By Tricia Y. Petrinovich
Abdominal muscles. We all have them. We mostly know generally where they are sorta. But we can’t all find ours by just lifting our shirts and glancing in the mirror. Which is A-okay. My point is not to make you believe you need to aspire to some beach body ideal, but to reinforce the importance of a strong core, and, bossy person that I am, tell you ways you can strengthen it.
Let’s face it: Not everyone knows. I’m a group exercise instructor, and when I do a toning class and tell people to “engage their core” or even point toward the abs and make a fist (the international sign for core tightening), I sometimes see people squish up their faces as if they were constipated and fresh out of Beano. And don’t get me wrong, squishy faces are adorable. But your cheek muscles are not attached to your abs, last time I looked.
So first things first. How do you target your abdominals so that when you do a fitness movement (not the same as a Beano-aided movement, incidentally), you maximize the benefit? I’m glad you asked. This is where having a mirror may actually help you, but if it doesn’t, that’s okay.
A lot of people think tightening is just “sucking it in.” Which might be the answer if you’ve had too much spaghetti, but isn’t the key to working your abs. Instead, the best way to engage these muscles is to exhale. That’s right, even if you haven’t had a breath mint, blow out your halitosis-inspired air.
If you do this while standing in front of a mirror, you might see increased definition in your abdominal area, and you should feel them contract. This is due to the fact that you have, in fact, summoned those muscles to work, and they are ready to go.
I know what you are thinking. “Now that I don’t have any breath left, isn’t the next step, in fact, to lose consciousness?” And the answer is “no,” because you will note that now that you can feel those muscles, you can essentially “hold” that feeling and begin to breath normally. That is not to say that after some movements or a lot of gasping for air (depending on the work out) you won’t lose your hold and need to tighten them again. In fact, most experts – even those not named me – will tell you that you need to constantly re-engage throughout fitness. So go ahead and breathe, but keep thinking about your abs and assess if you are feeling those muscles. When I teach weight work, it is amazing how just knowing where we are supposed to feel a particular exercise helps the effectiveness of the work. It seems so “Duh!” but at the same time, we can get caught up in the technical process of the move and forget to focus on the target muscle group.
Much of what I have discussed thus far relates to ab work while we are upright (versus laying on a floor or mat, or hanging upside down from a tree like a possum), and a few ideas to work in this manner include:
The Squat & Twist.
Again, start with a proper squat, then touch the back of your head with one hand, leaning out to the other side with your other arm extended. Repeat several times straight out and several times in a downward motion, then change to the other side. Incidentally, this also doubles as a Ninja move for stealthily swiping chocolate chip cookies off someone else’s plate, I’ve heard.
You knew I had to throw in something international, because I teach Zumba, right? But this move works so many parts of your body it’s ridiculous not to learn it. Stand face forward, lift one arm and place your feet shoulder width apart. Engage that core, than cut forward (as if lopping sugar cane with your machete) and go down into a squat. As you side swipe with your “cutting” motion, you are dramatically working your obliques (sides of the abdominals) as well as your back muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, spine) and quads/hamstrings. The only muscle not being worked here are those cheeks, unless, of course, you can’t stop smiling. Then cut back up to starting position, and finally, rotate back one step so you are facing the side. From the starting position it is four moves in all: cut down, stand, take a step back, then return to front. All with your “machete” in place, in this case your arm and hand. Of course, after several repetitions on one side, switch hands and work the other side. Disclaimer: Sugar cane not included.
Of course, now that I’ve given you three great exercises to do while starting from a stance, I should mention that the most effective abdominal moves are done on the floor, either lying on your back or up on your side. But we will cover ideas for those moves in next month’s edition of The Abdominal Chronicles, which hopefully was foreshadowed when this month’s was called “Part 1.”
Meanwhile, use the next few weeks to practice your standing ab work, and of course, engaging your core. If you get a green lawn and some yummy cookies in the process, so much the better.