Engage Your Pelvic Floor
You've probably heard of Kegels before, right? By engaging your pelvic floor (act as though you're trying to stop your urine midstream) before and during any abs exercise you perform, you better engage your transverse abdominals, which act as a girdle for your entire core. This helps give you a tighter midsection—quite literally—all the way around!
Focus on the Burn
Many times we completely zone out while working out. We're watching TV, thinking of our to-do list, or even wishing the workout was over instead of paying attention to what we're doing. By focusing on the exercise at hand, you not only are less prone to injury (no distractions so that you can listen to your body), but you also engage the mind-body connection which helps to recruit more muscle fibers, thereby improving your results.
Close Your Rib Cage
In your average sit-up you probably come up and down and don't think much more about the movement, right? Well, when you lower down from a sit-up, pay close attention and keep your rib cage closed. This helps to crunch your abs more, engage your transverse abdominals, and keep your back safely supported.
Don't Hold Your Breath
Your core muscles need oxygen to work at full capacity, so be sure that you keep breathing. As a general rule, you want to inhale on the easiest part of the move (on the way down from a crunch) and exhale when you have to exert the most force (on the way up on a crunch).
Work in All Dimensions
Your body doesn't just work in one plane of movement, so why should your abs? Instead of always doing crunches, include abs exercises that rotate, twist and turn your body like you do in real life. Functional fitness moves such as this Side Lunge Wood Chop or this Stability Ball Chop and Twist are both great exercises to build a truly strong core.
Just like you wouldn't jump in the deep end of the pool before you know how to swim, you shouldn't tackle a complicated or advanced core move on your first try. Start small by working in a smaller range of motion (holding a plank for 15-20 seconds), and then as your core strength improves and you master proper form, make the movement to larger and more difficult exercises.
Add a Weight
Dumbbells aren't just for bicep curls! Like any other muscle, abs need to be challenged to get stronger. So if regular sit-ups aren't doing it any more (or if you have to do more than 20 to feel the burn), throw some weight into the mix and watch your results multiply.
Always Warm Up Properly
A warmed up core is a happy core. Because your abs are tied in to your lower back, it's extremely important to start any workout with a proper warm up to prevent injury. Warm those muscles up with some light marching in place and gentle standing rotation of your midsection.
Walk the Plank
Training your abs is not all about sit-ups and crunches. While those do work your abs, the plank is a more complete core move that works all the different parts of your abs and your upper-body. But instead of just holding the plank in a static position, engage even more of your ab strength by performing this challenging Plank Walk-Up. It's tough, but your abs will thank you for it!
Picture a Grapefruit
One of the biggest mistakes people make when doing mat work for their abs is that they keep their head down. This puts unnecessary strain on your neck and takes the focus off of your abs to perform the move. Every time you're doing abs exercises on the floor, imagine a grapefruit is lodged between your chin and your chest. For best results, don't let your chin lower to your chest!
As exercise physiologists study and better understand the core, more and more are recommending that we think of our core not just as the stomach and lower-back area, but also as our entire pillar (meaning everything except our legs, arms, and head). To really strengthen your core, fitness professionals recommend strengthening the muscles that tie in to your pillar like your glutes. And what's one of the best ways to fire those glutes? Deep squats, baby!
Train Your Lower Back
True muscle strength is all about balance. Many of us focus on toning our abs (the muscles we can see) and totally neglect our lower backs. This strength imbalance can lead to lower-back injury and pain. Here's a good rule to remember: For every core exercise you do that only targets your abs (read: isn't twisting, a plank, or involves standing--which all involve the back), you should do a specific low-back exercise as well like this Swan Dive. Working your lower back makes for a more complete abs workout!
Try Balance Work
Really want stronger abs? Incorporate balance work into your routine. Whether it's with a Bosu, a stability ball, a balance board, or simply just standing on one leg, exercises that test your balance cause you to fire your core deeply, thereby giving you a more effective ab workout!
Think speeding through your ab workout will speed up your results? Think again. To really feel the burn, try slowing down. By changing the speed of your abs exercises, you'll work your abs in a more targeted way that boosts strength and results!
Tweak Your Diet
It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend in the gym each week. If your diet isn’t on point, you’re not going to see that 6-pack. To show off those toned abs, eat a diet with plenty of lean protein, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Also, follow these tips to beat belly bloat (which might be hiding your fabulous abs!)
Give Yourself Adequate Rest
Just like other muscles, your abs need rest. Don't directly work your abs two days in a row. Take a recovery day in between. Rest helps give you muscles time to repair and get stronger!
Change It Up
Are you guilty of doing the same ab workout day after day? If so, it's time to switch it up. In fact, for best results, you should change up your entire workout—including abs!—every four to six weeks. Not sure where to start? Try Shape's free Virtual Trainer.
Maintain Constant Tension
If you're short on time, here's an easy trick to get more for your ab-workout buck: Flex your abs and keep them that way throughout your entire core workout. Whether you're doing crunches, planks, or balance work, squeeze those abs as if you’re preparing for someone to punch you in the gut to get even more out of your usual moves.
Work Your Upper Abs Last
Many traditional abs exercises target the top of your abs. Problem is, they neglect your lower abs and obliques. Try starting your workout with lower-ab moves like this Double-Leg Lower Lift and this Bicycle Maneuver, which both work multiple areas of your abs. Then, if you have time, end your training session with upper-ab work.
Take Yoga or Pilates
Many yoga poses and Pilates exercises are extremely good for building core strength. If you're sick of tacking ab workouts on to the end of your cardio or strength session, trade your usual moves in for a yoga or Pilates class. Besides building core strength, these mind-body exercises can also increase your flexibility and reduce stress. Bonus!