Every year around a certain time I get sucked into an entire week (sometimes even two weeks in a row) of dining out. The official name for this time of year is Restaurant Week, a celebratory occasion for budget-conscious diners, when local fine establishments offer deeply discounted prix fixe menus. But by the final night of decadently rich food and rapidly tightening pants, I feel as if the name should be changed to Repentance Week.
I don’t typically order dessert after tucking into a three-course meal, but when it’s set in front of me and unleashes a siren call of tantalizing aroma, how can I resist? In the end I wake up bloated and penitent for the chocolate volcano that I devoured two nights in a row. A full workout is out of the question, since I went to bed late and woke up with a food hangover, and another dinner looms at the end of the work day. So, I’ve developed a routine that helps me face the day without mourning the prior night’s meal.
Before before I hop in the shower or crank on the coffee maker, I lay out my exercise mat. I don’t even bother turning on the TV or music because I’m not planning to be there for long. Just ten minutes is all it will take. Instead of following a prescribed format found in a book or video, I simply draw from my own experience and cycle through my favorite exercises for toning the body parts that are in the most need following night after night of fattening meals: namely, my midsection. These are techniques (gleaned from years of conditioning, yoga, and Pilates classes) that I have found to be the most effective for tightening a soft tummy.
1) The Bicycle: Doing the bicycle crunch makes my abs burn, from the top of my ribs down to my belly button. And if the experts say that it’s the best exercise for strengthening the rectus abdominus muscle, who am I to argue? I lie down on the mat, rest my hands behind my head, and twist my body, making sure my elbow comes into full contact with the opposite knee. I used to be guilty of the lazy man’s bicycle, whereby I merely swished my head from side to side while making the bicycle motion with my legs. But once I learned to push myself and really reach up with each elbow, there was no mistaking the change in my results. Right now I max out at 60 medium-speed crunches, but I am working my way up to 100.
2) Crunch Reaches: After working my legs with the pedal motion of the bicycle, I give them a brief break with straight crunch reaches. Lying on the mat with my legs in the air as close as I can get to a 90-degree angle, I lift my upper body off the mat and try to touch my fingertips to my toes. Though I don’t make contact every time, the most important thing is to keep the legs as straight as possible and reach for the sky. This motion deeply engages the full abdomen. After 20 straight reaches, I drop my legs to the mat and lift one at a time while extending the opposite hand. I alternate from left to right, doing 10 of these jackknife crunches on each side.
3) The Plank: I then flip over onto my elbows to hold the plank. From aerobics classes to personal training sessions, nearly every one of my workouts led by an instructor has included the plank exercise. Not only does the plank build core strength, but it has an instant tightening effect on my belly. It has taken me a long time to perfect my form so that there is a straight line extending from my head down to my heels. Even though I always felt a burn in my arms, back, and middle, a fitness instructor recently pointed out that my rear was jutting into the air and my arms were bearing most of my body weight. Now I keep a close watch on my form in a mirror, squeeze my abs in tight, and hold for a slow count of 100.
4) Sideways Plank: When it comes to ab exercises, I never neglect my obliques. To engage my side stomach muscles and stave off love handles, I do a couple of variations on the sideways plank. First, I turn on one side and support my body in a straight line on my bottom elbow. After holding my other arm in the air for 15 seconds, I scoop it in a curve under my body for 15 reps, staying balanced by positioning my top foot slightly in front of my bottom foot. Staying on the same side, I then drop my hips to the floor 15 times. I repeat the entire circuit on the other side, squeezing in my lower abs the entire time. If I were doing a full workout (not just a morning quickie), I would incorporate standing trunk twists and dumbbell traverses for more oblique action.
5) The 100: Though it’s another “holding” exercise, the 100 is almost the inverse of the traditional plank, and a great way to tucker out the muscles for the final push. I learned the 100 from a Pilates fanatic friend, who showed me how to lift my legs up to a 45-degree angle and hold while pumping my arms. Essentially an extended V-hold, the 100 is especially effective when I focus on contracting my core. By the time I’ve held this position for a full count of 100, my body is ready to collapse. Nonetheless, I throw in a bonus round by twisting my arms from side to side and tapping the mat each time. This move further squeezes the oblique muscles and uses up my final fumes of muscle strength, before I hop into the shower and emerge fully re-energized.
My ten-minute morning mat routine might make my pants zip up more easily, but it won’t keep a muffin top at bay. Tummy-toning exercises need to be combined with cardio for truly sculpted, flabless abs. As soon as I get out of the woods when Restaurant Week is over, I’ll return to a routine that alternates among aerobic classes, strength training, and floor exercises. Until then, these pinch-hitting moves will keep my core as taut as possible. All it takes is ten minutes on the mat to develop a healthy habit and an excellent way to kick-start the day.