3 Tweaks to Make Your Ab Workouts Way More Effective

Trainer Dana Auriemma dishes on how to make your ab workouts actually work, plus her top five ab exercises.

Getting strong, sculpted abs is often the number one item on everyone’s fitness wish list. As a longtime Pilates instructor, I’ve fielded hundreds of questions from my students about how they can strengthen their core and tone up their abs. Usually, after their ab work to date has failed them, they’re left wondering if there’s some magical exercise they just haven’t found yet.

The thing is, though, many people are frustrated that their ab work isn’t working because they’ve gotten incomplete or inaccurate information, leading them to do exercises that aren’t very effective. Don’t worry: If you’re in this camp, it’s an easy problem to fix — it just requires a little understanding about how the body works. Below, the three keys to making your ab work actually work.

1. Use your hip flexors less.

I see a lot of exercises that claim to work your abs, but instead mainly work your hip flexors. Most exercises that make you lift or lower your legs a lot are primarily working your hip flexors (the iliacus and psoas muscles), while your abdominal muscles are only working a little bit to stabilize your spine — and this only happens if you’re already strong enough to successfully keep your spine still and supported under the strain of your legs being suspended. The benefit to your abs is low while the strain on your hips and back is high. Make these exercises a low priority and avoid if you have tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings or a bad back.

2. Bend your spine more.

Most muscles in the body connect two joints and we work the muscle by getting either joint to bend. Abdominal muscles are unique in how they run across many joints – the vertebrae of our spine. Each vertebra is a joint that can bend and good ab work should involve bending these joints in all directions: forward, side-to-side, and twisting. The bend can be subtle sometimes, but it’s still beneficial! You should also try to feel your spine bending in your lower and upper back to thoroughly work your abs from pelvis to ribs; think about starting at the base of your spine down by your sacrum and working up through your torso.

3. Mix it up and use every ab muscle in a variety of ways.

You have many abdominal muscles and they should all get a chance to work out! Side bending works your external obliques. Rotation works your internal obliques. Forward flexion works your rectus abdominis (a.k.a. the six pack). And your deepest ab muscle, the transverse abdominis, can usually be worked in any exercise by pulling your abdominal muscles in (this muscle wraps around your waist like a very wide belt and when you contract it, your waist will visibly narrow). You also want to include exercises that require both movement (i.e. bending the spine) and stabilization (i.e. holding the spine still against the forces of gravity or resistance). This allows your abdominal muscles to contract in three ways — concentric, eccentric and isometric — which will optimize your ab muscle strength and tone.

If you’re thinking, “Thanks for the info but … uh … what do I now?” below: my five favorite ab exercises, all of which you can do without any special equipment. They are all highly effective and simple to do!

Ab curl on ball
Putting a small ball behind your low back allows you to flex/bend your entire spine and strengthens your abdominals MUCH more than doing crunches on the floor. Start lying down with your spine in a C-curve shape, letting your low back gently push down into the ball. Support your head while extending back over the ball a few inches so your spine extends, then slowly flex back into the C-curve. Works: rectus and transverse abdominis. Do: 15 reps with option to add an oblique twist.

Kneeling side bend
This is a great side sit-up option that gives you a big range of motion for movement. Extending one leg works as an anchor so you can bend your torso to the side, then slowly return your torso to a vertical position. Works: external oblique. Do: 10-15 reps on each side.

Ab Curl and Kneeling Side Bend

Ab curl and kneeling side bend

Helicopter
Positioned on your hands and knees, extend one arm forward and the opposite leg out straight behind you. Simultaneously reach them both out to opposite sides of your body while keeping your abs and ribs pulled up away from the ground. Return to starting position. Works: internal oblique, rectus and transverse abdominis. Do: 10-15 reps on each side.

Plank with hip twist
In a plank position, pull the right knee in to the right side of the chest. Slowly bring that knee to the opposite side of the body, letting the right hip drop slightly as the pelvis rotates to the left. Return to starting position. Works: internal oblique, rectus and transverse abdominis. Do: 10 reps on each side.

plank, other thing

Helicopter and plank with hip twist

Side plank with hip dips
In a side plank position (option to plank on forearm and/or knees), lower hips about three inches towards the ground, then slowly lift back up to a straight line. Focus on pulling up from the side of your waist as much as possible to minimize assistance from your outer glutes. Works: external oblique. Do: 10 reps each side.

Side plank with hip dips

Side plank with hip dips

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Dana Auriemma is the owner of Freehouse Fitness Studio (opening soon on South Street) and a former Pilates studio owner. A long-time fitness instructor, Dana’s foundation for teaching comes from her Pilates background, but she draws inspiration from all types of fitness and pursues ongoing continuing education with a focus on kinesthetic anatomy and biomechanics of the spine. She’s known for her high-energy classes and loves showing her students how to make subtle changes in each exercise to improve their results!

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