If you’ve been doing every ab exercise known to man and still don’t have a 6 pack, I’ve written this article for you. If your ab workouts are too easy, keep reading…
A lot of us start working out to see results, which includes getting a six-pack. Counting our macros, running around the block fifty times and saying no to donuts are all things you’ve had to do to get that six-pack you’re after.
But what if after all this time, your ab workouts are getting easier and easier? After a while, it may just seem like cardio to you.
To really see your abs, it’s all about body fat percentage. You just can’t see your abs if you have a thick layer of fat on top of them. That doesn’t mean that you don’t train them of course.
Your core (which is just more than just your “abs”) is composed of many superficial and deep muscles. The more you can engage your core, the more efficient your lifts are. Your core is used to stabilize your lower trunk with your upper trunk, so the stronger you can make it, the more efficient and effective lifting is.
Ab Exercises Not Challenging
You’d be surprised by the number of people that can blow through my fitness classes, doing all the ab exercises and not even breaking a sweat. Just like any exercise, when you do it over and over again (without changing variables), your body adapts and gets really good at making it efficient. So, you keep doing your ab exercises and it gets easier and easier each week. GREAT, but now what?
You need variation and/or load. Sit-ups easy? Do weighted sit-ups or cable crunches!
You should be performing ab exercises in ALL planes of movement. Think about it: how transferable is a plank to real-life applications? Never! This means ab workouts that are rotation, anti-rotation, upper abdominals, lower abdominals and isometric exercises.
If you’re only doing planks and dead bugs, you’re missing out on so many other killer core exercises!
Or are you cutting it short? Reverse crunches are great, but if you’re only doing 2 sets of 15 seconds, there’s no point. For my in-person clients, I like to set time for core exercises instead of reps. That way it’s easier to track in the long run, as well as self-servicing.
Your Hip Flexors Are Taking Over
This is a huge understated one.
For lower abdominal exercises, your hip flexors can take over and compensate in the exercise itself. This results in you not “feeling” the ab exercise and progressing nowhere.
What are your hip flexors?
Your hip flexors are a group of muscles that includes the iliopsoas, tensor fasciae latae, pectineus, sartorius, adductors, gracilius, rectus femoris, and the gluteus. Pretty much a bunch of muscles to move your pelvis. These muscles greatly affect your posture, leading to things such as lower crossed syndrome.
If you have a desk job, or literally any job where you’re sitting for long periods of time, your body overcompensates for hip flexor usage. Those muscles are “shortened” when sitting, which can become tight over time and lead to injury.
For an abdominal exercise like a leg lift, when your legs are nearest the floor your hip flexor muscles are being engaged. What we want to do is remove the hip flexors usage, and just use our core. We want to engage the deeper layers of our core, limit or remove our hip flexors.
How can we get the most from core workouts?
We can activate our hamstrings and glutes which limits hip flexor recruitment. The perfect exercise for this scenario is the Janda sit-up
We activate our glutes by driving our heels through the ground, and the deeper layers of our core by full-body extension (see the video).
We also want to stretch our hip flexor muscles, notably your psoas and adductors.
The easiest way to stretch your psoas is the lying psoas stretch.
Lie on the floor face up and flatten the small of your back towards the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles (think about touching your navel to your spine) and bring one knee to your chest. Keep your lower back and other legs on the floor (or as close to as you can!). Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 5-10 times.
No Load (Bodyweight Is Doing Nothing)
This is very similar to my first point but I’ll go a bit deeper.
Remember when you first started working out and everything was super heavy and difficult? Then after a few months, things got easier and you progressed? Chances are if you kept curling that 10lb dumbbell for months on end, you wouldn’t progress and wouldn’t be here today. That’s why we change the lifting variables, load (weight) in this case.
If we use the same load mechanics for an exercise, over time our body compensates and gets really good at it. Yay! That’s a great thing.
Remember when you first got to the gym and you just started sweating looking at the dumbbells? Your body compensates and becomes more energy efficient. This means lifting those 10lb dumbbells is no longer super challenging as your body has adjusted. But you’ll reach a point when curling those dumbbells doesn’t give you the same results you initially had. What do you do?
We increase the load! You can only get so far with bodyweight exercises. Push-ups are great, but once you get to 25 then what? The next milestone is 50, then 75 then 100. Unless you some load the exercise up (plate on your back) you can just keep doing pushups until the cows come home.
How do you add load to an ab exercise?
Start holding stuff! Honestly. For sit-ups, hold a plate or dumbbell and raise it overhead as you sit up. If you’re doing a Russian twist, use a heavy medicine ball.
Cable crunches are another great exercise that you can modify the load used.
Obviously, you want to make the exercise difficult, but since we are putting stress on our spine in crunching movements, be careful in choosing too much load. You want to safely control the eccentric and concentric portions of the exercise, again, staying in control the entire time.
This will lead to more motor recruitment, which leads to more muscle activation and down-the-road muscle growth.