Sixty minutes? Work my abdominals for a “full 60 minutes?” I’ll bet you are thinking Jesh! Isn’t that too much time?

Actually, if all you were doing were crunches and sit-ups, it would most definitely be a bit too much and you would probably see diminishing returns as well. Read on, as I have another way and another suggestion.

Many people do not realize the full functioning power of the abdominals in everyday movements. Most new exercisers (and many old-school gym rats) do not know how to use, i.e., engage, contract, recruit, their abdominals to control, stabilize and mobilize their body.

The simple act of sitting into or rising from a chair gives you the opportunity to recruit the muscles of the abdominal core. Further, walking up a flight of steps necessitates the use of the abdominal center to stabilize the body and move thru the motion of climbing the steps and of course, performing every exercise with every piece of equipment in the gym, therefore, gives you the time and opportunity to “work the abdominals” instead of spending a mere 15 minutes at the beginning or end of the hour you have allotted for exercise.

The abdominal core is actually a very complex muscle group. It is comprised of three flat key muscles groups, the rectus abdominis, the sheath of superficial muscle fibers commonly referred to as the “six pack,” the internal and external obliques that wrap around the sides of the body and actually provide rotation of the torso, and the posterior abdominal wall is supported by the spinal erectors as well as the psoas major. The latter muscle, iliopsoas, originates at the posterior pelvic bone, runs thru the pelvis and inserts in the femur, facilitating trunk and leg flexion.

The psoas, like the deeper layer core abdominal, the transverse abdominis are used for stabilizing the trunk and supports extension, flexion and rotation of the trunk. These layers of core strength – especially the spinal erectors, transverse abdominis and the iliopsoas – that I encourage engagement, contraction, controlling and stabilizing prior to moving any other muscle or moving any weight or resistance. Everyday, normal function requires the strength and conditioning of these muscle groups. They are crucial in sitting, standing and climbing those stairs I mentioned earlier.

The transverse abdominis originates in the anterior iliac crest (hip bone) and runs laterally to the rib cage. You can’t see the muscle at all, but you can and do feel it at work. Because of its depth, horizontal running fibers, and connection to the diaphragm, breath (inhalation and exhalation) is facilitated with a contraction of this muscle.

Engaging the Abdominals

With these facts in mind, you may change your focus while training and consider approaching any and all exercise with conscious attention given to using and “working” the abdominal core first while moving the other parts of your body with resistance from weights, equipment, bands, balls, etc.

For example, a good and simple example is working the biceps and triceps with the high and low pulley cable. Most people make the requisite cable handle attachments (rope, flat bar, d-cable handle), adjust the weight to their desired resistance and start exercising. Many males are observed adding far too much weight and like to “lean into the cable” to force the pressdown for triceps. They are actually using their back and shoulders to hold their body steady and stationary to press the bar down.

Working the abdominals while working the triceps would challenge the client differently. Why not a) stand firm and tall, b) soften the knees and c) engage the abdominals (pulling them “in” and “up” as if zipping up a pair of pants) to support the lumbar spine and d) line up the equipment being used by lowering the elbows to waist level, e) take an inhalation (remember the transverse abdominis connection to the diaphragm and the engaged contraction facilitating breath) and use the exhale (deeper contraction of the abdominals) to move/work the triceps. Continue breathing and consciously supporting the distal extremity work with the lifting “in and up” of the abdominal.

To intensify your work even further – challenge the stabilizing abdominal center – lift one leg from the floor (bend the knee to lift the leg behind you) and perform half the reps, switching to the other leg for the second half of the reps.

Move the bar to the low pulley cable and go thru the same setup steps to work the bicep curls. In so doing, with this exercise example, you will not only work your biceps and triceps, but at the end of such a focused workout session, you will have constantly and consciously used your abdominals for a full 60 minutes!

The application of these principles - taken from Pilates - throughout all your fitness training, engage, hold onto the contraction/stability, and use breath to move the muscle, will make a world of difference in augmenting the time you find you don’t need to spend doing crunches and sit-ups.

Author's Bio: 

Gina Jackson, MBA, CPT, holds Advanced PFT recognition as a member of the International Association of Fitness Professionals (IDEA); maintains affiliate membership in the National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) and is certified as a Power Pilates Teacher and a proud Business Member of the Pilates Method Alliance.

Gina made a conscious career and lifestyle change to fitness in 2000 and assists clients in lifestyle fitness training programs; she is the Fitness Consultant, creator and energy behind which provides fitness resources, tips, articles and MP3 downloads to assist your fitness goals in becoming a reality.