Engaging your abdominal muscles during exercise helps build a stronger core, promotes better movement and protects against injury. But contracting your abs isn't always easy, especially if you've never intentionally done it before. Just like your favorite sport, you can practice contracting your abs with a simple technique and get better at it over time.
Why Contract Your Abs?
Your abdominal muscles, in addition to your obliques and lower back, make up part of your core — the midsection of your body. This part of your body is so important because it joins the lower and upper body helping them to work together to perform quality movement. It also supports your spine, contributing to good posture and preventing back pain and injury.
However, if your abs are weak or relaxed, they won't do much to support you. Strengthening your abdominal muscles, then contracting them when it's most important will help you exercise more safely.
Weightlifting is a good example of when it's important to keep a tight core. Performing a heavy squat, or lifting a lot of weight off the ground in a deadlift can wreak havoc on your back if your abs are not contracted.
If you're a runner, keeping your abs contracted during a sprint can help prevent compression in your lower back from all the impact.
Read more: The Most Neglected Muscle Group for Runners
Contracting Your Abdominal Muscles
To learn how to contract your abs while exercising, first practice this technique. Then, you can incorporate the technique into your workout.
- Lie on your back on the floor or an exercise mat.
- Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart.
- Extend your arms alongside you, palms facing down.
- Press your lower back into the floor so that your pelvis lifts up slightly. Inhale deeply.
- Exhale, slowly empting all the air out of your belly, while pulling your belly button in toward your spine to achieve full contraction of your abdominal muscles.
- Inhale, filling your belly — not your chest — with air. As you fill your belly, don't lose the abdominal contraction.
- Suck in as much air as you can while maintaining the contraction.
- Repeat the exercise as many times as necessary.
Note that this is an exaggeration of how you want to breathe during exercise. You want to breathe forcefully, but if you breathe too forcefully, you may become lightheaded after a few reps. This can be dangerous.
Similarly, you want to keep your abs slightly more relaxed while exercising, so that your body can move more naturally. What you don't want to do is relax your abs completely.
So use this exercise as a way to learn to fully contract your abs to maintain a tight core, then adjust the contraction during exercise as needed.
Ab Contraction During a Squat
Practice incorporating the technique into your workout by contracting your abdominal muscles during squats.
Stand erect and slightly tuck your pelvis. Inhale, then exhale, contracting your abdominals. As you inhale again, begin to lower down into a squat, bending at the knees and hips and sending your buttocks out behind you, as if sitting down into a chair.
As you do this, retain the abdominal contraction, only slightly less strongly than you practiced in the floor exercise. At the bottom of your squat, you should be at the bottom of your inhale. Exhale as you begin to rise up, pushing through your feet and extending through your knees and hips. Maintain the abdominal contraction.
Ab Contraction With Bicycle Crunch
Keeping a tight core during abdominal exercises serves two purposes: 1) It protects your lower back from strain, and 2) it makes the exercise more effective.
Lie on an exercise mat with your legs extended and your fingertips resting lightly on your head behind your ears. Practice the supine ab contraction technique for one round of exhalation and inhalation.
Retain the contraction as you lift your shoulder blades off the mat and hover your legs a couple inches off the floor. On your next exhale, draw your right knee in and rotate your body to the right, bring your right knee and left elbow to touch.
Inhale and return to center, maintaining abdominal contraction. Then, bend your left knee and rotate your body to the left, bring your left knee to touch your right elbow. Return to center, maintaining contraction.
Ab Contraction During Cardio
While running or biking, or during an aerobics class, engage your core to promote better posture and reduce the risk of injury. It's as simple as just subtly pulling your abs in, almost as if you're bracing for a punch.
This will help take the arch out of your lower back, which, especially during high-impact activities like running, can cause back pain over time.