How to Work Your Abs, the Right Way

You know the type. The guy who has gone to the gym every other day for the past 2 years, yet he still looks the same as he did a year ago.  He has been doing sit-ups and crunches every time that he has worked out, yet he still can’t see his abs any more clearly than before… Why does this happen?  Well, firstly because in order to see your abs you have to lower your body fat, not build up the muscles underneath. Although, having very strong ab muscles will definitely improve the image.  So, what can we do to actually increase these stubborn muscles, and what are most people doing wrong?

The abs are a stability muscle group, not the muscle that makes the waist bend.

One of the main things that people do wrong when trying to work the abs is they do exercises that bend at the waist.  Your abs to not make your waist bend, though they do assist in the movement.  The main muscle groups that makes the waist bend are the hip flexors. To understand where your hip flexors are, sit down in a chair, hold onto something, and bend your legs up to your chest.  The tight muscles in your upper thighs are the hip flexors.  The problem with working the hip flexors is that it makes your abs stationary most of the time. An analogy can be picking up a dumbbell, curling halfway with your bicep, and then using your front shoulder to move the weight up and down, while keeping your arm in the same bent position.  Yes, your biceps do get worked a little bit. Is it ideal? Absolutely not.

Your abs and lower back are responsible for making your spine bend.

It’s important to realize that your abs are a stability muscle for your spine, not a muscle that makes the waist bend.  Therefore, you should pick exercises that minimize bending at the waist and maximize spinal flexation.  To practice this right now, sit down and arch your back as far as you can, so you have a backwards C shape.  Now curl your shoulders in towards your waist, while trying to keep your waist still (don’t bend forward).  This is the movement that you should perform on all your ab exercises.

So, which exercises should I perform?

Now you may be wondering which exercises actually do isolate your abs well.  The best three that I have found are

  1. Putting a half-yoga ball on a decline sit-up bench
  2. Cable crunches (performed properly)
  3. Modified Leg-Lifts

Of course, there are others that work quite well too, but these three are great at allowing you to perform the movement properly without too much focus.

For the first exercise, your gym needs to have a half-yoga ball. This is the kind that has a flat bottom and a rounded top so that you can lay it on top of a decline sit-up bench.  This allows your spine to extend backwards fully, while also allowing you to relax your hip flexors and only flex your spine.  Remember not to go up too high, as your hip flexors will start pulling you up.  Focus on only performing the limited motion that was available when you were practicing the movement when you were sitting.  Go up as high as your abs will take you (which isn’t too high) but no higher.

For the cable crunches, find a pully that is up high and you can pull down.  Then kneel on the ground and basically sit on your feet.  Then arch your spine to start the movement, and then flex your spine with your abs as far as is will go.  Remember not to bend at the waist. You can also place your back on a yoga ball on the pole holding the pulley, face away from the pulley system and crunch down.

Since cable crunches are a little harder to do with good form, you should practice with light weight at first to get the movement down.  Maybe I’ll post a video of the proper movement in the future.

Lastly, modified leg-lifts are an excellent exercise as well. This exercise works your hip flexors more than the previous two do, but it does not focus on them so the work is still targeted towards your abs (if you do it the right way). How most people perform leg-lifts is by keeping their torso stationary and lifting their legs up and down, either with their legs bent in or straight out. This places most of the work on your hip flexors, not your abs.

The way to switch the focus to the abs is to start by bending at the knee all the way with your thighs still relaxed. Then raise your thighs up and hold – this is the starting position, the same as the ending position of how the exercise is normally done. From here, bend at your midsection so that your  hips raise up and your knees come closer to your chest.

Perform these reps slowly, as it is easy to start letting momentum do the work for you.

Please post a comment of any questions that you have!