Abdominal Training


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Abdominal Training Information

An introduction to the basic principles of training the abdominal area, sometimes known as the belly or the abs.

Q1: How do I get abs like giant ravioli?

Getting visible abdominal muscles or "abs" depends on reducing the
amount of fat covering the abs, see Question 3. Getting hard, lumpy abs
depends on developing the underlying muscles, for details, read on...


Q2: Should I do lots of situps to reduce fat around my middle?

No. Exercising the area from which you want to lose fat is called "spot
reduction". Spot reduction is now believed to be a myth. Research
shows that fat is lost all over your body, not just in the area that you
work. Situps are also bad for your lower back (see Question 5).


Q3: How do I reduce the fat covering my middle?

The answer comes in two parts: diet and aerobic exercise.

DIET

This is controversial, but most people agree that eating very little fat and
lots of complex carbs (like rice, pasta and potatoes) helps ensure that
you don't add additional fat. Then you have to work at using the fat you
already have stored which involves...

EXERCISE

Again a bit controversial, but it's widely agreed that regular, moderate,
aerobic exercise 3-4 times per week works best to burn fat that's
already stored.

"Moderate" because intense exercise burns glycogen not fat, so keep
the intensity at about the level where you are beginning to puff a little.

"Aerobic" means (very vaguely) the kind of exercise that requires you
to inhale more. Some suggest that building more muscle through weight
training helps as well, since muscle burns fat just by being there and
moving your body about; so some weight training couldn't hurt and will
probably help.

Many misc.fitness people agree that exercise periods of more than 20
minutes work best. But note that the longer you exercise, the more prone
you are to injury since your muscles also begin to weaken. Two things
which help prevent injury are:

a good warmup
5-10 minutes of light exercise to warm your muscles, try to break
a sweat
stretching
cautious 20-30 sec stretches for every muscle (for an excellent
source of information on the topic, see the Stretching FAQ).

For more information on exercise in general consult the misc.fitness
FAQ.


Q4: How do I exercise the abs?

The abs are designed to perform one main task, to shorten the distance
between your sternum, or breastbone, and your pelvis. The only way to
do this is to bend your spine in the lower back region.

In short, any exercise which makes you move your sternum toward your
pelvis or your pelvis toward your sternum is good. To do this safely, the
lower back should be slightly rounded, not arched.

In general when exercising the abs, try to maintain the natural arch of
you lower back. The lower back will round slightly as you perform the
exercises. Don't fret about pressing your back into the ground.


Q5: What's wrong with situps?

Traditional situps emphasize sitting up rather than merely pulling your
sternum down to meet your pelvis. The action of the psoas muscles,
which run from the lower back around to the front of the thighs, is to pull
the thighs closer to the torso. This action is the major component in
sitting up. Because of this, situps primarily engage the psoas making
them inefficient at exercising your abs. More importantly, they also grind
the vertebrae in your lower back.

They're inefficient because the psoas work best when the legs are close
to straight (as they are when doing situps), so for most of the situp the
psoas are doing most of the work and the abs are just stabilising.

Putting the thighs at a right angle to the torso to begin with means that
the psoas can't pull it any further, so all of the stress is placed on the abs.

Situps also grind vertebrae in your lower back. This is because to work
the abs effectively you are trying to make the lower back round, but
tension in the psoas encourages the lower back move into an
exaggerated arch. The result is the infamous "disc pepper grinder"
effect that helps give you chronic lower back pain in later life.

There may be a way to do situps safely and thus exercise your psoas
muscles. If anyone knows what it is, please let the FAQ maintainer
know.


Q6: What are good ab exercises?

We've divided the exercises into upper and lower ab exercises. Note
that there aren't two separate muscles that you can truly isolate, so all
the exercises stress the whole abdominal wall. However there are
"clusters" of muscle separated by connective tissue (these make up the
"washboard" or the "six-pack"). You can focus on the upper clusters by
moving just the torso and the lower clusters by moving the pelvis.

For the lower abs, in increasing order of difficulty:

lying leg raises
reverse crunches
vertical lying leg thrusts
hanging knee raises
hanging leg raises

For the upper abs:

ab crunches
1/4 crunches
cross-knee crunches
pulldown crunches

Lower Ab Exercises

Lying Leg Raises

Lie on your back with your hands, palms down under your buttocks.
Raise your legs about 30cm (12") off the floor and hold them there. Now
trying to use just your lower abs, raise your legs by another 15cm (6").
Do this by tilting the pelvis instead of lifting the legs with the psoas. Make
sure your knees are slightly bent.

If you're big or have long legs or both, you should probably avoid this
exercise. For people with legs that are too heavy for their lower abs
strength, this exercise pulls the lower back into an exaggerated arch
which is bad (and painful). For reasons why it's bad, see Question 5. If
you have this problem you can either try bending your knees slightly and
making sure you keep your lower back fairly flat, or just try another
exercise.

Reverse Crunch

This exercise can be done on the ground or on an incline situp board. All
you need is something behind your head to hold. If you use the incline
board, use it with your feet lower than your head.

Lying on your back, hold a weight or a chair leg (if lying on the floor) or
the foot bar (if using the situp board). Keep the knees slightly bent.

Pull your pelvis and legs up so that your knees are above your chest and
then return to beginning position.

This exercise is very similar to a hanging knee raise, but a little less
intense.

Vertical Lying Leg Thrusts

Initial position:

Lie on your back.
Put your fists under your buttocks to form a cradle.
Raise your legs in the air 20-30cm (10-12") off the ground,
knees slightly bent.
If you feel any strain on your lower back, bend your knees a little
more.
Raise your head and shoulders off the ground slightly if you can to
help keep the abs stressed.

The exercise itself has four phases:

1. Raise your legs until your feet are above your pelvis; focus on
contracting the abs.
2. Thrust your heels to the ceiling, breathe out, keep contracting the
abs raising the pelvis out of the cradle of your fists.
3. Lower out of the thrust back to your fists, leaving your feet above
your pelvis.
4. Lower your legs back to the initial position.

Legendary Abs II recommends these as safer than Lying Leg Raises.

Hanging Knee Raises

You need a chin-up bar or something you can hang from for this. Grab
the bar with both hands with a grip a bit wider than your shoulders, cross
your ankles and bring your knees up to your chest (or as close as you
can get). Your pelvis should rock slightly forward. Pause at the top of the
movement for a second and then slowly lower your knees by relaxing
your abs. Don't lower your legs all the way. Repeat the movement using
just your abs to raise your knees.

Make sure that you don't start swinging. You want your abs to do the
work, not momentum. It's important that you don't move your legs too
far or your psoas muscle will be doing a lot of work and possibly causing
back problems as in a situp.

Make sure your pelvis moves, your lower back stays neutral or slightly
rounded, not arched, and that your abs are doing the work, not your hips.

Hanging Leg Raises

Just like knee raises except you keep your legs straight. This requires
good hamstring and lower back flexibility, see the Stretching FAQ for
details.

Although Legendary Abs recommends these, The American Council on
Exercise's Aerobics Instructor book warns that they have the same
back problems as conventional situps. This makes sense since, like
situps, the legs are kept straight and the hips move. The Aerobics and
Fitness Association of America (AFAA) also regards hanging leg raises
as dangerous.

For safety you should probably stick to leg thrusts and knee raises.

If you do do hanging leg raises, make sure your lower back stays neutral
or rounded.

There is an isometric variant done by gymnasts called the "L-Support",
which basically consists of taking the leg raise position with the legs held
straight at a level just above the hips. The position is held for 10 seconds.
When you can complete this easily, try a higher position. The same
cautions about back position still hold.

Upper Ab Exercises

Ab Crunches

Lying on your back, put your knees up in the air so that your thighs are at
a right angle to your torso, with your knees bent. If you like you can rest
your feet on something, like a chair. Put your hands either behind your
head or gently touching the sides of your head.

Now, slowly raise your shoulders off the ground and try to touch your
breastbone to your pelvis, breathing out as you go. If you succeed in
touching your breastbone to your pelvis, see a doctor immediately.

Although the actual movement will be very small (your upper torso
should move through less than 30 degrees) you should try to go as high
as possible. Only your spine should bend, your hips should not move. If
the hips move, you are exercising the psoas.

Do these fairly slowly to avoid using momentum to help.

You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by extending your hands
out behind your head instead of keeping them at the side. Make sure you
don't jerk your hands forward to help with the crunch, keep them still.

1/4 Crunches

Same as an ab crunch except that you raise your shoulder up, instead of
pulling them toward your pelvis. You can do these quickly, in fact it's
hard to do them any other way.

Cross-Knee Crunches

Like ab crunches, take the lying, bent-knee position, but this time
crunch diagonally so that you try to touch each shoulder to the opposite
hip alternately. At the top position, one shoulder and one hip should be off
the ground.

Pulldown Crunches

Drape a towel or rope around the bar of a pulldown machine so that you
pull the weight using it instead of the bar. Kneel facing the machine and
grab hold of the towel and put your hands against your forehead. Kneel
far enough away from the machine so that the cable comes down at a
slight angle.

The exercise is the same movement as an ab crunch, but using the
weight instead of gravity. The emphasis is still on crunching the abs,
pulling the sternum (breastbone) towards the pelvis and making sure you
exhale all your air at each contraction.


Q7: Is there a specific order I should do exercises in?

According to Legendary Abs, you should exercise the lower abs before
the upper abs and do any twisting upper ab movements before straight
upper ab ones. Twisting exercises work the obliques as well as the
upper abs.


Q8: How do I structure an ab routine?

According to the guidelines in Legendary Abs:

Try to do sets in the 15-30 rep range.
Follow the ordering rules in Question 7.
Pick easy exercises to start with and when you can happily do
about 2 sets in a row of an exercise, try harder ones.
Only rest when you absolutely must, so take a short (10-15sec)
rest between two sets of the same exercise, but none between
lower and upper abs.
Try to take about 1 second for each rep, except for ab crunches
which you do slower (2 secs/rep) for a better contraction and 1/4
crunches which you should do fast (2 reps/sec) because you're
hardly moving.



Q9: How often should I train abs?

Some writers recommend doing abs at every workout. Others
recommend doing them however often you do anything else in other
words treating them as you would any other body part. Health For Life's
Legendary Abs recommends three or four times a week.

Since most people want good abdominal tone more than freaky
abdominal size, it probably makes sense to exercise the abs with lower
intensity and more frequently, rather than with high intensity and less
frequently.


Q10: Should I do side bends to reduce my love handles?

Nope. Love handles (the pads of fat above the hip bone at the side of the waist) are fat and only shrink with a low fat diet and general aerobic
exercise (see Question 3). You can't just remove the fat from that area
on its own. Legendary Abs claims that side bends develop the oblique
muscles under the fat and therefore make the fat more prominent, but
some people feel that the obliques simply can't get big enough to be
noticeable. If anyone feels they can offer an authoritative answer on this question, please contribute.


Q11: Gee, but shouldn't I balance my abs with my spinal erectors?

Thanks for asking. If you develop your ab strength without similarly
developing your spinal erectors (the muscles that straighten your lower
back), you will end up with strange and possibly damaging posture.

Hyperextensions are a good lower back exercise. Deadlifts, both straight
and bent-legged give the lower back a lot of exercise, so if you do them
you don't need to add anything else. Make sure you get someone to
show you how to do them properly and keep your lower back arched
through the whole movement. For more details consult the misc.fitness
FAQ which contains extensive descriptions of both sorts of deadlifts and
lots more besides.

One other exercise is a gymnast's basic strength move called a ``back
lever'' which among many other things strengthens your spinal erectors.

Hyperextensions

Hyperextensions are best done on a hyperextension bench, but can be
done on a bed or ordinary bench with something (or someone) holding
down your ankles.

Lie face down, with your hands touching the sides of your head and your
body draped over the edge of the bench. Make sure your hips are
supported so your pelvis can't move. Slowly raise your torso to the
horizontal position, but no higher.

Keep your head, shoulders and upper back arched through the whole
movement.

Try to do a couple of sets af around 12 reps after each ab routine or after
each back routine. Don't exercise your lower back more than about
three times a week. Don't exercise it if it's still sore from the previous
workout.

The Back Lever

The back lever is a gymnastic strength move, it requires a lot of upper
body strength and basic gymnastic conditioning before you even attempt
it.

This exercise is dangerous for many people, use caution!

The exercise can be done on still rings, the high bar or a chin bar set a
fair way from the ceiling. You hang upside down with an underhand grip.
If you're using a bar, the bar has to be behind you so try hanging with the
bar in front of you and walk you legs through.

When you have the position, lower yourself, pivoting at your shoulders
until your body is parallel to the ground (or as close as you can safely
get) belly facing downwards and hold the position for several seconds.
When you can't hold it anymore bring your self back up to vertical.

Take care as you have to be able to get out of any situation you get into,
so don't go too low on the first try and make sure you only do it over a
crash mat or with a couple of helpers to catch you if you have to let go.

If you're confused about the description, the HTML version of this FAQ
available via the World Wide Web, contains pictures which will be below
if you're using a graphical browser like Mosaic.



Many thanks go to Keith Smith for patiently explaining the back lever to
me.


Q12: Are there any special abdominal exercises during pregnancy?

The following brief summary of how to modify your routine is from
Colleen Porter.

Modifications for Pregnancy and Postpartum

During pregnancy, abdominal exercises can help preserve muscle tone
and take strain off the lower back. However, you might need to learn
new routines, since most experts have counseled against lying on your
back after the fourth month due to pressure on the vena cava, the blood
vessel that returns blood from the lower body to the heart. The books
"Pregnancy and Exercise" by Raul Artal (currently out of print) and
"Essential Exercises for the Childbearing Year" by Elizabeth Noble offer
many suggestions for safely strengthening the abdominals during
pregnancy. One exercise is the Rocking Back Arch: kneel on all fours
and count to five as you rock back and forth, then return to the original
position and arch your back. Repeat five times, several times a day.

Postpartum moms should check their abdominal muscles for separation
before starting any abdominal exercise program, because damage can
be exacerbated by exercise if there is separation. Test this by pressing
your fingers into the area by your belly button as you attempt to do an
abdominal crunch. If you can put more than one or two fingers in
between the muscles, they have separated and you will need to modify
your crunches. Place your feet the same way, but cross your arms
across the abdomen and squeezing the muscles together as you exhale
and contract the abdominals, lifting only your head (not the shoulders).
You may also use a length of material (such as old sheeting) wrapped
around the abdomen and pulled across to achieve the same effect.

The following ab training tip for pregnant women comes from Robin
Burton:

Belly Dancing

"My midwife cautioned against crunches after the belly rose above the
pubic bone, saying that the stress this caused was a factor in abdominal
separation. I found that an excellent way of exercising the abdominals
during pregnancy was belly dancing! The dancing strengthens the
muscles of the abdomen with very little strain and the movements help
during labor, too. Of course it isn't going to give anybody a washboard
stomach, but no pregnant woman is going to have one of those anyway!"


Q13: Does the XXX ab machine/gadget work?

There are several types of abdominal machine provided in gyms and
many more plastic varieties available in stores and via mail order. These
things mostly are not much better than doing the ab exercises listed in
this FAQ, many of them are significantly worse.

The more complex ones that you find in gyms have the advantage of
progressive resistance, but you can achieve very similar effects by
simply holding weight plates during crunches.

To evaluate whether a machine is worth using should be reasonably
simple - if it encourages an ab contraction under a load it's good, if not
don't bother. An ab contraction (as explained in Question 4) is when the
sternum is pulled toward the pubic bone or vice versa as the main action.

The fundamental thing is to have good form in ab exercises, no machine
can force that. If you have the form, machines are not greatly useful.

Dissenting opinions are welcomed (and will probably be included in the
FAQ) as are reviews of popular ab gadgets and machines.


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