“What’s the best exercise for training abs?”
This has to be the question I get asked, hands down, more than any other. Young, old, tall, short, fit, not so fit… Everyone seems to be looking for that magic bullet that will get them from pot belly to washboard as quickly as possible. The reality is, developing a stellar set of abs is a labor of love founded in discipline and consistency. What’s more, a camera-ready core (even if it is your camera phone in the bathroom mirror) is the result of a well-designed program executed on a uniform schedule. Of course, that program has to be designed around your specific goals.
I must admit, I’ve seen some really advanced and challenging abdominal moves in the gym, but even they aren’t always applied in the best manner to yield the desired results. Reason being, many avid exercisers are guilty of two common mistakes 1) lack of attention to the complete core complex, and 2) training for endurance rather than hypertrophy. These oversights lead to a lack of balance in abdominal training, and call for a return to basics.
As human nature goes, we tend to focus our energy and efforts on the areas in which we want to see the most improvement. For example, if we want to see a more-visible six pack, we tend to increase the volume of exercises that isolate the rectus abdominis (RA). The reality is, however, that in order to see improvements in that one area, you need to pay equal attention to each of the muscle groups that make up the anterior (front) of the core. Therefore, every core workout should incorporate movements that activate each of those primary groups. In my experience, those movements should always include: 1) a lower RA target, 2) full RA target, 3) Oblique target, and 4) and a rotational movement. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at each of these areas and the importance they play in core development. For today’s discussion, I’d like to focus on one of the most difficult areas to develop, yet simplest to train: the lower region of the rectus abdominis.
I say the lower region because, anatomically, there is no such thing as the lower abs. Rather, the RA is one continuous group of segmented muscle. However, this area tends to be difficult to develop aesthetically because both men and women tend to store more fat there than in other parts of the abs, and that section of muscle is challenging to isolate completely during training if you don’t know the proper execution.
The issue of fat storage really needs to be part of a different discussion about overall body fat, nutrition and cardio for six-pack abs. So, we will limit this part of the conversation to exercise execution.
The biggest challenge with executing movements for the lower region is minimizing hip flexor involvement. The hip flexors are much stronger than the abdominals and tend to take over the load we try to place on the abs. Therefore, it’s critical that you find movements that allow you to disengage or neutralize the hip flexors. Exercises like butterfly crunches and leg raises that begin with the legs at a 90-degree starting point are ideal for this. 90-degree leg raises place the hip flexors in a flexed position from the start, so they don’t have the opportunity to capture the load or generate momentum in the movement. Better yet, butterfly crunches position the flexors perpendicular to the direction of the movement, thereby totally neutralizing their impact.
Next, take into consideration the section of muscle we’re training is relatively small: from the belly button down to the pubic area. Therefore, the range of motion should be fairly small as well. Otherwise, we may be recruiting more of the full rectus abdominis than we intended. Therefore, any exercise intended to train the lower RA that utilizes broad, sweeping movements is likely only using a minimal amount of that section of muscle to execute the movement.
In light of this, another point to consider is exercise order. Personally, I tend to train the lower region first. That way I am able to distinguish whether or not any tension I am feeling in other parts of my abdominals is the result of recruiting extra muscle while training the lower RA versus fatigue from training other muscles or parts of the full RA earlier in the exercise bout.
Probably the most important improvement you can make is to make sure you are feeling tension in the area you’re trying to train. If you had a chest exercise that never left you feeling like you hit your pecs, you’d either find out if you were doing it right or you’d find a different exercise. You have to treat your abdominals with the same respect. Stay tuned over the coming weeks as we work our way around the entire core.
Michael Anderson, CPT NCSF
IFBB Physique Pro
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