Training Your Abdominals And Obliques

Abs are the muscle group that everyone wants to appear flat and struggles to keep when they get them. The muscle group most people think of when you say “abs” is called the rectus abdominis, also commonly referred to as the “six-pack.” Genetics determine how the fascia of your rectus abdominis is shaped and how it appears on your body. This is why some people have square abs and others have long abs. This is also why some people have a natural six-pack, while others have an eight- or four-pack. Everyone has abs, but most people can’t see their abs because they’re hiding behind a layer of fat. No matter how much you work your abs, you cannot change how many you see and their shape. If you want to be able to see your rectus abdominis, then you will need to work on your diet and decrease your body fat.

Your abdominal muscles are divided into four groups. Starting from the outside layer going in, they are the external obliques, rectus abdominis, internal obliques, and the transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominis is the deepest of the abdominal muscles and extends between the ribs and the hips and wraps the core from front to back. This is your most important ab muscle! It’s in charge of supporting your organs, assisting with forceful exhalation, and stabilizing your lower back and pelvic floor. This muscle works together with your other abdominals and pelvic floor muscles to stabilize your lower back. Strengthening this muscle will greatly increase your core stability and your ability to lift heavier weights.

Your external and internal obliques (located on the sides of your trunk) assist you with twisting and flexing from side to side. It’s important to strengthen these muscle groups if you participate in day-to-day activities that require rotation.

Before You Lift:

Remember to engage your core by drawing your belly button into your spine to target deep core muscles. When you exhale, act like you’re trying to fog up a window or blow up a balloon. Keep this feeling in mind while you complete these exercises because you should feel your core engaged at all times. If you start to feel discomfort in your hip flexors or lower back, stop the exercise, reset, and focus on engaging your core.

PLANK

This is an amazing exercise to activate your transverse abdominis along with your other deep core muscles. In doing so, your core will be much stronger and able to support you more effectively as you perform other exercises. In general, Plank is a great warm-up to do before training any muscle group since your core should be engaged with all lifts.

  1. Begin in a prone position (on your stomach) facing the floor, with your elbows directly under your shoulders and knees and toes on the ground. Your feet should be about hip-width apart.
  2. Slowly lift your knees off the ground and hold this position, keeping your hips level with your shoulders.
  3. Imagine you have a pole on your back that you’re trying to keep in contact with your head, mid back, and butt. You don’t want to have your lower back arched.
  4. Actively squeeze your glutes and forcefully press down into the ground with your forearms. You can also pretend like you’re trying to drag your elbows to your rib cage without moving them.
  5. Release your knees to the ground once you’ve completed the exercise.

SIDE BRIDGE

ADDITIONAL MUSCLES WORKED: Glutes, Shoulders

This exercise helps strengthen your obliques and deep core muscles. The movement pattern also helps reinforce the hip extension needed for squats and Dead-lifts. The motion of lifting your hips off the ground while having your top foot in front mimics the hip extension seen in power movements.

  1. Lie on your side with your legs straight and your top foot in front of your bottom foot. Make sure that you’re lying on your forearm with your elbow stacked directly below your shoulder.
  2. Slowly lift your hips off the ground and hold the elevated position, driving your top hip toward the ceiling.
  3. You can either keep your opposite hand on your side or raise it into the air, parallel with your shoulder.

Make It Easier: You can keep your bottom knee on the ground. Extend your top leg and bend your bottom knee to bring your bottom foot behind you.

Make It Harder: Once in the full Side Bridge, you can lift up your top leg and hover, or make it even harder by flexing that knee in toward your chest. Return your foot to the starting position on the ground. Repeat for the desired number of reps or seconds. You can also hold a dumbbell in your top hand to make this a weighted movement.

HOLLOW-BODY HOLD

ADDITIONAL MUSCLES WORKED: Back, Quads

This is an excellent move to learn how to coordinate your upper and lower halves. It’s also a good way to prepare your body for handstands, if that’s a goal of yours.

  1. Lie flat on your back with your arms extended over your head and legs straight. Keep your feet together and hands facing each other.
  2. Slowly raise your shoulder blades off the ground, reaching your hands up and out behind you as you lift your feet off the ground a few inches.
  3. Hold this elevated position and think about making your body as long as possible without letting your lower back arch. Keep your lower back pressed into the floor.
  4. Return to the starting position.

Lift Safely: Even though you aren’t lifting any weight with this exercise, you still want to be conscious of how you are using your body weight. Make sure to keep your neck and shoulders relaxed. Don’t thrust your head and neck forward as you raise your shoulder blades off the ground. Also, protect your lower back by making sure there’s no space between your back and the ground as you lift your feet off the ground. Be sure to remember to continue breathing during your hold.

Make It Easier: Instead of extending your arms over your head, you can keep your hands down by your sides to modify the hold. As you raise your body to the hold position, reach your arms toward your heels and think about making your body as long as possible.

Make It Harder: Hold a dumbbell with both hands.

LOWER-LEG LIFT

ADDITIONAL MUSCLES WORKED: Quads

This is a challenging ab exercise that allows you to work your abs without flexing your spine. You want to avoid flexing your spine at all costs so that you don’t strain your back.

Lie on your back with your legs raised to a comfortable height and hands by your sides. Make sure that your lower back is completely flat against the ground.

Slowly lower your feet toward the ground and stop when you feel your lower back start to arch. Ideally, you’ll be able to build up enough strength to get your feet a few inches from the floor.

Engage your abs to pull your legs back up to the starting position.

Lift Safely: Keep your lower back completely flat against the ground throughout the entire movement. You don’t want to arch your lower back at all. Keep your head down on the ground with your neck and shoulders as relaxed as possible. If you can’t perform this movement without arching your back, then discontinue this exercise and work on strengthening your core with the other exercises mentioned in this article.

Make It Easier: Place your hands underneath your butt just where your lower back and tailbone connect. Keep your hands there as you perform the movement. As you gain more core control, you’ll be able to remove your hands when performing your leg lifts.

Make It Harder: Hold dumbbells or a barbell above your chest and keep it still as you lift and lower your legs.

DEAD BUG

ADDITIONAL MUSCLES WORKED: Quads, Shoulders

The Dead Bug is a fantastic ab exercise for all fitness levels. It’s a safe movement for most people who have back pain and will help strengthen the core to potentially reduce back pain.

  1. Lie on your back. Bring your knees up over your hips, your feet and calves parallel to the floor.
  2. Extend your arms so that they are straight above your chest.
  3. Keep your lower back completely flat on the ground as you extend your left arm back behind your head and extend your right leg straight out in front of you.
  4. Return your hand and foot to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side. With this back-and-forth movement of your arms and legs, you should look like a dying bug.
  5. Keep your head down on the ground as you perform the movement.

Make It Harder: If you have a foam roller, place it horizontally across the tops of your thighs, holding it in place with your hands. Press the foam roller into your thighs firmly. Now take one hand off the foam roller and extend the hand over your head as you extend the opposite leg. As you are moving the arm and leg, your other arm and leg should still be firmly in contact with the foam roller. Repeat on the opposite side. You may also use a stability ball for this progression, or use dumbbells in each hand to make this a weighted movement.

Home Workout Hack: Here is a trick to learn how to tilt your pelvis so that your lower back remains flat against the ground as you perform various ab exercises like this one: Roll up a towel lengthwise and place it under your lower back. It should be in the small of your back between your butt and rib cage with the ends extending out past your sides. Lift your legs and attempt to smash the towel with your lower back. Now grab the towel and attempt to slide it out from behind you as you keep your legs up. Practice until you can no longer pull the towel out from behind you.

RUSSIAN TWIST

ADDITIONAL MUSCLES WORKED: Arms, Quads

This move targets your obliques and lower abs really well. It’s also a good way to train your body to rotate from the T-spine, as opposed to your lower back, which protects your lower back.

  1. Sit on the floor with your feet together and knees bent. Hold a dumbbell at your chest with both hands.
  2. Lean back slightly and lift your feet off the ground.
  3. Twist using your T-spine and obliques instead of just your arms to rotate the weight to the right side of your torso. Rotate back through your center and to the left. Rotate your head so that your eyes can follow the weight.
  4. Continue rotating side to side. Keep your legs from moving side to side as you do this.

Lift Safely: Make sure to relax your neck and shoulders and keep your back straight the entire time. Twist from the middle of your back, not your lower back.

Make It Easier: Keep your feet on the ground. You can also make it easier by not using a weight and just work at getting the side-to-side motion down.

COBRA

Just like other muscle groups, your abs can cramp up. You want to stretch them out between sets to avoid this. Cobra is a great way to accomplish this as it stretches the front of your body.

  1. Lie on your stomach with your arms bent and your hands next to your chest. Keep your feet together with the tops of your feet pressed into the ground.
  2. Press your hands into the floor and raise your chest off the ground as you extend your elbows. Your hips should remain in contact with the ground as you do this.
  3. Stop extending your back when you feel a good stretch in your abs and no discomfort in your lower back. Release and lower back to the floor.

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