Get significantly better results from your ab workout with this smart little trick. Here’s how to do it and five exercises to try out today.
Activating your hamstrings and glutes will force your abs to work harder. It limits hip flexor recruitment, which is the area that often takes over during ab training. And while meaty hip flexors can look impressive, that’s not the point of working the abs.
Professor Vladimir Janda popularized the concept of reciprocal inhibition: when one muscle contracts, the antagonist relaxes. So when you activate your glutes and hamstrings, your hip flexors will somewhat switch off.
By inhibiting your hip flexors via hamstring and glute engagement, you isolate your abs better and take some strain off your lower back. You’ll also increase the level of difficulty of your regular ab exercises. Your abs will fatigue first, which is the entire point.
A 2007 study compared a regular crunch to a modified version with hamstring activation. With hammy engagement, the research showed 26 percent more activation of the lower rectus abdominis fibers and 46 percent more activation of external oblique fibers (1).
Now that we know why it works let’s apply it. Remember, the goal is to activate your hamstrings and glutes as much as possible to get more out of your abs.
Unfortunately, just thinking about contracting your hams and glutes isn’t enough. It helps somewhat, but there are smarter ways to set up your ab exercises to create more tension in them. Here’s how.
Crushing a medball (on Amazon) between your calves and hamstrings during roll-outs is an effective way to get your hammies firing. You’ll instantly feel how this small upgrade can completely change the feel of your regular roll-outs. As a bonus, it’ll also add a small amount of resistance at the bottom of the movement.
- Crush the medicine ball with your hamstrings. Squeeze your glutes. Imagine trying to crack a walnut with your butt cheeks throughout the roll-out.
- Brace hard in the bottom position.
- Exhale fully at the top, pulling your ribs to your pelvis and flexing your spine at the top.
Use your hamstrings to squeeze a foam roller (on Amazon). A foam roller clamps nicely between your calves and hamstrings, encouraging some activation.
Use this method for knee raise and reverse crunch variations to help switch off your hip flexors. This will make these exercises particularly effective at hitting the lower fibers of your rectus abdominis.
- Place the foam roller between your calves and hamstrings. If it slips, try wrapping it in a towel.
- Tense your hamstrings while making a conscious effort to engage your glutes simultaneously. This will make the exercise significantly harder.
- Hold onto a plate or sturdy object for stability.
- Raise your knees and focus on tilting your pelvis. Lift your hips off the floor at the top without momentum.
- Exhale fully at the top to get maximum ab engagement.
The Janda crunch is known for removing the hip flexors from a traditional ab exercise. Professor Janda originally described the process of performing a crunch while actively driving your heels into the ground. This is somewhat similar, but you’ll be coming up fully to the top, like you would for a sit-up.
Pavel Tsatsouline recommends coming up fully to the top. If starting from the floor is too difficult, practice partial reps from the top down. The key is to maximally engage your glutes and hamstrings, making even the simplest of sit-ups a whole different beast.
- Drive your heels into the platform’s edge to activate your hamstrings. You can also pile up a few thick mats to lay on and wedge your heels against.
- As you sit up, think about closing the space between your ribs and pelvis to fully shorten your rectus abdominis.
- Get rid of all of your air as you reach the top.
- Accentuate the eccentric, taking at least 2-3 seconds to lower.
- To make these easier, start from the top and go down further over time.
Janda sit-ups can also be done using a resistance band. In this case, an NT Loop (on Amazon) is a comfortable setup to pull your heels against. Use the band to activate your hamstrings while working hard to keep cracking that imaginary walnut between your butt cheeks.
- Thread a band around a piece of equipment that’s not going to move, then place each end of the band around your ankles. This will create just enough tension to lock you into position and continue pulling your heels against.
- As you sit up, think about closing the space between your ribs and pelvis to maximally shorten your abdominal fibers.
- Exhale fully as you reach the top.
- Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings throughout.
- Lower slowly. Take at least 2-3 seconds to lower yourself back down to the floor.
- To make it harder, stretch your arms up overhead on the way down to overload the eccentric.
This might look silly with both a band and a ball, but the setup is worth the payoff.
While crunches tend to reduce hip flexor activation (compared to sit-ups), they still recruit them somewhat. On top of that, the standard crunch has such a low resistance that experienced lifters often get bored with it. This variation solves both problems.
Hamstring-activated crunches help inhibit hip flexor involvement while making the basic crunch harder. Doing these on a Swiss (stability) ball (on Amazon) places you in an ideal position to “close the space” between your pelvis and ribs. This way, you can fully shorten and activate your transverse abdominis.
- Sit on a ball and place the band around your ankles.
- Lay back and position the peak of the ball in your lumbar curve.
- While getting settled, make sure you can create enough tension with your hams and glutes (through the band) to create stability.
- Try placing your thumb at the bottom of your ribcage and your forefinger on your pelvis. As you crunch up, just think about your thumb and forefinger getting closer together. As you come down, they’ll move further apart.
- Squeeze your glutes throughout. Use your hamstrings to maintain tension on the band.
- Exhale fully as you reach the top.
- Don’t flex your neck excessively. If you do, you can use the trick of putting a tennis ball under your chin. It works.
- Larson DS et. al. The Effect of Hamstring Contractions in the Activation of the Abdominal Muscles during a Standard Abdominal Crunch. Doctoral dissertation, University of North Dakota. (2007). Physical Therapy Scholarly Projects. 278.
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