How to Exercise Your Abdominals Safely and Effectively
Safe and Effective Abdominal Exercise

Abdominal exercises, especially crunches, can be a bit of a minefield when it comes to safety concerns. Personal Trainer Carla van Traa explains the different muscles involved and gives her advice on how to exercise those tummy muscles safely.

How to Exercise Your Abdominals Safely and Effectively

by wlr Personal Trainer Carla van Traa REPS L4

When people talk about wanting a “strong core” “flatter tummy”  or a “six pack” they often fail to actually appreciate how different these things are.

We have different groups of muscles in the abdominal area and, which ones we target when we exercise will determine the results.

Crunches the Go-to Belly Exercise

Try to think more “Abdominal Curl” than crunch.

On a mat, an assisted bench with a cradle or even performed standing, all crunches work your Rectus Abdominus.

This muscle runs vertically down from your rib cage to the pubic bone. This is the muscle that sits us up and lays us down.

Exercising this muscle doesn’t necessarily increase core strength - it is the “6 pack” muscle.  

Doing Crunches Safely

The mistake that most people make when performing crunches is that there is no regard for what their back is doing or how they are breathing.  

In Pilates we teach with a neutral spine, which means we have to maintain the natural arch in our back whilst performing a crunch, it means we do not lift as high. However the whole exercise starts way before the actual lift.  

Deep inside is our Transverse Abdominus (TA) a corset like muscle that is the key player when it comes to Pilates and core strength.  

You need to fire that up before the crunch, this is done by subtly drawing in the tummy button towards the spine – but not so much that you hold your breath.

Think more of a hour glass shape and then take a deep breath in so you can breathe out as you perform the crunch.

Keep that TA drawn in and the spine neutral - not imprinting onto the mat or moving away from its position into an excess arch.

Ladies who have recently had a child should be checking for diastasis recti prior to doing crunches. Diastasis recti is a gap of 2.7cm or more between the two sides of the rectus abdominis muscle.

You should also avoid this exercise if you have neck problems such as whiplash injuries, cervical spine problems, or lower back pain.

Abdominal crunches with a twist

The rules of transverse abdominus engagement are the same as above except this time we are targeting the obliques too.  These muscles allow us to twist, turn and lean sideways.

Twisting exercises can be performed laying down, on all fours and standing.  All involve the twist or turn of the waist whilst attempting to keep the pelvis still.  

The same advice about not doing these with diastasis or back issues appplies.

Other Abdominal Exercises


Again the transverse abdominus comes in to play.

It said that the Plank emigrated from Pilates but no-where in Pilates do we hold still.  

The plank can be performed on your elbow or on long arms.  Both should involve lifting the body up and away from the floor not lowering down into position.  

Alignment of your spine in neutral is critical to avoid lower back sag and pressure where it is not wanted or needed. Like-wise pushing your hips up out of alignment negates the exercise too.

Holding your breath is an absolute no-no.

Seated Abs

Ab exercises started from a seated position are also possible, with a ¼ or ½ roll back, needing a nice lengthened straight spine.

With TA engaged, we start to lay the spine back down onto the mat, staying broad across the chest, and allowing the spine to move, (so not straight backed once your moving). Breath out for the roll back and in on the return to lengthened state.

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