Accessorized Abs

Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith and iStockPhoto
By L.K. Regan

Looking to up the ante on your standard crunches and (yawn) boring abdominal routines? Browse around the gym, and you’ll see plenty of tools you can use to intensify your abdominal workouts—the problem is figuring out how best to use them to your advantage. To get you started on the path to a more engaging abs program, asked Devin Wicks, ACE, AFAA, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams, to provide a set of exercises that can add a whole new edge to your abs workout.

To Get Advanced, Start with the Basics
"The only way to get a flat stomach," says Wicks, "is to engage your transverse abdominals." Unfortunately, says Wicks, too many people do abs without ever engaging these muscles at all. The basis of all of Wicks’ exercises is still the abdominal contraction you use for a crunch—you’re just going to achieve that contraction in different positions, with different equipment.

So before you get started with the more complicated exercises on the following pages, you need to understand the proper form for an abdominal contraction. Make sure you’ve got the feeling of the basic contraction described below locked in your muscle memory, so that you can use it in different contexts.

Abdominal Contraction Overview
Lie on your stomach on the floor, with your legs straight and your arms at your sides. From this position, lift your belly button off the floor, by pulling it up toward your spine. But—and Wicks warns that this is the key to the abdominal contraction—don’t push your hips toward the ceiling, tip your pelvis, rotate your tailbone downward, or flatten your back.

A casual observer should see no change (and to become that casual observer yourself, try doing these where you can see yourself in a mirror). You are working internally to engage the horizontal band of muscle below your belly button (your transverse abdominals). If you can, add a pelvic floor contraction. Again, this will not involve rotating your pelvis; rather, try to engage the pelvic muscles without moving the joint (this will feel like trying to contain a very full bladder).

Here's a side benefit of the exercise sure to get even the laziest off the sofa: “Training your pelvic floor contractions will allow you to increase and better control orgasm,” Wicks says. Wowee! More mundanely, “Pelvic stabilization is the foundation of core strength.”

Practice on Your Back
Once you have mastered the contraction on your stomach, turn over onto your back. Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor, near your buttocks. In this position, perform another contraction and try to get the same feeling you had when lying on your stomach, bringing your belly button toward your spine without pressing your back into the mat or rotating your hips, pelvis, or tailbone toward the ceiling. This is the basic abdominal contraction—to make it into a crunch, put your hands behind your head and add a shoulder lift. You will use this contraction as the foundation of each of the exercises in Wicks's program:

Accessorized Abs Exercises
Stability Ball Knee Lifts
Tube Crunches on Stability Ball
Tube and Bar Oblique Lunges
Medicine Ball Crunches on BOSU Ball

Incorporate these exercises into your existing abdominal routine two to three times per week.