You wouldn't pick up dumbbells and swing them around, hoping to get a good arm workout—so stop flopping down on the ground to burn through crunches wildly and expect that you're getting a good ab workout. You need a focused training plan to make the most of your sweat, just like any other muscle group.
Trainer Charlee Atkins, C.S.C.S., knows that there's a lot more that goes into an effective core routine than just mindless reps—and that your six-pack isn't just for show. Those mirror muscles do more than just glisten in the sun at the beach (or in your dreams).
"The true purpose of the core is to provide stability around the spine," she says. "The go-to exercise for core is usually 'crunches,' but let's get you out of habit and thinking about how the core works a little differently." Standard crunches are widely recognized by many trainers as being less effective than advertised, so don't get too hung up on breaking away from convention.
In order to make your abs workout smarter, Atkins advises that you make the routine more targeted. "Crunches bring your ribs towards your pelvis, whereas 'lower abs' exercises bring your pelvis towards your ribs. In my opinion, they're more stabilizing than say, a crunch (and that is after all the core's function)."
Atkins designed this lower abs-focused circuit to build up your core strength in just 6 minutes. You don't need any equipment other than a timer to pull it off, but check out this self-rolling yoga mat from our brand Backslash\Fit if you want something to lay back on.
Perform each exercise for 50 seconds with a 10 second recovery.
Start on your back, with both arms straight up, your legs elevated in a tabletop position with the knees bent, and your lower back on the ground (this is a dead bug position). Keep your arms elevated and brace your core, then extend one leg out and lower it to just above the ground. Pause for a count, keeping the core engaged, then return to the starting position. Alternate reps between legs.
Lay back with your arms at you sides, palms on the ground. Engage your abs to lift your legs above your head, aiming to limit rounding of the lower back as you lift off the mat. You can bend your knees if need be, but try to keep them as straight as possible. Return your heels to the ground on each rep.
This variation to limit the range of motion on the crunch, while helps to keep you from going overboard on spinal flexion. Place your heels together, forming a diamond shape with your lower body. Keep your hands behind your head. Simultaneously crunch up with your upper body and lift your feet. Keep your lower back on the ground throughout the movement.
Get into a solid elbow plank hold position, maintaining a straight spine and engaging your core and glutes. Lower your knees to the ground for a quick tap without shifting your posture, then return to the starting position.
Lay back on the ground in a similar starting position to the first exercise with your lower back firmly planted on the ground—but this time, elevate your upper torso so you can reach your lower body. Lift one leg straight up and grab your calf for a count, keeping your other leg extended just above the floor. Cycle between both legs.
Lay on the ground, then prop yourself up on your elbows. Support your hips with your hands if necessary. Pull your knees in toward yourself, pause briefly, then extend your leg back out, keeping them elevated off the ground. Once you reach extension, abduct your legs (move them out away from each other) for a count, then return to extension.
Work through each move, with no or as little rest as possible outside the 10 second recovery periods. For an extra tough challenge, take 30 seconds after you finish, then repeat the circuit a second time.
Want to learn more moves from Atkins? Check out our series full of her workout tips, Try Her Move.