I was recently asked by a friend for some exercises to specifically target her lower abdomen. She said that she trains regularly and her upper abs are in pretty good shape - toned, visible, pretty lean, but things seem to go downhill from the bellybutton. This picture and the midriff ‘tyre’ are not uncommon and unfortunately one of the most stubborn areas to shift. With summer looming, and the equally terrifying yet exciting prospect of donning a bikini, it's time to start thinking about those tums! I will add (screams the chiropractor in me), whilst it's all very well being image focussed with our goals, for me it's all about HEALTH! A strong core is essential to spinal health, stability and longevity, especially for the lower back. When activated correctly, the lower abdominals support a good posture and stabilise the spine, making our movements more functional, supported and protected, helping avoid injury and unnecessary wear and tear.
Truth is, sculpting the lower abdomen is tough and takes effort on various fronts. However, if you truly want to make changes to your health and how you look, feel and move, NOW is the time to start. Only 3 months to go until that summer season really kicks in but you'll be amazed at the awesome progress you can make in that time with commitment and GRIND!
Today's exercises focus more on visual gains than spinal stability - I'll leave those ones for another day, but if aesthetic changes is what you're going for, and you truly want to tame that tum then you may want to consider the following:
- Identify and eliminate BLOAT! Whether you’re overweight, or as lean and strong as they come, unidentified food intolerances can make your stomach double in size in a matter of minutes. Tummies that are flatter in the morning but swell throughout the day can often be caused by unidentified food intolerances and allergies, or sluggish bowels resulting from poor diet. Pay attention to how your stomach responds to foods and try eliminating key culprits to see how your bloat responds. Focus on a clean diet that aids bowel function, chew properly, integrate quality gut-healthy probiotics, and stay super hydrated.
- SUGAR = A FLAT STOMACH’S NEMESIS! Sugary foods, drinks and refined carbohydrates LOVE to cling to the lower abdomen. Cut these down and you’ll be surprised at the changes you see.
- BYE BYE BOOZE. Alcohol = sugar and no fat burning whilst being processed. For me, cutting out alcohol (sob, sob) truly makes all the difference to how flat my stomach is – and I don't even consider myself a big drinker!
- BEWARE the low-fat and so-called ‘diet’ snacks. These processed foods are often packed full of chemicals, refined sugar, salt and preservatives to give them flavour. To quote the fabulous Sarah Wilson from ‘I Quit Sugar’ – “JERF!” (Just Eat Real Food). Ditch calorie counting in favour of a healthy diet full of unprocessed, fresh foods such as fish, eggs, organic lean meats and loads of vegetables that the body can readily make use of. And don’t be afraid of eating good fats, such as avocados, nuts and oily fish. These actually encourage fat burning!
- MOVE MORE! Exercise is key and it doesn’t have to be lower-ab specific. Spot fat reduction is a myth, so any form of exercise that is aiding weight loss is helping you towards those abdominal goals! Simply going for a long walk, a gentle jog, doing lunges, squats or dips at home, even a slow and steady yoga class will be beneficial. Get that heart pumping and calories burning. You don’t need a gym, YOU JUST NEED TO MOVE!
- STRESS TUMMY. Links are regularly made between excessive stress, the associated increased levels of the adrenal hormone cortisol, and increased abdominal fat. Whether it’s a direct relationship, or just the effect this hormone has on our food cravings, choices and energy; limiting stress and the effects of excessive cortisol is worthwhile on a whole host of health levels. Manage your stress levels as best you can. Sleep is vital for adrenal recovery, so early nights, good bedtime routine and and sleep hygiene are key. Never skip meals or abuse your adrenal system with too much caffeine, sugar or junk food.
- The Sit-Up Challenge is not going to get you there. Sorry folks – I know it was everywhere for a while, but sit-ups, especially performed incorrectly, can actually do more harm to your progress than good. Add a daily plank to your routine and you’ll be warmer!
Ok, so back to the exercise front. The ‘lower abdominals’ consist of the lower portion of the rectus abdominus, your obliques and transverse abdominals. Whilst it is impossible to totally isolate your lower abdominals from their upper portions, the following exercises are some of my faves that I use to focus efforts towards that area. One of the trickiest parts of training the lower abs is avoiding over-recruitment of the hip flexor muscles. Achieving this is all a head game; make sure you are mentally focusing on only using the lower abdominals - picture them contracting in your mind as you’re doing the exercises and make sure you’re feeling them engage at every phase of the movement. Recruiting these muscles efficiently will speed up your progress but also prevent the lower back from over-arching into extension, which again is not good and not comfortable!
SO HERE WE GO...
HOW TO: Prop yourself up on your feet and forearms, elbows under shoulders, roll your shoulders down your back, squeeze the buttocks, thighs and draw the navel in strongly. Do not allow your back to arch, or lift the bottom—your whole body should stay in a straight line from head to heel throughout the exercise.
NOTE: The plank can be quite high loading for the low back, so if you're starting from a low fitness baseline, or you have a history of back problems, take this steady and really really focus on your form. Posture during the hold is absolutely key, so as soon as that straight line you’re holding breaks, take a break! This may mean you can only hold it for 10 seconds at the beginning. That’s ok. 10 seconds of peak form is far more valuable than 10 minutes poorly! Slowly lengthen your time, aiming for 60-90 seconds holds, ensuring that you protect your low back and shoulders throughout. The strength will come, trust me!
SCALE UP: PLANK ROW - Start from a neutral plank position with a slider/glider (or kitchen towel) under each foot. Press down on the 'gliders' and slide your feet out behind you, further away from your elbows. Your arms will extend as you slide your body back, then pull your body back to the starting positions. Ensure you maintain the straight plank position throughout. Pressing the feet down is key to engaging the core. FYI, it's the way back that's the killer - I still can only manage a few with good form, but i'm working on it!
SCALE DOWN: KNEELING PLANK. For those who struggle to hold the correct posture at all, don’t worry - we all have to start somewhere, just allow the knees to bend, contact the floor and take some weight. Commence your holds from here, maintaining a straight line from top of head to knees, feeling those abdominals holding the body up, not allowing the spine to collapse down.
C-Curve Arm Pulse
This is an exercise my dance teacher (from many moons ago) always used to have us doing, and boy is it a burner! Mental focus on your lower abdominal muscles really truly is the key player in this exercise, otherwise the upper, often stronger rectus will take over. You can use arm pulses or do any kind of arm movements – she used to have us doing all kinds of funky shizzle.
NOTE: Anyone with a history of a lumbar disc bulge should avoid this exercise and stick to core strengtheners that maintain a neutral spine throughout.
HOW TO: Sit on the floor, knees bent and lower your torso to about 45°. Arch your back into a small c-shaped stretch by tucking your coccyx (tailbone) under and drive the lower back and lower abdomen (between belly button and pubic bone) down towards the floor. Keep your shoulders down and chin off your chest. This is the c-curve position. From here, extend the arms out by your knees, and pulse the arms up and down. Squeezing a ball between your knees during this exercises is also ideal for further recruiting the pelvic floor and lower abdominals. Pulse for 60-90 seconds then relax. Concentrate on those lower abdominals driving down into the floor and keeping you in that c-shape throughout.
SCALE DOWN: Start at a slightly more upright angle or start with shorter cycles and build up.
SCALE UP: Be more adventurous and wild with your arm movements but ensure you maintain the c-curve throughout. Add floor taps or use a set of hand held weights (soup cans work too!)
HOW TO: Lying on your back, hands by the side of your head, bend your knees up to above your hips, feet off the floor, creating a ‘table top’ with the shins. From this position, bring the left knee towards your chest as you extend the right leg out straight, just off the floor. At the same time, lift your shoulders into a crunch, then twist, taking your right elbow towards your left knee. Return to neutral then repeat on the other side creating a pedalling/cycle motion with the legs. Be careful not to stress the neck – lift from the shoulders, not the head!
SCALE UP: Add weights to the ankles.
SCALE DOWN: Extend the legs out at a higher angle, i.e. about 45° from the floor.
I love mountain climbers and to be honest, thought I was pretty s**t hot at them... and then I saw the video! Not quite as sleek and graceful as I thought and certainly a bit of postural correction required in camp Chasing Lobsters! Mountain climbers are however a dream exercise, working the entire body at once...
HOW TO: Begin in a straight-armed plank or press-up position; straight spine, head inline, arms slightly wider than shoulder width apart, body weight over the hands, fingers spread. Shift weight to left leg and bend right knee to your chest, return to neutral then switch legs. Repeat, and repeat at speed if you can, ensuring that you keep a strong abdomen, and as neutral a line from head to toe as possible.
SCALE UP: One leg mountain climbers. Using a glider or tea towel under your left foot, start in the press-up position with your right knee pulled up to your chest. Focus on keeping the right knee here and stable as you slide the left knee in and out keeping the hips at the same height. These are really hard, so start with low reps (7-12) and focus on form. Repeat on opposite side.
I find these really tricky, and I was TERRIBLE at them at first! I’ve still got a long ol’ way to go but when I can’t do something, I hate it and it drives me to do them even more!
HOW TO: Lie flat on your back on top of a flat bench or on the floor. If you’re on the floor place your hands just under your buttocks, shoulders rolled back and down; if you’re on a bench place your hands behind your head and grasp hold of the bench. Start with your legs in the air at 90° to the floor. Squeeze your lower abdominals and buttocks to drive your legs straight up into the air lifting your hips off the floor. Lower then repeat. I aim for 15 repetitions per set but as with all these exercises you should tailor to your level.
SCALE UP: Add weights to the ankles
SCALE DOWN: Allow the knees to bend slightly in towards the chest before driving the legs into the air.
Initially I could barely lift my buttocks off the floor without bringing my knees closer to my chest. You’re aiming for a little lift – how I’m pictured above is actually a little too high. It’s a ‘pulse’ not a full lift; so don’t be disheartened if you’re not getting far with it.
Double straight leg raises
HOW TO: Start lying on your back, legs straight, hands tucked just underneath your buttocks, shoulders rolled back and down, neck relaxed. Keeping your feet together, legs pulled straight, contract your abdominals and lift the feet off the floor until your straight legs are at 90°.
NOTE: Your hip flexors will want to take over on these ones – do not let them! Focus focus focus on the muscles between belly button and pubic bone pulling those legs off the floor! Also don’t allow the lower back to arch upwards from the floor at any point, particularly in the first phase of the movement. Keep the spine neutral throughout. If this is happening to you, tucking your hands further under your buttocks/coccyx can help, or scale down the exercise (see below) until a little stronger and able to perform correctly.
SCALE UP: Add weights to the ankles.
SCALE DOWN: Allow the knees to bend slightly, or start the with the legs already elevated on a bench/chair and lift from there.
So there you have it, 6 abdominal exercises to add into your routines (or to instigate one). This is by no means an exhaustive list of lower abdominal exercises, nor am I claiming they are the best around, but I can validate wholeheartedly that they are largely responsible for the huge changes i've seen to my lower abdomen in the last few months. So go for it - a bikini bod you are proud of, and a healthy spine to boot! WIN WIN NO? :)