The belly area in general is a tough place to tone and tighten. And, on top of that, the lower abs tend to be ignored more than the upper abs in core workouts. With stubborn fat that tries hard not to let go, and a number of different muscles and organs to think about, the lower abdominal region can be the bane of many people’s fitness regime. But don’t worry, we’ve put together a list of exercises for lower abs that will help you strengthen and flatten that muffin top…
A Quick Lesson In Ab Anatomy
Before we get into exercises for lower abs, we need to understand the area we’re targeting. The abdomen, commonly referred to as the ‘belly’, is located in your upper body, also known as the ‘core’. It contains all your digestive organs, including your stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, liver and gallbladder. It also contains your kidneys and spleen, as well as a number of important blood vessels. The abdomen is covered by fascia, a thin but tough layer of tissue. In front of that, you will find your abdominal muscles, including:
- Transversus Abdominis – This is the deepest muscle layer, which stabilizes your core and maintains internal abdominal pressure.
- Rectus Abdominis – This is located between the ribs and pubic bone at the front of the pelvis. When engaged, it can create those bumps and bulges known as the ‘six pack’. Its main function is to move the body between those areas.
- External Oblique Muscles – These are positioned on either side of the rectus abdominis. They support the trunk in twisting motions.
- Internal Oblique Muscles – These are located just inside the hipbones and work with the opposite external oblique in twisting motions. For example, to twist to the right, your right internal oblique and left external oblique are engaged.
So, in certain lower ab exercises, you are targeting the internal and external oblique muscles, as well as the lower parts of your transversus abdominis and rectus abdominis. But, targeted exercises are not enough to flatten and tone the belly – an area notorious for its stubborn fat storage…
Why Does The Belly Store So Much Fat?
The belly is one of those problem areas that can be extremely difficult to tone and trim. And the lower abdominal muscles are often missed or ignored in regular ‘core’ exercises. Sit-ups, for example, target the upper abdominal muscles much more than the lower muscles. The issue with this whole belly area, however, is that target exercises are not enough to tighten, tone and remove belly fat. The belly area is one of the most difficult areas to remove flab from, often holding on even when other areas of the body have shrunk. So, why is the belly so prone to stubborn fat storage?
To begin with, let’s look at fat itself. There are two layers of fat in the body – some is right under your skin, called ‘subcutaneous’ fat. Then, there is a deeper layer of fat called ‘visceral’, which layers your heart, lungs, liver and other organs. Visceral fat is what can become the bigger problem in relation to health. While you do need it to cushion your organs, too much can cause high blood pressure, and lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. When too much fat builds up in the body, it starts to get stored in unusual places, and the belly is one of those go-to areas. Too much visceral fat is more harmful that excess subcutaneous fat. However, the good news is, it is also easier to lose than subcutaneous fat. Although, it does become even more complicated when you look at it on a cellular level…
Understanding Fat At A Cellular Level
Certain fat cells that are very resistant to burning tend to accumulate in certain areas. They include the belly, along with the hips and thighs. Because these cells are programmed to hold on and accumulate, people tend to really struggle with tightening and toning those areas. Burning fat is a two-part process that includes lipolysis and oxidation. Lipolysis involves the release of fatty acid molecules into the blood, followed by oxidation, which involves those fatty acids being utilized or ‘burned’ by other cells. Certain chemical responses in the body stimulate this process, mainly the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, or catecholamines. When these hormones enter your blood, they travel to fat cells, attach themseleves, and trigger the release of fatty acids stored in them. Other cells in the body are then able to use the fatty acids as energy.
BUT, fat cells aren’t all made alike, and, while some respond well to catecholamines, others don’t. Unfortunately, those stubborn fat cells in the belly are the type that doesn’t respond well. That’s because belly fat contains many more alpha-receptions, which hinder lipolysis, than beta-receptors, which trigger it. You’ve probably noticed when losing weight that it always disappears from your chest, face and arms first. That’s because they all contain more beta-receptors.
Exercises To Target Your Lower Abs
The lower abs can often be forgotten or ignored in ‘core’ focused workouts. For example, regular sit-ups or crunches really target the upper abdominal muscles, and leave out the lower ones. Here are some great exercises for lower abs that can be added to the end or beginning of a cardio or resistance workout. Or, you can simply add them to the end of your usual exercise of walking, swimming, running, cycling or sport.
Plank targets every single abdominal muscle, including upper and lower. Lift yourself off the ground with your feet and hands – wrists under shoulders, body straight, and hands firmly pressed on the ground protecting the wrists. Your core should be strong and your back straight (don’t collapse in the back). Depending on your strength, hold the pose for 30 seconds to begin with – if that’s easy, hold it for a couple of minutes, otherwise work up to that.
Variations: If you have weak or injured wrists, practice plank with your forearms (elbows to hands) on the ground. When you have built up your strength and balance, you can also add arm and leg raises. Start in plank, then raise one leg straight up and extend the opposite arm up and out in front of you. Make sure you’re not collapsing in the back. Hold for three breaths, then take a couple of breaths in regular plank and repeat with the other arm and leg.
This is great for targeting all core muscles, especially the external obliques. Start in plank and then turn and rest the outer part of your right foot on the ground. Lift your left arm up and stack your left foot on top of your right foot. Lift your left hip up and make sure your right hand is directly under your right shoulder. Everything should be strong and straight – not collapsing into your right hip. This pose takes balance, as well as strength, making it a great core-focused pose. Hold for 30 seconds, then move back into plank for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Down Dog Knee-To-Nose
Again, this exercise targets all of your core muscles, and you’re also getting a nice little arm workout at the same time. Start in downward facing dog, then lift your right leg up into the air for three-legged dog. On an exhale, bring your knee in between your arms, shoulders over wrists, and nose towards knee. On your next inhale, move back into three-legged dog. Repeat five to 10 times with the same leg and then swap and repeat with the other leg. Watch this video to make sure you get the technique right…
People often don’t realize that balance actually comes largely from core strength, and practicing balancing poses works your entire core. Just about every muscle in your body gets worked by standing in difficult balancing positions, especially the core. For tree pose, start by standing tall and focusing your eyes on something still in front of you. Lift one foot and place it on your lower leg or inner thigh (not on your knee because you don’t want to put pressure on the joint). Bring your hands together in prayer position in front of your chest, or above your head. Engage your core and make sure the hip of your standing leg is not popping outwards – you should be strong and straight. Check your posture, making sure your shoulders are back and down. Hold for an extended period of time – at least 10 breaths, but longer if possible. Release and shake out that leg, then repeat with the other leg.
This is another pose that involves a lot of balance, and takes a bit of time and practice to get right. You are working your entire core and back in this pose, as well as relying on some leg strength.
Start on your feet and fold forward, placing your finger tips on the floor in front of you. Lift your right leg and straighten it behind you, keeping your hips square and facing the ground. In other words, don’t let the right hip open out to the side – the back of your leg should be facing the ceiling and the front of the thigh, knee and shin should be facing the ground, along with the hip. When you feel balanced enough, slowly lift your arms up and shoot them forward so that you’re making one long line, like a tabletop, from your hands to your right foot. Hold for at least five breaths and repeat on the other side.
This is one of the best core strengthening exercises, and works on most of the abdominal muscles. Bend your knees and rest your hands underneath them. Lift one leg, then the other so that your lower legs are raised and parallel to the floor in a straight line. Ensure your back is straight by lifting your collarbone towards the sky, making sure you’re not straining your neck or rounding your back. Release your hands and rest them gently on the ground by your sides. As you build strength, you can lift your arms up, keeping them straight next to your legs. Hold this pose for as long as you can, or take a few breaths, release, and repeat a few times. Again, everyone’s ability is different, so increase your pose length and repetitions over the weeks as you build strength.
Variations: You can add a bit of oblique work into this by bringing your hands together and dynamically twisting side to side – exhale, twist to the left, moving your hands to the left, inhale back to center, exhale twist to the right. You can also move into dynamic boat crunches. Exhale, straighten your legs and lean backwards, hovering your legs and back above the floor, inhale and slowly lift back into boat, repeating as many times as you can.
This is one of the best lower ab exercises going! Start by lying on your back, placing your hands, palms down, beside you, or under your lower back. Lift your legs up to the sky, making an L-shape with your body. On an exhale, slowly lower your right leg to about three to five inches from the ground and hover. Then, on an inhale, slowly lift the leg back up. Repeat on your next breath with the left leg and continue alternating for about 10 reps. Then, once you are stronger, you can add double leg lowers into your routine. Simply repeat the process, but lower both legs at the same time on an exhale, hovering them above the ground, and then slowly lift them on an inhale. Continue five to 10 reps, completing three rounds.
If you are already quite strong and fit, then chin-ups are the ultimate core and arm strength workout and test! They target every muscle in your core, including your lower abs. It’s best to learn these at the gym or with a personal trainer who can teach you proper technique, making sure you’re safe. You’ll need a chin-up bar for this exercise…
Always stretch after strengthening exercises like these ones. Bridge pose is a great one to release the abdomen. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the ground, hip-distance apart. On an inhale, slowly lift your pelvis and lower back towards the sky, pressing your hands into the mat. If that feels good, lift yourself up higher, lifting your middle back and upper back, tucking your shoulders underneath and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lift your collarbone towards the sky and clasp your hands underneath you or place your elbows on the ground and hands on your lower back, supporting it. Stay in this pose for at least 10 breaths.
And here’s a killer workout you can try at home with lots more lower ab exercises! All you need is a mat and ball…