So many ab and leg exercises, so little time. Proper planning lets you have it all. Savvy sequencing, when combined with that uniquely feminine talent for complex multitasking, lets you fit all of your favorite mid- and lower-body exercises into one workout, without sacrificing form or intensity. Once you understand the interdependency of these muscles, it's easy to teach them to play together.
All Abs All the Time
When performed correctly, every exercise engages your abs, especially your deeper-muscles core. The modus operandi of core engagement has inspired two exercise scientists -- Paul Hodges of Australia and Stuart McGill of Canada -- to duke it out intellectually. Hodges favors the drawing-in maneuver. He explains that by exhaling and drawing your navel toward your spine, you trigger transversus abdominis activity. During exhalation this core muscle presses against your diaphragm and deepens abdominal contraction. McGill argues against the efficiency of the tranversus abdominis on its own. He advocates abdominal bracing -- a simultaneous contraction of your abdominal, butt and back muscles. Whatever method you use will keep your abs in constant use.
Your core muscles control stability. Challenging them prevents their laziness. Balance-training devices -- such as balance boards and discs, stability balls and half balls -- impose a balance challenge that tells your core muscles to get busy, lest you fall flat on your face. When planning your leg workout, perform at least part of your routine on these balance enhancers. Examples include squats on a balance board, side leg raises with your body draped sideways over an exercise ball and hamstring bridges with your feet on the ball. When you get to your ab routine, you may no longer need to perform "abs infinitum" to achieve results.
Multitasking With Pilates
The Pilates concept of engaging the "powerhouse," a contraction of the abdominal, glute and back muscles, came long before anyone uttered the word "core." Joe Pilates was so enthralled with the idea of constant abdominal engagement that he created an entire series of exercises that works the abs and legs simultaneously. Performed in a supine position with your legs lifted and extended, the leg circle exercises involve opening and closing your legs to engage your inner and outer thigh muscles and lowering your legs to challenge your abs. Resistance bands and Pilates equipment, if available, increase the challenge.
Squat and Plank Sequence
Begin your leg workout with compound exercises, such as squats and lunges. These exercises target your front and back thigh muscles -- hamstrings and quads -- simultaneously, while your inner and outer thighs stabilize your knees. Perform as many reps as you can do in correct form. When your leg muscles fatigue, be kind. Instead of forcing them into another set, drop down to a plank, draw your belly and engage your core for about one minute. As your abs begin to quiver, another set of squats or lunges begins to sound like relief.
Obliques and Legs
Interspersing oblique and leg exercises gives your neck a chance to recover from constant flexing. Lie supine with your left foot flat on the floor and your right foot on your left knee. Do 15 oblique curls to the right. Then, maintain the same position and do 10 one-legged bridges for your left hamstring. Next, roll onto your right side with your legs extended and your right forearm on the floor. Lift your hips from the floor, creating a side plank for your obliques. Hold the position and raise your left leg. Lower your leg, lower your hips and repeat for 10 reps. Repeat the sequence on the other side.
Avoiding the Peter Principle
The inevitable "how many sets and reps" question always arises during workout discussions and sparks a lively debate. Those adhering to the Peter Principle philosophy of exercise advocate working your muscles to the point of incompetency. This method builds endurance, but allows other muscles to take over when targeted muscles fatigue. Problems arise when your back, neck and knee-ligaments take over an exercise. That's why the quality vs. quantity team favors fewer reps, performed in perfect form.
- Dynamic Chiropractic: Core Stabilization Strategies: Abdominal Hollowing vs. Bracing
- Mayo Clinic: Core exercises: Why You Should Strengthen Your Core Muscles
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies: Pilates and the Powerhouse
- Human Kinetics: Workout Structure and Order
- Shape: 10 Tricks to Amp Up Your Favorite Abs Exercise
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.