We’ve all seen multiple photos of incredibly fit people with ab muscles so defined it appears that squirrels are going to pop out of their stomach. And while these may look great, are they beneficial? What exactly should we be doing for our abs?
First of all, let’s debunk the myth that any amount of ab exercises will give you a 6-pack. They won’t. The only way to get a visible “washboard” stomach is through diet. You need to reduce your overall body fat to 10% or less. Period.
However, the benefits of strong abs cannot be overstated. Simply, they are the center of your core group of muscles — responsible for everything from helping you sit and stand straight to stabilizing all the movements you make throughout your day.
What is your core, and what exercise should you do for it?
Your “core” is the group of muscles that starts with your abdominals and lower back muscles at the top and goes all the way down through your gluteus (“butt!”) and even upper leg muscles. Your core muscles support every move you make, and are probably the most important group of muscles in your body.
While there are a plethora of core workouts that you could and should do, if you had to pick a single one, it would be the “plank.” Of all the core exercises, the plank exercise gives you the most return in the least amount of time.
If you are new to this kind of workout, start with the most basic plank. Facing down, rest your weight on your forearms and your toes. Your triceps should be vertical (just below your shoulders) and your forearms parallel to the ground. Focus on keeping your body as close to straight as possible. Hint: when you are first learning to do a plank, it helps to either do it in front of a mirror so you can watch your own form, or to have someone else check your form.
Sit ups, mountain climbers, and other ab workouts
The plank is a terrific exercise for strengthening your entire core. However, it does not specifically focus on ab muscles. If you want to develop your abs (for both cosmetic and health purposes), there are a few key exercises that can help you do it quickly:
One of the easiest ways to do this exercise is to lie on your back, raise your legs straight up, and push your feet toward the ceiling. The idea is to lift your hips an inch or two off the ground with each rep. A variation is to lie on your back on a weight bench, and hold on to one end of the bench by lifting your arms back over your head.
An effective lower ab workout, these can be done in several ways. The easiest is to lie on your back and raise your legs up a few inches off the ground with each rep. Alternatively, if you have access to a gym you can use what’s called the “Queens Chair,” where you rest your forearms on pads and leave your legs free to swing. Then you can raise your legs up to a horizontal position and back down with each rep.
Want to combine cardio with ab work? Mountain climbers are great. Start in the “push-up” position; face down with your arms extended and your weight on your hands and your toes. Pull your left leg in toward your chest with your knee bent, then put it back and do it with your right leg. The faster you do this exercise, the more cardio benefit you will get.
Using a medicine ball is a great way to work your transverse abdominals (side abs). Sit down with your knees bent and lean back as far as you can. Holding a medicine ball close to your chest, slowly twist left and right as far as possible. The farther back you lean, the more difficult this exercise is.
The last exercise we will mention is the traditional sit up. Unfortunately, this is the first thing that most inexperienced exercisers do, and it is one of the least effective exercises for your abs. If you are going to do sit ups, it’s best to do a variation, for instance where you sit on a stabilizer (big rubber) ball, and lean back and sit up with each rep. This will engage your core, and vastly increase the benefit of the exercise.