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One of the best things about doing compound exercises, or moves that recruit more than one muscle group at a time, is that you’re often working your abs and entire core without even realizing it. You don’t always have to feel your abs burning to be working them, which is great. But just like any other muscle group, it’s nice to do some abs-focused work every once in a while.
Kira Stokes, celebrity trainer, group fitness instructor, and creator of the Kira Stokes Fit app, is a big proponent of what she calls “time under tension ab work.” That pretty much means an abs circuit that keeps the muscle group fully engaged the entire time. It’s the sort of workout that makes your midsection burn. “The abs are just as important a muscle group as any other muscle group in your body,” says Stokes. Since they make up a large portion of your core, they’re worth focusing on instead of being just an afterthought in your workout routine, maintains Stokes.
“All of your movement stems from your core—it’s the powerhouse of your body,” Stokes adds. “And your abdominals are a massive part of your core.” When we say abdominals, we aren’t just talking the rectus abdominis, which is the superficial muscle on top that you think of when you picture abs, but also include the transverse abdominis (a deep abdominal muscle that runs along your sides and spine) as well as the internal and external obliques (the muscles along the sides of your stomach).
Having strong abs muscles will help improve your performance in workouts and your ability to move throughout daily life, says Stokes. “Your abs support you in those heavier lifting movements you do: when you deadlift, squat, even when you’re doing a bent-over row. If you don’t have strong abs, you’re probably going to feel it in your lower back,” Stokes says. She also adds that if you’re focusing on your abs, you also need to make sure you’re doing an equal amount of work on the back of your body—your lower back and butt—to maintain symmetry and avoid any muscle imbalances that could impact your movement patterns and increase your risk of injury.
Working your abs in this “time under tension” fashion is a great way to really challenge the muscles in a short amount of time. All you really need, Stokes says, is a few minutes of nonstop work. Below, Stokes shares an abs circuit that takes only four to six minutes to do.
What you’ll need: Stokes uses a hand towel in the circuit below. You can also use a small exercise ball, or if you don’t have anything on hand, you can do this without anything in your hands.
- Figure 8 Crunch
- Hollow Hold to Knee Tuck
- Butterfly Sit-up
- Mountain Climber
- Half Burpee Hop
- Do each exercise for 20 seconds.
- Minimize rest in between each move.
- Repeat the entire circuit two to three times.
Stokes encourages you to try your best not to release the contraction in your abs, and move quickly from one exercise to the next to increase the time your abs are under tension. (Of course, if you need a break, take one. A burning sensation in the muscles you’re working is a good thing, but if you feel strain or pain in your lower back, stop and take the time to refocus your form.)
As you get more comfortable with the exercises and start to feel stronger, slowly increase the time to 30 seconds for each move.
And a few quick notes on form: Make sure your lower back is anchored down on the floor whenever you’re lying on your back, Stoke says. When possible, squeeze your butt cheeks to keep them engaged—this is a good trick to keep your lower back on the ground, and will help you avoid straining it.
Here’s how to do each move:
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