Thirty-day exercise challenges are everywhere.
You’ll find them in fitness and fashion magazines, on fitness websites, in posters in your gym and even at the office. They’re created with the best of intentions – to motivate you and help you reach new levels of fitness.
Of all the 30-day challenges, the thirty-day abdominal challenge is the most popular.
Most of my friends have done at least one and many of my clients admit to having tried them too. The abs challenges will have you doing more than 100 sit ups, or planking for five minutes at a time by the end of 30 days.
But there are three things you should know before taking on an abs challenge:
1. Details make a difference
Using correct form makes all the difference in how effective an exercise is. Sure, if you simply move your body from “place A” to “place B” you’ll be burning some calories. But when done incorrectly an exercise may not produce the result you’re expecting. It can be unnecessarily painful (not fun!). Worst case scenario, when done incorrectly over and over, it can cause long-term pain and injury.
Many challenges don’t give information on how to do the movements. Before getting started, make sure you know the details on how to perform the exercise to get the best results, and to avoid injury.
2. Less is more
If you’re doing 100s of crunches at a time or spending 5 minutes on a plank, you’re probably not getting the best bang for your buck out of your time spent exercising. Here’s why:
Strength training research states
that the average healthy adult* needs to do an exercise that fatigues the muscle between 5 and 20 repetitions in a set** to challenge it enough to cause it to change (grow, get stronger and more toned) (1). Having an exercise that you complete in 20 repetitions or less will help you to avoid muscle and joint overuse injury. The added bonus is that fewer repetitions gets you to finish faster – it should take about 90 seconds to do a set of 20 repetitions or less.
(*Average healthy adult = not someone in rehab nor a competitive athlete.**A set = lifting and lowering the weight continuously without rest.)
Abdominal muscles are just like all the other muscles in your body.
They’re composed of more slow twitch (endurance-type) muscle fibers because they’re made to work for you all day. They help you stand and sit upright, help your spine to twist, arch and bend forward, and keep your spine in place while you move your arms and legs (think walking, running, stair climbing and lifting a box overhead). But, just like all other muscles, to increase strength and tone most effectively and efficiently, you need work up to doing harder exercises and less repetitions, not the other way around.
If you’re a beginner you’ll need to start with an easier exercise, which means you’ll do more repetitions (i.e.: 15-20) before your muscle fatigues. As you get stronger, you’ll want to increase the intensity of the exercise and do less repetitions to fatigue. This is how we progress through building muscle, increasing tone and strength effectively. (1)
Because the abdominals are mainly endurance muscles, you might allow yourself to go a little over 20 repetitions for their exercises. But once you get to 30, 35 repetitions, or more than 90 seconds of time, it’s time to find something more challenging.
3. Faster isn’t better
When tons of repetitions are required, the natural tendency for most people is to speed up the movement to get it done and over with. But, when you increase the speed of an exercise, you increase the momentum and therefore decrease the amount of work your muscles do. Think of throwing a ball – you only need to use muscle at the beginning, then you let go and the ball moves from your hand to the target – because of momentum. This is what happens during fast strength training, muscle is used in the beginning and the rest is powered by momentum.
Speed is great if the exercise is designed to train you for explosive movements, but most abdominal exercises are not designed for that. And if you go fast without focusing, it’s easy to use the neck, back, even the legs to do what the abdominals should be doing. You won’t be getting what you’d hoped out of those countless repetitions if other muscles are doing the work instead of your abs.
If you do abdominal exercises slower rather than faster, your abdominal muscles will be sure to work through the entire movement and you’ll eliminate momentum. So slow it down, do less, and get more bang for your buck with each lift and lower.
I worked on a 30-day abdominal challenge for a publication last month.
You can find it here at Refinery 29 written by Amy Roberts. Amy is a fitness writer and a certified personal trainer who knows a bit about exercise programming. To top it off, she was completely on board to ink out the small details for readers on how to do the movements so that they work the abdominals most effectively and also avoid injury. One of the exercises in the challenge is in the video above.
Our abs challenge is different than most because the goal is to do fewer movements with more control. This will give you better mind-body connection with your abs, you’ll work them more intensely with each repetition and avoid wasting time.
I was pleased with how the 30 day abs challenge came out. If you follow the explanations and get to feel the right muscles working without speeding through, and if you’re at beginner to intermediate level of fitness, you’ll have a well-rounded and effective abs program for the month.
Go here and give it a try, then let me know
in the comments below how it worked for you or if you have any questions.
If you want to learn more about how to be efficient in your exercise program and get the most out of the exercise you actually have time to do..
you may be interested in my online group course MindBodyBlast. I hold it twice per year, and there’s a membership option if you’d like to start on your own timeline. I also offer professional coaching and training through individual appointments in person and online. Or, you can simply subscribe to this blog for free tips on how to be healthy in a balanced way.
1. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2011 – Volume 43 – Issue 7 – pp 1334-1359
ACSM SPECIAL COMMUNICATIONS: Position Stand: Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise