If you think you can unearth your six-pack in four weeks, you're either delusional or smoking something illegal.
But ab exercises aren't just good for carving a rock-hard core; they're important for improving posture and mechanics, enhancing athleticism, and developing balance and coordination. A strong core can also help relieve or prevent back pain, which is why I spend so much time working on my plank.
The good news is that if you adopt this expanded view of the benefits of ab exercises, it really doesn't take much to start seeing results -- real, important, valuable results -- even if they're not (yet) the visible ones you crave. So if you want to stand taller, feel stronger, and move better in under a month, here's where you should start. Keep at it, and the six-pack will come.
In addition to targeting all the major muscles of your abs, planks also hit the stabilizing muscles of your spine, shoulders, and hips while statically challenging your chest, triceps, and quads. In other words, they help tighten up just about everything.
That said, if you have a weak low back and core, or you're carrying a few extra pounds (and haven't hit the gym in a while), you'll want to start small. Try holding a high plank (like a push-up position) for 10 to 15 seconds, rest, then repeat three to five more times. Do this every single day, and each day, try to add five to 10 seconds to your goal. Once you can hold three sets of 30 seconds in a high-plank position, go ahead and progress to a forearm plank, a variation that taxes your core a little more.
When you can hold two planks for 60 seconds each, start mixing it up by trying plank variations like side planks, plank up-downs, walking planks, plank jacks, plank shoulder taps, and reverse planks. As you improve, you can amp up the intensity even more by adding equipment for moves like TRX planks and planks using balance tools like stability balls or StrongBoard Balance boards for an added core challenge.
Dead bugs, like planks, are considered an anti-extension core exercise because they require your abdominals to engage to prevent your lumbar spine from extending. But where planks can be particularly challenging for beginners and those with low-back pain, dead bugs are a little more accessible and easily scaleable.
If you're new to the exercise, simply lie on your back, your knees bent, feet on the floor. Extend your arms directly over your chest, pointing your fingers toward the sky. Engage your core and lift your feet off the floor until your hips and knees are bent at 90-degree angles, so your thighs are perpendicular to the floor, and your shins parallel.
Keeping your abdominals contracted and your low back pressed into the floor throughout the exercise, extend your right leg fully, until your heel almost touches the floor, and at the same time, extend your left arm back and over your head, reaching it toward the floor behind you. When both limbs are fully extended, bring them back to the starting position and switch sides.
Perform two to three sets of 10 extensions to each side. If you can't keep your lower back pressed into the floor as you do the exercise, start with an easier version, like the one shown here.
Bird-dogs are like the flipped-over version of dead bugs. Instead of lying on your back, you start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees before extending your left arm and right leg simultaneously, returning them to the floor, and repeating the movement to the opposite sides.
Like dead bugs, bird-dogs help improve coordination by using contralateral movement (the movement of opposite limbs). But where dead bugs are particularly good at strengthening the abdominals by preventing lumbar extension, bird-dogs help with the alignment and stabilization of the spine, shoulders, and hips by forcing your core to engage to resist the rotation and extension of the spine.
Perform two to three sets of 10 extensions to each side. Focus on limiting all movement to your limbs (resist allowing your shoulders or hips to rotate), and keep your neck aligned with your spine throughout the exercise.
You may begin to recognize a trend with these exercises -- there are no sit-ups or crunches to be found, and with the exception of planks, each exercise uses some sort of cross-body engagement that involves stabilization of the spine and contraction of the entire abdominal cavity.
Woodchoppers are no different. But unlike the other exercises on this list, woodchoppers add a diagonal full-body rotation to further target the obliques while mimicking movements used frequently in sports and daily functional activities.
To perform the exercise, grab a dumbbell, plate weight, medicine ball, or anything semi-heavy and hold it in both hands in front of your torso. To get in the starting position, press your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down slightly (not a full squat), rotating your body to the right until the dumbbell is positioned just to the outside of your right knee.
Keeping your arms straight throughout the exercise, tighten your core and extend your knees and hips to stand up, and as you do, "chop" your arms diagonally up across your body, reaching the dumbbell over your left shoulder. Reverse the movement, and as you return to the semi-squat, "chop" the dumbbell back down and across your body. Make sure you really use your abs to control this cross-body motion to keep your spine neutral throughout.
Aim to perform three sets of eight to 12 reps to each side. If you're new to the exercise, you may want to start without weight, just to master the movement before making it more challenging.
Compound full-body exercises
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups, and pull-ups to help carve your core, but frankly, these are the moves you should be doing if you want to see results fast.
For one, science says that multi-joint, free-weight exercises like these are every bit as good, if not better than, traditional core exercises at targeting the abdominal muscles. But that's not the only reason you should use them.
Jessica Payne, a NASM-certified personal trainer says, "I'm a big fan of deadlifts and other forms of strength training that aren't necessarily targeted for 'core,' because engaging your entire body targets your core plus it gives you a metabolism boost which helps shed the excess fat around the core."
So yeah, if you want to see results fast, you can't overlook the impact of the strength-building, calorie-scorching, ab-targeting benefits of good old squats and lunges.
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