Are you including exercises that move you closer to doing things you’ve always wanted to do? Maybe you’ve never been able to do a chin up. Or you’d like to be able to do them better. Because chin ups are badass, of course.
There are a lot of factors that come into play when we pull ourselves up to a bar. A perfect chin up is a display of strength, mobility, and control over our bodies.
You might think that a chin up requires mostly upper body strength. You do need to have a strong upper body. Pulling your own weight isn’t easy.
There are all sorts of variations on chin ups. And they all get easier to do if you develop a powerful core. Your abs, your lats, and your glutes need to not only be strong. They need to be trained in a way that makes it easier for you to translate that stability onto the bar.
Today you’ll get a few big moves that will help your stability and positioning – and killer abs, of course.
Hollow Body Holds
Why you need them: see that “hollow banana” shape my body is making? That’s the position that you’ll use on the bar. You can make this exercise easier or harder by how high or low you set your legs.
Stick them in your workout: try 3-4 sets of holding as long as you can without your lower back kicking in. For me, 20 to 30 seconds is plenty.
Watch the video above to get a full tutorial on this one. Then set your abs on fire.
Hanging Leg Raises
Why you need them: want to improve your chin ups? Spend time practicing perfect positioning at both the top and the bottom of the position. The photo above shows a flexed arm hang. It gives you more time holding the top of the chin up position, takes some pressure off your lower back, and helps you avoid stress to your shoulders if you tend to lose your position at the bottom while you crunch with your abs.
You can do leg raises with straight arms too. Both versions require the hollow body position we talked about – avoid arching your back during this exercise and maintain tension through your abs and back. The link above will demo the flexed arm version. Or watch this full tutorial for the straight arm version of a leg raise:
Make it easier by bending your knees. Make it harder by crunching with straight legs.
How many: try 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps as one of your ab exercises for the day.
Why you need them: for an amazing ab adventure, to learn to develop stiffness and control through your core, and as an easier alternative to the hanging leg raise.
Think about what a hanging leg raise looks like. Now take that position back down to the floor. That’s essentially the starting point of the deadbug. I used to think this move was easy and dumb until I actually did it correctly.
The most common mistake is bringing the knee too close to the chest. That lets your hip flexor do too much work and lets your abs off the hook. Instead, forcefully exhale your breath with every rep and make sure you feel your abs contract hard. Catch the demo above. And if you’re still not feeling your abs, it can help to try them with a band, as in the following demo.
As you can see, working your core stability translates to helping you do just about everything better – in and out of the gym.
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Why are we so obsessed with our midsections? Take a peek on any drugstore shelf. The one that has all the sketchy yet slightly seductive fat burners and diet products. Blast belly fat! Get six pack abs! Wander over to the magazine rack and you’ll see the same headlines.
When new clients begin working with me, they often want to know how to lose some weight around their midsections.
That’s because people tend to store excess fat in a few common places. We lose and gain weight over time all over our bodies. I lost a huge amount of weight over the years and even lost fat in my feet. Yes, that was weird.
Our mid sections are just one spot where we tend to store extra fat. Every one has (and should have) some abdominal fat. But sometimes we have more than we’d like or more than we should have for good health.
Today I’ll show you what you need to know – about how we get it, when we might need to manage it, and even how six pack abs actually happen. Read on.
1. You can’t spot reduce.
“Give me some exercises to work on my abs,” my client Pam asked as she gestured to her belly with a frown.
The bad news is that you can’t spot reduce your fat. You can strengthen your abs. That’s a smart idea for functioning better as a human. But you don’t get to choose where you lose fat. I know, that sucks.
But the good news is that you can still lose that fat through smart dieting and exercise. What’s that look like?
Regular strength training. 3-4 days of lifting weights each week will shape your muscles, help you burn fat faster, and keep your body healthy for life. Plus you’ll feel awesome.
Extra conditioning work. To move better, burn some extra calories, and keep your heart healthy. Do short, intense sessions 1-2 days per week.
A nutrition plan for fat loss puts you in a calorie deficit. It also prioritizes plenty of lean protein to keep you from losing precious muscle, healthy fats for hormonal health, and carbohydrates to fuel your mojo and muscle growth.
2. The times, they are a changing: menopause.
photo credit scarymommy.com
One of the things Pam noticed was how much weight she packed on around her belly. She is in her late 50s and has been through menopause. There are a few things that can lead to weight gain, especially around the belly, when our bodies go through the hormonal typhoon known as perimenopause and menopause.
Dipping estrogen levels. Lower estrogen may favor storing fat in the belly area.
Poor sleep. This screws with your hormones that regulate appetite.
Less muscle mass. This may slightly decrease your metabolic rate. It’s not so much that you lose it because you’re getting older. It’s that many people aren’t as active as they were when they were younger.
More insulin resistance, which can lead to weight gain. 1
These factors can all make it harder to lose weight as women age. And If you’re going through perimenopause or menopause, doing a few key things may make a difference:
Eat a nutrient rich diet. This will help you feel better as you transition and help regulate your weight too.
Be willing to decrease your calorie intake. You may require less to maintain your weight now than you imagined.
Lift weights. Preserve your muscle mass and improve your bone density.
Make sleep and stress management a priority.
Consider hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) if you’re struggling. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons. HRT may decrease how much fat you store around your mid section.
There is a kind of belly fat you should actually worry about.
photo credit: live fit
Doctors talk about “visceral adipose tissue”. If you just blinked, read that again, because it’s important. This is a different kind of belly fat. One that does impact your health more profoundly. When someone has a very big belly but not a lot of “pincheable” fat, it may indicate that they have a lot of fat around their organs. This is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of serious health issues ranging from diabetes 2 to heart disease 3
Doctors worry if they see three or more red flags:
1. A waist circumference over 40″ for men and 35″ for women.
2. Fasting blood sugar levels > 100mg/dl
Triglyceride levels > 150mg/dl
3. HDL (the good cholesterol) <40mg/dl for men, <50mg/dl for women
4. Blood pressure > 130/85
Fortunately, there are many lifestyle related changes you can make to not only decrease your belly fat. You’ll also improve those other numbers.
Eat plenty of lean protein.
Get fiber through fresh fruits and vegetables.
Move your body often. Get more overall activity.
Sleep at least 7 hours per night – or more if you need it to feel well rested.
Keep communicating with your doctor.
4. Is it fat, skin, or something else?
If you’re like me and have had some babies, you might have some extra skin waving at you too. That’s very normal – after all, our bellies expanded to grow a person. Sometimes our skin doesn’t bounce back after all that change.
I have a lot of extra skin in my abdominal area – both from those pregnancies and losing a significant amount of weight. I remember asking my doctor about how I could get rid of it. She told me I could either sling it over my shoulder and learn to love it or have plastic surgery. So far I’m slingin’.
If you’ve had a baby, give yourself time. Sometimes a diastasis recti is to blame. You have tissue that connects the two sides of your rectus abdominus. During times of rapid weight gain and especially pregnancy, that tissue can thin.
As a result, you may see a little pooch. You may also have some back pain. Head to a physical therapist or your doctor to get a diagnosis and treatment.
5. The six pack fantasy
photo credit: Heath Cajandig
I can count on one hand the number of clients who have asked me to get them a six pack. I work with a lot of working parents, most of them in their 30’s-50’s. I think at some point we realize that we don’t care nearly as much about having chiseled abs as we might have when we were younger.
That’s a perfectly okay position to hold. First of all, a six pack isn’t really a measure of health or athletic prowess. It’s a sign of having both very low body fat and also well trained ab muscles. If you want one, you’ll need to train hard and diet down to a point where you can see them.
That means a very low body fat percentage. And a whole lot of saying no to cheesecake, especially as we get older and don’t lose weight as easily as when we were young pups. You have to decide if those abs are worth what you need to sacrifice to get them.
But is a six pack a bad thing to want? Nah.
“A six pack is a symbol”.
I heard that the other day. This is worth thinking about.
We all have personal symbols of the work that makes us feel good. Day in and day out. For some people their symbol is the deadlift they pull off the floor. Or their bulging bicep. Or a six pack.
If you do want to see some actual muscular definition in your abs, you can do that. But a more realistic goal, especially if you’re a woman in your 30s or 40s, is to aim for definition and not an actual six pack. If you get relatively lean AND keep after your training you’ll see your abs peeking out at you.
Have another question about your belly or beyond? Leave a comment below or hit me up with an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to chat!
Proudler, Anthony J., Carl V. Felton, and John C. Stevenson. “Ageing and the Response of Plasma Insulin, Glucose and C-peptide Concentrations to Intravenous Glucose in Postmenopausal Women.” Clin. Sci. Clinical Science 83.4 (1992): 489-94. Web. ↩
Ohlson LO, Larsson B, Svardsudd K, et al. The influence of body fat distribution on the incidence of diabetes mellitus. 13.5 years of follow-up of the participants in the study of men born in 1913. Diabetes. 1985;34:1055-8. ↩
National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III). Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) final report. Circulation. 2002; 106:3143–3421. ↩
Ready to change it up and have more fun with the plank? I know, the plank isn’t exactly synonymous with excitement. That’s because planking for a minute is really freaking boring. The truth is, you don’t need to hold a plank for eternity, and you probably shouldn’t. Read on for the basics on the plank exercise and how to spice them up to make them more effective AND interesting.
The plank is a great exercise to have in your fitness arsenal: it can help you learn to activate your core muscles, which will help stabilize your spine. It can teach you to feel what it’s like to brace your core, a skill that you’ll take with you into the rest of your lifting workouts. For those new to fitness, building a solid plank will give basic core strength to build upon.
Learning to properly hold a basic plank is important: If your hips are saggy, your lower back kicks in and your abs won’t be properly firing. If your butt is too high in the air, the lower back and hip flexors do the work that your abdominals should be taking on.
Once you have the basic plank mastered, it might be tempting to try to increase the time you’re able to hold it. Fitness classes and online challenges often encourage us to try to hold the plank for as long as possible. While this might be fun for occasional bragging rights, these marathon sessions miss the point of the plank:
Planks should involve your entire body contracting forcefully. If you’re engaging your muscles properly, you shouldn’t be able to casually hold a plank while daydreaming. If you can, your hip flexors are likely doing more of the job anyway. The point of the core is to fire forcefully for short periods of time, not hang on for endurance.
Basic Plank Tips
Whether on forearms or hands, keep your shoulders away from your ears.
Make sure your elbows are lined up with your shoulders.
Your arms should be about shoulder width distance.
If your wrists hurt while planking on your hands, try the forearm variations or hold on to dumbbells.
So with that out of the way, how do we progress the plank to make it more challenging as well as more interesting? If you can hold standard plank for 45 seconds to a minute, you’re likely ready to move on. If you’re like me, you’d probably rather work really hard for a short period of time rather than hang on for 3 minutes while watching the clock. ZZZZZZZ.
Instead, check out these variations and give them a whirl. Pics from the video are outlined clockwise starting at the top left side!
From a plank position on hands, bring your hand to the opposite shoulder, and repeat on the other side. Go back and forth for reps. Try 10 reps per side at first, trying to keep your body as stable as possible. Think about your hips being quiet so they don’t rock from side to side.
Push Up Plank
My coach Jordan gives these to me from time to time and they’re harder than they look! Again, the less movement out of your torso, the better. Move from a plank on your hands to a plank on your forearms. I like to go through half my reps leading with one side, and then switch to the other side for the rest. Try beginning with 4 or 5 per side.
I don’t know if there’s an official name for these. “Knee to outside elbow plank” sounds wordy. I think about Spiderman’s crawling legs when I do these. Aim your knee to the outside of your elbow while you hold a plank on your hands or forearms. If your spidey sense is mighty, you might crank out between 10 and 12 reps per side.
In my mind, I move the ball waaaaay out. In reality, it barely slides forward. These are tough! Consider these an advanced plank variation but they’re a great challenge. Begin in a forearm plank on a stability ball. Push your forearms forward. Hold there for a second or two, then pull them back into your starting position. Yowzers! Start with as many as you can muster!
How to Fit Them Into Your Workout Sets: 1-3 Timing: Try putting a set of these into your warmup routine. They also work well at the end of a strength workout or as part of a circuit.
Get out there and plank up! Leave a comment and tell me your favorite, or at least the most fun in that “I hate it at this very moment but I’m sure I’ll be ecstatic later” kind of way.
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