The “Secret” to Amazing Abs

I love Abbie Appel!  Not only is her name adorable, but she said something I totally did not expect at the personal training conference I attended a few years ago. She was teaching a workshop on training abs (she does an amazing job in her workshops, by the way), and she started out by asking, “What is the secret to really great-looking abs?” The crowd of fellow trainers offered their guesses: “Diet?” “Planks?”  Etc.  No one guessed her answer: Being born long-waisted!  I appreciated her statement so much because–as a short-waisted, long-legged woman–I have never enjoyed the appearance of my torso.  I do lots of core/ab work, I eat right (well, mostly), but I can’t seem to create a “6 pack.”  I was glad to hear Abbie say it. I had long since determined it would have to be OK that my abs are not perfect.  

Nevertheless, I firmly believe in being thankful for and doing the best with what we have.  Besides that, our abdominal muscles are important for our posture and spine well-being.  So, if you are annoyed that you can’t seem to attain the “perfect” abs, let’s think about being strong and healthy, and put aside worries about what your tummy looks like!  Today, let’s talk about our abs—what they do and what we can do for them.

  1. The rectus abdominis is the prominent long muscle that runs vertically down the center of your abdomen. The rectus abdominis helps to flex the spinal column when you do a sit-up or crunch; it also works when doing side bending motions and helps stabilize your torso when you are moving your head and extremities.  In high school, when you thought you were pretty cool by “head banging” to rock music, your rectus abdominis was doing its work to keep you from falling.
  2. The external oblique muscles are located on either side of the rectus abdominis; they allow flexion of the spine (limbo!), rotation of the torso (the twist!), and sideways bending. 
  3. The internal obliques are a pair of deep muscles, just below the external obliques and are at right angles to the latter. They also switch on when you do the twist, the limbo, and sideways bend.
  4. The deepest layer of abdominal muscles is called the transversus abdominis. This muscle wraps around the torso from front to back and from the ribs to the pelvis like a thick belt.  It is not involved with movement, but does help with forceful expiration of air, and it stabilizes the spine and compresses the abdomen.  This is why yoga teachers tell you to “pull your belly button into the floor.” 

When you do an ab workout, you should be sure to include movements that work all these muscles.  You need to combine spinal flexion, extension, side bending, and torso rotation.  Depending on how much time you have for you ab workout, you can include 1-3 exercises from this list:

Spinal flexion:

Crunch (on mat, on ball, etc)

Reverse crunch

Sit-up with legs extended or frog leg style


Roman Chair

Spinal Extension:


Bird dog

Low back extensions on a ball



Windshield Wipers

Russian Twist

Side Bending:

Side crunch on a ball

Back extensions with side reach

Side crunch with or without weight


Because your hip flexors are strong muscles that are involved with flexing your hips, they tend to take over the workload when you have your legs bent, as in doing sit ups.  That’s why sit ups sometimes have a “bad rep.”  You can minimize hip flexor domination and maximize the ab challenge when you keep your legs straight in ab exercise.  For example, try doing slow, controlled sit ups with your legs out straight or in frog leg position.  

When you are doing your ab workout, don’t just go through the motions mindlessly.  Instead, before initiating the movement, you should engage your ab muscles, starting with the deepest ones (first imagine that you are trying to not pee—that will engage the deep muscles), then think of pulling in your belly button as close to your spine as possible.  Be sure to keep breathing during each repetition of an exercise.  You should inhale as your muscle relaxes and exhale as your muscles flex—that is, as you do the work. 

I hope you try some of these exercises and enjoy the workout.  More importantly, whether you are long or short-waisted, enjoy being healthy and strong!  Our bodies are wonderfully made, and it is up to us to be thankful and to just take care of them as best we can.  

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