So summer is just around the corner which means it’s not long until you’ll be back in your beachwear enjoying the sunshine! Now I’m always telling people your time in the gym is going to feel much more worthwhile if you’re working towards a specific goal, and for a lot of people at this time of year they find themselves longing for that toned stomach and those washboard abs to show off at the side of the pool.
That’s why all of a sudden you’ll see a boom in Instagram ads and magazine articles; “Get a 6 pack in just 6 weeks” or “Tighten that tummy in a two-minute workout!”
Not only is it almost totally unachievable and unsustainable, but it can also actually be damaging. These quick-fixes rely heavily on crunch-type movements which aren’t varied enough to build a proper strong, healthy core, and they could even lead to spinal issues further along the line.
To avoid over-stressing one area and build up the strongest core you can, you need to hit the abdominals from all different angles and involve all muscles that make it up.
When I say “abs” everyone thinks of the classic rippling 6 pack, but actually this is only one group of muscles that make up the core. In fact, the abdominals run all the way from your ribs down to your groin, and you should be training all of these equally to help you build the strongest core with more efficiency and balance.
These are the famous 6 pack ripples at the very front of the body. When people spend all their time on crunches, this is the muscle group they are hitting.
This is a layer of muscle that lies beneath the 6 pack and essentially wraps and protects the internal organs. It is quite often neglected in training programmes as you can’t actually see it, but it is very important to concentrate on if you want to build the strongest possible foundation. You can target this muscle with static resistance based exercises, for example, the classic plank.
These are located just inside the hip bones, and are the muscle responsible for creating that V-taper illusion toward the groin that you may have seen in fitness magazines. While it is obviously possible to train this muscle to be bigger, the visibility of the taper they create is largely down to genetics and whether yours personally are pronounced or not.
These are the muscles on either side of the 6 pack that begin from your lower ribs and run all the way down to your hips. They are the muscles responsible for the diagonal finger-like indents when they are tensed. Whether you can see these or not depends a lot on how lean you are, but they are the most likely to begin to see when building your core as they are the furthest forward in the body.
The lower back is so often involved in core exercises that it is important to train this as part of your core routine too for all-round strength and safety! If your lower back is weak you will never have the muscle endurance necessary to begin building up your abs. A great exercise to target this would be The Superman which involves laying on your front and extending your legs and arms up towards the ceiling, almost like a crunch but on the back of your body instead.
When training your core it is important to consider all planes of motion, 360 degrees, not just frontal, even though it feels very much like you are focusing on the front of your body.
Remember, you are only as strong as your weakest link. You can keep on crunching til the cows come home, but if you aren’t working all the other areas too you aren’t going to be getting stronger.
Also, core training isn’t just about the flatter, tighter stomach, all of your other training programmes will benefit from it too. A strong core will improve every lift you do!
3 exercises to consider building into your core workout:
This exercise is built on a normal plank position. Elbows under shoulders, legs straight and tight, feet shoulder-width apart. The difference is though, with this plank you will work with the intention of trying to pull inward and close the gap between your elbows and your toes. Now, while your contact points with the floor will not actually be physically moving from their fixed position, that pull will engage your core in a new way, like someone has flicked a switch on. You should aim to do between 10-15 seconds per time. If this seems very easy you will probably need to readdress whether you are really engaging everything you can- your body should be screaming to finish those 10 seconds! This exercises should be completed 5/6 times for a really great burn!
Leg Raises on an Angled Bench
This is for those who have mastered the horizontal leg raise and are ready to progress it. The way to set this up is to raise one side of the bench to create a slope and lie with your head higher than your feet so that their is more gravitational resistance to actually raise your legs as your abs contract. As you lower you legs you should keep everything still engaged, resisting gravity and making sure that you lower slowly so that vertebra by vertebra your spine rolls back into the bench. If you don’t keep that tension the entire rep you won’t feel the burn! You can continue to progress this exercise over time by steepening the angle, until eventually you are able to complete a hanging leg raise where you begin entirely vertically. Aim for 10-15 per set. Remember, this isn’t just targeting your lower abs, everything should be tight!
Side Plank with Arm Rotation
This position is built from a side plank which can be with your feet stacked or scissored, entirely your personal preference, and is all about resistance and tension. You will take the arm that is towards the ceiling and rotate it in a half-moon circular motion in towards your bottom hip, whist strongly exhaling all the breath from your body and engaging your diaphragm to do so. This will give a very tight squeeze in your obliques. You will then return to the starting position, making sure that your stabilising arm is completely engaged. Keep thinking of pushing your bottom shoulder away from your body so that it stays active and doesn’t let your form begin to sag- the same applies to your hip! Don’t let yourself sink into the floor, hold that position strong all the way through your body. Aim for 10-15 reps each side in 3-4 sets. Also, it’s important to keep your breathing in sync! Many of my clients will hold their breath as it seems easier, but in order to maximise your workout you should always aim to breathe as you flex.
Take these three exercises and build them into your current routine in a way that is good for you. That could be in a circuit finisher at the end of your daily workout, throughout your session, or even as a way to stay engaged on a rest day combined with some stretching.
As always, I’m here to help with any programming questions you may have, or for just general enquiries about how I can help you reach your fitness goals don’t be afraid to send an email or contact me on my Facebook page/website!