This Is The Biggest Mistake Women Make With Abs Exercises
You work out, yet you still don’t have abs. What gives?! It’s not your genetics. It’s not your diet. It’s actually how you breathe.
How to get abs – breathe!
Abs. Toned stomach. Flat belly. I’ve been on a quest for this since my teens, trying to figure out how to get abs. I do everything right – eat healthy, exercise regularly, limit alcohol, even do core-targeting exercises three times to seven times a week, and sometimes even twice a day. Yet – even my mother attests – I look like a healthy normal woman. Not a healthy toned, fit woman.
On my first training session with Roydian Chan, a “tier 3+” personal trainer at Equinox in Toronto, he pointed out something no one has ever told me. I wasn’t breathing properly. So, he taught me how to breathe.
That’s right. He taught me how to breathe. Sounds random, I know. But as he was poking my ribs and tummy with his finger as we went through his planned workout, I did feel silly. But the next day, I had something I never had before – DOMs in my abs. And with every workout after that. (This is how you get rid of delayed-onset muscle soreness – that pain – from your workouts.)
Here Chan shares with me (and you, of course) how you can get more from your abs workouts by simply breathing better.
You *NEED* to breathe!
“The biggest mistake is that they don’t breathe,” Chan tells me. “This usually happens in beginners because they are so worried about the task of the exercise, and how their body is feeling, that they forget to breathe. Over time this becomes a habit, and it turns into breathing all over the place.”
And I found that breathing actually engaged my core, making my abs work harder, even on simple exercises, like planks or squats. Even when those moves don’t obviously call on the abs for the movement.
But not breathing can also put you at risk for hurting yourself. When you don’t breathe, especially during the “hard effort” of an exercise, like the bottom of a squat, says Chan, it could put the spine and the pelvis in danger of injury.
This is how breathing gives you a toned stomach
Breathing properly = an engaged core. And it helps the body move through an exercise with good form. So all the exercises you do become core moves. And all the exercises you do become more effective.
“With proper breathing during exercise, we can better avoid injury, help improve efficiency and also maximize the benefits we get out of a workout,” says Chan.
“The technique we teach at Equinox is called diaphragmatic breathing, informally known as belly breathing.”
What is belly breathing?
How to get abs: Breathe with your belly. Easier said than done. For me, it didn’t feel natural for my stomach to engage and extend to breathe – let alone during an exercise. So, I thought of it as an add-on to an exercise.
Here is how Chan says to breathe and how to get abs:
“There are three parts to teaching this technique: Breathe in, hold breath, breathe out,” he says. “As you breathe in through your nose/mouth, engage the muscles that surround our lower back.”
First: When you do breathe in, you’ll notice that your belly, sides, and low back “inflate.” Chan compares this muscle engagement to a “weight belt” to stabilize all the core muscles.” It’s like slightly extending your belly and tightening it at the same time.
Second: When you hold your breath, Chan says: “With this ‘weight belt’ on, the body can now maximize output with the core functioning the way it should, this allows efficiency and low risk of injury.” I liken it to the feeling you get when you hold yourself up in a plank, tightening that midsection. (Although you are supposed to be breathing in a plank. In fact, that’s how Chan gets me to do them – 10 breaths long, instead of so many seconds/minutes.)
Third: Exhaling, Chan says to go slow, tightening your core muscles as you breath out. “Imagine air leaking out of a balloon,” he says. “It comes out slowly as your belly and sides start to deflate to start the cycle again. The purpose is to train the body to activate the core muscles (includes abdominal muscles) with every single breath.
What inhaling should feel like
“The best way to learn belly breathing is to lie down on the floor,” says Chan. Breathe in through your nose. You should feel the muscles in your belly and lower ribs “inflate like a balloon.”
Do it again, and put your hands on your belly. When you inhale, you should see your hands rise a bit.
When most people breathe, you can see it their upper chest, he tells me. But you want to really focus so you can see the movement in your belly.
“Breathe in over a four-second count,” he says.
What exhaling should feel like
Now that you’re on the floor and did your four-second inhale, it’s time to learn how to exhale.
“Breathe in through your nose, hold your breath, and exhale through your mouth,” says Chan. “Your belly, the sides of your abdominals and your lower ribs, should deflate back to normal.” And do it slowly, about eight seconds.
It is hard to do. “You may not get this on the first couple attempts because, a) you are rewiring a habit, and b) most people’s breathing is very shallow throughout the day.” For me it felt like engaging (inhale) and contracting (exhale).
“This is a great way to bring awareness towards letting in air slowly, and exhaling even slower.”
This is when to breathe in and when to hold your breath
“Inhale at the beginning of the movement, and hold it throughout the downward transition (about seven seconds) and the ‘bottom’ of the movement,” says Chan.
“The ‘bottom’ of an exercise is generally where the body is least stable and requires more effort from the core, which means we need it ‘braced’ in this position, which also means the belly should be filled with air.”
Take the squat for example. You breathe in when you’re standing straight. Then you hold it as you move your butt down to the floor, so that your thighs become parallel to the floor.
This is when you breathe out
You exhale when you return to the start position of the exercise. “This part generally requires the most amount of effort,” says Chan.
We’ll use squats again for the example. You exhale as you push your body up to standing.
Squats might not be thought of as an abs exercise, but when you do this it is definitely a core move. You’ll feel it the next day.
Test yourself to see if you’re breathing properlyphoto credit: shutterstock
As I went through the exercises in our workouts, Chan would walk around me, checking out my core to make sure it was “inflated” and “deflated” when it should be. He would also push in my sides and belly to make sure these core muscles were engaged.
Ask yourself, as you go through an exercise, does your core make you feel more secure and stronger as you go through the movement. One thing I noticed is how I would often relax my core without even noticing and put more focus on my legs.
To test your technique, Chan says to lie on the floor, face down with your forehead on your hands and do the breathing as previously described.
“If you’re breathing properly you should feel pressure of your belly going into the ground.”
Don’t forget to count – 4, 7, 8
This breathing count (four-second inhale, seven-second hold and eight-second exhale) is actually derived from meditation breathing.
“The 4-7-8 breathing exercise has been around for a very long time,” says Chan, adding it is an integral part in how to get abs. “You might not get this on the first couple of reps because most people’s breaths are very shallow. The reason is because our nervous system is often on ‘fight or flight’ mode, we are not very good at managing stress.”