Have you have ever felt discomfort in your lower back planking, crunching or doing leg lifts? Lower abs are tricky to train. So tricky, in fact, that I rarely get my hands on a personal trainer, pilates instructor, or yoga teacher with a working set.
You know you are onto something tricky when those invested with physical excellence get cooked. Because this problem is so widespread, I test every client I work with to see whether their lower abs work. I am generally shocked at how poor generic lower ab function is, considering how many hanging leg raises and straight leg raises you see performed in the gym. Out of the couple of hundred clients every year that I test, I have only a handful that pass. Why? It’s not easy, especially if you start with an exercise that’s too advanced for your level of conditioning. This is not just because it’s physically challenging, but mentally as well. Most people lack the coordination to properly sequence what’s going on down there, opting instead to do something that lets them “feel the burn” instead of investing a couple of weeks getting it right first.
What are the lower abs?
Rectus abdominus (what you lovingly refer to as your six pack) is a partitioned muscle that runs from the pubic crest and symphysis to the xyphoid process – your groin to the the bottom of the middle bit of your rib cage. It is split in two by the linea alba, which is a thin connective band that gives your abs their distinctive appearance. Some therapists think of this it as a single, continuous, long rubber band, but this singular bit of tissue is incredibly fascinating, because it is partitioned. That washboard look you dream of divides your abs into chunks, each of which is given its own neurological innervation. This means that you can have incredible control over every bit if you really tried hard enough, as seen in the video below (it’s weird, but it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about):
The difference between upper and lower abs
Life gets a little trickier from the belly button down. The lower abs are innervated from a separate nerve supply than those above it, which means that they act differently. Have you ever seen someone with a “front bum”? That distinctive pooching from the belly button down that is referred to as being “bloated,” despite being rock solid above? This is the classic visual clue that something wrong is happening here. The lower abs have a greater responsibility for postural control than those above the belly button, particularly pelvic stability.
Donald Duck would have been a classic case of someone lacking lower abdominal stability, with that distinctive booty and obscene lordosis. This excessive lumbar curvature is often bandied around by physical therapists and trainers as the most common form of postural dysfunction among anyone spending a long period of their day sitting, although in my experience, I find the opposite to be more common. (Please, stop telling me this is the definition of poor posture. It is NOT the only way you can screw up your back, and is confusing people. If I implemented your generic “poor posture” advice, it would screw up my back, and many others. There, I got that out of my system now, and it’s on the internet, so it must be true).
If you were to place your thumb in your belly button and extend your middle fingers towards your groin, then do a Michael Jackson groin tilting number (as seen rather energetically in the video below – isn’t the internet awesome?), that will give a good idea of what your lower abs do. They are also assisted by your external obliques at the front and your hamstrings to the rear, if you want to get technical.
If you tilted the opposite way, in a “Baby Got Back” number, this would be predominantly from your hip flexors at the front, and your lower back muscles at the rear. Feel free to head to YouTube, and search for “Booty Thrust” and you will get the right idea. Does that make sense? Good posture lies somewhere between the two, and the function of your lower abs is a key contributor to keeping your pelvis stable. If your pelvis is unstable, guess what? You come to me with lower back or SIJ issues. And this is what I teach you:
Lower abdominal training
I am not going to go into the “how” of lower ab testing, but for the sake of brevity I will just show you how to start from the basics and work your way back up to straight leg raises. According to Florence Kendall, the author of Muscles, testing and function with posture and pain, the ability to lower your legs from a 90 degree position to the floor without your lower back extending is considered 100% normal function. There are successive grades of good to poor from there back, but let’s just assume that, like most of the population, you need to start at the basics, then as you improve just speed your way through the series.
Lay on your back with your hand tucked under your lower back, roughly in line with your belly button (theoretically the position of L3, or your third lumbar vertebra). Throughout the exercise, tilt your pelvis under, by performing a Michael Jackson style pelvic tilt, until you can feel a gentle pressure of your spine against your hand. You don’t want to only feel pressure from your back muscles, you want to feel the bony bits of your spine. If you are unable to do this, you may need to place your hand on your abs as described before so that you are tilting, and not just pressing your back against the floor.
Each exercise is performed at its basic level by keeping the heels close to the bum, and progressed in the first instance by increasing this distance by extending the leg.
Here are three exercises for your lower abs. Remember, if you have any questions, get them answered first before you attempt these.
Lower Abdominal One:
In this exercise we are not training your lower abs yet, this is simply a pelvic tilting exercise to get you used to stabilizing your pelvis while breathing at the same time. Start here anyway, and build up to doing a two minute hold, then extend your legs to make the exercise more challenging and do the same thing. You shouldn’t need to stay on this exercise for more than one week. If you shake like a leaf when you are doing this, then you may need to stretch your hip flexors first.
Lower Abdominal Two:
Again, you’re not really strengthening your lower abs yet, because you are being assisted by the leg that stays on the floor. This is more for postural control, which is a good thing. This is a single leg lift, exhaling to roll the knee up to 90 degrees, then inhaling to lower back to the floor without letting your lower back change its position. Here you are training hip flexion, using your lower abs to stabilize the pelvis without compromising your lower back. As soon as your lower back lifts off your fingers, stop. Never train your back with bad info. The closer your foot to your butt, the easier the exercise is, so build up to performing 10-20 reps on each side for three sets, then extend the leg further out.
Lower Abdominal 2B:
Now we get into Lower Ab strength, by taking away the assistance of the other leg. Both legs stay up off the floor, and we alternate lowering each leg to the floor. This is a tricky progression. Don’t be surprised if you suck at it, but stick with it until you can perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps on each leg.
Lower Abdominal 3:
This is what I use as my Lower Abdominal Coordination Test that I talked about earlier. We now raise and lower both legs at the same time. Start with the feet close to the butt until you can perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps with perfect form, then extend them out until you are back to your straight leg raises again, only this time, you will be making your abs stronger, and not just working the hell out of your hip flexors and low back.
All the above exercises can be found in ALL of my online programs, which can be found here. You can use a blood pressure cuff if you have a desire for obsessive compulsiveness, although be warned that it is highly addictive. For everyone else, use your hand as I demonstrate in my video.
Impact of diet
In Paul Chek’s material, and every single course that I have ever done with the CHEK Institute, he cites the need to appreciate the impact of diet on your ability to control the surrounding abdominal muscles. In my experience, this theory has merit. Think of it this way: if you have an inflamed organ or you pull a muscle, it swells. What happens when you press on that inflammation? It hurts. What do you think happens when your colon or intestines are inflamed? They don’t want to be squeezed either, so your lower abs can relax. This makes it much harder to train them because your body is trying to switch them off right when you want your pelvis to be stable.
The bottom line is this: if your lower abs don’t work and these exercises don’t work on their own, or if you have any issues with your digestion, then maybe it’s time to be a grown up and clean up your diet. You can learn more about how to do that here.
If you have found this info useful, please don’t forget to subscribe to The Weekend Surf Warrior newsletter, where you will receive a copy of my five minute surf warm up for free!
Ash Boddy, The Weekend Surf Warrior