The abdominals, or rectus abdominus, is actually all one muscle group that forms an “eight-pack” in the midriff area. However, often instructors and trainers refer to the bottom section as the “lower abs” to keep it simple, when showing routines for this stubborn, hard-to-target area. You can isolate the lower portions of the rectus abdominus to a certain degree; still, the rest of the core muscles jump in to act as helper muscles, stabilizing or fixating the working parts. According to Strength Conditioning Journal (2010), overemphasizing abdominal work without balancing the strength of your other core muscles, such as the lower back and hip muscles, can lead to decreased performance and higher risk of injury. I always start or end an abs workout for my clients or for myself with exercises for the lower back. I also emphasize the importance of using the PFMs (pelvic floor muscles) when executing a given abdominal exercise.
The following exercises focus on the lower region of the abs and on the obliques and upper abs. Please be sure you conclude your workout with an exercise for the lumbar region (lower back), such as the “Superwoman” or “Swiss ball Superwoman” for injury prevention and a strong core. Never work your abs “cold”. You should first warm up through an aerobic conditioning class, such as Zumba or HIIT, or a cardio workout on the equipment, before engaging in core work. At minimum, do 5-7 minutes on a piece of our cardio equipment, like the treadmill or elliptical, to reduce the risk of injury.
If you feel pain in your lower back during any of the following exercises, please stop. You may be doing it wrong or the movement may not be safe for you. Ask a trainer for help if you have questions.
Let’s get started!
This is an extremely challenging move which will targets the deeper core muscles of the back as well as the upper area of the abs, the pectorals (chest), and deltoids (shoulders). Place your hands on the floor underneath your shoulders, with the elbows slightly bent. Place both feet, with the balls of your feet facing the ceiling, on top of a Swiss ball. Stabilize your body before you begin the movement. The act of balancing yourself before and during the exercise helps to engage your quadratus lumborum (or QL) in the lower back, a very important stabilizer of your core. Once you are in a fixed position, your shins should be on the top of the ball.
Pull your knees toward your chest while exhaling and moving the Swiss ball forward toward your upper body. As you exhale, squeeze the lower portion of your abdominals and hold for 2 counts at the end of the range of motion before slowly straightening your legs back to start position.
You may try tilting your hips or buttocks area slightly up to the ceiling to get better engagement of the lower abdominal area and to ease pressure on the spine as well.
This move is intense! If you can only do a few to start and build up to sets of 15-25, that is fine. Aim for a total of 3 sets.
Swiss Ball Leg Raises
Lie on a flat bench or mat and place a smaller sized Swiss ball between your legs at the calf/ankle area. By squeezing the ball a bit during the movement, you will recruit the adductor (inner thigh) muscles and engage the pelvic floor muscles.
Grip the sides of the bench for stability. If you are on a mat, place your palms face down at your sides on the mat and stabilize your body. Inhale as you slowly lower the ball and exhale as you raise it back up while consciously tightening the lower portion of your abs on the elevation. Do not hold the position, but do move slowly, about 3-4 counts down and up. If you find this move too challenging, you may come only half of the way down in the beginning or do only a few repetitions until you build up your endurance. Again, aim for 3 sets of 15-25.
You may do this on a bench also, holding the top or sides for support or lie on a mat with your hands placed at your sides, palms facing down again. Either way, you will isolate the lower region of the rectus abdominus. Place your legs straight up in the air, with your toes pointing toward the ceiling and a very slight bend in the knee. Lift your hips straight up to the ceiling in a “thrusting” movement. You are not rolling your pelvis area back and forth. Instead focus on lifting your hips in a vertical manner. Exhale as you lift your hips and really tighten the region as you do so. You will feel the engagement of the lower portion of the abdominals quickly. Aim for 15-25 reps, 3 sets.
EMG (electromyography) studies conducted at San Diego State University have found that the bicycle is the single best exercise for recruiting all areas of the abdominals, including lower and upper portions, the transverse abdominis (your girdle muscle, which literally holds in your midsection like a girdle), and your internal and external obliques.
Lie on a mat with hands placed behind your head and your knees in the air bent at a 90-degree angle before beginning. Exhale as you straighten one leg toward the floor, keeping it only an inch or two above the floor to maximize isolation of your lower ab region. At the same time, turn your elbow and shoulder area toward the opposite knee, which is bent. Alternate the movement as you consciously contract your entire abdominal and oblique (waistline) area. Do not twist your neck, as that can strain the cervical (upper) part of the spine. You are turning your shoulder and elbow, not twisting your neck.
A good visual is to imagine pushing off the resting shoulder while you turn toward the side wall or mirror with the other. The longer and lower the movement of your alternating legs, the more you will recruit the lower portion of your rectus abdominus.
Don’t forget to stretch at the end of your workout by gently hugging your knees for 30-60 seconds and taking slow, deep breaths as you do so. Then lengthen your arms above your head and outstretch your legs while you breathe deeply. Again, hold this stretch for about 1 minute.
Incorporate these moves into your current abdominal routine about 3 days per week on non-consecutive days. Enjoy!