I stared at the three heart-shaped sticky notes on my bathroom mirror and groaned. Maybe taking three 30 day challenges (yoga, abs and clean eating) at the same time right after a mental breakdown wasn’t the most thought through plan.
“What does one even do for an ab challenge?” I asked myself.
Clean eating seemed straightforward: don’t eat crap. I had training in Yoga, so I at least knew how to sequence the postures. Though it may have come as a shock to anyone that looked at my petite frame, I hadn’t done a crunch in years.
I pulled up Google and typed in ‘ab workout.’ Reverse crunches. Jackknife sit-ups. These sounded more like torture techniques than exercises. I cringed and kept sifting, expanding to YouTube videos. Those were even worse as there was no real explanation or way to know if I was doing things right, simply video after video of: “now do this for a minute.”
An hour later, I'd scribbled some notes that I thought would add up to about thirty minutes. That was the arbitrary time that I had given myself to do the rotating circuit that I had written up.
After two minutes of flailing my legs in some upward kick motion, my lower back hurt too much to continue. I sat up, took a drink of water and tried again. The pain kicked in even faster.
Well, I tried. I did something today for my abs.
The next day, I called my good friend who has his own fitness program so that he could help me plan out a more structured routine.
“Thirty days? Thirty minutes a day? Are you nuts?!” he yelled through the receiver.
I was grateful that he couldn’t see me blush.
“Buddy, you only need to do abs three times a week. And, heck, I only do fifteen minutes and I do this for a living!”
“But I saw this challenge on Instag…” I began before he cut me off.
“Those sites will tell you that supermodels in your area want to date you and that politicians are honest too. You gonna take advice from Susie the influencer or a professional?”
“I called you, not Susie, didn’t I?”
After a few more tips, he offered to send me a video of a few moves with explanations. I sloughed through five excruciating minutes that afternoon. I would send him short videos and he would correct my form over the following weeks.
I’m going to share with you three key points that I learned from this exchange (aside from the aforementioned time and frequency faux pas) and then give you my personal routine that, with months of consistency and plenty of modifications, finally gave me results.
- ‘Abs’ are not a single muscle
We speak about ‘abs’ in an isolated sense. A person who has never worked out (or never learned how to do so effectively) might have been taught that doing hundreds of crunches will give them the toned midsection that we see on social media and in magazines.
The problem with this is that crunches alone do not work each of the four muscle groups (transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique muscles and external oblique muscles) necessary to achieve that look. It is imperative to balance your sequence to engage each of these groups for optimal toning and appearance. This is a very important concept for The Abs Company. All of their Abs products work multiple core muscles. And the AB ZONES, provide a circuit of machines do exactly that!
- Abs are made in the kitchen
You can be doing your routine perfectly and regularly, but a diet heavy in sweets and processed food is going to pad your mid-section with fat deposits. There may be rock solid muscles under there, but they won’t be visible if you aren’t eating a balanced diet comprised of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein sources.
- Tighten your core during each rep
Not knowing this is what hurt my back. You can injure your neck and spine by ignoring proper technique.
When you stabilize your spine, your core muscles provide you with a strong, stable foundation for everyday activities like lifting and assisting with movements that require balance or coordination, plus you boost your workout performance leading to a healthier body faster!
For me, phrases like “tuck your belly button toward your spine” made no sense at first, so if you too are confused by the terminology, let me explain this to you in more layman's terms. Begin on the floor or on a mat. Bring your legs straight up towards the ceiling, bending your knees if need be. Tilt your pelvis so that your lower abs pull in and your back presses gently onto the ground. You want to maintain this through the duration of your workout. If your back starts to come up, release out of the position and reset.
PHOTO CAPTION **TIP: Roll up a towel or T-Shirt and place it at the sacrum at the base of the spine. Your back should be pressing it firmly into the ground and you should not be able to easily pull it out. Keep this form during all ab exercises.
Here are the exercises that I started off with. I have now added other moves, sometimes spending two to three minutes on different plank variations alone, or adding bicycle crunch after the standard crunch, but these will give you a solid foundation to start with.
I have heard (and had my own) horror stories about the pain of the dreaded crunch. But when done properly, the only pain you should feel is that burn in your midsection! Start by laying on your back and placing your feet firmly into the floor with your knees bent 90 degrees. Arms are either resting next to the body or crossed over the chest. I never recommend behind the head for beginners because it is easy to strain the neck. Keep your gaze upward and your chin parallel to your chest. Before you move your upper body, engage your core so your back and abs are ready for the movement. Leading with your chest (not your head), lift your shoulders off of the ground, then lower back down. Repeat for 20-30 seconds.
Lie down with your knees bent directly over your hips and your lower legs parallel to the floor. Relax your arms at your sides. I find it easier to face my palms down, but ensure that you are not gripping into the floor. Begin by lowering the right foot so that the toes touch the ground while the left leg remains static. Return the right leg to the top and touch the left toes down. Repeat for 30 seconds.
Place your hands directly under your shoulders (slightly wider than shoulder width). Press your toes into the floor and squeeze the glutes to stabilize yourself. This gives your legs a nice workout too, but make sure to leave a subtle bend in the knees. Squeeze your glutes and pull your shoulders away from your ears. Neutralize your spine by looking at a spot on the floor about a foot in front of your hands. Your neck should be in line with your spine. Hold the position for 15-30 seconds.
Crossover Mountain Climbers
Start in a plank position. Ensure that your spine is in alignment and that you are not dipping your hips down or sticking your booty in the air. Pull your right knee across your body toward the left wrist. Maintain length in the spine and tightness in the abs. Slowly and with control, switch, pushing your right leg back to neutral and pulling the left knee toward the right wrist. Continue switching back and forth for 15-20 seconds.
Lie on your back, zip your legs together and bring them to a 90 degree angle. Bring them down as far as you can without your lower back coming off of the ground, bending your knees slightly if needed. Reach your arms alongside you, palms down. You can optionally let them hover a few inches. Raise one leg while lowering the other, keeping your core engaged. Continue alternating the movement for 30 seconds.
It made me so happy to realize that a Yoga pose I actually knew how to do is also a core strengthener. There are several variations of this pose making it a great staple for all levels. Begin in a seated position with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your palms on the ground about four inches behind your sit bones. Lift your feet, keeping your knees bent, and bring your shins parallel to the floor. Bring your upper half back slightly, but keep the spine straight and the core engaged. From here, you may choose to lift your hands, palms turned inward, and/or straighten your legs to a 45 degree angle if you can do so without losing the integrity of the upper body. Your torso and legs should make a V shape.
This series can be repeated several times for maximum effect. My ab workouts are usually about ten minutes of exercises that I hold for 15-30 seconds each, depending on my ability to maintain the integrity of the pose. It is more important to keep that straight spine and engaged core than to try to hold plank for two minutes.
Let me know in the comments below if these poses are staples in your workout too.