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While it may be currently hiding under a layer of fat, your rectus abdominis -- abs for short -- is a very important muscle. Not only does it help you sit up from a supine or lying-on-your-back position, but it also helps support your spine when it works with your other midsection or core muscles -- your obliques, transversus abdominis and erector spinae. If you want to have a flat, toned belly, you may need to lose some fat but, while you're doing that, you can still perform some simple exercises to tone and strengthen the underlying muscles.
Planks use a special type of muscle contraction called isometrics. This means that, despite working hard, your muscles do not actually move. This is how your abs are often required to work to support your spine. Lie on your front on the floor with your upper body propped up on your elbows and forearms. With straight legs, lift your hips off the floor so your body forms a straight line. Without holding your breath, maintain this position for 20 to 60 seconds. If you find your hips drop and your back arches, bend your legs and rest your knees on the floor for an easier workout.
The crunch is a simple exercise that isolates your rectus abdominis muscle. Perform 12 to 20 repetitions of this exercise to tone your abs. Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the sides of you head. Exhale and, using your abs, raise your head and shoulders off the floor. Your mid-back should not move. Lower your shoulders back to the floor, exhaling as you do so, and repeat. Perform this exercise with your legs elevated and resting on a step or bench for variety. Do not pull on your head, as this may cause a neck injury. Cross your hands over your chest or rest them on your thighs for an easier workout.
Supine Dead Bugs
While this exercise has an unusual name and may look slightly comical, it's an effective isometric abdominal exercise that teaches your muscles to hold your lower back in good posture while you work out. Lie on your back with your knees bent to 90 degrees and your hips flexed so your thighs are vertical. Extend your arms and point them straight up to the ceiling. Without allowing your lower back to arch, extend your left arm overhead and extend your right leg to lightly touch the floor. Return to the starting position and repeat using the opposite limbs. Make this exercise easier by not fully extending your arms and legs.
Unlike most abdominal exercises, inchworms start in a standing position rather than lying on the floor. This means they are ideal if you don't have a comfortable exercise mat available for your belly-toning workout. With your feet together and your hands by your sides, bend your knees slightly and lean forward to put your hands flat on the floor just in front of your feet. From this position, walk forward hand over hand while keeping your feet still. Walk out to a pushup position. Perform a single pushup. Do not allow your hips to drop, as hyperextending your spine can lead to injury. Walk your hands back in toward your feet, pushing your butt up into the air as you do so. Stand up and repeat. Perform three to five reps of this exercise.