When I first got into fitness and wanted to transform my health, I was determined to get visibly defined abs. After every workout, I’d lie on the floor and bang out as many crunches, leg lowers, and sit-ups as I could muster. Every. Single. Day. Still, I just wasn’t getting the results I’d desired.
Years later, after becoming a certified trainer and gaining more experience in the fitness field, I realized my mistake: I was focusing on the wrong thing. I cared about abs, but neglected the rest of the muscles in my core. While visible abs is a nice goal, it’s not something that will give you long-term motivation or staying power. Instead, I needed to focus on core function, posture, and alignment. Once I switched my purpose, the results I’d longed for followed. In addition to stronger muscles, my posture was better, and my low back stopped nagging me.
What is the core exactly?
It’s common to think of our rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles, as our core. In reality, it’s so much more than that! The core consists of our abdominal muscles (obliques, transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis), the muscles in our low back, our pelvic floor, and our glutes.
Why is core strength important?
We need core strength and stability to assist us with everyday activities. Our core musculature helps to hold us upright. It assists us in movement, twisting, squatting, standing, reaching, and carrying various items. While it’s easy to think of our arms while we’re carrying 18 grocery bags from the car to the house, our core is providing assistance and support.
A strong core can also help to prevent low back and hip pain. When our core is weak, this can lead to altered movement patterns, muscular imbalances that can lead to injury.
What are the best ab exercises?
Just like I mentioned before, the best exercises are ones that utilize all of the muscles in your core; not just the six-pack rectus abdominis muscles.
Some of my very favorites:
Hip raises. Laying on your back, with your knees bent, ground your shoulders into the floor and press your weight into your heels. Raise your hips to the sky, exhaling and squeezing your butt muscles as you press up, then slowly lower down.
Spinal balance. As you do this exercise, you want to really think about keeping the lower part of the abs pulled in, and pay attention to your breath. To start, begin on all fours - hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Extend one leg straight behind you. Keep your hips parallel to the floor and feel the stretch along the side of your body down through your leg. Return to all fours and then extend one arm, again feeling the stretch. Repeat with your other arm and leg. Once this feels good and you have the stability, try extending the opposite arm and leg at the same time (as I'm doing in the photo). Alternate side to side. Finally, add tiny pulses at the top.
Cat cow. This is a great one for pregnancy, too! Start on your hands and knees, with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. As you inhale, fill your belly and drop it towards the floor, making a curve in your back; exhale to press out the air, drawing your belly up and in, rounding your back like a cat. While you do this move, make sure that your obliques (the "six pack" muscles) are relaxed.
Squat. Place your feet just under your shoulders with toes slightly angled out. Keep your chest lifted and a tight core as you sink back and down into your squat. Pretend like there is a chair behind you, and you’re going to tap your booty to the chair. The weight should remain in your heels. Exhale and squeeze your butt muscles to rise.
Dumbbell wood chop. Start standing with your legs hip width apart, knees bent. Hold the dumbbell (8-10 lbs max) with both hands to the outside of your left leg. Lift the dumbbell diagonally and upwards across your body toward the right, pivoting on your left foot and twisting your torso, ending with arms raised above your upper right side. (Think about drawing the first line of an “X” with the dumbbell, from low left to right upper side.) Control the movement as you go back to start and repeat 10x on each side.
Plank. Start on your hands and knees, with your hands underneath your shoulders, then straighten one leg, and then the other, forming your body into a straight line. Make sure the back of the neck is long. Pull your core up and in, and breathe. If this is too much core pressure, you can do the plank standing up, placing your hands on the wall or a countertop.