As a fitness expert, I see people who are motivated to get fit for all sorts of reasons (e.g. weight loss, vanity, improved health), but what’s really important to remember is that when you’re choosing an exercise for any area of your body, you should first consider the main function of the muscle group you’re working. Your abdominals, for instance, are for much more than just looking good in a bikini. They are the main support system for your spine and from where almost all movement in your body is initiated.
Here’s an easy example of what that means. Many people believe that doing crunches will give them tight, strong abdominals. However, if you think about your everyday movements, there are very few instances during the day when you are actually “crunching.” There are, however, many moments when you are sitting, standing, or moving, and your abdominal muscles are working to simply hold you upright. Because of this, exercises that allow you to work your abdominals isometrically (by holding a contraction for a period of time) are the most beneficial.
Another important part of your abdominals is your oblique muscles (those ab muscles on the side of your body that allow you to twist from side to side to reach for objects or turn in a different direction). Practicing exercises to mimic this twisting motion will help you perform everyday activities with greater strength and fewer injuries.
Finally, it’s important to rest your abdominals between workouts, just like when you’re training any other muscle group. Allow at least one day in between abdominal workouts for your muscles to rebuild and recover.
Now, a few exercises to help you sit, stand, move and twist (and look fabulous in a bikini!):
This looks simple but is by far the best exercise to strengthen your abs! Lie on the floor face down and lift your body so you are supported on your forearms and toes. (If you need to modify this exercise, keep your knees on the ground.) Make sure that your shoulders, hips, and knees stay in one straight line. Hold the plank for 15-60 seconds. When you are able to hold the plank for 60 seconds without much effort, you can add challenges by lifting one foot slightly of the ground or placing your elbows on a stability ball.
This exercise focuses on strengthening the oblique abdominal muscles. Lie on one side, lifting your hips off the ground so that you are supported on one forearm (or hand) and the side of one foot. (If you need to modify this exercise, keep your bottom knee on the ground). Focus on keeping your hips high off the ground. Your shoulders and hips should be stacked on top of each other so you are perpendicular to the ground. Hold for 15-60 seconds. To increase intensity, lift up your top leg and hold.
Sit on the ground with your knees bent and lean your torso back, so that you are at a 45-degree angle. Keep your shoulders rolled back and your back straight; be careful not to allow your shoulders to curve in. Once you have leaned back, rotate your shoulders slowly to one side, bringing them back to center and repeating on the other side. When doing this exercise you want to ensure that you are rotating through your abdominals and not just dropping your arms from side to side. Do 10-12 reps on each side. To increase intensity, hold a medicine ball or hand weight, or bring your feet off the floor in a balance.
Full Body Extension
Lie on your back and bring your knees into your chest while you lift your head neck and shoulders off the ground, hugging your legs with your arms. As you exhale extend your arms overhead, keeping your head neck and shoulders off the ground, while extending your legs straight out. On your next inhale bring body back into a ball position and repeat. The closer your arms and legs are to the ground while extended, the more challenging the exercise will be. If you need a little less intensity, you can either extend your legs higher in the air or you take out your upper body and just extend your legs in and out.
Whenever you work your abdominal muscles, it’s also important to do exercises for your back. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lift your hips off the ground so your body weight is supported by your upper back and shoulders. Your feet should stay about shoulder width apart. Keep the hips as high as possible and hold for 15-60 seconds. To increase the intensity, lift one foot off the ground, or place your feet on a stability ball.