Abdominal Exercises: The Mistake Most People Make, & How to Get the Results You Want.
Most of you know by now that my workout routine has become rather minimalistic. I look forward to the day that I might get back to five workouts a week, classes at a gym, training for races, and so on, but for now I just get in what I can. And these days, that is usually a 3-4 mile run, and some quick resistance work, about three times a week. It’s enough to make me sweat, and clear my head.
In this post I talked about why “spot reduction” doesn’t work, (so make sure you read that!) but I promised I would share the exercises I personally do to try to keep toned and fit.
Then, I shared my simple arm workout in this post.
And today, I’m talking abs: Stomach. Core. The gut. You know, that middle part.
I want to first open this up by acknowledging that we all have genetics, and we all have stories, and many of us have had babies, and…the point is: Let’s keep perspective. Some of us look at a cupcake and cellulite shows up on our thighs. Some of us drink a diet coke and our tummy bulges. We each have our stuff and that is just life and that is ok. In fact, that is just lovely because it is part of who we are and we are all lovely. I recently read a quote from Jennifer Garner from an interview on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Garner was addressing rumors that she was pregnant again because apparently the paparazzi pointed out her “baby bump.” Garner said, “I am not pregnant, but I have had three kids and there is a bump.” She went on, “From now on, ladies, I will have a bump, and it will be my baby bump. It’s not going anywhere,” she said. “Its name is Violet, Sam and Sera.”
I just loved that.
I’m getting a little off the topic here, but this matters to me. I believe in making the very best of the body God’s given us, in the season we are in. But if I’m going to talk about our bodies and fitness and all of that, I want to keep really level-headed about it all.
So now–Let’s talk ABDOMINALS.
Since I quit teaching fitness classes at a gym and moved to the country four years ago, I have hardly done any ab. work. I tell myself that running is good for my core (and it is) but the truth is, I just haven’t taken the time. And yes, I think my abs have held in there as a result of all of the years of working them, and for that I am grateful. But they’re not as firm as they used to be, and I know that it’s only a matter of time before they rebel against me. So this post is as much for me as for you…
Abs are key:
From my years studying sports medicine and working as a personal trainer, I am convinced that having strong abdominals is important. It isn’t just about looking good, your abdominals are actually super important for back-health. Your deepest abdominal muscles actually wrap around and insert into your spine! Did you know that? Your abs actually support your back! That should be motivation enough to keep your core strong.
*Side note: I often use the term “core” when referring to the abs, but the core really encompasses the abdominals as well as some back muscles, gluts, and even the pelvic floor muscles. Abs are a very important part of the core, but not the only part. (I would need another post to cover the rest of the core!)
Know Your Abs:
So let’s get a quick bit of technical stuff out there, and then I’ll get to the exercises.
Your abdominal muscles have four layers:
The deepest layer is the Transverse Abdominal muscle group. These wrap around and attach to your spine.
Then you two more layers–the Internal and External Obliques, which run at angles across your rib cage. (they allow you to twist and turn.)
Finally, the outer most layer is your Rectus Abdominis. (the “sit-up” muscle.)
(Image found here.)
How it all works:
Most of the people you see at the gym doing crunches by the hundreds are working the outer most layer–the rectus abdominus. This is your “six pack” muscle group.
Having a six pack is great and all, however, in my opinion, a much more important muscle group is the deepest layer of abdominal muscles–the transverse abdominals. This is especially key for those of us whose stomach has been stretched to maximum capacity by carrying babies in there. Your transverse abdominals are deep, and they wrap all the way around your mid-section. They attach to your spine and are the part of your abs that are super important for back health.
The most fun thing is: Your transverse abdominal muscles act as your built-in girdle. I’m not kidding! The transverse abdominals pull everything in, and are the true key to having a flat stomach.
Why the crunches aren’t working:
So…here’s how this all comes together, and an explanation for why a lot of folks are are not getting the results they want.
If someone is trying to get a flat stomach by doing traditional sit-ups and crunches, they often end up frustrated. Their stomach is still bulging, and they can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong. Is their workout not effective? Why can’t they get a flatter stomach?
(Did you figure it out already?)
These people may indeed be getting stronger abs. But they are strengthening the outer-most muscles–that rectus abdominus muscle group. They might be developing a nice six pack (which will show if they have low body fat.) But this does not equal a flat tummy.
So, what is the solution?
(You guessed it again, I know it.)
To get a flat stomach, you need to work the deepest muscles–the transverse abdominals. Strengthening those built-in girdles is both healthy (remember they support your back,) and lovely (a flat stomach is nice.)
The cool thing is that working your deepest abdominal muscles isn’t hard. Working your transverse abdominals can be done while sitting, standing, or lying down.
How to do effective ab work:
The key to working your transverse abdominals is to pull your belly button in toward your spine, and squeeze. You can hold for the count of ten, or pulse it for one count, twenty times. You can do it a hundred different ways really, but the key is to train your body to pull those deep muscles in and hold. I used to suggest to my group fitness classes that each time they come to a red light they would pull their deep ab muscles in and hold. Or think of doing twenty sets of squeezes while washing dishes. Whatever little trick works for you. Another helpful mental tool is to pull your belly button in and squeeze–imagining that your core is a sponge and you are getting all of the water out of it.
I call these “Standing Abs” because you can literally work them while you are standing around. No one will even know you are doing it. I may be easily entertained, but I think that is just so much fun! (This is kind of weird but I used to do a little “pregnant party trick” in which I would pull my pregnant belly in so far you could hardly see my bump. I was just playing around, but now that I look back that probably helped those stretched out muscles keep some strength and might have helped with my post-pregnancy muscle recovery.)
Once you get used to how it feels to pull those deep TA muscles in, you can also add that to your floor abdominal work. Simply pause before you begin a sit-up or crunch, and pull your belly button in toward your spine. Add some crunches with a twist and you’ll bring in the internal and external obliques. There are a million variations on crunches. Lift and twist, hold a weight and twist, bicycle twisting with elbow to opposite knee, and so on. Go ahead, get that six pack, but get it on top of a flat stomach!
Your goal here is to do your ab work with the transverse abdominal muscles engaged.
(Oh, and breathe. Don’t hold your breath!)
A great way to specifically work your core abdominal muscles is to do a plank exercise, which looks just like the top of a push-up. This is great because you are using gravity as your resistance, and it is a safe and effective way to strengthen your transverse abdominals.
If you’ve never done a plank before, you can modify it by being on your knees (hips still extended) or on your elbows. As you get more advanced you can lift one arm straight out front, then a leg, then opposing arms and legs at the same time.
Oh the fun.
HOW MUCH, HOW OFTEN:
If the idea of working your deeper transverse abdominal muscles is new to you, I encourage you to start working them often. Like I said, you can make a habit or a game out of it and work them every day. The goal is to make it a habit to stand with your tummy pulled in tight. This is good posture and super healthy for your back.
As far as specific abdominal exercises, like any resistance work, I recommend you shoot for working your abs three times a week. Ten minutes should be plenty! This can be any combination of standing abdominal work, planks, and crunches, adding any variety you like. Doing these consistently over time will be your biggest key to success.
Do you love to work your abs? Hate them? What’s your secret weapon? And I really am curious to know how many of you already do standing abdominal exercises, or if this is a new concept to you? Speak up in comments! (And as always, please pin and share this post so your friends might get to learn all about their abs too! :))
Love you forever,
I just started working my TA muscles to correct my diastasis recti problem after having children. Can’t wait to see results. This is a great read!
This is a really good article! This is the routine I used to build my abs during my last bulk. It is simple but really effective, using progressive overload: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtZ6Dkco2VQ
Here’s an ab exercises I came up with and found very effective. Basically it’s a push up against a sit up while standing. I start by pressing my hands against my thighs while standing straight. Then I slide my hands down my thighs to the knees while maintaining pressure against the thighs. The exercise is better than the plank because it gives a little curl to the abs. It’s better than the sit up because it doesn’t injure the spine.
Oh that’s my problem! I can see my outer abs starting to get a little bit of definition, but it’s not getting any flatter. Thanks for the tips!
I love the idea of the standing abs excersizes as I have a job where I literally am standing for 5 hrs straight!
I love your post re ABDOMINALS. It was spot on as im suffering from back pain since jan this year. I’ve lost more weight just by doing my physiotherapy exercises than gym 3 time’s a week. It all makes perfect sense when im reading your article.
You first grabbed my attention earlier in the year when you spoke about raising boys. Thank you x
Thank you Punsara–So glad to hear it! I hope that your back heals up quickly now and you might get strong abs and avoid future injuries. 🙂 Much aloha for stopping in and I have plenty more boy-raising posts ahead as well. XO
Great advise as always, thanks Monica! I will try that method today during my workout.
This is very helpful. I like knowing what muscles I’m engaging with each exercise. It helps me to keep better form. As a woman that is closer to 60 than 50 fitness is all about prevention. Standing ABs, stronger spine, I ‘m on it! I have found the best recipe for new habits is to incorporate small steps into a bigger routine… Dishes = Standing ABs. Standing ABs, change the World :-). More like this please.
Thank you Julie! That is brilliant. 🙂 Love your way of thinking. Aloha-
You recommend shooting for doing your abdominal exercise 3 times a week. Is it to much to do it more then that? I love ab workout and have been doing a 3 minute workout every other day, but I’m afraid i don’t know a whole lot about abs so this post was most helpful!
I had 3 babies in 3 years, each a year apart. My youngest is 2 now and i majorly need help strengthen my core.
What would you recommend?
No, you are totally fine doing ab work more than three times a week. I really meant that as a minimum to get results. 🙂 If you love them, then by all means, go for it! You might just switch it up a bit–one day really work on planks and the Transverse abdominals, the next day crank out some crunches, etc. Keep it interesting and keep the TA in all the time and you’ll get those abs back in no time! 😉 Glad you asked and thanks for stopping in! aloha
This was super helpful! Thanks for sharing!!
Thank you Chelsea! So glad to hear that. Aloha!
I love the idea of the standing abs excersizes as I have a job where I literally am standing for 5 hrs straight!
My first time commenting, but I love reading your fitness blogs because of the balanced mental perspective, the most important ingredient of all. 🙂
So true about the transverse abs…..when I consistently do aerobic breathing, sucking my belly button in and holding it, my abs WANT to pull in – a neat feeling. Also, when I was pregnant, it naturally made me hold in the bump, for a while, but that went to pot eventually, lol!
Thank you so much! Yes–the breathing (I didn’t mention,) I love that! It does feel so good when the pulling in things become a natural thing. And yes w/ pregnancy–there comes a time when no holding in is gonna make a difference! haha. Much aloha and I am glad you stopped to comment! Aloha-
SUCH a fab (and LONG 😉 ) post. Great info. Will def give the link a share on my Busy & Fit FB page.
Have you ever had Diastasis Recti after your pregnancies? I had it with my first last year and still have not recovered properly from it, even though I’ve done the exercise from the physio (mainly the TA stuff you discussed in this post).
It’s frustrating b/c it eliminates a LOT of potential ab exercises for me, which would make the issue worse. Would love to hear if you have any advice.
Thanks again for the solid info, and for the TA reminders.
Thank you Corinna–I know it was way long, I try not to do that…Somehow couldn’t help it this time. 🙂
I never had Diastasis Recti no, but things sure seemed like they were all out of whack for a while after my last two pregnancies…I should do more research on that because I don’t think I remember the typical course…Does that ever heal completely? You mention physio–did that help? Would be interested to hear more, and sorry I’m not much help w/ that. aloha!
You should check out https://mamalates.com great resource for diastasis recti. It is unfortunately common and not well addressed in our culture where there is very little information or support for post partum mamas. Wendy who runs the site is a lovely lady and a wealth of knowledge. She helped me recover after my first pregnancy. Best of luck!!
This was my concern reading this- new moms need to be very careful doing planks , crunches and twisting until their DR is completely healed of the tension can actually cause a great split in the muscles. There are exercises to do that will close it but they take time and then once healed these are excellent exercises. Check outhttps://www.pregnancyexercise.co.nz/category/diastasis-recti-2/ andhttps://www.mamalionstrong.com/topics/diastasisrecti/
Thanks Alexis. Funny I did ab work pretty quick after each kid and never had a problem, but I’m glad you mentioned that because it can be a risk…Thanks for sharing. 😉