Terminology is key in this argument. “You cannot isolate the upper and lower abdominals, but, based on technique and exercise selection, you can increase the relative muscle activation in an abdominal region,” explains Tom Holland, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and author based in Darien, Connecticut.
Essentially, your entire abdominal unit is working when you do core exercises, but you can learn to put the emphasis on one area over another. So you can target your lower abs, you just can’t isolate them.
“This takes time and practice as the body gradually learns to connect to the abdominal muscles," says Holland. "Pilates and yoga are two great ways to begin to increase this body awareness and neural connections, since many of the exercises are challenging and originate at the core.”
William P. Kelley, DPT, CSCS, clinic director at USA Sports Therapy in Miami, Florida also recommends exercises in which you contract the bottom of the muscle toward the top, such as leg lifts, to recruit the lower portion of the rectus abdominis. “Stability balls have been shown to increase demand on lower abs,” he adds.
But just as these moves will also work your upper abs to an extent, remember that moves in which you “feel the burn” in your upper abs, also work your lower ones to some degree: “Another way to improve the strength of the muscle as a whole is to perform static holds,” Kelley says.
Getting rid of that pocket of fat just above the lower abs is an appealing concept but no amount of lower-ab focused training can undo a bad diet. “There’s a general misconception around muscles and fat, and folks want to work a muscle in a certain area hoping that it will ‘melt’ that fat in that region,” explains Michol Dalcourt, founder and director of the Institute of Motion and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. Unfortunately, that’s not really how fat loss works. “Fat and muscle are two different things and one cannot melt the other away.” The only thing that works in this case is to lose body fat overall through healthy eating and lifestyle practices, Dalcourt says.
Still, Holland points out that, beyond aesthetics, there are other reasons to learn to activate different parts of your abs. “Most people have muscular weaknesses and imbalances, including within the core, which can lead to instability, pain, and eventual injury,” he says. “Specifically targeting and strengthening [all parts of] the core musculature can eliminate these weak links, decreasing the chance of injury and increasing the body’s ability to handle the activities of daily living.”
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