The Truth about Abs and How to Work Them: Part 2

wrapLast issue we reviewed many smart reasons to work your core—from general fitness, to less back pain, to just plain looking good when your six-pack starts to show through.

Now that we’ve covered the basic benefits of a strong core, we have tips to share on how to work those abdominals, how often, and the truth about what doesn’t work well.

Getting to Know Your Abs

First things first: when we talk about your “core,” we are referring to more than the set of abs most people think about, that set being the “six-pack” abs, or rectus abdominis. Those abs are nearer to the surface than some of the deeper muscles you need to know about when you’re working on core strength.

Down below that ladder of abs in front, for example, is an inner sheath of abdominal muscles called transverse abdominis (TA). Even though you can’t see them like RA, they are essentially an “inner girdle” wrapping around your lower midsection and supporting the movements of your spine. They are essential to healthy, stable movement.

Working in conjunction with your TA are the internal oblique muscles along the sides of your ribcage. On top of that, next to RA are the external oblique muscles, which again are nearer to the surface, and can be developed to create “cut” lines down above the hip bones in some physiques. The obliques work with the diaphragm to support breathing, and also are used for side-bending and rotation of your trunk.

Aside from all these abdominal muscles, we also recruit from the surrounding muscles of the back and buttocks when we work on our cores. The abs are essential for stability, and though a lot of the abdominals stimulated in your workouts may be hidden under deep layers of tissue, the entire muscle group is involved in everyday functional health.

Abs in Everyday Life

The truth about abs is you have the chance to use them to a certain degree, almost all the time. Even when you’re sitting or standing still, you must use abdominal muscles to keep your spine erect and breathe. The more awareness you bring to this fact, the more you will be using your abs on a day-to-day basis, and helping their development.

Your body type and shape of your midsection, your percentage of body fat, and the amount of fat that has gathered around your waist, will all determine the physical appearance of your abs. If you lead an active life, and are relatively lean, it’s quite possible for you to have a flat stomach or visible abs, even without specifically targeting them with exercise.

But as we discussed, the importance of abs goes beyond looks, so consider your everyday life a chance to build core strength anytime. Some suggestions:

  • Push and Pull Things: Hold those abs while you move the vacuum, push the snowblower and pull a sled; in summer push the lawnmower and pull a wagon.
  • Lift and Swing Things: Bring up big boxes, reorganize closets. Lifting children counts—hold those abs while you get them up into the shopping cart.
  • Play Sports and Games: Many of the things you did as a child are great for you core strength today. Try doing a bear crawl or taking kicks at the soccer goal.

Abs at the Gym

If you’re going for the aesthetic aspect of a great set of abs, you’ll want to add a few dedicated abdominal workouts to your routine 2 – 3 times a week. Be sure to become familiar with any piece of equipment you decide to add into your workout, since working your abs (like any body part) with improper form or resistance can also cause a strain.

For general health and wellness, simple mat exercises can be a boost to your core strength and help you get that special feeling in your gut only ab work can bring! Some sound advice: don’t rush through…take your time and focus on form. You’ll get more out of your abs when you activate the right muscles with control.

  • Standing Cable Rotation: Face the cable machine with your feet about shoulder-width apart, and hold the cable with both hands and straight arms, chest-high. Pull from the center of your chest across to one side, twisting through the waist. A popular variation is the Wood Chopper, which brings the cable from a higher position on one side of the body down to twist across low to the other side.
  • Roman Chair Leg Raises: There are many ab and back exercises you can do in the Roman chair, and most of them are quite challenging, so be careful if these straight leg raises are too much, try bending your knees to ease up a little bit. Back into the chair putting your elbows on the pads and your low back on the support area. Raise the legs straight out in front of you, aiming for parallel to the floor. Hold for a moment, lower, repeat several times.
  • Pass the Ball: Lie on your back and place a stability ball between your ankles. Stretch your legs and arms away and then back in as you crunch up to reach for that ball with your hands. Stretch the ball back in your arms as you reach your legs away again. Repeat, passing the ball between hands and feet many times.
  • Slippery Mountain Climbers: In mountain climber exercise, you start on all fours, and then shoot one leg back and the other underneath you, like going nowhere up the side of an icy mountain. Put your feet on something slippery, say towels on a smooth floor, and you’ll have a rockin’ core workout. Put your feet up in the straps of a suspension system, and “climbing” in the air is even more amazing.
  • Bicycle Cross Crunch: This classic deserves a spot in your ab workout arsenal because of its versatility—it combines the motions of a crunch, a twist and a reverse crunch to hit all the areas of your abs. On your back with your hands clasped gently behind your head, bicycle your legs out on an angle, while twisting your torso toward the opposite knee. Pause in each direction to fully concentrate on engaging all those muscles.
  • Planks and Variations: The gold standard of core exercises, the plank is also a must. Try one-armed! Or Spiderman, which has you bring one knee up sideways toward your elbow and hold for a second, then alternate.

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