How many crunches does it take to get a 6-pack?
I hate crunches (and situps). To be honest, I despise any ab exercise I have to do for more than 10 reps (or 10 reps each side) to see results.
One day I’ll write an article that gets into the anatomy of the abs and what muscles make up the core. Today, I’m going to go over how to avoid the ab exercise mistake I see all the time in the gym and some super efficient ab exercises to try!
The Big Mistake
Anytime one does an abdominal exercise lying on his or her back, the back (specifically, lower back) should be, and remain, pressed firmly into the ground.
The postural element here is called pelvic tilt. I like to describe it with an analogy that equates the pelvis to a pot [of water]. Now, there is anterior (meaning front) pelvic tilt and posterior (meaning back) pelvic tilt, which refer to the way water would spill out of “the pot” if it was tilted one way or the other. Here is a pictogram that describes it.
In the left picture above, water would fall out of the “pot” toward the front of the body, so the image is depicting anterior (front) pelvic tilt. In the right picture, water would spill out of the pot toward the back of the body. This is posterior (back) pelvic tilt. You may find yourself standing with anterior pelvic tilt and sitting slouched with some posterior pelvic tilt or vice versa. Ideally, the pelvis is in neutral at all times.
Some of us spend more time in one posture than the other, making it habitual for our bodies, and, as you could imagine, this posture shows up in our workouts.
Try this test: Lie down on your back with your legs together, straight up in the air. Push your lower back into the ground so that your entire back is touching the floor. Keeping your legs straight, slowly lower them to the ground while keeping your entire back on the floor. Could you do it? A little challenging, right? Most of us lack the abdominal control to keep our backs flat while performing this movement.
Here is a progression to correct this!
- Toe Taps. 2-3 sets of 20 reps, 10 on each leg, keeping that lower back flat!
- Linear Dead Bugs. 2-3 sets of 20 reps, 10 on each leg.
- Single-Leg Lowering. 2-3 sets of 20 reps, 10 on each leg. Contrary to what this picture shows, I like to keep both arms extended in front of the body, reaching toward the ceiling.
- Double-Leg Lowering. 3 sets of 10 reps. Arms in the same position as the single-leg lowering exercise. For added intensity, weight can be held by the arms.
In addition to building the abdominal muscles to keep the pelvis in place, another component to correct is the hip flexors. Often those who have an anteriorly tilted pelvis and cannot keep their lower back to the floor while performing these exercises have overactive (tight) hip flexors. Look at the picture of some of the hip flexor muscles below. Notice how, at the top, the psoas connects to vertebrae in the low back and the iliacus attaches to the side and back of the pelvis. If these muscles are shortened, the low back vertebrae and back of the pelvis are pulled forward resulting in anterior pelvis tilt. Mobility exercises, foam rolling, and stretches that lengthen (stretch) the hip flexors will help alleviate some of that tilt.
Efficient Ab Exercises
Get a lot done in a little time with these Ab exercises that are staples in my routine.
- Static Plank Variations (3 X 1 min or less). Center plank, Side plank, arms on an airex pad, arms on a bosu ball, legs elevated, legs really elevated, feet on a boss ball, on one leg, feet in TRX. Keep that back straight, and, if anything, tuck the pelvis into a slight posterior tilt by contracting the abs.
- Double Leg Lowering with Crunch (3 X 10 reps). Once you can keep your lower back in contact with the ground while lowering both legs, this is a great exercise to try. Start lying on your back with arms and legs straight in the air. Lower legs to the floor while simultaneously lowering the arms. Stop an inch above the floor and raise both arms and legs to the starting position. Once there, “crunch” the arms and upper body toward the ceiling and back to the starting position. Repeat. I hold a weight (5-15 pounds) in my hands for added intensity.
- Diagonal Curl Up (3 X 10 each side)
- Ab Wheel Rollout Variations ( 3 X 5-10 )
This is an intense exercise. Here is a video about rollout progressions.
- Wood Chops (3 X 10 each side). Variations include chopping high to low, low to high, or across. Keeping your chest up and arms straight in all the movements will help with targeting the abs more and arms or hip flexors less.
- Prone Pike (3 X 5-10)
Perform one or two of these exercises in each of your workouts, and you’ll be well on your way toward that summer 6-pack! Let me know if you try them!
To Learn More:
Bret Contreras is a trainer and PhD who wrote an article with EMG results of the amount of activation in 4 core muscles during a variety of exercises (EMG stands for electromyogram, and it’s a method of measuring muscle activation). Check it out to learn some other great ways of engaging your abdominals!