6 Functional Flat Belly Hacks For A Strong Core
By Sandra Miller/Nutritional Therapist
Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant
In my 25 years as a personal trainer with a Pilate’s background, I can tell you that the one area that most people want help with is the abdominals. Many wanted that elusive six pack, but most sought guidance for functional reasons. Clients who have had one too many back injuries kept me very busy. Aside from poor body mechanics, having weak or imbalanced abdominals and posture issues is always a major contributor to back weakness and pain. The muscle grouping of the back and abdominals is configured in such a way that you cannot do something to one and NOT have it affect the rest. The abdominals wrap around the body like a corset and aside from supporting our back muscles they keep our insides IN.
As a gym owner, I was constantly observing patrons for safety and effectiveness of the exercises they were choosing. It pained me to see anyone waste their time doing exercises that I knew did not work well or may lead to problems later, so I always offered “suggestions” to make their workouts more efficient. It was a nice way of saying, “you are not doing that correctly, and I am afraid you are going to injure yourself”.
It was also a great way to get new clients. Once I was able to show them how much more effective their workouts could be, I could sleep at night knowing that I saved another person from injury and imbalance. I want to share with you these strategies so that you can get toned, strong and resilient to injury, no matter what your goal might be. In Part One I will cover six key moves for a strong core and point out which moves to avoid and why. In Part Two I will go over what exercises or positions to avoid that are ineffective and why. I will share versions of those exercises that are better because they are safer and more effective. These are exercises that were part of my very successful workshops called “COREWORKS” and “Trainers Secrets to Great Abs.”
Let’s start with some anatomy shall we?
The deepest muscles of the abdomen are called the transverse abdominis or TVA for short. This muscle helps to compress the visceral organs and is the muscle that is used that is used when we bear down as with bowel movements and even when trying to birth a baby. It is this very muscle you want to assure is strong because it helps to keep abdominal organs in the body cavity. The TVA keeps our organs from sagging with gravity and prevents weakness that could lead to hernia. This muscle is also an assistor in respiration. Though it makes for a nice flat tummy and narrowed waist, it is protective of the back and its structures as well. These muscles can be worked while lying on your back, your side or in a prone position like the plank.
I included something fun to try in this video posted here to see how much impact the transverse ab has on core stability. You will need a medium sized ball and a partner.
Internal and External Obliques
The internal obliques overlay the TVA, and if you were to make the motion of putting your hands in your pockets, you would mimic the way the muscles run. They attach in our sacral area and wrap around the body spanning from ribs to hip bones. Internal Oblique Origin, Function & Anatomy | Body Maps You can take a look the link I just provided. This muscle also supports the abdominal wall and assists in forced respiration as it opposes the action of the diaphragm to contract the abdominal content area during exhalation. This muscle is used when doing a side bend to the same side of the body.
The external obliques are some of the largest trunk muscles and are one of the outermost muscles in the abdomen. They also run from the ribs to the hips and help with the rotation of the trunk and spine to the opposite side of the body. Imagine trying to touch your right elbow to our left knee while lying on our back. Hold your hands across your abdomen with fingertips touching at the navel. Now make a wiping motion with your hands toward the outside of the body. You will see how these fibers run.
I don’t think that there is anyone out there reading this that does not know what these look like, so the picture above should suffice. These muscles are also used in coughing, during childbirth and bowel movements. Here is where things get hairy. sit up/curl up motion with feet on the floor we already mentioned that the TVA slacks. Another undesirable thing occurs. The abdominals activate only part way through the curl about 45 degrees off the floor or so. If a curl is performed to a complete sit-up position, the hip flexors will activate to complete the movement. This is not desirable if you want to work the rectus correctly. Abdominal muscles do not cross the hip joint, although some are attached along the spine of the iliac crest (hip bone).
Scenario number two is when the exerciser locks his or her legs under something (usually a decline bench) or has sare called “closed kinetic chain” (CKC) form of exercise and is not the least bit functional when it comes to the abdominals. CKC exercises are good for the legs in a move like a lunge or squat, where feet are on the floor and we are decelerating our body weight but they really have no functional place with abdominal concentration.
Here is the Wiki definition of closed chain.
“Closed kinetic chain exercises or closed chain exercises (CKC) are physical exercises performed where the hand (for arm movement) or foot (for leg movement) is fixed in space and cannot move. The extremity remains in constant contact with the immobile surface, usually the ground or the base of a machine”
Even PubMed has done studies on this so take this to heart no matter what you see someone else do at the gym. Even if the person doing it wrong is the trainer! A certification does not an expert make, I can assure you of that. Novice trainers just starting out do not always know this because they have had little experience except passing their exam. I had a stable of younger trainers who worked with me that needed a little functional anatomy lesson from time to time just to keep us from having to use our liability insurance. The article below explains this anatomical fact well.
The only time CKC exercises would be functional for abdominals is if you want strong hip flexors and an injury prone backs well. I am sure that is not why you are reading this! I see You Tube video’sall the time with folks demonstrating exercises that are repeatedly using the hip flexors. Doing this makes it easier to curl because you are training the muscles in an endurance fashion. An example would be someone doing 25 or 50 complete sit ups or sit ups with a toe touch. That is primarily endurance. Working isolation and control, now THAT’S NOT EASY! It only looks that way.
FACT: if one has an accentuated lordosis (low back curve), then they most likely have an already shortened (tight) psoas. When hooking the feet or having a partner hold them it can be downright dangerous and cause back injury. What happens here is because the hip flexor muscle (called the psoas) attaches in the front at the thigh but runs through the pelvis and attaches in the lumbar spine. As you curl off the floor there is an exertion of force to the thigh bone where this muscle attaches.
See diagram below.
I have successfully worked with clients who had “bad backs” and disc issues and have used the exercises shown in my video’s to strengthen the core and thus the back muscles using the modified or starting versions. If done in the correct position, it can actually take pressure off the discs. I will be showing you the best strategies for building a six pack if that is your goal. If function is what you seek, we will cover the most functional way to work all of these muscles and not just individually, but together. I will show a version for any level of fitness. Even for someone with a disc issue. There are some exercises that can be rehabilitation for protruding discs when done properly. Some of these exercises will help to strengthen muscles surrounding the injured area. After all, it’s all about injury prevention as well as functional movement so let’s get to it.
Important Rule! When lying on our back to begin an abdominal exercise, we begin in the 90-degree position as shown in video: Lie on floor. Draw one leg at time off the ground letting the knees line up with the hips and the lower leg to for a 90-degree angle to the floor. The curve of the lower back should have enough space between it and the floor to slide your fingers under so no pelvic tilting to the floor! This causes laxity in the transverse ab, and we want ENGAGEMENT. Keep a “mouse house” sized space between the lumbar curve and the floor. The spine should be in neutral alignment. This means that all of the curves of the spine should remain intact while lying down as they do when standing.
A Word About Crunches
The abs are muscles that support respiration as mentioned. You will notice if you breathe in, your body elongates upward slightly to expand for incoming air. If you exhale, the ribs move closer to the hip area to expel the air. We want to USE THE ABS IN THIS WAY to do the crunching for us whenever possible. Simplified, all you need to do is breath in and out, and the abs do the rest. The video below will make this clearer.
This position places a gravitational challenge to the abs and activates the TVA. With feet OFF THE FLOOR this called OPEN CHAIN KINETIC (OCK) exercise. OCK exercise is best for the abs. I do show in the video the variation mentioned below, for anyone with a weak low back or weak abdominals,who may need a modification if the gravitational challenge is initially too great. To modify for a bad or weak back, we would place the heels lightly on a stability ball just to lessen the weight of the legs and their pull on the spine. Advancing this for very fit folks would extend the legs outward similar to what you will see in ab hack #1 (The Hundred) which you will also see demonstrated in Part 2.
The crunch initiates when the head and shoulders come off the floor as you are inhaling and stop when the ribs are as close to the hips as you can get with your complete exhalation. When returning to starting position upon inhalation, stop when shoulder blades touch the floor. Then we would begin the next curl. It is unnecessary and undesirable to continue to bring the head all the way back to the floor as this only causes neck strain. I will show you how to advance a basic crunch without weight. What we will use is “tempo”. We can use single count if we want an easy crunch or take longer either curling or returning to start position. Typically we will use single count, 2/2, 1/3 lift. What I mean here is that your lift would last two seconds. Your lowering motion would last two seconds. Or you would lift for one count but, lower slowly for three counts.
Let’s take a look at it:
You may want to pick one up. I use these balls for many exercises and there are more vids to come!
Here are the exercises explained step by step.
Ab Hack #1 (TVA and Rectus are primary)
(Beginners and anyone with back problems 90-degree legs)
This exercise prepares the body for more difficult movement and gives you a chance to work with breathing. We never hold the breath when doing abs. We will inhale for a count of 5 while pumping the arms lightly (think of reaching out and away from you). We then inhale for a count of five. This creates one repetition. The goal is to do 100 repetitions. Much harder than it appears I guarantee.
The Hundred (advanced- extended leg position) Strong activation of the TVA and rectus
This is the same as above with the exception of extended leg position. When extending legs make sure that you only lower legs enough to challenge abs. If your ribs and back “pop” off the floor, keep them at a higher angle as to prevent that. This happens frequently midway through the exercise when we get tired. If that occurs, take the legs back to the 90 degree angle to finish.
Bring legs back to 90 degrees (knees over hips) to prepare for next move.
Ab Hack #2
Heel Dig (beginner) TVA is an acting stabilizer in this exercise.
Lower the right leg slowly to the floor (like you are digging a heel into the ground) Leg is in an UPSIDE DOWN L shape and remains that way.
Return to 90 degrees and repeat with left leg . Note that this is not a bicycle like movement. The knees are locked in position and do not move. All the movement comes from the hip keeping the 90-degree angle in the leg intact. Use the abs to pick up the leg and NOT the hip flexor.
Heel Dig (advanced) both legs move
Add weighted ball between knees for additional challenge and to connect the “abdominal sling” muscles.
Lying on back with legs in 90 degree position, slowly drop both heels simultaneously toward the floor. If the back pops off the floor it’s time to bring the legs back up. Remember to focus on control and breathing. Breath in to lower and exhale to lift.
Ab Hack #3
Ball Toss (Works all abdominal muscles to some extent) TVA is acting as a stabilizer in this exercise.
This is a heel dig, but we will add a toss of the ball through the legs. The breathing is two breaths per toss as explained in the video. To advance it you will use a straighter leg and that is called using a “long lever”. Essentially you are using gravity to create resistance.
Ab Hack #4 (intermediate to advanced) For bad back use step 1 photo only.
90 Degree hip swivel
Lying Hip Swivel with ball (internal oblique, rectus, TVA)
I added a photo with this because the video may not show the entire movement.
Keeping the knees directly over the hips and ankles perpendicular: Make the movement by swiveling the hips. (Think of bringing the hip to the ear). Keep the legs firm and move from the HIP rather than just trying to move the legs or the heels. Don’t worry if you cannot actually reach. Those with no back issues can extend the legs away from the body and do the rotations as in last two pictures. If the low back cannot stay close to the floor, find a leg position that supports control with keeping the ribcage and hips connected to the floor without popping off. It’s all about control! For more rectus activation lift the head and shoulders from the floor. Inhale for left side rotation, inhale to center, exhale to right etc. You can always place heels on the ball to support weight of the legs.
Ab Hack #5
Side-lying straight leg lifts with the ball ( TVA and oblique) Great love handle exercise!
If this is too difficult with the ball then just keep the feet together. A much better alternative for the obloquies than side bend. This is because the lower body is heavier than the upper body. When we bring the legs to the trunk as opposed to the other way around we get better results.
Ab Hack # 6
Add ball between knees if you like. I use a 3 lb j-fit ball
In the end, I put all of the exercises together for a sample workout so enjoy!
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