You're asking and I'm answering . . .
I am frustrated with my abs. Although I am pretty active, eat well, run a lot and pretty toned and all, my abs are a mess! I have very weak abs and that is the only area where I am completely flabby and loose. Not only does the appearance bother me, but mostly because I want strong abs so that my back is strong too. My question is how do I improve the strength of my abs? I try all sorts of things, but thought if I had a little more guidance on how to strengthen them, I can be on my way to being healthier, stronger and having a tight stomach. If you could help I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!"
– Miss Frustrated
This is a great question and I know you are not alone in this quest, so to see my answer
The abs seem to be a difficult area to tone and while "six pack" abs may be aesthetically pleasing they don't necessarily translate to a strong torso or healthy back. Since we cannot pick and choose the area of our bodies where fat is lost, the best bet for losing belly "flab" is cardio, for all over weight loss.
While you can't spot reduce, you can spot tone (this is important for preventing back problems) and when it comes to abdominals you need to work all four layers of abdominal muscles. Here's a quick run down on the layers going from outermost layer, you have the rectus which turns into the six pack, the external and internal obliques, and the transverse. And you are right you need strong abs to help your back, and here's the run down on what your ab muscles do and exercises for each layer, plus a bonus exercise for your back.
To work your abs you need to do enough reps of an exercise, or variety of exercises, until your abs really burn and feel exhausted. Then repeat the set two more times. Just like strength training, you want to give your ab muscles time to recover, so work them at the most every other day. Your abs, especially your transverse, should engage before you move your arms or your legs to provide stability to the spine. So you should be working them all the time, so if you use the elliptical or stair stepper try not using your hands to force your abs to engage so your time on cardio machines will be doing double duty.
Wow . . . I had no idea I has so much to say about abs.