Struggling to target your lower abs? You're probably training the wrong way, says Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness science at Trainiac. While certain exercises can help you achieve a stronger core, there's no magic move that can specifically blast lower belly fat.
That's because targeted fat loss, otherwise known as spot reduction, is a myth, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). In other words, isolated, abs-focused exercises like crunches won't result in fat loss in your midsection. Additionally, your lower abs aren't a separate muscle group that you can isolate, the term simply refers to the lower portion of your rectus abdominis (your "six-pack muscles").
But don't be discouraged, though. You can still attain stronger, leaner lower abs through a smart training strategy. Here, Tripp shares three ineffective lower ab moves to avoid, plus five exercises to do instead.
1. Flutter Kick
People think flutter kicks work their lower abs, but, if not performed properly, this move does two things: wears out your hip flexors and places excess strain on your back, Tripp says.
Double ouch! This can be particularly problematic for people with weak hip flexors and back issues (read: people who sit most of the day).
2. Reverse Crunch
Often performed incorrectly, many people rush through the reverse crunch, cranking out a ton of reps without any control, Tripp says. Plus, it's an isolated movement, which only engages the small muscles in your abs.
This means the reverse crunch won't do much for you in terms of toning (i.e., building lean muscle) and burning calories.
3. Criss-Cross Legs
A variation of flutter kicks, this criss-cross move comes with the same hip flexor and lower back issues, Tripp says. And, like other small, abs-centered exercises, it won't likely improve your overall fitness, strength and calorie burn, per ACE.
Do These 5 Moves Instead
While attempting to focus on your lower abs won't take you any closer to a losing belly fat, targeting your entire core with larger movements will recruit more muscles and help you torch more calories, Tripp says.
In fact, doing compound exercises like squats and deadlifts, which incorporate many muscles, large and small, is a more successful strategy for training your abs, according to research in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
While there are no squats or deadlifts on this list, the five following exercises, courtesy of Tripp, integrate multi-joint movements, activating many core muscles to help you lean out your lower abs.
1. Plank With Single-Arm Reach
Tripp recommends any sort of plank variation, as it teaches core engagement right off the bat. When you add a reach to a standard plank hold, you create an unsupported position which challenges balance and anti-rotation in the core.
That means all your core muscles, including your lower portion of your abs, must work overtime to keep your body upright, steady and in place. Building a strong, stable core through moves like these is essential before you advance to more dynamic moves, Tripp says.
- Lie face down on your belly with your palms on the floor underneath your shoulders and your feet flexed with the bottoms of your toes on the floor.
- Take a deep breath and press through your palms to lift yourself up into the top of a push-up position. Your body should make a straight line from your heels through your hips to the top of your head.
- Draw your navel toward your spine and squeeze your glutes.
- Slowly reach one arm forward until your elbow is straight.
- Pause for one second, then pull that arm back and plant your elbow so that you're in a basic plank again.
- Alternate arms with each rep.
2. Mountain Climber
A great move for your entire core, including your lower abs, mountain climbers take an isolated move like a scissor or flutter kick and put it into a functional movement pattern, forcing you to stabilize your core as you move your legs, Tripp says.
- Press up into a high plank like you're about to do a push-up, with hands beneath the shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to heels.
- Feet should be shoulder-width apart and anchored to the floor on the balls of your feet.
- Keep your hips level and don't let your lower back sag.
- Bring your right knee into your chest, engaging your abs at the same time.
- Return your right knee to starting position.
- Bring your left knee into your chest, then shoot it back, switching legs at your desired pace.
- Keep your breath steady throughout the exercise, breathing in through your nose and out of your mouth.
Combining a push-up and squat jump, the burpee is a big movement, and when executed with proper form, it's a win-win for overall body conditioning and core strength, Tripp says.
- Start standing, squat down and place your hands flat on the floor in front of you.
- Kick both feet back and land in a proper push-up position with your shoulders, hips and ankles in a straight line.
- Perform a push-up, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and maintaining a straight line from your neck to your ankles.
- Jump your feet back underneath your hips and stand up with a flat back as you transition into an explosive jump.
- Land softly with your hips back and knees in line with your feet and hips.
4. Hanging Knee Raise
Hanging knee raises are a terrific move for upper body holding power as well as conditioning your core. Specifically, your lower abs must work to lift your legs while the rest of your core muscles must activate to stabilize your body, so you don't swing, Tripp says.
- Reach overhead and grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip.
- Straighten your arms and hang from the bar.
- Keeping your core tight, exhale and lift your bent knees in front of you to approximately the height of your hips. Keep your torso still and avoid swinging.
- Inhale and lower your knees back down.
5. Crunchy Frog
This exercise takes your normal crunch and adds in some leg movements to create a larger movement that recruits more muscles. As you shift your legs in and out and flex your trunk, your midsection works to stay stable, emphasizing your whole core, from top to bottom, Tripp says.
- Start by sitting upright on a mat with your legs bent in front of you.
- Maintaining a straight back, lift your hands off the floor and pick your feet up as you draw your knees into your chest. Hold your knees with your hands. Squeeze your abs and hold at the top of the movement.
- Lean back and straighten your legs out in front of you, bracing your core to support your lower back. Open your arms out to the side.
- Draw your knees back into your chest and repeat.