I hope everyone had a lovely holiday weekend! I squeezed in another lower body workout yesterday, and in the New Year I’ll be posting a derriere routine that will not only lift and sculpt your backside, but will also strengthen your core and protect your lower back, hips, and knees from injury.
Speaking of the core, however, let’s include a core workout in today’s schedule!
If you follow me on social media, you know that I consider a strong core and “washboard abs” to be two entirely different goals. In short, I think that a strong core is vitally important for everyone, while I think that a six-pack is not necessarily a great goal to have. I want to clear up any misconception that I am hating on ripped bodies, and explain why I think most people shouldn’t strive for a six-pack:
A strong core is the source of balance, and it protects your lower back, hips, and knees from injury. A simple explanation is that the core includes three main muscles (there are more, but this is a generalization). In order of importance, they are the transverse abdominus (a deep muscle that wraps like a large, strong belt around your waist and prevents injury), the obliques (visible muscles that contribute to a “cut” look), and the rectus abdominus (the golden standard of washboard abs). The transverse abdominus is what creates the “strong core” and, regardless of body fat percentage or visibility of any abdominal definition, will protect your body from movement-related injury. Taking all three of the major abdominal muscle groups into account when you plan exercises allows for balanced muscle mass, good posture, and reduced likelihood of injury.
Washboard abs are simply the result of extremely low body fat and a focus on exercising the rectus abdominus. Remember that the rectus abdominus was the last on the list, in order of ab importance? Compared to the transverse abdominus, it is largely aesthetic, and focusing disproportionately on this muscle group through excessive crunches and weighted sit-ups will result in unbalanced muscles, possibly an injured lower back from the stress of thousands of crunches over time, as well as a greater chance of muscle separation in the middle of your abs known as diastasis recti. Diastasis recti is more common in women – especially women who have been pregnant – but it can also happen to men and women of all ages when there are unbalanced muscles in the abdomen.
I’m not discounting the desire to be aesthetically fit – I love my bikini body and I know that for many people, the visible results of exercise are the prime motivators. However, any time you are planning an exercise and healthy eating program, the sequence of priorities should be, in the following order:
- Cardiovascular benefits such as healthy blood pressure and efficient oxygen consumption
- Injury prevention and balanced muscle mass
- Weight loss
- Aesthetic sculpting and shaping
Many times when you begin to address one, another happens automatically (focusing on cardiovascular health often results in weight loss, for example), but I’m referring to the area of focus and goal-setting. You should only focus on aesthetic sculpting if you are already in very good shape.
This is why, in other words, a six-pack is a realistic goal for someone who already has a (healthy) level of low body fat and a wicked strong core. However, it is never a necessary goal, and you can look amazing in a bikini without focusing on acquiring a six-pack by incorporating the following routines into your lifestyle:
- High-intensity cardio intervals – Remember how you can’t spot-tone? In order to reveal defined abdominal muscles, you will need to lose fat all over your body. Incorporating heart-pumping, sweat-inducing intervals into your workouts will help to accomplish this. Try this cardio day three times a week for best results.
- Healthy plan of eating – Abs are made in the kitchen, so to speak. In order to reveal your muscular definition, you will need to (most likely) reduce the amount of carbohydrates and sugar that you typically eat, and increase the amount of vegetables and nutrient-rich plant products that you consume. My recommendation for all clients is to keep a food journal, because you may be surprised that you eat more (and of a lower quality) than you estimate.
- Strong transverse abdominus, obliques, and rectus abdominus, in that order – The following core workout will create strong and shapely abdominals that will be visible within a certain range of body fat percentage. Remember, you can have ab definition without a six-pack, but read this blog post about body fat percentage for women to learn more about healthy ranges (hint: there is a such thing as “too low”).
Try out the 15-minute routine, which is short and simple, and can be done anywhere with a yoga mat or towel!
For core exercise, you should always focus on keeping your abs “sucked in” (or “scooped,” as they say in Pilates) the entire time. This is especially difficult in positions where you are facing the floor, such as plank, but the fight against gravity will improve both your abs’ strength and visible definition!
- Plank – this compound isometric hold works many parts of your body at once. Hold plank position for 20-30 seconds at a time if you are a beginner, or 60 to 90 seconds at a time if you are more advanced. Do three planks, with a period of rest equal to your hold between each plank, before moving on with your workout. P.S. Do not do plank every day! You need rest from planks just like you need rest days from running. Especially for women, over-exercising the muscles used for plank can result in a condition known as costochondritis, which consists of temporary inflammation in the chest muscles that feels terrifyingly like a heart attack. It occurs when there is an over-emphasis on plank day after day – think “30-Day Plank Challenge”!
- Side Plank Hip Thrusts – shift from plank to side plank, and, with your upper hand on your upper hip, perform 12 vertical lifts from your hips. They will feel like small pulses (not a large range of motion). Switch sides and perform 12 lifts with the other side. Rest one minute, and repeat on both sides.
- Pilates 100’s – lie on your back, lift your legs so that your feet are together and your knees are slightly bent, and lift your torso so that your back is straight and your arms are slightly lifted and parallel to the floor. From that position, pump your arms up and down and sharply inhale for five breaths, then sharply exhale for five breaths. Do this ten times without stopping, keeping your abs pulled in tightly the entire time, then relax. Perform the exercise once more.
- Glute bridge – lie on your back, and plant your feet firmly on the floor with your knees bent. Place your hands flat on the floor at your sides. Contract your abdominal muscles and lift your hips from the floor so that your body is in a straight line from your knees to your chest. Hold your hips at this angle for five breaths, and then release. Do this move for ten repetitions.
If you do this workout twice a week for five weeks and follow up with healthy eating and high-intensity cardio of any kind, you will begin to see results at around the five-week mark. But remember, any exercise plan requires progression, and in about a month you’ll need to challenge yourself again with some new, more difficult moves.