By Jessica Smith for SHAPE.COM
The term “lower abs” is actually a misnomer—your rectus abdominis muscle, or abdominal wall, actually covers your entire midsection and connects at your pelvis. Still, women (and men!) are constantly searching for exercises that will help eliminate that dreaded lower-belly pooch. (We got your attention, right?) And now the search is over! Most of these effective exercises target multiple abdominal muscles, so you’ll maximize your belly-burn with every rep. (And once you master these, try 10 New Core Exercises to Flatten Your Tummy.)
Focusing on the activation of your core is one of the keys to success with these abs toners. In fact, one study from Hull University found that people who mentally focused on their muscles and how they were moving experienced greater muscle activity, which can result in greater strength gains over time. So don’t just “go through the motions.” (Want to see these moves in action? Watch the video demos.) We’ve included “mind your muscle” tips with every exercise to help you maximize your results.
Workout details: Do the prescribed number of sets and reps for each exercise consecutively, taking a short 45-60 second rest in between sets. Perform the full workout on 3-4 non-consecutive days per week. Another option is to pick a few of your favorite moves and do them after a cardio session or add them into your regular strength training routine.
You’ll need: A mat or towel. That’s it!
1. 90-Degree Static Press
This is a great way to wake up your core at the beginning of your workout or as a stand-alone exercise any time you want to squeeze in some extra abs work. (Check out fitness expert Kendall Hogan demonstrating two exercises for a strong, toned core.)
How to do it: Lie faceup with your knees and hips bent 90 degrees, feet flexed. Extend your arms and press both palms on top of your thighs. Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, brace your abs in tight, pressing your lower back against the floor as you push your thighs into your hands, pushing back against them (note: your legs should not move). Hold for 1 count and then release. Do up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions in a row.
Make it harder: As you exhale, lift your head and shoulders off the floor as you press your thighs and palms together. Lower your upper body back down to the floor as you inhale.
Mind your muscle tip: During the contraction, imagine you are ‘zipping’ your muscles from your pelvic floor up to your belly button (drawing them in tight as if trying to squeeze into a pair of low-rise skinny jeans).
2. Resisted Single-Leg Stretch
This Pilates-inspired move uses the same pressing action as the static press to deepen the engagement of your abdominals. The weight of your extended leg makes it more challenging.
How to do it: Lie on your back and bend both knees into your chest, feet flexed. Interlace your fingers on top of your right thigh and extend your left leg out parallel to the floor. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor, curling up over the top of your ribcage and looking at your legs. Press your palms against your right thigh while tipping your pelvis to bring your right knee in towards your chest (your hands should add resistance to your leg). Switch legs and press your palms against the left thigh as your right leg extends parallel to the floor. That’s one rep. Do up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions in a row.
Make it harder: Keep both legs straight, pressing against the top of your thigh as one leg pulls in, and then perform a scissoring action to switch sides.
Mind your muscle tip: As you push against your thigh, imagine you are pulling your leg into your chest with your abs. Focus on feeling the extra resistance in the abs, not your thighs or hip flexors. And if you like this move, try this Strong and Sleek Upper Body Pilates Workout.
This may be a small movement, but it works your lower abdominals in a big way!
How to do it: Sit with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground. Lean back to prop your upper body up on your elbows (your back should remain lifted), palms facing down. Brace your abs in tight and lift your legs into a 90-degree angle (knees should be touching), toes pointed. Slowly bring your legs over to the left (both hips should remain on the ground). Keeping the 90-degree angle with your legs, lower your legs and then lift them up to the right, as if you were tracing a letter ‘U’ with your knees. That’s one rep. Do 20 reps total, alternating sides each time.
Make it harder: The longer the lever, the harder this gets, so if you want more of a challenge, try extending your legs out further (even straightening them completely).
Mind your muscle tip: Use your breathing to help deepen the abs work: inhale as you sweep your legs over to one side and down, and then as you come up to the other side, exhale and visualize your belly button pressing all the way back to your spine.
4. Reverse Plank Hover
This is another move that’s much harder than it looks. You’ll engage your abs and just about every other muscle in your body! That’s the magic of the plank; if you want more core-firming moves, try this 9-minute Power Plank Workout.
How to do it: Sit with your legs extended, feet flexed, hands just outside your hips with your fingertips facing your forward. Brace your abs in tight and press down through your arms to lift your hips a few inches off of the floor. Bend your knees slightly, keeping your heels on the ground. Inhale and scoop your abs in deeper towards your back, and as you exhale, fully extend your legs and try to push your hips slightly behind your shoulders. Hold for 1 count. Bend your knees and return hips under your shoulders to gently lower to the floor. That’s one rep. Repeat up to 3 sets of 10 reps.
Make it harder: Instead of lowering your hips back down to the ground in between reps, try to keep them lifted off the floor the entire set.
Mind your muscle tip: Focus on lifting and moving your hips with your abs, only using your arms and legs for assistance.
5. Criss-Cross Lift and Switch
This two-for-one Pilates move doubles your flat-belly results.
How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Extend both legs straight up to the ceiling, crossing your right leg over your left, toes pointed. Brace your abs in tight, inhale, and lower your legs about 45 degrees. As you exhale, bring your legs back into your body and lift your legs overhead on an angle (as if aiming to where the wall meets the ceiling behind you), lifting your hips and back off the floor, pressing down with your arms for support. Pause for 1 count, and then slowly roll through your spine to lower your hips and bring your legs back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Do up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Make it easier: This move is tough, so if you can’t lift your hips all the way off the floor, take your time to get stronger before attempting. Start by practicing drawing your legs up and over, and see if you can lift just a few inches off the mat and then immediately lower.
Mind your muscle tip: Your abs should remain constantly pulled in towards your back during the entire exercise. Use the visual of ‘zipping’ your muscles in from your pelvis up to your belly button as you lift your legs overhead.
6. Inching Elbow Plank
You’ll feel every inch of this plank in your abs (along with your arms and shoulders too).
How to do it: Begin in an elbow plank position, hands clasped, with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Step your left foot towards your hands as you begin to lift your hips up slightly, quickly taking another step in with your right foot, lifting hips a little more. Step the left foot in again, lifting your hips higher and then again with the right, so that your hips end lifted high in a pike position. Slowly inch back out, reversing the way you walked in, until you return to the starting plank pose. That’s one rep. Do up to 3 sets of 5 reps.
Make it harder: Take larger steps in to raise your hips even higher in the pike position, and increase the number of reps per set from 5 to 10.
Mind your muscle tip: Your abs should be drawn in during this entire exercise. As you step your foot in, think of bracing your abs in deeper with each step.
7. Full Plank Passé Twist
Engage those hard-to-target obliques with this dynamic twist on the traditional plank.
How to do it: Begin in a full plank position with your feet together. Bend your right knee across to the left as you slide your right foot up to the inside of your left knee into a passé position (your hips should turn to the left and you’ll pivot slightly on the ball of your left foot). Slide your right leg back to start and then repeat to the left. That’s one rep. Do up to 3 sets of 10 reps.
Mind your muscle tip: Imagine your abs are drawing your knee up and across your body. Pull your abs in tighter as you lift your leg.
8. Frog Press
How to do it: Lie faceup with your knees bent and turned out, feet flexed, and heels pressed together. Inhale and lift your head and shoulders off the floor, curling up over your ribcage, looking at your legs. Reach your arms outside of your hips off of the floor, palms facing down
As you exhale, press out through your heels and extend your legs 45 degrees, squeezing the backs of your knees together. Inhale and bend your heels back into your body. That’s one rep. Do up to 3 sets of 10 reps.
Make it harder: Extend your legs lower to the ground as you press out, or keep both legs extended and turned out, and then lift and lower them instead of bending and extending (just be sure your back stays down during the movement!).
Mind your muscle tip: Focus your attention on your abs, forcing them to do most of the work to lift and lower your legs. Be sure to keep your lower back pressed into the floor the entire time.
Photos by: Vanessa Rogers Photography
Shot on location at The Biltmore Hotel & Spa in Coral Gables, Florida.
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