Everyone wants rock hard abs and flat bellies just like the models and fitness influencers we follow. Of course we want to look that good but there is a much more important reason why great abs should be a goal for everyone – a strong core leads to a strong body.
Our core is vitally important to our everyday movement even if you don’t think about it all the time. Women who have given birth via Caesarian section know that life is a bit more challenging in the days and weeks following the procedure simply because you can’t use those core muscles the way you always did. You can’t even drive a vehicle for a few weeks! Now, how many people have ever stopped to think about the fact that you use your core to drive? Men who have had surgery to repair a hernia also can relate to the drawbacks of not being able to use your core muscles. It becomes hard to move, hard to sit and hard to get up! You end up overcompensating with muscles you hardly use and you quickly realize that those ab muscles are pretty crucial to everyday life!
Core muscles are essential for stability and balance, according to the Mayo Clinic. In fact, if those muscles are weak, you can experience injuries and low back pain. And while everyday activities are impacted when your core is weak, your workouts also suffer. Resistance training requires you to have a stable core. You can’t squat without bracing yourself, pulling those abs in to your spine and holding yourself in a neutral posture.
Cheerleaders know the importance of properly trained core muscles. They are essential for the lifts the bases perform, as well as the tricks those flyers do in the air. Tumbling wouldn’t be possible without a strong core and back handsprings would be all but impossible. My daughter cheers for Core Athletix and pun-loving me just loves the name of the gym. It represents so much more than the rocks the teams are named after, such as Ammolite and Black Diamond. To me, it’s a reminder of how important the core is to the sport of cheer. In fact, all practices and classes include some kind of core strengthening and conditioning exercises.
If you are not incorporating core conditioning into your regular training program, you need to start. At least three times a week, you should be working your abs, obliques and lower back muscles to strengthen them. Not only will your overall fitness improve but you also will start to see that washboard peek out, particularly if you are eating healthy, as well. Here are a few of my favorite core exercises that you can add to your next workout:
The prone iso abs exercise, more commonly known as a plank, is great because you can do it anywhere. No equipment is needed. Plus, you can regress or progress the exercise as you get stronger. Beginners can do it leaning on a bench or from their knees instead of their toes. Those with high blood pressure need not refrain from this one either since they don’t have to lie on their back. It’s an equal opportunity core training exercise. I typically perform planks at the end of my workout and I hold for 45 seconds to a minute at a time for four cycles. Beginners will want to start at a 30 second hold.
Stability Ball Crunches
For the front of your abs close to your rib cage, I recommend stability ball crunches. You lay on the ball, keeping the mid part of your back on the ball at all times, curling up into a C. Hold at the top for at least two seconds and return to the starting position. You can progress this one by adding weight above your head but beginners can clasp their hands behind their heads or cross their arms over their chest. Be sure to keep your neck and shoulders as relaxed as possible; too much tension can cause neck pain. Focus your contraction on your ab muscles and don’t try to pull on your head to complete the motion.
Decline Leg Lift
This one works the lower part of your abs. Use a decline bench and lay on your back with your head at the higher point on the bench. Hold onto the bench and bring your legs up, letting them go slowly back to the bottom of the bench. You can keep your legs straight or bend at the knee, if that’s too hard on your back. The key here is to have a slow, controlled movement. You will definitely feel this in your lower abs!
Decline Ab Twist
This one also uses the decline bench. This time your head goes at the lower end of the bench and you hook your feet to the top. Holding a weight, do a sit up to the top of the bench and then twist from side to side, returning back down slowly. A couple of tips for this one? When you return to the bottom, go slowly, allowing each vertebrae to flatten against the bench one by one. At the top keep your posture straight as you twist using your oblique muscles.
Ab Crunch or Oblique Machines
If you are working out at a gym and have access to an ab crunch or oblique machine, use them! They are made specifically for this purpose and do the job quite nicely!
For your lower back and core, try supermans (or woman!). Lay on your stomach and keeping your arms and legs straight, lift them off the ground as high as you can. It might be difficult at first but as you gain strength you will be able to lift higher and higher. Use your glutes as you lift the legs and try to concentrate the contraction in your core overall.
There are many more core exercises you can try, literally hundreds, actually! But these are a good start. If you are really interested in strengthening your core, try a Pilates class, which has a core focus. You can also find lots of great moves on Instagram; my favorites are @trainforlife_fitness and @cindyyufitness. They both post core exercises that are great for all levels! Happy training!