January 17, 2022
Let's just put it out there, the lower abs are a trouble area for most. They are hard to hit properly and it's never easy shaving off that lower belly pouch to get them to show. But, "hard" and "not easy" is just another way of saying "it can be done"...and we are here to show you how.
In this post, we are going to focus on the lower portion of your rectus abdominis (aka your abs), discussing the best tactics and exercises to target them.
First though, let’s delve into the muscles that make up the core, and determine what exactly the lower abdominals are!
When we think of core muscles, one might just consider the front of the body, in the area of the belly. While those are surely core muscles, the core in and of itself wraps around the entire torso – think of it like a corset. The muscles of your lower back and sides, stabilize and support the spine, are also core muscles, and they have several important responsibilities.
Let’s break each core muscle down and see how they relate to movement you do every day:
To be 100% clear, there are no specific lower abdominals (abs) – just like there are no upper abdominals. As stated above, your abs are your rectus abdominis and it is one muscle.
However, the rectus abdominis is separated into right and left sides, anatomically speaking.
Now, your abs, and your external obliques, can be “seen” with proper diet and exercise, since they are so close to the surface (as opposed to the internal obliques, which are under the external obliques). But, no matter how much exercise you do, and how well developed your abs, you won't be able to see them without a low body fat percentage. It's as simple as that. As they say, abs are made in the kitchen.
To make matters more difficult, because eating clean enough to see your abs is not easy for most people, the lower part of your belly is one of the most stubborn areas for fat loss. While you can't spot reduce fat, it does seem like lower belly fat (which covers your lower abs) is the last to go. Nevertheless, if you eat clean and keep your metabolism running strong, the fat will go and your abs will show.
In terms of the "lower abs", they can be thought of as being located below the waist, essentially from your belly button down – and thankfully, there are exercises that you can do to help strengthen this part of the core! Be that as it may, no matter what ab exercise you are choosing to incorporate into your training program, all of the core muscles will be utilized to some degree; the difference is how you are engaging and activating your core throughout your movements.
Technically, no. When you are performing ab exercises, your entire core will be engaged. However, you can certainly emphasize the lower abs. So, while it's not actually "isolation", it is as good as it. This is why we can say "lower ab exercises" and "upper ab exercises", because they essentially isolate the areas through specific movements, which we will now get into...
The rectus abdominis' main jobs are flexion of the torso, which means forward bending (bringing your chest toward your hips), and flexion of the hips, which essentially means to bring your pelvic bone/hips upward.
Now that we understand the two main actions of the abs, we can separate the two as such:
Torso Flexion = Upper Abs
Posterior Pelvic Tilt, or Hip Flexion = Lower Abs
Basically, the upper part of your abs will be most activated during flexion of the torso (i.e. crunches) and the lower part of your abs will be most activated when bringing your hips toward upper body (i.e. leg raises).
So, to target your lower abs, think of movements that bring your thighs toward your core, instead of movements that might bring your upper body off the floor or toward your legs (that would be activating the upper abs more).
Now that we know we need to target the flexion of the hips in order to work those lower abdominals, what sort of exercises would this cover? Bicycles, reverse crunches, planks with a knee drive, and hanging leg raises are all wonderful for activating the lower abdominal area.
Granted, many of the abdominal exercises that you see – or that you may already incorporate into your fitness routine – work the upper and lower abs together, like planks. There is absolutely nothing wrong with working these more "compound" core exercises into your regimen (so long as there are no injuries to contend with, of course). Just be aware that some exercises will combine both hip flexion and spinal flexion at the same time, so the focus will be on the entire core as opposed to one “specific” area, and that doesn't make it any less effective when trying to hit your lower abs.
Aside from the general desire to have a toned and defined midsection, targeting the lower abs – and the core as a whole – can have several benefits.
Injury prevention is one of the top reasons that folks incorporate core training into their workout routines. After all, the core is the foundation for a strong spine. When you are strengthening the muscles of the core, you are effectively working muscles that mobilize and stabilize the spine.
Core strength also sets the foundation for better movement and performance in all areas of fitness and life.
You will notice improvements in your posture - not only with how you stand statically, but also how you move while doing explosive activities, rotating at the waist, and while under heavy load.
These benefits are essential to moving efficiently, performing better, and greatly decreasing the risk of injury. With a well-rounded core routine integrated into your workout program, you’re going to notice major changes – and not just in the look and feel of your lower abs!
As stated above, we can’t specifically target the lower abs – but we can certainly do exercises that help activate that area of the core a bit more. While some of these movements will have you feeling a burn in the lower half of your belly more than others, know that your entire core will (and should be) engaged – not only to move with the proper form and technique, but also in order to get the most that you can out of the exercise itself, while decreasing your risk of injury. If you have questions about any of the exercises, speak with a local fitness specialist or personal trainer who can help guide you! And as always, check with your PCP to make sure you aren’t doing any moves that are contraindicated to any injury that you may have.
Here are 11 of the best exercises that you can include in your training program to help activate the lower abdominal region!
Difficulty level: Beginner
To begin, start seated on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Engage your core and retract your shoulder blades, keeping your head in line with your spine. Slowly raise your feet off of the floor and extend your legs out straight, essentially making your body into a 45-degree angle at the torso. Your arms can extend forward as well, reaching toward your toes or even staying close into your body if that is more comfortable. Hold this position for time, working your way up slowly if you are a beginner to the V-sit. Once your goal time is reached, bring your feet back to the floor. Repeat as desired. The biggest thing to remember with the V-sit is to not let your shoulders round as your feet and legs extend off of the floor! Keep a neutral spine and strong core, and breathe throughout the duration of your hold. This movement can be modified by keeping your knees bent as you raise your feet off of the floor – as you get stronger, you can work on extending both legs at the same time, or one at a time.
Begin by laying flat on your back, with arms extended straight up and knees and hips bent to 90-degree angles. From here, engage the core and pay attention to the natural curve of your spine, keeping it neutral throughout the exercise. Now comes the part where it will challenge your coordination a bit! While keeping your left arm extended straight overhead and your right leg steady in place, slowly bring your right arm to the ground behind your head – keeping the arm straight – while simultaneously lowering your left leg down to the ground so your heel taps the floor (with leg fully extended). From here, bring both your arm and leg back to the starting position, while holding the opposites steady. Your inhales happen as you extend, while the exhales happen as you return to the starting position. Once you’ve done a rep with one arm/leg, repeat on the opposite sides for another rep. Move slowly and with control, and you’ll definitely feel the lower part of your abdomen firing! If you need to modify this movement, don’t take your arm and/or leg all the way down to the floor; instead, stop halfway, or at whatever point is necessary in order to maintain proper form and technique.
Start by laying flat on the floor, facing up toward the ceiling. With feet together, bring both legs up off of the floor toward the ceiling, with toes pointed. Arms can either be placed by your sides, or your hands can be behind your head with fingers gently interlaced, so as to not pull your head toward your chest. From here, take a deep breath and engage the core, then slowly exhale as you lower both legs to the ground. Your lower back will want to arch up off of the floor at this point – don’t let it! If you need to decrease your range of motion, then do that, so as to not have your back arch as you lower your legs. Inhale slowly as you bring your legs back up, ensuring that you don’t lose core engagement as you return to the starting position.
This movement can be performed in multiple ways – such as from a Captains chair – but we’ll discuss how to do it hanging from a pullup bar! Once you have progressed to hanging unsuspended from a bar, you can incorporate hanging leg raises into your routine. This movement involves bringing the knees up as high as possible to your chest. To begin, place hands about shoulder-width apart on a pullup bar. With legs hanging, retract the shoulder blades and engage the core. With feet together, take a deep breath and exhale as you slowly raise your knees up as high as you can, without swinging. Pause at the top of the movement, then inhale as you slowly bring your legs back down, really engaging the stabilizing muscles of the core. This can be made harder by keeping the legs extended and doing a straight leg raise, as you build strength and stability within the core!
Start this exercise on your hands and knees, on a floor mat if desired. With core engaged and shoulders retracted, extend your legs out straight so your weight is on your toes and on your hands (with shoulders in line with wrists), in a pushup position. From here, flex at the hip and bring your right knee in toward your chest, then quickly bring it back to an extended position while simultaneously bringing your left knee in to your chest. As you brace your core, alternate leg positions quickly, driving your knees forward with each repetition. This can be modified by either going faster or slower, depending on core strength, hip range of motion, and desired cardio level.
To begin, lay prone on a stability ball. Engage the core as you walk your hands forward on the floor; your feet will leave the ground. Walk yourself out until your thighs are resting on the top of the stability ball, and your torso is parallel with the ground. With shoulder blades retracted, head in line with your spine, and your shoulders directly over your wrists, slowly exhale as you flex at the hips, bringing both knees toward your chest. The ball will roll underneath of you as well, rolling down your legs as you curl your knees in. Bring your knees in until you can get your them directly under your hip bones, if range of motion and mobility allows. Pause in this position, and then inhale as you press your knees away and extend your legs back out straight, allowing the ball to roll back to the starting position. The biggest thing to remember in this movement is to not let your lower back arch as you bring your legs in and out! Keep your core engaged, as well as your glutes, in order to maintain neutral alignment.
Begin by laying flat on the floor on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Gently interlace your fingers behind your head for support (but try and avoid pulling your head toward your chest). With core engaged, bring your feet off of the floor and bring your knees to your core, till there is a 90-degree angle at both your hips and knees. From here, movements will happen simultaneously! Bring your left knee in further toward your chest, while also bringing the right elbow toward that knee. The right leg also extends straight at this time as well. Pause at the end of this torso rotation for a moment, then return to the starting position, repeating on the opposite side. Remember that the rotation here is from your torso! You also want to keep the elbows away from your ears, so think about open arms as you rotate your elbow to the opposing knee. If it doesn’t touch, that’s okay! The focus is on the core engagement and torso rotation.
This exercise can be done with gliders on a carpeted floor, or you can grab some dishtowels or rags and do it on a tile or hardwood floor. You can also do it with a suspension trainer (as pictured above) or using a stability ball to the same effect. Essentially, you will begin in a front plank, with shoulders directly over your wrists and weight in your toes, with a neutral spine and engaged core. With shoulders retracted and head neutral (and with the gliders or towels placed under your toes), you want to slowly bring your feet toward your hands – ending up in a pike position, with legs extended straight. From the side you will look like an upside down “V”, although this is dependent upon core strength, upper body strength, and mobility/flexibility. Pause at the top of the pike, then slowly slide/bring your feet back out to the starting position, in your plank. Repeat for time, or for a set number of reps. There is a lot of hip flexion with this movement, so take it slowly and ensure you can do it with proper form and technique.
To begin, lay faceup on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on floor. Arms are by your sides, with palms face down. From here, engage your core, and extend your legs straight, bringing them straight up into the air so the soles of your shoes are toward the ceiling. The work from here is small, but powerful – draw in your abs, and raise your hips off of the floor, but without using momentum. Your lower abs should be working overtime! Once your hips are lifted, slowly lower yourself back down to the floor, while keeping legs extended for the next reps. Repeat as desired.
Begin seated scissor kicks by sitting on a bench, with your hands on the bench, then lean back. With legs extended straight, bring both into the air, making about a 90-degree angle at the hip. Engage the core then slowly let one extended leg drop to the floor. Bring that leg back up to the top while the other descends and does the same, mimicking the motion of scissors. If this movement is difficult, decrease your range of motion as needed, especially if you feel your core losing engagement and/or your lower back arching.
While it might sound like this exercise won’t do much, performing flutter kicks correctly can really help to fire the lower abdominals. To begin, lay flat on the floor with legs extended straight and toes pointed. Arms can be by your sides, with palms facing down. From here, engage your core and your glutes, and lift your legs off of the floor; this can be just a couple of inches for some people, while others may need to raise them a bit higher – both options are fine, depending upon your core strength! Once your legs are raised, alternate kicking them back and forth, like you would if you were doing a light swim in the pool. This can be repeated for time, or for designated reps. Ensure that the lower back doesn’t arch off the floor during the duration of the flutter kicks!
When it comes to training the core and lower abs, you need to think of these muscles just like any other in the body – after all, would you train legs 3 or 4 days in a row? No! That’s because the muscles need rest in order to repair and rebuild, especially after intense training. The same goes for core work, especially exercises that are targeting the core (as opposed to exercises that work the core in general, like squats or pushups).
Even if you are incorporating ab work into your training every other day or so, you will begin to notice results – so don’t think you have to work your torso for hours and do tons of repetitions in order to see progress. Most of these exercises can either be done for time (say, 2-4 sets of 30-60 seconds) or for reps (2-4 sets of anywhere from 8-15 reps). These variables will all vary from person to person, depending upon training goals, current injury and health status, and core strength.
All of the exercises listed above can be incorporated into a training program in several different ways – you can choose to sprinkle the movements in between other compound movements (i.e., squats, pull ups, then some flutter kicks and mountain climbers) or you can also place them at the end of your workout, whichever is best for your specific training program. You can also add resistance, such as with bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells, to bump up the resistance and add more of a challenge to some of the moves if desired.
Always speak with a trainer or fitness specialist if you need help figuring out how to work lower ab movements into your exercise sessions, and to ensure you are doing them correctly!
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