The Hard Truth About Lower Ab Workouts
As a trainer, I get a lot of questions about how to get toned legs or bigger arms. But the body part I get asked about the most is the “lower abs.” After hearing I’m a trainer, people will point to the area right below their belly button and ask, “What can I do about this?”
In other words, if you’re looking for lower ab workouts, you’re not alone. One problem: There’s no such muscle as your “lower abs.” And needless to say, that makes it a bit tricky to recommend the best lower ab exercises.
Here’s why “lower ab exercises” are a myth — and what you need to know if you want a six pack.
Reality Check #1: You Can’t Isolate Parts of Muscles
Thanks in part to the bodybuilding approach to fitness — in which you divide your body into sections, like a butcher’s diagram — many people believe muscles, and even parts of muscles, can be worked in isolation from one another.
It doesn’t work like that.
Muscles work in coordinated groups. Even a simple action like getting up from a chair activates muscles from your neck to your ankles. Some muscles that have multiple heads — such as the deltoids — can be emphasized with different variations on a movement, but you can’t isolate one part of a single muscle.
That’s true of the rectus abdominis as well. Despite the appearance of a six-pack, your “abs” are actually one muscle separated by a fibrous structure called the linea alba. Contract the lower part of your abs, and you’ll also contract the entire muscle from its point of origin at the front lower edge of your rib cage to its point of insertion at the front of your pelvis. So “lower ab exercises” are really just…ab exercises.
Simply put, you can’t target a six-inch area of your midsection, a.k.a. the lower abs. But by working your abs — the whole muscle — you’ll inherently include this area, too. Here are two moves that will help you do that.
1. Stability ball plank
- Start on all fours on the floor, with your shoulders stacked directly over your wrists and a stability ball behind your feet.
- Engage your core, lift one leg off of the floor, and place your shin on top of the ball.
- Repeat with the opposite leg so you’re in a plank position with your lower legs resting on the ball and your body is parallel with the floor. Don’t let your hips sag or your butt stick up in the air.
- Brace your core to maintain this position. Hold for time.
- PIKE-UP VARIATION: For an additional challenge, use your core muscles to lift your hips toward the ceiling, rolling the ball in with your feet. Lift your hips as high as you can comfortably go. Hold for a moment, then reverse the movement, slowly returning to the starting position.
2. Hollow body hold
- Lie on your back and assume a dead bug position: legs together, hips and knees bent 90 degrees (so your lower legs are parallel with the floor), and arms extended toward the ceiling with your palms facing each other.
- Lift your shoulder blades off the floor and engage your core to press your lower back firmly into the floor.
- Keeping your head and shoulders lifted, lower your arms straight overhead as you simultaneously straighten and lower your legs. Only lower your arms and legs as far as you’re able to without your lower back rising off of the floor.
- Hold this position for as long as you can, breathing as smoothly as possible.
Reality Check #2: Your Abs Probably Aren’t the Problem
Just because you can pinch an inch or two around your lower belly doesn’t mean the muscles underneath are weak. (Consider this: Football lineman rely on their core strength to stabilize their bodies at the point of contact, but the average body fat for most football linemen is around 25 percent, according to an NCAA Sport Science Institute study.)
In both men and women, the lower belly tends to be an area where even relatively lean people carry some fat — but you may have strong abs underneath. (On the flip side, having a strong core doesn’t guarantee you’ll be lean enough to see a six-pack.)
Instead of looking for lower ab workouts to tone one small section of your abs, add some fat-burning exercises to your workout to help get your heart pounding while you strengthen your muscles. Here are two moves to try for an athletic core.
1. Mountain climbers
- Assume a push-up position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your feet together, core braced, and body straight from head to heels.
- Lift your right foot off the floor and draw your right knee toward your chest, keeping your back flat, your butt down, and the rest of your body stationary. Tap the floor with your toes.
- Return your right foot to the starting position, and quickly repeat with the opposite leg. That’s one rep.
- Continue switching legs as if you’re “running” in push-up position.
2. Side plank hip lift
- Lie on your right side, propped up on your right elbow and forearm, with your shoulders stacked over your elbow and your legs and feet stacked on top of each other.
- Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to heels. Extend your left arm toward the ceiling (or hold a weight at your hip for a harder move). This is the starting position.
- Keeping your core braced and your glutes engaged, slowly lower your right hip toward the floor.
- Reverse the move, lifting your left hip toward the ceiling to return to the starting side plank position.
- Repeat for reps, then switch sides, performing equal reps on each side.
Reality Check #3: You Really, Seriously Can’t Spot Reduce
There’s no surefire way to target fat in specific areas — and that includes burning belly fat. (Need proof? One study found that six weeks of abdominal exercise alone wasn’t enough to reduce abdominal fat.)
Start running regularly, and you may notice some fat loss in your arms. Rip off 50 push-ups, and you may burn fat from your thighs. There’s no way to dictate where your body burns fat.
The good news? Your entire abdominal musculature will get stronger when you work that area. Planks, crunches, and many other ab-focused exercises will all help get your abs where you want them to be. And the fat cells on top of those muscles could shrink with a smarter diet and full-body, sweat-inducing workouts — so by following strategies for reducing overall body fat, you can improve the appearance of your abs.
Here are two moves that will help build strength and etch some more detail into the entire abdominal muscles — including the rotational muscles along the sides of your waist and rib cage.
1. Boat twist
- Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell or weight plate in front of your chest.
- Keeping your back straight, lean backward to create tension on the abs. Balance on your glutes and lift both feet a few inches off the floor. This is your starting position.
- With your core braced, rotate your torso to your right, bringing the weight toward your right hip.
- In one fluid motion, return to the starting position, and repeat to your left. Continue alternating sides.
2. Split-stance lateral toss
- Hold a wall ball with both hands at your chest and stand sideways about arms-length away from a wall. (Make sure the wall is a hard surface — like plywood or brick — that won’t be damaged by the force of the ball.)
- With your left shoulder closest to the wall, step your left foot forward and your right foot back until you’re in a split stance. Bend your knees to about 90 degrees, so your front knee is stacked over your ankle and your back knee is hovering above the floor.
- Bring the ball to your outside hip, then twist your torso to the left and toss the ball against the wall as hard as possible.
- Catch the ball on the rebound and immediately bring it back to your outside hip. Repeat for reps, then repeat the drill with your right shoulder closest to the wall and your right foot forward.