The key to seeing results from abs exercises is to learn the four methods that increase the effectiveness of every core movement. These methods include: establishing tension, creating stability, adding speed (and intensity), and activating your glutes. When you apply these four tactics, you’ll find that abs exercises become more effective.
Abs exercises are painfully deceiving. Unlike many exercises where it can be hard to feel if something is working, almost every core movement -- whether planks or crunches, mountain climbers or rotational twists -- everything feels like it’s doing the job. Your abs ache, you feel sore, and yet -- the results don’t always translate.
What’s the problem? Instead of just focusing on which exercises to perform (there are a lot), it’s just as important to think about how you perform those movements. When you shift the approach from what to how that’s when things start to work as you imagine, and your abs workouts begin to become as productive as you want.
The Importance of Tension
Doing abs work doesn’t start with anyone one particular exercise, whether it's crunches and planks. It begins with learning how to tense the muscles you’re using. Creating tension is a principle that applies to any exercise. If you want to build bigger biceps, it's not enough that you do curls. To see results from the exercise, you also need to learn how to squeeze your biceps. Want a better butt? You'll want to learn how to activate and squeeze your glutes.
For your abs, you can think of tension as the act of squeezing all the muscles in your core by preparing as if you’re about to get punched in the gut. This tension tip is one of the most common cues from trainers, but it’s incomplete.
Your abs are made up of multiple muscles, not just the “6-pack muscles” (aka rectus abdominus) that everyone thinks about when doing abs exercises. To get the most of your abs exercises, you need to learn how to create tension throughout your entire core. It will not only lead to better results but also protect your body.
For instance, if you’re holding a lot of weight during an exercise -- like a deadlift -- you want to make sure all your muscles protect your spine. Creating tension can help prevent injuries and enable you to lift more weight.
Learn to Squeeze Your Abs Muscles (The 2-Step Upgrade)
Sit up nice and tall wherever you are and put your hands on your lower back, one hand on either side of your spine and flat to the muscles beside it.
Flex your abs and see what you feel under your hands.
If you felt nothing, you’re likely only flexing your spine and not engaging everything around your spine.
Try to flex again, but this time try the following
- Force your shoulders to pull back slightly.
- “Pull” your ribs into the center of your body.
Hopefully, you’ll feel the muscles contract and create more stability.
Learn to Breathe (Yup, there’s a process for this.)
Now comes the tricky part. Inhale and exhale without losing that tension. (Also known as bracing.)
It’s tricky because bracing very hard will your restrict breathing, but without breathing you would likely not fare as well during a longer-duration exercise.
The Farmer’s walk teaches you both bracing and tension while breathing.
Grab two heavy-ish dumbbells or kettlebells, stand tall, grip the handles hard, and take them for a walk for as far as your grip will allow while taking slow, controlled steps. That’s it, but make sure you practice the bracing and breathing.
Improve Your Stability
Mobility and stability are two concepts that trainers love to mention (and rightfully so -- both are important) that can be very difficult to understand. Mobility focuses on improving your range of motion through movement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean stretching (which, as you know, can be painfully boring).
Holding a static stretch for a few seconds or even a minute or more might feel great, but it isn’t likely to increase your mobility. You can image flexibility as the length of your muscle. Can you bend over and touch your toes? That’s because your muscle can stretch enough to allow the movement to happen.
Mobility is how your joints move throughout any movement. Think about squats, a movement that can be difficult for a lot of people. It’s possible that flexibility is an issue, but it’s less likely. Instead, you likely have weaknesses that you can’t see in all your surrounding structures that make it hard for the movement to occur. You might blame your flexibility, but you need more mobility, which you can achieve by building strength throughout a full range of motion.
Not to mention, your abs benefit a lot from better mobility.
The more mobile you are, the more stability you create within your body. When you have better stability, it’s easier to work and activate the muscles in your body. Remember, the goal here isn’t just to have you do the right exercises, but it’s making sure that every time you do an exercise you get the maximum benefit of the movement.
One very effective method involves short bursts of core stability exercises to improve your range of motion through your hips and upper and middle back. These burst-holds would be short 10- or 15-second planks, side planks, half-kneeling holds, or other core-focused exercises where tension is the goal.
Here’s an example of the process in action.
You can apply this simple workout at home on an “off day” (you only need a band) or as a warmup before any workout. As you get stronger, you’ll have better mobility and stability. And when that happens, every abs exercise you perform (and other non-abs movements) will become more effective.
Upgrade Your Abs Movement
You know you need tension, mobility, and stability. Now, it’s a matter of bringing all of these together to put your abs to work.
When working on your speed, the goal is to make the movement as fast as possible, then recover enough to allow for a similar or faster speed to occur every time you perform the exercise. Think of this as an intensity continuum: you want to push yourself to create maximum intensity on each set and rep.
How to Add Speed to Abs Exercises
Try doing a basic exercise like a bird dog. The goal here is to make your arm and leg move as fast as possible and then recover back to the starting position without falling over.
You could do something similar with a stomping motion to increase “drive” through your hips, knees, and ankles.
Mastering speed and intensity will not only teach you to work your abs harder, but it’s also a great way to prepare for exercises such as squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifting, or sprinting.
Don’t Forget Your Glutes
Your glutes have specific functions that directly impact your abs. While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive to use a muscle group on the other side of your body, your glutes are involved in many actions that force your abs to work harder. This includes everything from your 6-pack muscles to your obliques. The impact is similar to a domino effect: squeezing and activating your glutes triggers your font side muscles (your abs) to work harder, meaning any exercise you perform can become more effective.
How to Activate your Glutes
Do a plank, but try to squeeze your glutes as hard as possible and see what happens with your abs. If you want even more tension (and a little bit of beneficial suffering), squeeze your armpits by pressing your forearms into the floor.
Your Abs Program
Using the tips above, here is a 4-exercise abs workout that will help you see more results with less time in the gym.
- Front plank: 3 “reps” with each being held for 10 seconds
- Side plank hold for 10 seconds on each side
- ½ Kneeling Pallof Press
- Glute bridge (hold with a maximum contraction for as long as possible)
Repeat for 2 sets each.