Traditional core exercises, like crunches or bicycle, are great for sculpting your upper abdominals and obliques. But they barely touch those pesky lower abs, making toning this trouble spot quite a challenge for most of us.
If you want to really flatten and sculpt your belly, you have to make sure you’re hitting every last inch of those hidden muscles. We asked fitness expert and certified personal trainer Kira Stokes (who has a six-pack most can only dream of) to show us some of her favorite moves for chiseling the lower abs.
The key? Put your legs and your brain into it. “Anytime you move your legs, you’re working your lower abdomen,” Stokes says, since they’re connected to the hip flexors. Unfortunately, most of us feel these exercises mainly in the hip flexor, which can take away from working the abs, not to mention be pretty uncomfortable. “The low abdomen takes so much mental focus,” she says. Putting your brain into the muscle group is key, by constantly focusing on your lower abs and making sure you feel them engaged in every move.
Before you go any further, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a classic plank position down pat, since many of these moves are based off it. To plank perfectly, Stokes instructs: prop yourself up on your feet and forearms, shoulders rolling down your back, squeezing the butt cheeks, drawing the navel in strongly. Be careful not to arch your back—your whole torso should stay in a straight line. Got it? Time to whip your tummy into bikini-body shape.
Get into a plank position with a glider under each foot. If you don’t have gliders, you can use paper plates or towels, Stokes says. Hold the plank, press down on the gliders, and slide legs out behind you, maintaining the plank position. Your arms will extend as you slide your body back. Then, pull your body back into the starting position. Keep a straight plank pose the entire time. Make sure you’re pushing and pulling as far as you can, getting as much range as possible. Do 10-15 forward and backs (counting forward and back as one) or for 30 seconds.
“Think of cleaning the floor and wanting to get it done as fast as possible,” Stokes says. The key is to really press down on the gliders to create friction between the glider and the floor—that’s what really gets your core engaged. If you just let them fly, you’ll only be working your hip flexors. This move works your entire rectus abdominus, Stokes notes, so you’re getting both a stretch and building strength, which is rare for core workouts.
Get into an extended arm plank, propped up on your hands with hands directly beneath your shoulders, feet hip-width apart. Press down on the gliders and slowly pull the knees in so they come about 4 inches in front of your hips. Then, push back to starting plank position, keeping the core tight the entire time, drawing the navel in. Do for 30-45 seconds, or 10-15 reps. You should be moving very slowly to get the most out of each move, Stokes says.
3One-Legged Mountain Climber
Start in a plank position with your right knee pulled into your chest. Keep the right knee completely stable so you have a constant contraction on that side. Then, slide the left knee in and back, maintaining the height of your hips. Do 10-15, then switch and do the same on the other side.
In this move, your abdominal wall is contracted on one side by holding the knee in tight and the other side is more active so both sides are working. “They’re hard,” Stokes admits. “It’s more about the quality of your movement than necessarily the quantity,” so start out with less if that’s what it takes to do them correctly.
Get down into a plank position, squeezing your butt, with a glider under each foot, on the edge of your mat. Using your forearms, crawl forward about five steps, until your gliders hit the end of the mat, and then crawl back. Make sure to hold the plank position and keep legs straight and hips stable. Do this 3-5 times, counting forward and back as one full rep.
This exercise is a great standard move to keep on hand that lengthens and takes pressure off the lower back, which ab workouts tend to strain. “A basic c-curve is very therapeutic after the glide work, so it makes sense to do this in conjunction with the glide work,” Stokes notes.
To get into position, first sit on the floor on your tailbone, as if you are about to lower back into a sit-up position, with a ball (you can sub a T-shirt or pillow, too) squeezed tightly between your thighs. “When you hold something [here] and squeeze, you engage the inner thigh which works more through the low abdomen,” Stokes says. Rest on your elbows and make sure to maintain that height throughout. Arch your back into a small stretch, tuck the tailbone and drive the low back down. Pick your elbows up and hold onto the backs of your thighs. Keep shoulders down, chin open, and elbows wide. This is the c-curve position.
From here, grab a set of light weights (soup cans work, too!) and hold arms out by your knees. Lower arms and tap the ground, then lift back to start position. Repeat as you hold the c-curve for 60-90 seconds, concentrating on the arm movements the entire time. You can even do bicep curls instead, Stokes says. “Anything to take your mind off the fact your abs are burning.”
Lay flat on your back, legs straight up in the air at a 90-degree angle. Place a ball in-between the inner thighs, hands relaxed down to the side. As you press in on the ball, tip the hips up. It’s a subtle movement: Be careful not to rock your hips, just tip them up slightly, initiating all movement from your lower abdomen. Crunch in and tip the hips, release halfway, repeat. Progress it by holding weights in your hands. Do 15-20 controlled reps.
Start with your body sprawled out on the floor in an X, “like you look like you’re dead,” Stokes jokes, holding a weight in each hand. If it’s too heavy, you can also do without weights, but they will give you some extra chest and shoulder work. Lift your left hand and bring the weight towards your right shin, lifting your torso and keeping your belly pulled into your spine, until you roll all the way up to balancing on your tailbone. You can come up onto your elbow a bit to make it a little easier—don’t use it as a crutch, but as a guide. Lower back down and alternate sides. Try turning your foot out, still keeping the leg straight, to get a deeper inner thigh workout at the same time. Do 24-30 reps, alternating every time (so 12-15 each side).
“This move works your whole transverse abdominus, and again, you’re moving the legs so you’re working the lower abdomen,” Stokes points out.
8Six Pack Scissor
Lay flat on your back, hug your knee into your chest your left leg straight and about two inches off the ground, right leg up toward the ceiling. Lift your upper body nice and high, use hands behind knee and then bring your hands behind your head. Lift the left foot and tap the back of the right heel, crunch and tip your hips, half release (just shoulder blades don’t drop your torso), and bring the leg back to its starting position a half inch from the ground. Do 12-15 per side, completing all on one side before switching to the other.
“Pace is last thing to be concerned about,” Stokes says. “Slower is better, slower is harder.” Again, going for quality over quantity is how you are really going to safely and effectively sculpt your muscles.