Your muscles help move you through your day; they also help define your shape. The stronger and better toned your muscles are, the more efficiently you move, and the better you look. There are four major muscles in the abdominal region. The secret to effective abdominal training is to strengthen all of the muscles in that region.
The external oblique and the internal oblique are the abdominal muscles that contour and shape your waistline. Their primary function is to rotate the spine. The external oblique is the outermost abdominal muscle. It is a broad, thin muscle that originates at the borders of the lower ribs. Its fibers run downward and inward in a V pattern. Running underneath the external oblique is the internal oblique. Its fibers start at the hips and run upward and inward in an inverted V pattern to meet the lower ribs. Together, the oblique muscles function like the corsets that women wore a century ago. These days, you can create your own perfectly defined waistline with a corset of strong, firm oblique muscles. These muscles work hardest in exercises that require you to turn your upper body during movement, as in the Oblique Curl and the Waistline Cruncher.
Lying beneath the obliques is the rectus abdominis, which helps to flex (bend) the spine. Its fibers run vertically from the top of the pubic bone to the lower ribs. An exercise can focus the muscle contraction on either the top or bottom portion of this muscle. In a standard bent-knee sit-up, the upper body is lifted, causing the top part of the muscle to contract with greater force. To work on the pouching area below the waistline, you must increase the contraction in the lower portion of the rectus abdominis. You can do this by making the muscle lift your legs and buttocks, as in the Reverse Hip Lift.
The fibers of the innermost abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis, run across the abdomen from side to side. The transversus abdominis helps to keep the abdominal organs in place. To maintain proper form, you need to tighten this muscle, which is done by pulling in your stomach.
Proper Form to Do Ab Exercises
•Keep your joints in alignment. Essential to maintaining proper form is keeping your body in good alignment throughout the exercise or stretch. Putting yourself in an awkward position will promote injury. Keep your feet, knees, and hips aligned. In a standing position, keep your weight distributed equally in your hips, keep your hips aligned above your knees, keep your knees aligned above your heels, and keep your toes facing in the direction of your knees. Avoid allowing your weight to rest on the balls of your feet. When you are in a side-lying position, keep your hips stacked one above the other so that they form a line that is perpendicular to the floor. If you are down on all fours, keep your elbows aligned below your shoulders; keep your knees aligned beneath your hips; and keep your head, neck, and torso aligned so they form a straight line from head to tailbone.
•Avoid extreme flexion or extension of a joint. If an exercise calls for flexing (bending) the knee while in a standing position, for example, do not allow the knee to bend so far that it moves in front of the toes; bend it so that it is aligned above the heel. If you are extending (straightening) your arm or leg, do not extend it to the point of locking the elbow or knee joint; keep the joint soft, or some what relaxed.
•Protect your back. Support your spine when changing positions. If you need to bend over, bend from the hips rather than from the waist and place your hands on your thighs to support your back. If you are doing an exercise while lying on your back, do not raise your upper body so far that you pull your lower back off the floor. Avoid excessive arching of the back.
•Keep your abdominals tight and your pelvis tucked under. When you stand with your abdominals slack and your pelvis not tucked, the top of the pelvis tends to tilt forward. This allows your stomach to hang forward and causes your back to arch excessively. Concentrate on pulling the abdominals in tight, as if you were trying to touch your belly button to your spine. Keep the top of the pelvis pointing upward so your tailbone points directly down to the floor.
•Keep your spine lifted. When performing standing or sitting exercises, keep your upper body lifted. Imagine that a string, attached from the ceiling to the top of your head, is lifting your head, neck, and shoulders upward. Keep your shoulders relaxed.
•Focus on controlled movements. Concentrate on pressing through the exercise using your muscles rather than allowing momentum or gravity to do the work. If an exercise such as a leg lift calls for “resisting” a movement, concentrate on contracting the muscles and pulling the leg down rather than allowing it to simply fall back into the starting position. Do each movement slowly. Never bounce during an exercise or stretch, since this may cause injury.
•Start out slow and gradually increase your range of motion. Moving a joint through its full range of motion means moving as far as you can without causing discomfort and without moving out of alignment. For example, in a side-lying exercise in which you are pressing the leg up and out from the hip joint, press up only as far as you can without moving your hips out of alignment; if your hips start to tilt, you’re moving too far. Gradually, your range of motion will increase.
•Remember to breathe. Do not hold your breath when performing the exercises; this can increase blood pressure. Instead, inhale between each repetition and exhale as you perform the movement.
Abdominal and Lower Back Workout
This is a very safe and effective exercise for conditioning the rectus abdominis. If you are inflexible in your shoulder area, you can modify by placing your hands across your chest.
Lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the floor. Focus your eyes upward along an imaginary line from your toes to the ceiling. Place hands behind head to support head and neck. Keep head and neck aligned with spine and keep lower back on the floor. Do not flex at the neck.
Contract abdominals and lift upper body, exhaling on exertion. Try to press your belly button toward your spine. Always move in a slow and controlled fashion. Don’t rush through the exercise using momentum or poor form. Repeat for 8 times and progress to 3 sets of 8 times.
The short crunch conditions the rectus abdominis through a short range of motion. It requires a concentrated contraction as you press upward.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, hands placed behind head. Begin with the upper body lifted midway and the abdominal muscle held in tight. Keep head and neck in alignment and moving as one unit.
Lift the upper body a short distance, keeping the abdominal muscle contracted. Concentrate on the lift upward. Breathe and repeat for 8 times. Progress to 3 sets of 8 times.
The combo crunch emphasizes both the upper and lower region of the abdominal. Although the full length of the muscle is contracting, the exercise should be performed slowly to emphasize isolating the lower region of the abdominal.
Lie on your back with your legs elevated, knees bent, and ankles crossed. Place your hands behind your head. Keep your head and neck in alignment as you perform the exercise.
Slowly and gently contract the upper body toward the lower body while lifting the hips off the floor. Slowly lower to starting position. Repeat for 8 times and progress to 3 sets of 8 times.
The sustained hold is good for strengthening the abdominal muscle that runs from the chest cavity to the pelvic bone. Perform it with a slow, controlled movement.
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Be sure not to arch your back. Focus along an imaginary line drawn from your toes to the ceiling. Place your hands in front of your chest.
Lift the upper body for 2 counts, hold for 2 counts, and lower on 4 counts. When lifting up, press hands forward. Exhale on exertion.
The toe touch is advanced because your legs are extended upward. Keep your knees bent if your hamstrings are tight. If this exercise feels uncomfortable, skip it.
Lie on your back with legs extended toward the ceiling. Place your left hand behind your head for support of head and neck.
Contract the upper body and reach with your right hand up to the toes. Try to reach up to your shoelaces at least once. Repeat for 8 times. Repeat using left arm. Progress to 3 sets of 8 times with each arm.
The three-count lift is advanced and can be eliminated if you are not ready to tackle it.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, heels on the floor, hands supporting the head. Flex your feet and focus along an imaginary line drawn from your toes to the ceiling. Don’t arch your back.
Exhale as you lift your upper body up to the first position, keeping head and neck as one unit and trying to press your belly button toward your spine.
Lift a little higher to the second position, pulling the abdominal muscle in tighter.
The oblique curl involves bending and rotating at the waist to effectively isolate and contour the waistline. Think about tightening the oblique muscles on the side you are lifting toward. Always move slowly.
Lie with lower back relaxed into the floor, knees bent, left foot flat on the floor, and left arm under the head. Rest right foot on the left knee and extend right arm out to the side.
Keeping hips squared and lower body motionless, lift and rotate upper body, aiming left shoulder to right knee. Repeat for 8 times. Repeat with the other side.
Reverse Hip Lift
The reverse hip lift, which requires lifting the lower body up to meet the upper body, helps condition the lower region of the abdomen. If it feels difficult, an alternative would be to place your feet on the floor and perform a pelvic tilt concentrating on the contraction of the lower region of the rectus abdominis muscle.
Lie on your back with your legs lifted up toward the ceiling in line with your hips and your legs crossed at the ankles. Extend arms out from the body with fingertips pressed into floor.
Slowly and gently lift up with the hips, imagining that the legs are flush against a wall and the only direction they can go is straight up. Avoid rolling forward and back or using momentum. It doesn’t matter how much you lift as long as you use good form. Repeat for 8 times and rest. Progress to 3 sets of 8 times.
Reverse Hip Lift with Rotation
The reverse hip lift with rotation is a very advanced waistline trimmer. It emphasizes the lower region of the abdominal and the obliques.
Lie on your back with your legs lifted up toward the ceiling in line with your hips. Extend arms out from body with fingertips pressed into floor. Bend right knee and rest right foot against elevated left leg.
Slowly and gently lift up with the hips. Legs should move straight up. Avoid using momentum. Repeat for 8 times. Rest. Repeat for 8 times on the other side.
Combo Arm and Leg Raise
The combo arm and leg raise is very effective in strengthening the upper and lower back. It is highly recommended for people of all ages because it helps provide muscle balance for the core of the body.
Lie on stomach with forehead resting on the floor, arms extended next to the head, legs extended, and feet resting on the sides of the big toes.
Slowly and gently lift the right arm and the left leg on 2 counts and lower on 2 counts. Repeat using left arm and right leg. Repeat for 8 times and progress to 3 sets of 8 times.
Beginning Back Extension
The beginning back extension conditions the lower back and should be performed slowly and gently. Try to keep your hip bones on the floor and lift only as far as you can keeping your elbows on the floor.
Lie on stomach with forehead resting on the floor. Place hands under shoulders with elbows bent alongside the body. Extend legs.
Slowly and gently lift upper body keeping forearms and elbows on the floor, exhaling on exertion. Return to starting position and repeat for 8 times. Once you can do this easily, replace it with the intermediate back extension.
Intermediate Back Extension
The intermediate back extension is highly effective in conditioning the lower back muscles. It will also improve posture and alignment.
Lie on stomach with forehead resting on the floor. Extend legs. Place hands on the buttocks.
Slowly and gently lift the upper body, pressing hands into buttocks as you lift. Exhale on exertion and return to starting position. Repeat for 8 times.
Reverse Back Extension
Try the reverse back extension after successfully completing the intermediate back extension. It is highly effective in conditioning the lower back and buttocks.
Lie on stomach with head resting on your hands. Bend the knees and cross legs at the ankles.
Slowly begin to contract the buttocks muscles and lift the knees off the floor. Return to starting position and repeat for 8 times.
The waistline cruncher focuses on the waistline, which includes the internal and external oblique muscles. All movement should be done with slow and controlled motions. Move only from the waistline up. Keep the hips stationary.
Stand tall with feet shoulder-width apart, knees relaxed, toes pointing forward or in a comfortable position, upper body lifted, shoulders relaxed. Bend elbows with arms alongside body.
Keeping torso lifted, rotate at waistline and punch out in front of body, allowing arm to cross the midline of the body. Avoid popping elbow joint while extending arm. Lift and rotate to the other side; punch arm out in front of body. Repeat for 3 sets of 8 times.