Want Strong, Toned Abs? Do These 5 Exercises

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 A thirty minute circuit training workout was described in last month's issue of Revolution to start inactive subscribers on a path to better health and a better body.

If you recall, the workout progressed in intensity throughout the thirty minutes and included intervals of cardiovascular exercise such as walking and various strengthening exercises.

The exercises were targeted to strengthen core muscle groups such as your trunk and upper body, while the cardio would work the lower body. Though there are hundreds of variations of hundreds of different types of exercise, circuit training will always be one of the most effective and efficient forms of training. Your heart rate stays elevated for an excellent cardiovascular workout but with the added value of intermixing specific strengthening exercises for the whole body.

Cardiovascular exercise of any sort is the obvious first choice in exercise because of heart muscle strengthening, better stroke volume (amount of blood pushed through the heart in one beat), higher oxygen levels in the bloodstream, and improved cellular metabolism throughout the entire body.

Before you quit reading to go for a jog, let me emphasize how valuable strength training is. The benefits of direct muscle strengthening are equally important but for different reasons. Most orthopedic degenerative disorders and pain are a result of disuse and muscle/joint imbalances. Over time, when the body isn't kept strong and fit, muscles that aren't used become weak and are overpowered by opposing muscles that are used more often in normal daily life.

This puts an imbalanced tension on joints and pulls your body into postures that aren't normal. The postural strain makes other muscles work constantly to combat gravity and the abnormal pull of other muscles that aren't “balanced” because of the weakness of others. You can see it becomes a vicious cycle of weakness, tension, poor posture, muscle strain, pain, and then joint degeneration because of this cumulative but insidious trauma. Headaches, chronic back aches, knee pain, muscle fatigue, and many other types of orthopedic ailments can be avoided and even reversed with exercise.

Nothing beats good old fashioned weight lifting, and just a couple sets of dumbbells coupled with an array of proper exercises can be a great start. Focusing on the waistline, the following workout can be done in fifteen minutes right in front of the television - the ultimate coach potato's dream! You can get buff lying on the floor watching Andy Griffith reruns. For the more ambitious who have started the circuit training program described last month, you can incorporate these exercises as part of the workout.

The importance of ab training really begins with low back support. EMG studies have confirmed that people with chronic low back pain have much less abdominal strength and active muscle support than those without low back pain. A weak abdominal wall fails to support the pelvis from the front and allows the powerful low back muscles to pull the back of the pelvis upward. You can visibly see this forward pelvic tilt in many people. This can cause your sacroiliac joints and facet joints of the lumbar spine to compress causing pain, the unopposed low back muscles can become tight and painful, and the entire pelvic and low back region loses stability and normal movement. Simple, consistent, and progressive abdominal exercise can be amazingly effective at preventing and improving these conditions.

CRUNCHES Let's start with the basic crunch. With feet flat on the floor, knees up, and head resting in your cupped or interlocked hands, raise your head and chest toward the ceiling. Use controlled, not jerky, movements and don't pull with your hands. Let your abs do the work. Start with just 10, or if you're already an experienced athlete do 25-50 for a warm up.

CRUNCHES WITH KNEES UP When you raise your head and chest upward, you're really tilting your rib cage toward your pelvis. The front section of your abdominals originate on your lower ribs and attache to the front of your pelvis. Tilting your rib cage (crunch) uses your abs from the top down (origin towards insertion.) If you move your pelvis upward toward your rib cage, now you're working from the bottom up (insertion toward origin.) This is very effective to target the lower abs which are extremely important for back support. The simple way to do this is start your crunches with your feet off the floor and when you raise your head and chest upward, rock your pelvis toward your rib cage. You are now “cinching” your abs together. You're moving your rib cage and your pelvis toward each other. Really focus on feeling your abs contract and lift your pelvis up slightly at the end of the contraction. You should feel this exercise isolate the abs very well.

OBLIQUE CRUNCHES The abdominal wall consists of four basic muscle groups. The rectus abdominis which is the top layer that people see and refer to as the “six pack.” The transversus abdominis is a more horizontal layer under the rectus, and then there are crossing layers of diagonal muscles called the internal and external obliques. These are the abdominal muscles that cover your sides and actually begin in your low back and wrap around toward the rib cage. These muscles are important for twisting activity and support for your back during multi-directional movement. To strengthen these muscles, begin in the normal crunch position. Instead of lifting your head and chest forward, twist one elbow toward the opposite knee. Release back down and alternate with the other side. Again, try to squeeze and feel the muscle work rather than just move through the exercise.

These three exercises are the most basic to hit all the muscles of your abdominal wall. They are the easiest, safest, and yet still effective for strengthening. There are incredible progressions, however, that will be covered in future articles. Here are a couple of advanced exercises:

BENCH KNEE RAISES This requires more strength but is very similar to the crunches with knees up. You're still working the origins and insertions toward one another, but it activates more muscle for coordination purposes and the movement is greater and less supported. If you have back pain, either avoid this for awhile, or use very short movements until you gain more control. Though shown on a weight bench here, you can do these on the floor. Place your hands next to your hips for balance. Extend your legs so they are about 45 degrees off the floor and lean your upper body backwards slightly. The trick is to know how far and how fast to extend both upper and lower body to maintain your balance. The more coordinated you become, the more you can focus and control the abdominal contractions.

REVERSE CRUNCHES This exercise works the lower abs in a very advanced way. This can irritate any existing low back problems, so make sure you're ready to progress to this one. Lie on the floor and place your hands together, palms down under your sacrum. Your sacrum should be supported on both sides by the backs of your hands. Keep your head off the floor and your low back stable while you extend your legs to 45-60 degrees from the floor. Raise your knees while bending them, toward your chest. When you reach a point of slowing because your hips are flexed and your knees are almost to your chest, raise your pelvis off the ground a couple of inches. As always, control is key. Don't jerk your hips up, use your lower abs to elevate your pelvis and then return down with your legs extended straight out at a 45-60 degree angle from the floor. This really, really targets your lower abs especially if you can lift your pelvis off the floor in the contracted position and hold for a second. If done with control, it can be one of the greatest strengthening exercises.

A beginning program would include:

Crunches x10

Crunches with knees up x10

Oblique crunches x10

Rest one minute

Repeat twice

To advance, ad bench knee raises and reverse crunches to the same protocol. The next progression would be increase reps to 15, 20, 25 etc. Once you get strong, coordinated and competent with these exercise, you will certainly have an incredibly strong trunk. At this point, higher level exercises could be safely advanced into. Upcoming articles will build on this base of movements. One side note I have to mention is the age old myth that doing abdominal work will give you a flat, sexy stomach. Body fat around the middle has to be used as energy to be gotten rid of. All exercise, including ab work, will burn some extra calories, but if you don't have a controlled, predictable weight loss plan, you can crunch until the return of Christ and never look like a cover model. The abdominal exercises will strengthen, tone, decrease the risk of back injury, and burn some calories, but to ever see those abs, it's going to take some work in the kitchen as well!

Dr. Joe is the founder of The Diet Doc and has written in the fitness industry for over a decade.  His newest book ( is taking aim at permanent weight loss while he continues to work with clients every day via his unique online programs ( and fitness, figure, and bodybuilding competitors of all levels (