus, you have greater functional strength to do the things you do every day around the house, like cleaning house and putting away groceries. But are you really getting the most out of your core and abdominal training? Here are some abdominal and core training tips to help you get more benefit from the exercises you do.
Abdominal Training: Focus, Focus, Focus
Do you let your mind wander when you train your abdominals? If you’re simply going through the motions, don’t expect to get the most out of your ab training. Mindfulness matters. Immerse your brain (and your abs) in the experience! Whether you’re doing crunches, bicycles, or leg lifts, keep tension in the muscles throughout the exercise. Many people have a tendency when doing ab exercises to relax the muscles at the bottom and top of the movement.
Even worse, you might do ab exercises too quickly and use momentum to reduce the work your ab muscles have to do. How to do them properly? Exhale as you contract your abs during the upward movement of a crunch and inhale as you lower your body back to the floor. You’ll get more out of doing 8 ab crunches holding tension throughout the movement than you will doing 20 sloppy crunches using momentum. It’s not a speed contest.
Make sure you’re focusing throughout your ab training. Think about and feel the muscles in your abs contracting as you do the movements. It matters!
Abdominal Training: Do Exercises that Really Target Your Abs
Some exercises that you think are targeting your abs are actually activating your hip flexors. Your hip flexors are a group of five muscles that move your legs toward your trunk. Two “ab” exercises that are mostly activating your hip flexors are sit-ups and leg raises.
Abdominal Training: Reduce the Range-of-Motion
When you do an abdominal crunch, how far do you raise your chest off the floor when you crunch? Once you lift your head and chest beyond 30 degrees, your hip flexors come into play and begin doing some of the work that your abdominals should be doing. Beyond 45 degrees, the hip flexors take over entirely. So, your abs do more work if you don’t lift your torso all the way up. Instead, reduce the range-of-motion so that your torso moves no higher than 45 degrees off the mat. This corresponds with lifting your shoulders off the floor. Beyond that point, you’re mainly working your hip flexors.
Abdominal Training: Add Some Resistance
You already know the principle of progressive overload is essential for muscle development, why should it be any different for your abs? You wouldn’t continue using the same resistance for months on end when you weight train, why should your abs be different? Yet that’s what many people do. One way to increase the challenge is to do more reps or sets but another way is to add resistance. You can do this by holding a dumbbell or weight plate when you crunch. Just make sure you’ve mastered proper form before grabbing a weight.
Another way is to do crunches in a decline position where your head is lower than your feet. That’s a good way to start. When that becomes easy, hold a weight while doing decline crunches. It’s important when using resistance that you do the moves in a slow, controlled manner.
Abdominal Training: Keep Your Workouts Balanced
So far, we’ve focused on ab exercises, particularly the rectus abdominis – but that’s not a balanced approach. Make sure you’re doing exercises that target your obliques as well, such as oblique crunches. Strengthening these muscles helps support your lower spine. Then work on strengthening the deepest abdominal muscle, the transverse abdominis. This muscle is what holds everything in and helps you fight the tummy bulge that comes from poor posture and tight hip flexors.
The best exercises to target the deep transverse abdominis are planks, stability ball rollouts, and stability ball bridges. Another exercise you might not be familiar with that works this deep muscle are stomach vacuums. To do a vacuum, stand straight and exhale all of the air from your lungs as you draw your belly button toward your spine. Push your chest out at the same time. Hold this isometric position for as long as you can. A weak transverse abdominis causes your lower abs to stick out even if you don’t have excess tummy fat, especially if you also have tight hip flexors.
To balance things out, make sure you’re targeting ALL the muscles in your core. Your core consists of all the muscles that help keep your spine in a neutral position. These include your ab muscles, hips, glutes, and the muscles in your back as well. When you strengthen your glutes with focused exercises, like glute bridges, squats, and lunges, it helps counterbalance the stiff hip flexors that many of us have from sitting too much. Make sure you’re including exercises that target your lower back as well, such as Supermans.
The Bottom Line
It’s not how many abdominal exercises you do but how many you do with proper form and without momentum that counts. You can increase the tension on your abs by reducing the range-of-motion, slowing the pace of the exercise, and adding resistance, once you’re ready.
Remember, an abdominal routine that doesn’t challenge you won’t give you the most benefits. Make sure you’re doing a workout that activates all the muscles that make up your core. Having a strong core will improve your posture, help you generate greater power, give you better balance, and lower your risk of back pain or injury.
One sign that you need more core work is the inability to hold a plank with good form for at least 30 seconds. The good news is you can strengthen your abs and core through training and enjoy the benefits of a fit, balanced body.
SuperAbs Resource Manual. Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
ACE Fitness. “Core Training for Injury Prevention”
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