What are the Best Abdominal Exercises to Use in Class?

Believe it or not, many of the abdominal exercises that instructors choose for classes (or meatheads use in the gym) tend to work other muscles more than the actual abdominals. Sit-ups, leg lifts, hanging leg raises, etc. anatomically have little to do with the core. Raising your legs (or raising your body to meet your legs) is the responsibility of the hip flexors, a group of muscles which attach between the lower back and the top of the femur. The rectus abdominis (the main ab muscle) attaches from the ribs to the pelvis and is responsible for spinal flexion.

That’s not to say that the abs have nothing to do with leg lifts and other hip flexor movements, but they are not the prime movers.* They are instead used isometrically as stabilizers to keep the spine from extending as the legs come toward the torso. Lower back problems can result as these stabilizers tend to fatigue before the end of the set which results in arching and spinal compression. Sit ups, especially are “no bueno” for this reason.

So how do we help our class (and ourselves) get the universally desired 6-pack? (It actually should be called an 8-pack, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

True core strengthening moves can actually help relieve lower back pain. Some examples include:

  • Plank – Side plank, forearm plank, walking plank, hip dip plank, on your back plank, (Just kidding.That’s called Shavasana.) All of these are beneficial in strengthening the core and defining the abs.
  • Bear Walk – This exercise is done by engaging abs to hover a few inches off the floor as in plank pose, but with knees bent. Shoulders should be directly over wrists and knees about 2-3 inches off the floor, lined up under hips. Keep head in line with tailbone and “walk” forward and backward several steps with hands and feet.
  • Lateral Bear Walk – Same as bear walk but hands and feet “walk” to one side for three or four steps and then return.
  • Bear Hold – Same position as bear walk but hold body in place and lift one hand at a time off the floor. Hold with body hovering in place for 30-60 seconds.
  • Heel Taps – This exercise specifically targets the obliques.  Start on back with knees bent, feet on ground, and hands straight to the side. Lift shoulder blades off the ground and using right obliques touch right hand to outside of right ankle. Keep the shoulders lifted and go to the other side. Continue for several seconds going from side to side.
  • Bent knee crunches – Lie on back with knees bent and drawn up at 90 degrees over pelvis. Tilt chin to chest and hold hands at the side of head or at forehead. Engage abs to pull chest toward knees. Lower body back to starting position.

These are just a few examples of ab-working exercises. Most moves that bring the chest closer to the hips will work. Also, leg lifts and other exercises can still be used in class, but it’s a good idea to use those moves as the exception and not the rule.  Your class will thank you.

*The prime mover, or agonist, is the main muscle involved in a specific movement or action.



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