These popular core exercises are highly effective… if you do them right. Not many people do. Check your form here.
There are a lot of great abdominal exercises out there, so why don’t you have better abs? Pizza and beer probably. But diet issues aside, maybe you’re doing all the best exercises but you’re just not doing them the right way to get results?
Here are four awesome exercises that most people screw up. Don’t be most people.
With this exercise, we’re looking to work the rectus abdominis (that six pack). The main function of this muscle is to create flexion in the spine or control extension of the spine. Here’s the incorrect, but very common, way to do it:
And here’s the right way:
To do a cable crunch properly, consider three things:
Hip Position. The hips need to be kept high and locked in place throughout the entire set to avoid using the hip flexors and allow a full range of motion. Dropping the hips too low won’t allow you to do a full crunch. Moving the hips during the reps means you’re using your bodyweight and hip flexors to do the movement. Keep those hips high and still so the movement comes only from the spine.
Hand Position. Hand position also determines the range of motion and the lever length used to perform the exercise. A rope attachment works best. Hold the rope, but instead of pulling it over your shoulders with your hands on your upper pecs, position your hands together with your thumb knuckles at the top of your forehead.Tuck your chin into your chest, about two inches apart, and maintain this position to stabilize your neck. Doing this not only gets your hands and arms out of the way of the crunch, but it extends the lever length and allows you to get more stimulation with less weight.
Range of Motion. With an ab crunch, focus on getting a deep contraction (as much flexion in the spine as possible). The setup is crucial. We want the spine to get to at least neutral at the top and to full flexion at the bottom, while maintaining control throughout. To make this movement quantifiable, try and get your elbows rolled as far into your lap as possible (far up your thighs).
- If you have a hard time maintaining the right hip position, use a big medicine ball or wall ball under your butt and on top of your calves. Don’t sit on it, just keep contact with the ball with your butt and/or hams. This will give you positive feedback on your position during execution.
- You can also use a tennis ball and place it between your chin and chest to ensure stability during the set.
The main issue here? People use their hip flexors too much:
Now, there are a couple of different ways to do this exercise based on what you’re trying to achieve. One variation is performed in a way so that the movement is created during flexion and extension of the shoulder joint. In the other variation, the movement comes from flexion and extension of the spine.
Your rectus abdominis is just a part of your core, not your entire core. The first variation is more of a core exercise than an ab exercise. So, one of these movements will challenge the stability of the spine (like holding a plank) while the movement is created elsewhere (flexion and extension in the shoulder joint).
With the second variation however, the challenge is to create the movement from the spine (flexion and extension). This version will resemble a crunch more than a plank, at least when we look at what movement is being created in the spine. Let’s take a look at each one.
During this movement, think about three things:
Setup. Position yourself in a full kneeling position with your knees about hip-width apart for lateral stability. Round out your upper back and tuck your tailbone in. Squeeze the glutes. Lock your arms and hips in place before you start.
Maintain Stability in Your Pelvis. Just like in the crunch, make sure that the movement is coming from your spine and not from your hips.
The Movement Itself. Start by shifting your body forward as one unit and allow your spine to straighten out until you reach your full range of motion, which can be different for everyone. Once you’ve reached your full range of motion, contract from your abs and allow the flexion from your back to pull you back towards the starting position. Avoid pulling your hips back.
Setup. Same as above, but straighten out your body like the setup of a push-up, but with your hands on the wheel (or ball). Lock your arms and hips in place before you start.
Maintain Stability in Your Pelvis. Just like in the plank, make sure the movement isn’t coming from your spine or from your hips. Maintain neutral throughout the set.
The Movement Itself. Start rolling the wheel out by flexing your shoulders. Roll forward and drop your chest toward the floor with straight arms until your reach your full range of motion.
- You can use a stability ball for the easier version, or the wheel for the more advanced version. To stabilize your pelvis, squeeze your glutes (tuck your tailbone in). This will create reciprocal inhibition and keep the hip flexors out of it.
- For people with a lack of lumbar extension, drop your hips a bit deeper so that you can build confidence and control into extension. For those with a deep lumbar curve, extend no further then neutral to avoid hyper extension of your lumber spine.
This modified variation of the classic pike allows for better execution and it better stimulates the rectus abdominis. What you’re going to do is place your elbows on a bench and allow a bit of bending in the knees.
First, let’s take a look at the wrong way to perform it:
Now, the right way:
Position yourself with your elbows on a standard bench with your lower legs (shins) on a stability ball. Push yourself up into a plank to get into the starting position.
From here, start by rounding your back and tucking in your tailbone. Without shifting your weight forward over the bench, flex your abs to push your low back up towards the ceiling as you allow your knees to bend slightly as they move toward your chest.
It’s very important that your focus is on driving your low back up, NOT to actively pull your knees to your chest. This will keep the contraction more in your abs and less in your hip flexors.
Once you’re in full flexion, lower your body back to the starting position. Think about extending your spine to neutral, not pushing the legs out. Stop at neutral and repeat.
- Doing this exercise from the floor is a good variation, but it can be too advanced for some lifters. If your intention is work your rectus abdominis, keeping the movement out of the hips is the first thing to consider. Maintaining a set position in the pelvis gives your abs an anchor point to pull on and flex the spine, as well as keeping the legs and hip flexors out of it.
- When you make the movement less advanced, you allow for better control and focus during the whole set. When an exercise is difficult to perform, most of the focus shifts away from the muscles being worked and into completing the movement. This leads to a “get it done, no matter what” kind of thing. The intention is just as important as the movement itself. If you can’t feel the muscle working, you’re missing the point.
- Perform a slight rocking motion at the bottom of the rep by shifting your weight back toward your feet to insure you keep the focus on your abs and not on your shoulders. This weight transfer into the feet will light up your core.
When you’re looking to target the abs, try and minimize the involvement of the hip flexors. The only way to do this is to make sure most of the movement is from the flexion and extension of your spine, not from the hips.
Here’s the wrong way to do it:
And here’s the right way:
- The bent-knee variation works best for most people. The straight-leg version will change the movement in such a way that the rectus femorus (quad) and the hip flexor (psoas) will be stressed the most, and even more so when hamstring flexibility isn’t there to allow a full range of motion.
- Always start in the top position with your arms straight out in front of you next to your lower legs. Bend your knees and make sure your shins are horizontal. Keeping your knees and feet level will shift your center of mass, guaranteeing abdominal recruitment.
- Start by opening up (extending) your whole body. As you reach your arms overhead, drop your torso back and down and straighten the legs. Once you reach the fully extended position, start the concentric part of the movement by rolling your spine up as you bring your arms over and in front. At the same time, pull your knees into your chest while keeping the shins level with the floor – don’t pull your heels to your butt. Make sure you have complete balance and control in this position before starting your next rep.