Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
What is it about core exercises that make them so damn hard to do right? It's easy enough to adjust a squat or tricep dip to effectively target the muscles you want to work, but with the abs, it's as if your body is working against you—sometimes, you're not even feeling the work in your abs at all.
That's because, as Flybarre instructor and director of continuing education Amanda Vortmann explained to Racked at Flywheel Sports' 60th Street studio, you're likely doing an exercise improperly to make up for that weak core. "You have to go by the rule that the form is the most important," she said.
And simple tweaks in each move could be the difference between washboard abs and a back brace. "If you don't take on these modifications, the exercise is no longer in your abs, and then it's all about what's hurting," she said. "It's going to be your lower back and/or your hip flexors—those are the strong parts of your body that will kick in and try to help. Sometimes, your neck will start going as well."
Below, Vortmann demonstrates the right way—and the wrong way—to do key ab exercises, many of which are incorporated into each Flybarre class (because barre classes aren't only about quivering thighs, everyone).
"If you're just doing a basic crunch, or bicycle crunches, a lot of people will let their elbows go first and then they're just pulling their heads up, instead of leaning from the chest, —abs aren't doing anything.
"So open your elbows, and keep them nice and wide. Press your hands into your head and as you crunch up, instead of thinking of your elbows leading the way and pulling forward, thing of your chest going on a diagonal. I also like to give the imagery of having a grapefruit between your chin and your chest so that you keep the space that gives you a nice little frame."
"In our warmups, we spend about two to two and a half minutes in a plank—doing various things in that plank, or doing some variations on either a high-arm plank or a forearm plank. And if you're not holding the navel straight to the spine, you're actually not even using the abs at all. Your butt is high, and all the weight is in their shoulders. If you put a light squeeze on your butt, drive your heels back, push out from your shoulders and pull your belly button in by just doing a tiny little tuck under the pelvis, suddenly everything is core.
"Initially, a lot of people have to start planks on their knees. Lower your knees by just dropping them to the mat from where they are in a forearm plank, and really focus on where your upper body is, keeping the abs engaged and your knees in place so that you can slowly start to your lift your knees up over time.
"If you haven't been going to the gym regularly, aim to hold a plank for 30 seconds. The next day, go to a minute, and next day the go to a minute and 30 seconds."
"Hold a wide stance and use weights for standing abs, which are basically different variations of side-to-side movement that's firing up the obliques. The biggest thing I'll see is that people will let their hips go to the side and their body twist—no obliques are at play.
"The idea is that you're between two panes of glass and your hips are stuck in concrete, so they can't move, and with a light squeeze on your booty, you're going up and over from the waist. You can do any variation of this—a 'reach and a pull for it,' where you're putting a little more weight overhead, or you can put the weights in both hands and switch them up."
"What happens with leg lifts is that because there's so much weight from hips to toes, as people bring their legs down, their lower back arches up and starts to hurt. We suggest people put their hands in a diamond shape underneath their seat, and then bring the legs as low as you can while keeping your back flat. Once your back starts to arch, your legs have gone too far.
"Another modification is to bend your knees and not lower your legs as far. The unfortunately frustrating thing is that you actually want to have your legs move very little at the beginning, so you can keep the continuous connection between your lower back and your core. You might just be moving an inch at the beginning, and then it just gets bigger and bigger as your abs get stronger, and then you get a full range of motion."
"V-sits are hard! But beginners can put their hands behind their back for a little more support, leaning into their hands instead of putting it all the work in their abs. Roll the shoulders back, engage the core, and pull your navel through your spine. Use the imagery that you're drawing a diagonal line through your tailbone to the crown of your head—otherwise you're going backwards instead of crunching.
"To make it more advanced, you just take your hands [up] and rely on the abdominals to hold you up. Balancing is fun. but if you don't have the correct muscles, you start to grip areas such as your hip flexors to try and hold you up in place. So if you take the baby steps and start with your hands behind the body, or holding the backs of the legs, then you're still focusing on the abs."
Ball Behind Back
"You have to find the right location for the ball, and quite honestly, it's different on everybody based on fitness level and just the way your body is. I like to tell people to start with it at the base of their spine, lean backwards into it, and then roll it up three inches.
"What tends to happen if the ball is too low, you arch their lower back over it and start fatiguing. If it's too high, it's harder to lift up. We're trying to do is do a crunch and a lift at the same time, so you want it to stay in that sweet spot. With your pelvis tucked under and your lower back drawn towards the mat, abs are engaged as your upper body is helping you lift."
"You can use the weight of your arms to either help you or to make it more challenging. With your arms are out in front of you, they're countering the weight of the upper body to make the move a little bit easier. The next step from there is to cross your arms over your chest, so there's less weight countering forward. With the hands behind the head, you have more weight now on the top half of your body, so it's more resistance on the abs. And the hardest one is if you reach your arms all the way out in line with your body, alongside your ears."
"Have the ball between your knees and lie flat with your feet up against the wall, so that your knees are at a 90-degree angle, and pulse up. With one hand supporting your head, reach the other across the body and pulse the hand up and down, like you're dribbling a ball. The trick with having the ball there is that by squeezing in, you're releasing the hip flexors and also stabilizing your hips, so that as you start to twist, your legs aren't going with you and your hips aren't flying all over the place.
"Any time we do one of those blended exercises [targeting more than one group of ab muscles], we always have the ball because it helps stabilize in many ways. It helps take the pressure out of the hip flexors or the neck and shoulders, and puts it in the abs instead."