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Tips for Strong, Sexy Abs

For those of us who weren’t blessed with naturally toned abs, a “six-pack” can seem like an impossible, eternal quest even with the help of gimmicky gadgets that promise to whittle away your waist in less time than it takes to rattle off your credit card number. Even though the goal of firmer, tighter abs can seem daunting, don't give up – they can be attained through the combination of exercise and proper nutrition. Following are 10 tips that can help in your quest for amazing abs and refuel your motivation.

To firm up the muscles beneath your love handles – known as the external obliques – try the Pilates "100s." This exercise was found to challenge more overall muscle in one shot (specifically, the muscles spanning the waist) than traditional crunches, according to a study by Michele Olson, Ph.D., at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. To do the 100s, sit on a mat and make a ‘V’ with your body (your butt forms the bottom of the ‘V’). Reach your hands past your knees, arms parallel to the floor. Pump your arms up and down 100 times, inhaling and exhaling every five counts.
Women who did their ab workouts with a stability ball beneath their glutes and lower back got bonus benefits, in a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The women used both their abs and their back muscles, key for making you stand tall and look slender. If you're not doing abs now, don't start on the ball – this can damage your spinal disks, says abdominal-training expert Stuart McGill, Ph.D., author of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Build strength and stability off of the ball first.

Try "crossover crunches":
In standard crunch position, bring one shoulder toward your opposite knee. Hold for two to three counts. Start with five to 10 reps on each side. Progress to 10 counts and 20 reps. Do this three times a week, and you can move to the ball after three weeks.

When lying on your back with your knees bent, you should be able to get your fingers under the hollow of your lower back. Maintaining your back's normal curve lets you work your abs without straining your spine, according to McGill. Instead of sucking your navel to the floor, "brace" your abs as if someone were about to punch you in the stomach. Keep that tension (and the arch) while doing ab work.

Your abs are just like your biceps: To make them stronger and tighter, you don't need 500 reps. Instead, try grabbing a three- or five-pound weight. Place it behind your head or on your chest and do one set of eight to 15 sit-ups, working up to more sets as you get stronger.

You'll get the body you want faster by doing 10 slow repetitions instead of 20 fast ones. Moving slowly – two counts up and two counts down – allows you to use more precise form, which can stimulate your muscles better and make them stronger, says Rodney Corn of the National Academy of Sports Medicine. (The faster you go, the more likely you are to use momentum instead of your abs.) Your muscles should feel tired in 15 reps.

Your core muscles get a workout when you exercise on an unstable base – like when you're standing on one leg or on top of a wobbly rubber disk – because your weight is off-center, causing your core to kick in a little harder. Similarly, when you do upperbody moves one arm at a time, the off-centeredness gives ab and back muscles an extra challenge.

To show off the abs of steel you've been building, 30 minutes of cardio gets you further than 30 minutes of crunches. To burn off the layer of fat that's hiding your muscles, ab-specific contractions just don't do the trick, says Len Kravitz, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at the University of New Mexico. Ab moves burn about two to six calories per minute, while cardio blasts 10 or 12.

Source: Adapted from an article written by Martica Heaner, Marie Claire