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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
December 09, 2021
Heel touches, aka alternating heel taps, are a signature isolation exercise targeting the obliques and rectus abdominis (abs). With proper technique, the transverse abdominis is also effectively activated throughout the movement.
Strengthening your inner abdominal muscles (internal obliques and transverse abdominis) is vitally important, and contributes to spinal stability, and a healthy, strong lower back. You need this in order to execute a variety of exercises, such as heel touches. Because this is primarily an isolation exercise, it’s not going to be the best choice for a high calorie burn. Adding in cardio based abdominal movements will help you achieve this and make your routine more challenging.
Nevertheless, this is an effective isolation exercise for the abs and obliques, both deep and superficial, so let's dig into it.
Heel touches are an oblique focused exercise with quite a bit of versatility. From beginners to advanced level, this exercise can help chisel your waistline, and strengthen your core in general. It can be done with just bodyweight or added resistance, depending on your fitness level. As you alternate your reach towards each heel, your oblique muscles will contract as you squeeze with each touch. With each rep, you are, in essence, strengthening your entire core. As we age, the need to keep our balance and stability intact is pertinent. Implementing heel touches regularly into your abdominal routine will ensure you do just that.
Heel touches work both the side and the front of the obliques (internal and external). The transverse abdominal muscles (TVA) are engaged during this exercise as the head and shoulders are lifted from the floor. The rectus abdominis (also known as the 6 pack muscles) remain in a static contracted state throughout the exercise. Another perk of doing heel touches is improved flexibility of your hip flexors.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the muscles used:
Transverse Abdominis (TVA): The transverse abdominis is a deep layer of muscles behind the rectus abdominis along the walls of the abdomen. These muscles support and hold organs in place, as well as help to stabilize the spine. Movement of any limbs is almost impossible without these foundational muscles.
Rectus Abdominis: The rectus abdominis is a long frontal muscle of the abdominal wall. Often referred to as “the six pack", it sits in the center of the core or trunk. Extra layers of fat will prevent these muscles from being visible. Under the sternum, and down to the pubic bone, is where they begin and end. The main function of the rectus abdominis is frontal flexion towards the pelvis. Movements like sit-ups, or rocking crunches probably come to mind, but also static holds, as demonstrated during heel touches.
Internal Obliques: This muscle is located on the lateral side of the rectus abdominis right above the transverse abdominis. It’s thin and makes up one layer of the abdominal wall. The internal obliques can work bilaterally, meaning at the same time. An example of this is performing a hollow hold. Other wonderful functions include helping to bend and flex the torso during many other movements. We often only think about only the contraction of these muscle groups, but the internal and external obliques also work at the same time when elongating the trunk. An example of this would be a back bend stretch.
External Obliques: This muscle is larger than the internal obliques and is located laterally of the rectus abdominis also, but more in frontal region. It extends from the lower ribs down to the pelvis, so it is quite grand. It’s impossible to twist your torso without these muscles. External obliques and internal obliques work hand in hand. Here’s an example, when the torso twists to the left during a russian twist, the left side internal oblique and right side external oblique contract at the same time!
Hip Flexors: Hip flexors are a group of several muscles that help bring your legs and trunk together in various ways. Whether bending the knees to drive them in, or bending at the waist to meet the legs, your hip flexors are a gateway to do this.
With any exercise, proper technique is so important. You want to achieve optimal results for the hard work you’re putting in. We want to ensure you understand how to execute this exercise, and feel good about it whether in the gym or at home.
Pay close attention to your body. If you begin to feel pain or serious discomfort, stop the exercise and discuss your concerns with your doctor.
Common mistakes with this exercise, such as not squeezing the abdominal muscles, cause you to not get a proper contraction. Firing up those obliques for the duration of the exercise is the ultimate goal.
Because part of this exercise involves a static hold of the rectus abdominis, be sure to not put unnecessary tension or strain on your neck by tucking your chin down. If your neck starts to feel tight, stop and begin again with your c-spine (neck) as neutral as possible.
Another common mistake is improper breathing. It’s important to supply oxygen to your abdominals during any ab exercise, this is done when you inhale/exhale. This will also give you the fuel to finish your entire workout.
Everyone will not start at the same fitness level for a variety of reasons. What’s most important is that you understand what’s best for you, and then make adjustments as you progress to challenge yourself more. Trust your individual process, knowing what you’re capable of doing physically. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself, or set an unrealistic goal and become discouraged.
Beginners, start with 10-12 reps on each side. As you advance, try increasing your repetitions to 12-15 reps on each side. If you are starting at an advanced level, shoot for 15-20 reps per side.
There are a few ways to increase difficulty of heel touches. Because it is normally a body weight exercise, getting a little creative with these implementations will give you the extra burn you’re looking for. Increasing difficulty may also help you reach your goals to build more muscle a little faster. Here are some suggestions:
Lastly, try adding a bonus set or burn out as a finisher for an extended period of time.
Always remember to keep variety in your ab routine. If you’re not a fan of heel touches, here are some great alternatives that will challenge your obliques, and rectus abdominis.
Plank Spiders: In an extended plank position, drive the knees out and up one at a time towards each elbow. Repeating in a slow controlled pace. Ensure your spine remains flat throughout the exercise, exhale with every knee drive. Aim for 10-12 reps on each side, or 20-24 reps total for 3 rounds.
Side Planks: Lie on your side, propping your body up on your elbow. Line up the other arm at the side of the body. Raise your hips off the floor keeping your legs straight. Hold this position squeezing the abdominals for 10-20 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times before switching to the other side. Remember to inhale/exhale throughout the hold.
Elbow to Knee Bicycle Crunch: Lie on back and raise your knees so they are at about 90 degrees. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor; without pulling your head with your hands, place your fingers in the back of the head. Use your legs in a bicycling motion as you alternate elbows to knees by rotating the torso. Try to drive your knees towards your chest as best as possible, extending them back out after each tap. You’ll want to do 12-15 reps on each side, or 24-30 reps total for 3 rounds.
Reverse Crunch Toe Tap: To start, lie on your back with your lower back pressed into the floor. Bend your knees to 90 degrees, with your feet flat on the floor. Curl your pelvis upward, engaging your lower abdominals so that you are able to lift your feet from the floor. Bring your knees in towards your chest, extending the legs back to 90 degrees, then tapping the floor with your toes. Aim for 12-15 reps for 3 rounds.
Hanging “X" Crunch: Hanging from a sturdy bar with arms straight, alternate the knees as if to draw an upside down “X". Another way to explain this is to drive your knees up one at a time in a criss cross motion. Keep a sturdy box or step nearby if getting up and down proves to be difficult. Set a goal of 8-10 reps per side, or 16-20 reps total for 3 rounds.
Russian Twists: Start with sitting up on the floor, legs at 45 degrees with a straight spine. Lean your torso back about 15-20 degrees. Doing this activates your rectus abdominis. Lifting your feet off the floor enough to remain steady, start twisting your torso with fingers interlocked. With your hands, aim for your hips on each side. You may also use a dumbbell, kettlebell or medicine ball to increase difficulty. To modify this exercise, keep your feet down with heels pressed into the floor with your toes up. Aim for 12-15 reps each side or 24-30 reps total for 3 rounds.
Hollow Hold: Lying on your back with legs straight, raise your arms above your head. Pushing your lumbar spine into the floor, lift your head and shoulders off the ground. Squeeze your abdominals crunching into the pelvis to help you lift your legs off the ground. If keeping your hands up while doing this is too difficult, you may modify the exercise by bringing your arms down at your sides. Keep your neck neutral during this isometric hold, taking continual breaths in through the nose and out of your mouth. Try holding the position for 20-30 seconds. Rest then repeat 2-3 times.
Leg Downs: Start with lying on the floor with your body centered. Keep your lower back pressed downward. With both legs straight and feet facing the ceiling, start lowering one leg at a time, alternating after your leg comes 1-2 inches from the floor. To modify this exercise, you can place your hands under your tailbone. Same rule applies, keep your lower back pressed down. This helps to stabilize the spine. Start with 10-12 reps each side, or 20-24 reps total for 3 rounds.
Rocking abdominal crunch: Lie with your back flat on the floor with legs at 90 degrees. Keep your feet flat on the floor. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor with straight arms facing your knees. Crunch forward and upward only halfway, lowering back down briefly as in a rocking chair motion. Keep a neutral neck during this exercise, with eyes facing the ceiling. Complete 15-20 reps for 3 rounds.
If you’re wanting to strengthen your core and define your internal and external obliques, heel touches are great way to achieve that. Adding them into your abdominal routine 2-3 times a week is an awesome start. Consider training with a friend to keep it fun, and remember, keep your diet as clean as possible for the best results.
If you have experienced an injury that is still bothersome, or have a preexisting medical condition, always consult with your primary care physician before starting an exercise regimen.
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