Do you want to tone your lower abs? Lower abdominal exercises should be included in any exercise program, because they are important for spinal stability and injury prevention (especially for the low back). There are essentially two lower abdominal muscles, the lower portion of the Rectus Abdominus and the Transverse Abdominus. The Rectus Abdominus runs vertically and is responsible for pulling the front of the pelvis up towards the belly button. The Transverse Abdominus runs horizontally under the Rectus Abdominus and is responsible for pulling the belly button inward (towards the spine). This article will provide tips on exercises that maximize the training of these two muscles, while minimizing the involvement of other muscles.
Six General Tips for Performing Lower Abdominal Exercises
Lower abdominal exercises can be difficult to perform correctly because they require more concentration and muscle control than many other exercises. As a result, many people cheat by using additional muscles, such as the hip flexors and lower back muscles. In addition, people frequently attempt to perform lower abdominal exercises that are too difficult for their ability level and are not able to use the correct muscles during the exercise. These tips will help maximize the effectiveness of all lower abdominal exercises:
- You should feel the lower abdominals working more than any other muscles. If you do not feel your lower abdominals working or feel other muscles working more, stop the exercise. When lower abdominal muscles grow fatigued, it becomes difficult to feel them working, so this is a sign to stop and rest.
- You should never feel pain in your lower back. If you feel pain in your lower back, it means that either your lower abdominals are not strong enough to perform the exercise or you are not doing the exercise correctly. In any case, stop immediately if you feel pain in your lower back.
- Perform exercises in a slow and controlled manner. Performing lower abdominal exercises quickly will increase your momentum, decrease muscular control, minimize effectiveness and increase usage of muscles that should not be used. Further, performing exercises too quickly will commonly result in jerky or erratic movements.
- Quality over quantity. These exercises are not about trying to see how many reps you can do or trying to perform the most difficult exercises. They are about getting the correct muscles to work while preventing unwanted muscles from helping you cheat to make the exercise easier. Do slower, more controlled reps to reap the most benefits from the exercise.
- Endurance over strength. The lower abdominal muscles work mainly as postural/stabilizing muscles. They are designed to stay active at low intensities for long periods of time and they should be trained the same way. If you can only perform 5-10 quality reps of an exercise, then your focus should be on performing more reps instead of trying to perform a more difficult exercise.
- Remember to breathe. Many of the exercises will require some of your abdominal muscles to be contracted (activated) throughout the exercise. Your initial reaction will probably be to try to hold your breath or take very shallow breaths, but over time you must work on taking deeper breaths while performing the exercises. Exhale when your muscles are shortening/tightening (concentric) and inhale while your muscles are lengthening/stretching (eccentric).
5 Best Lower Abdominal Exercises
- Activating the Transverse Abdominus. This is a basic exercise that involves pulling your belly button towards the spine. This can be more difficult than it sounds, because many people are not used to using this muscle and try to use other muscles during the exercise. Activating the transverse abdominus will help spinal stability, both during daily living and during exercises that stress the muscles around the spine. Still, you aren't looking for easy ab exercises, you're looking for effective ab exercises. Here are the key points:
- Perform the exercise lying face down on the floor or on your hands and knees. The kneeling version makes it easier to feel your belly button being pulled in. Lying flat on the ground makes it easier to feel if you are using other muscles.
- Pull your belly button in as much as you can just using the lower abdominal muscles. Try to relax throughout the rest of your body.
- Hold the contraction until you cannot feel it anymore or you start feeling other muscles contracting more.
- If this is difficult, just start with holding the contraction for 10 seconds. This can be repeated up to 10 times. When this becomes easier, increase the time of the contraction. The combined time of the contractions does not need to exceed 2 minutes. When you can hold a single contraction for 1.5 to 2 minutes, you have enough strength and endurance to move on to more difficult exercises.
- Flattening the lower back against the floor. This is another basic exercise that is necessary to learn before performing more advanced exercises. This exercise helps to strengthen and build endurance in muscles that support and protect the low back from injury. Here is what to do:
- Start lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Try to relax as much as possible. There should be a small space under your lower back from the natural curve in the spine.
- Activate your lower abdominals to flatten your lower back until the space decreases and you feel pressure against the floor.
- Some pelvic rotation will occur for the back to flatten completely, but make sure to use the abdominal muscles to create this motion. The legs should stay as relaxed as possible and not be used to create the pelvic rotation.
- Start by holding this contraction for 10 seconds and follow the same progression as in Exercise 1.
- Work to improve your ability to take deep breaths while maintaining the contraction of the lower abdominal muscles.
- Performing this exercise properly is a prerequisite for Exercise 3.
- Abdominal Leg Lowering. This exercise uses controlled movement of the leg(s) to increase the demand on the lower abdominal muscles. It's one of the best exercises for abs.
- Begin in the same position as in Exercise 2.
- Keep your lower abdominals tight and your back flat throughout the exercise. There are 4 variations (see below), all of which involve moving one or both legs while keeping your abdominals tight. If you stop feeling tightness in your abdominal muscles or feel any pain in your lower back, stop the exercise.
- If your lower back starts to arch while you lower your leg, stop lowering your leg and raise it back up. Arching in the lower back is a sign that the lower abdominal muscles are not strong enough to perform the exercise at that position. The lower your leg gets to the ground, the higher the demand becomes on the abdominal muscles.
- There are four basic difficulty levels of this exercise:
- Single-leg lowering with a bent leg: During this exercise, one leg is kept on the ground and the other leg is kept in a bent position throughout the exercise. The leg that moves should start with the thigh perpendicular to the ground. Lower the leg until the foot almost touches the floor. Raise the leg back to the starting position and repeat. Perform this exercise with both legs.
- Single-leg lowering with a straight leg: The same exercise as above, except the leg that is moving will be kept straight instead of being bent. This creates an increased demand on the lower abdominals.
- Double-leg lowering with bent legs: This is a more difficult variation where both legs will move at the same time and follow the same technique as the first variation of this exercise. When one leg is on the ground, the lower back is more stabilized. With both legs off the ground, the lower abdominals must do the work that the leg on the ground was previously doing. This further increases the demand on the abdominal muscles.
- Double-leg lowering with straight legs: This is the same as the third variation, except the legs are straight instead of bent. This is by far the most difficult variation. If your lower abdominals are not strong enough, this exercise can cause back pain. Start off with smaller movements; as your muscles get stronger, your legs will get closer to the floor.
- Each of these exercises can be performed for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps each.
- Ankle weights can be added to any of the variations to make them more difficult.
- The Plank. This exercise is good for developing overall core stability, working the lower and upper abdominals and lower back muscles all at the same time.
- If you feel pain or excessive tightness in the lower back, stop the exercise. This means some of your muscles are not strong enough or too tired to perform the exercise correctly. In this case, build up your strength and endurance on the previous exercises until your muscles can perform this exercise correctly. Improving your back flexibility may also be beneficial.
- Start lying on the floor with your elbows on the ground and your shoulders directly above your elbows. Your feet should be in the same position as if you were doing push-ups.
- Activate your abdominal muscles and lift your body off the ground (keeping your belly button pulled in towards your spine). Try to stay as straight as possible from your legs to your shoulders, while your forearms and feet support your bodyweight.
- Hold this position as long as you can while maintaining good form and the contraction in your abdominals.
- Perform 1-3 sets and focus on increasing your endurance over time.
- When you can perform this exercise for more than 1.5-2 minutes at a time, you can increase the difficulty by lifting one foot slightly off the ground. This will also increase the demand of the leg that is still on the ground. Alternate legs between sets.
- Hanging Leg Raise. This is an advanced lower abdominal exercise that is frequently performed incorrectly. This exercise also requires additional equipment, such as a sturdy bar that you can hang from. If you want to maximize lower abdominal activation, follow these tips:
- This exercise requires a significant amount of upper-body strength, because the hands and arms must support your body weight.
- Grab onto a bar above your head and hang as still as possible. Then bring your legs up until your thighs are about parallel with the ground and your knees are bent about 90 degrees. This is the starting position for the exercise.
- Contract your lower abdominals and pull your legs closer to your chest, without excessive rounding of the lower back. This exercise has a small range of motion, but if done correctly, is very challenging for the lower abdominals.
- Return your legs to the starting position. You may let your legs go somewhat lower than the starting position if you are able to maintain the contraction in your abdominals and prevent your lower back from arching. The lower back should stay flat just as in the floor exercises.
- Do not swing or use momentum to help raise your legs. Swinging is the most common sign that you may be cheating or using muscles other than the abdominals. This should be a very controlled movement and you should focus on feeling the lower abdominals pulling the legs up instead of trying to jerk your legs up.
- Do not straighten your legs toward the ground between repetitions -- keep your knees bent. Straightening your legs (perpendicular to the floor) changes the exercise so the emphasis is on the hip flexors instead of the lower abdominals.
- To increase difficulty, perform the exercise with straight legs (starting with your whole leg parallel to the floor) or add ankle weights.
If performed correctly, these lower ab exercises (especially the first four) will build a solid foundation of lower abdominal strength, endurance, and function. They will also go a long way towards preventing lower back problems. Of course these exercises will tone the muscles and make them look better as well, but your nutritional habits and exercise program will have the most impact on how good your abdominals look. Remember, you don't need to buy expensive ab rollers, ab rockers, ab slides, or whatever other technology they have - you can do tummy exercises for your lower abdominals without spending a dime.