Core Development and Toning

Happy Friday friends! A while back, one of our community members wrote in and asked what the best way was to tackle love handles. So, in traditional Fit Ferret fashion, I will be addressing this question in this week’s post and discuss with you how to firm up, tone, and shape the core musculature of the body.

Before we begin I want to put a few things out there.

  • There is no such thing as spot training. It is impossible to target problem areas of the body and expect weight loss in that specific section.
  • To attain the fitness magazine sculpted 6 pack look is a very time consuming and dedicated lifestyle process that takes time and a strict diet.
  • These guidelines are designed for balancing core strength and firming up muscle tone through the core as a whole.
  • There are no “Short Cuts” and anyone who promises you that is full of horse puckey.

Now that that’s out of the way … we can dive on in!

We’ve recently been discussing how angles and planes play a great deal in muscle development and strengthening. Fortunately, the core muscles function just the same as any other muscle group and require this same attention to detail to strengthen and tone properly.

Through a series of static exercises (exercises in which tension is held in the muscles throughout its duration) and dynamic exercises (exercises in which the muscles are contracted to maximum tension and relaxed in a repetitive fashion) as well as moving these muscles in a way that gravity pulls on them through the various planes we can begin to increase our core power and stability while simultaneously beginning the sculpting and toning process.

Let’s take a quick look at the “anatomy” of the core muscles.

As you can see, there is A LOT more going on down there than your “Abdominal” muscles and each of them plays an important role in balancing and powering up your core.

So where to start?

Since “planking” has become a fairly mainstream notion and a question I’m asked a lot is “How long can you plank?” This static exercise focused on the Rectus Abdominis sounds good to me.

I love that question because I answer it quite frankly “one minute.” Following that answer I often get a puzzled look as I can only imagine in their head they are wondering how someone who is fit could “only” hold a plank for one minute. I then follow that up with, but I can hold a plank that is 10x harder than a traditional plank also, for one minute. If their curiosity is piqued I then proceed to show them a plank held utilizing two medicine balls, one under the feet and one under the hands.

So then I ask, “Would you rather be able to hold a plank for 10 minutes, or do one of those for 1?”

My philosophy on the plank has always been: “If you can hold it for a minute, find a variation that’s more challenging.” Not only does it save you time and produce the same and in most cases better results, but it is difficult for an exercise to get boring if it is constantly changing and becoming more difficult with your ability level.

Your first static exercise in your quest for stronger, more toned abdominals is the traditional plank. You want to be able to plank from a level surface, a surface where your upper body is elevated, and a surface where your feet are elevated. This will ensure that every angle is accounted for and the strength is evenly built along the length of the abdominals. When you can execute this move 3 times held to 1 minute. It’s time to start challenging the stabilization of the exercise by using unstable surfaces such as medicine balls, or the BOSU, or even suspension cables like the TRX; or try removing one or two limbs (arm and leg, not arm and arm) from the equation to make your muscles work that much harder. (Planking tip: Feeling pressure in your lower back? Tuck your hips underneath you forcing you to flex your glute muscles. Then tighten your abdominals and imagine that you are sucking them up into your chest cavity. This will remove stress from your lower back, put you into a good form position, and focus all of the stress on your abdominal muscles.)

The next static exercise to master is the side plank. Very similar to its cousin the plank, the side plank is a static exercise focused on the oblique muscles that run along your side. Just like the plank, master it with your upper torso elevated, your feet elevated, and when it becomes too easy, start disrupting the stability of the exercise.

Moving along, let’s take a peek at some dynamic exercises that will aid us in our quest.

The simplest and easiest dynamic abdominal exercise that comes to most people’s mind is the crunch and or sit-up. However, before we dive too deep into that, recently there has been a lot of controversy in the fitness field involving the crunch and whether or not it may actually be hurtful to your spine. That being noted, things like this pop up constantly in the fitness field and there has not been enough research or documentation yet for me to change my ideas on it.

One thing to note when you start doing dynamic abdominal exercises is that you may initially feel fatigue in your neck and jaw. This is due to the mind muscle connection being weak as well as the muscles themselves being too weak to pull your torso up. When you start to feel that fatigue, it is in your best interest to give that exercise a rest. That being said, while you are engaged in your first rounds of dynamic core exercise try to be very aware of the muscles that are activating to help build that connection. In time, the fatigue you feel in your neck and jaw will subside as the muscles become stronger. DON’T OVER DO IT.

Getting stronger? You’ll want to add in sit-ups from a declined position. As well, you’ll want to do leg lifts to get the tension moving up and down the length of the muscles for that even build.

Next up, we’ll look at two dynamic exercises for the obliques. This first one is a tad bit difficult as if you have never done it before it feels incredibly awkward and you may not be sure if you are working the muscles at all.

From a laying down position on your side, curl your bottom leg underneath you, and extend your top leg. Curl your bottom arm towards your head and rest your head against your hand. Bring your fingertips of your top arm to you ear and now you’re in position. The objective from this position is to now crunch up the top half of your torso, right along the imaginary line dividing you into bottom and top halves, about where your belly button is. You should feel a small group of muscles in your side activating really hard to even generate the slightest bit of movement. The good news is, this exercise doesn’t take a lot of movement to be correct! As long as you feel those muscles in your side contracting and pulling the top half of your torso up, you’re doing it right. Practice makes progress.

Of course, the dynamic work of the oblique wouldn’t be complete without an exercise that also worked the legs. From this same position, you can lift your top leg up, contracting the oblique muscles!

You are now on your way and armed with the knowledge necessary to start strengthening evenly and toning evenly your mid-section, reducing “love handles” and making them “love grips.”

Remember though, these exercises will eventually become too easy and you will stop seeing progress. Use your knowledge of the planes and angles and keep increasing to more and more difficult exercises making certain you hit all of the abdominal muscles in every direction, not just some of them. Happy planking friends!

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