The abs are one body part that everyone wants to flatten and define. Unfortunately, not everyone has an easy time developing abdominal definition. Most ab exercises target the rectus abdominis, a long muscle that extends from underneath your breasts to your pubic bone. The rectus abdominis is a paired muscle, divided down the middle by a tendinous sheath. It has three or four additional tendinous insertions that run horizontally. When people say you have “washboard abs,” it’s because those tendons are visible. Your rectus abdominis muscles also help to move your trunk and stabilize your spine.
Beyond the Rectus Abdominis: Other Abdominal Muscles
Exercises like bicycle crunches and oblique crunches target the internal and external oblique muscles located on either side of your torso. These muscles help to rotate your spine.
Deep into the rectus abdominis is a muscle called the transverse abdominis. This muscle is sometimes referred to as the “corset” muscle since it pulls everything in, helps stabilize your spine and pelvis and improves your posture. A strong transverse abdominis also helps protect your back against injury when you move. Weak transverse abdominis muscle can make your abdominal muscles stick out or “pooch.”
Common Ab Exercises
The “classic” exercise almost everyone includes in their abdominal routine is the abdominal crunch and its many variations, including jackknife crunches, bicycle crunches, and oblique crunches. Other popular abdominal exercises target the lower abs, although you can’t truly isolate the lower abs. Some of these include leg lifts, leg raises and windshield wipers. Planks are another popular exercise that works the entire core.
These exercises are not without benefit. They effectively target your rectus abdominis and obliques, but doing a high volume of them won’t necessarily give you the flat, defined abs you’re looking for. Your rectus abdominis muscles are made up primarily of fast-twitch muscle fibers. When you do high rep ab exercises using no added resistance, you’re not maximally activating these fast-twitch fibers.
Most abdominal exercises like crunches are designed to work your rectus abdominis muscle and obliques. Crunches do little to strengthen the deeper transverse abdominis muscle. That’s unfortunate since this muscle help to draw in your tummy, making it look flatter.
What Are the Best Exercises for Abs?
As mentioned, most of the muscle fibers in your abdominal area are fast-twitch, fibers geared towards power and strength moves. As a result, your rectus abdominis and oblique muscles are best targeted with high-intensity abdominal contractions. Your abdominal muscles will respond better to ten crunches with added resistance (holding a small weight) and good form than 50 crunches with no added resistance. The latter approach builds muscle endurance but isn’t optimal for building strength and definition.
Doing high-intensity ab exercises using resistance will strengthen your abs and build definition but still may not be enough to reveal the abs you want. Unless you have a low body fat percentage, any ab definition you develop will be covered by a layer of insulation, in other words, fat. The key is to mobilize that fat. The best way to target belly fat is with high-intensity exercise, not moderate-intensity, steady-state exercise like running or cycling. How often do you see abdominal definition on runners? On the other hand, you DO see sprinters with ripped abs. That’s because they do short bursts of intense activity.
Long periods of moderate-intensity exercise like jogging isn’t the best way to lose abdominal fat. You may lose a little in the beginning but your body usually adapts quickly to steady-state exercise. To mobilize belly fat, throw in a few high-intensity interval training sessions each week. Short periods of intense exercise maximize release of fat-burning hormones like growth hormone and adrenalin. Plus, the additional demands a high-intensity workout places on your body elevates your metabolism for hours after you finish. High-intensity ab exercises and high-intensity cardio are both effective for sculpting abs.
Don’t forget about the importance of lower body resistance training. What does lower body training have to do with your abs? Plenty. Heavy lower body resistance training that works large muscle groups benefits your abs in two ways. For one, you’re working large muscle groups. Training large muscles burn a significant number of calories. Secondly, you’re using ab and core stabilizing muscles when you do exercises like squats. As a result, your abs are doing some of the work even when you do lower body resistance exercises.
The Missing Link: Weak Transverse Abdominis Muscles
Doing high-intensity abdominal exercises builds abdominal strength and definition while high-intensity interval training burns fat to uncover the definition you’ve built.
What if you do all these things and find your tummy still sticks out? The problem may be a weak transverse abdominis, the deep abdominal muscles that hold everything in. These muscles don’t respond well to traditional ab exercises that target the rectus abdominis.
Standard abdominal exercises like crunches “push out” the abdominal wall. To strengthen the transverse abdominis, focus on exercises that draw your abdominal muscles in. Two exercises that do this are planks, side planks, and lying torso lifts.
Another way to target the deep transverse abdominis muscles is to use the vacuum technique. Practice sucking your abs in, mentally focusing on pulling your navel towards your spine. Hold for ten seconds and relax. Gradually hold the position for longer periods of time. Strengthening your transverse abdominis along with your rectus abdominis and obliques is a balanced approach to abdominal training that will deliver superior results.
The Importance of Nutritional Support
Any discussion of ab firming wouldn’t be complete without a word about nutrition. Nutrition is just as important for building abs as exercise, if not more so. When you’re trying to sculpt defined abs, don’t get sloppy with what you eat. Stick with whole, high-fiber unprocessed carb sources, lean protein, and healthy fats. Don’t assume you can exercise your way to ab definition and eat whatever you want. It takes a consistently clean diet to see results AND a balanced approached to abdominal training.
Fitness RX. “The Best Combination for Working Abs”. August 2008.
SuperAbs Resource Manual. Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
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