Learning to use and perform abdominal exercises correctly is more challenging than many people think. Most people who exercise regularly perform some abdominal exercises, but ab exercises are often performed incorrectly or inefficiently. Fortunately, there are some basic things you can do to improve abdominal exercise technique and make your abdominal training more effective.
On a side note, many people perform ab exercises in an attempt to decrease the fat around their midsection, but this strategy does not work. The goal to reducing abdominal fat is to decrease your overall body fat percentage through good nutrition and consistently working out. You can find out more about that here… Part 1 of our Abdominals series The Bona Fide Facts On Abdominal Exercises and Fat Loss
When it comes to abdominal training in general, the most useful exercises are the ones that work your muscles similar to how they function in everyday life. The important and often overlooked first step in training your abs to work correctly is being able to isolate them and make them work with minimal help from other muscles.
As this ability improves, you will be able to perform more complicated movements and incorporate other muscle groups into your ab exercises. Unfortunately, many people try to perform exercises that are too advanced, when they should spend more time improving the basic movements and learning the proper way to contract their ab muscles.
Perhaps the most important tip when performing ab exercises is to focus on your abs and concentrate on what they are doing and what you are feeling throughout each movement. For example, when performing a crunch to work your upper abs, you should feel the contraction increase throughout the movement. If this does not happen, then other muscles are helping too much and/or the exercise is too challenging.
If you don’t focus on the contraction, any number of muscles could be performing a significant amount of work instead of your abs. Probably the most common “cheat” when doing a crunch is using back and shoulder muscles to help lift the torso, instead of making the abs do the work. Once other muscles start working, the abs start relaxing, which basically defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Another important aspect of basic abdominal training is to make each rep as slow and controlled as possible. Overall, the most common type of cheating occurs when ab exercises are done too quickly. Faster movements create momentum, which means the abs won’t have to contract throughout the movement. In addition, the momentum is almost always generated by muscles other than the abs, which reinforces the development of poor technique.
Another key to getting the most out of ab exercises is breathing correctly. Breathing is important in all forms of exercise, but it is especially important during ab training. During any exercise with motion, you should breath out when the muscle(s) contract (e.g., coming up during a crunch) and breathe in when returning to the starting position.
Other abdominal exercises, such as the plank/bridge, are performed in a stationary position. During these exercises there is no movement, but you still need to breathe throughout the exercise. It may be tempting to hold your breath, because it can generate a stronger contraction or make the exercise feel easier to do, but it is not recommended.
Holding your breath increases pressure in your body and may result in dizziness, lightheadedness, or headaches. It also causes you to tense other muscles, often without even realizing you are doing it. This all takes away from being able to use your abs correctly during the exercises. On the other hand, deep breathing reinforces a slow and controlled movement while exercising.
Breathing correctly, using controlled movements, and focusing on your ab contractions all make abdominal training more effective. Always remember the point of ab exercises, especially when performing exercises that isolate your abdominal muscles, is to maximize the use of your abs. Each rep should be performed as well as possible and quality is definitely more important quantity.
I have come across so many people who had abdominal routines where they performed hundreds of reps of ab exercises every day. This may have sounded impressive, but in virtually every case it actually meant the person performed ab exercises very poorly and inefficiently.
One client I worked with told me that she did 200 crunches every day, so I asked her to show me her form. She did the reps really quickly and used her hips, back, and arms more than her abs, so she was getting very little out of her crunches. I stopped her after about five reps and showed her how to incorporate the above tips into her crunch. Then she tried again and her abs became fatigued after about 12 of these reps.
Going from 200 reps down to 12 is certainly a big difference and it shows how inefficient and ineffective the other crunches were for her abs. This may seem like an extreme case, but in my experience, these large discrepancies are fairly common, because abdominal exercises performed incorrectly do a very poor job of improving your abs.
It is common for people to focus on continually increasing their number of sets and reps, but the better approach is to constantly work on making each rep more productive. Initially you may not feel a strong ab contraction during some exercises, but with practice and the above tips, you will soon be on your way to developing great abdominal exercise technique, which will allow you to get the most out of your abdominal training.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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