First, abdominal crunches work only one area of your abdomen—the part along the front of your belly above the belly button. Unfortunately, this happens to be the one area of the belly that's often strongest for most people. So, as ab exercises, crunches simply make an already strong area of the abdomen even stronger, ignoring important weak spots that are the true source of your problem.
Second, many of us don't enjoy doing abdominal crunches. To truly create a slender waist and flat belly, you must strengthen your entire abdomen. That means doing moves that address the four core muscles:
The Upper Rectus Abdominus This large muscle forms the much-sought-after "six-pack" along the front of your abdomen. Though it appears to be made up of four to six smaller muscles, it's really one large muscle broken up with striations of connective tissue. The rectus abdominus (upper and lower) starts at your sternum in your chest and runs all the way down to your pubic bone. The upper portion of this muscle ends at your navel. This is often the strongest muscle in the abdomen.
The Lower Rectus Abdominus Even though your rectus abdominus is actually one sheet of muscle, not two, we trainers often refer to the lower and upper areas as separate units because you must do different ab exercises to address them. Your lower area is on the front of your belly below the navel. This area is often particularly weak in women after childbirth.
The Obliques Your obliques are located along the sides of your abdomen. They start at the tip of your hipbones and end at your rib cage. They help you to twist or bend your body from side to side. Strengthening them helps to shrink love handles and slim your waist. Strong obliques are the key to cinching your belt one notch tighter.
The Transverse Abdominus This corset-like muscle wraps around your pelvis, just below your rib cage. It's the muscle you use when you suck in your gut or cough or sneeze. It's also the most neglected of abdominal muscles, primarily because so few traditional moves work this area. Your transverse abdominus is very important because it helps to hold your internal organs in place. It also helps support your lower back and stabilize your torso during certain movements, such as heavy lifting.
A strong transverse abdominus gives you balance and coordination in all of your daily movements. This is why in fitness classes you're told to suck in your belly. That makes you flex your transverse abdominus to support your spine. Few of us use our transverse muscle very much. Because it acts to stabilize your torso, it only works when you are moving. But most of us sit all day long, allowing this muscle to become woefully weak. When it weakens, it doesn't do a good job of holding your internal organs in place, allowing your abdomen to bulge.
The Core Four
The following ab exercises address all four belly areas, what we like to call the Core Four. You'll notice that the "Cruise Moves" are a bit different than the typical abdominal exercises you may have seen. In many of these ab exercises, you will use your body weight to add a stability challenge to your midsection, working not just your abdomen but also your entire core—your back, butt, sides, and abdomen. This is the key to standing taller, stronger, and slimmer. The Cruise Moves will not only help strengthen and beautify your belly, but also help you to function more easily in everyday life.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of these ab exercises.
Exhale as You Contract Your Abs Exhaling when you contract any muscle—for example, during the up phase of a push-up or as you raise your arms during a biceps curl—will help you unleash an extra bit of internal strength to perform the movement. Exhaling during the contraction is particularly important for abdominal moves. Exhaling—even somewhat forcefully—will help in two ways. First, it will help you to better activate your transverse abdominus muscle. Second, if you inhale on the contraction, you risk outwardly shaping your belly muscles. You may still develop strong muscles, but you'll have strong muscles shaped in the wrong position.
Go Slowly and DeliberatelyDon't rush through these ab exercises. Slow down and focus your attention on quality and not on quantity. Research shows that you will recruit more muscle fibers the more slowly you move. This will make your sessions more efficient. Second, moving more slowly will help you to concentrate on using proper form and making the most of each movement.
Maintain a Neutral SpineIn many of my moves I will suggest that you keep your spine long and straight. This will help protect your lower back and neck. I've noticed that many people think their spine is in the proper position, even when it's not. To find out what a neutral spine feels like, stand with your back and shoulders against the wall. Because of the natural S-curve in your spine, your lower back and neck won't be completely against the wall. However, everything else—including your ribs, shoulders, and head—should be against the wall. This is proper spinal alignment. Try to use it in most of your moves.
Move 1: Seated Vacuum
(works the transverse abdominus)
A. Sit in a sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor. As you exhale, suck your navel in toward your spine as far as you can, contracting your belly to squeeze all of the air out of your lungs. Hold for 1 to 3 seconds.
B. Inhale as you reverse the exercise, this time making your belly as round as possible. Continue exhaling and inhaling slowly for 1 minute, then move on to Move 2.
Move 2: Seated Crossover
(works the upper rectus abdominus)
A. Remain seated with your feet flat on the floor. Sit tall with a long spine. Bend your arms 90 degrees, bringing your elbows in line with your chest, your forearms perpendicular to the floor, and your fingers toward the ceiling.
B. Exhale as you bring your left elbow and right knee toward one another. Inhale as you bring your elbow and knee back to the starting position. Repeat with your right elbow and left knee, alternating between those positions for 1 minute. After 1 minute, move on to Move 3.
Move 3: Seated Torso Rotation
(works the obliques)
A. Remain seated with your feet flat on the floor. Sit tall with a long spine. Grasp your medicine ball (or a bag of flour) at chest level, with your arms extended.
B. Remain erect as you exhale and twist to the right. Keep your head and neck in line with your torso as you twist so that you are always facing the ball. Try not to lean forward. Inhale as you return to the starting position and then repeat on the other side. Continue for 1 minute, then move on to Move 4.
Move 4: Captain's Chair
(works the lower rectus abdominus)
A. Remain seated with your feet flat on the floor. Sit tall with a long spine. Grasp the edge of the chair with your fingers on either side of your hips. Reach your palms into the chair to add stability to your torso.
B. Exhale as you slowly bring your knees toward your chest, trying not to arch your lower back as you do so. Hold for 1 to 3 seconds and then slowly lower as you inhale. Repeat for 1 minute, then return to Move 1. Repeat Moves 1-4 once more, and you're done.