Friday, March 30, 2012

Resistance, Frequency, and Duration of Ab Training

One of the reasons that many people who spend a half an hour during each workout doing hundreds of crunches fail to ever develop six pack abs is that after a certain point, regular old crunches just don’t provide much resistance to develop your abs. In addition, all of the time wasted doing crunches or other minimally resistive ab exercises (i.e. working a very  small muscle group) could have been better utilized by working larger muscle groups which burn more calories.
By focusing the majority of your time in the gym on bigger compound movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and upper body multi-joint presses and pulls, your body is forced to work harder and burn more calories during and after the workout. Don’t get me wrong, crunches can have their place in a routine, especially for beginners, and advanced versions of crunches can even be challenging enough for well-trained athletes.
So how long should your ab training take? Well, the good news is that you don’t have to spend a half hour or more every day training abs. You can complete an intense ab training session in about 5-10 minutes during your workouts, either at the end or in the beginning of your workout, or on a separate day. I recommend doing your ab training at the end of your workouts to assure that you don’t pre-exhaust the abs when you might need their stabilization to protect your back during some of the bigger compound exercises that might make up your workout.
Based on this concept, it is important for the safety of your back not to fatigue your abs before doing heavy spine loading exercises like squats or deadlifts. The problem with saving your ab training for last in your workout is that once you get to that point, you’re frequently too fatigued and end up not training abs, or you just work them half hearted. If your workout for the day is mostly comprised of upper body exercises, you can probably get away with doing your ab training first, since you most likely won’t need as much stabilization as when doing full body or lower body routines. Another strategy is to save your ab training for a separate day, perhaps combined with a cardio-only day.
Another common misconception with ab training is that many people think they must do it every day in order to obtain ripped abs. In reality, you really should train abs like you would any other muscle group. I recommend inserting a tough 5-10 minute ab routine into your workouts 2-3 times per week. That will be more than sufficient to help you fully develop your abs, without over-training them. Remember, your muscles need enough rest to properly develop. In fact, training your abs more than 2-3 times/week may lead to over-training and bring your progress to a halt.
As I noted earlier, in order to fully develop the abs to their potential, you need to train them with exercises that actually provide significant resistance. While I stated that crunches can be a great ab exercise for beginners, once you’ve got some ab training under your belt, you’ll need to start looking to more resistive exercises to make progress in ab development.
Exercises in which you’re curling the lower body up, particularly from a hanging position, provide the most resistance and are much more challenging than curling up the upper body. This is simply due to the fact that your legs are much heavier objects to move than your upper body. Based on this principle, the core of your ab training workouts will consist of exercises that are initiated with your lower body. In any given workout, once you’ve fatigued the abs with challenging exercises initiated with the lower body, then you can finish off with the easier exercises that are initiated with your upper body.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Proper Body Positioning for Abdominal Training

The hip flexor muscles such as the psoas, along with the abdominals, both act to pull your trunk towards your legs. However, the psoas can operate in a much greater range of motion than the abs. The psoas are activated to the highest degree when your feet are supported and/or your legs are extended straight. Also, the psoas take over the majority of the work when your upper body comes off the floor by more than approximately 30° in crunching or sit-up movements.
It has become fashionable in recent years for trainers to recommend that people try to “isolate” their abs and minimize any hip flexor activity. Although these professionals have good intentions with this recommendation, I don’t believe it’s a good idea to try to eliminate any kind of hip flexor activity. A balanced approach will be much better. The recommendation to minimize hip flexor activity during ab training stems from the thought that excessive psoas activation during attempts at ab training creates compressive forces on the discs of the lumbar spine. The psoas attach to the lower spinal vertebrae. When the psoas are activated to a high degree, they pull on the lower spine, creating compressive forces on the discs. If your abs are very strong, the abs will keep the back from arching and prevent damage from occurring. However, even those with strong abs may not be able to keep the back from arching once the abs have fatigued. Once the back arches during heavy psoas activity, the vertebrae around the psoas attachment can grind together, potentially resulting in disc degeneration over time.
Now with all of that said, I believe that a balanced approach is best, and that you must focus on building both strong hip flexors and strong abdominals. Strong hip flexors are necessary to improve on movements such as sprinting or any other movements involving hip flexion.
As long as you perform the exercises in this manual with the correct body positioning, you will develop very strong abdominals to protect your back, and you will also develop sufficient hip flexor strength. I do believe that there are certain exercises which are both ineffective and can potentially put undue stress on the lower back. Some of these exercises that I recommend you avoid are straight legged sit-ups, sit-ups with the feet supported, hanging leg raises with an arched back, floor leg raises with straight legs and an arched back, and machine crunches.
Proper body positioning is essential to maximal development of the abs while protecting your back from injury. One of the most important aspects to understand in order to best develop the abs, is to maintain a proper posterior pelvic tilt during ab training. To explain this concept, think of yourself lying on the floor while arching your back. In this position, the top of your pelvis is tilted forward, otherwise known as an anterior pelvic tilt. Now if you rotate the top of your pelvis down towards the floor such that you have removed the arch in your back, you are now in a posterior pelvic tilt. This is the optimal position in which to train your abs when doing floor exercises (although it may not be appropriate for an individual with lower back disc disease).
Now consider an ab exercise in a hanging position, such as the hanging leg raise or hanging knee up. Most people complete these exercises with a slightly arched back position utilizing mostly the hip flexors with minor assistance from the abs to complete this movement. In order to complete a hanging leg or knee raise in a safer and more effective way for developing both the abdominals and the hip flexors, you must have your back in a rounded position as you literally curl your pelvis up closer to your upper body. This aspect makes these exercises much more challenging and puts a much higher demand on your abs. Most people cannot complete a properly performed hanging leg raise until they have adequately strengthened their abdominals and are in very good physical condition.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Abdominal Musculature Breakdown and Functions

The abdominals are composed of the rectus abdominis and the lateral abdominal muscles known as the transversus abdominis, and the internal and external obliques. The rectus abdominis runs from your sternum to your pelvis and essentially helps pull your rib cage and your pelvis closer together. The transversus abdominis acts as a natural weight belt essentially holding your insides in, and stabilizing your trunk. The internal and external obliques work to rotate the torso and stabilize the abdomen. The rectus abdominis is the actual visible “six pack” that you see in someone with well-developed abs and a low body fat percentage. However, the lateral abdominal muscles are also very important to develop due to their role in supporting the spine and maintaining a healthy lower back. In addition, developing the transversus abdominis helps pull your stomach area inward giving you the appearance of a smaller waist. Whenever you suck your stomach in (like a guy at the beach trying to hide his gut), you are using the transversus abdominis to perform that movement.
The action of the rectus abdominis can be initiated by crunching the upper body up or by crunching the lower body up. A popular myth is that people think that the upper abs and lower abs can be worked separately. The fact is that you cannot isolate the upper or lower
abs. The rectus abdominus is one muscle group and the entire length of the muscle group is activated whether you’re pulling the upper body up or pulling the lower body up. With that said, it should be noted that it is beneficial for you to work the abs from a variety of different angles to ensure maximum muscle fiber development throughout the entire abdominal region.


When people ask me how to go about getting six-pack abs, they usually start talking about all of the crunches and other exercises they spend hours every week performing without seeing any tangible results. My first response is that they most likely already have a reasonably developed set of abdominals if they’ve been training for some time. Their abs are just covered by excess body fat. That is really what people are inadvertently asking me when they ask what they need to do to get visible abs; what they really need to focus on is reducing their body fat.
Granted, a certain level of muscular development of the abs is necessary to have a ripped “six pack” appearance, but ultimately your body fat % is what’s most important. Generally, men need to get below 10-11% body fat to really start to see the abs (they really pop out at 7-8%), and women need to get below 16-19% body fat to really bring out their abs. However, everyone will differ depending on his or her body fat distribution. Based on individual body fat distribution, some people may need to get even leaner than these percentages to be able to see their abs.
Men tend to accumulate more body fat in the abdominal area, whereas women tend to accumulate more body fat in the hips and thighs. If you want to figure out how much body fat you need to lose to get down to these levels or lower, you’ll need to have your body fat percentage measured. There are many methods available to do this, but the methods that will be most accessible to the majority of people are the skinfold caliper method, the bioelectrical impedance method, or estimates using girth measurements of various body part circumferences. If you’re a member at a gym, you can most likely have a trainer at the gym perform either the skinfold caliper method or the bioelectrical impedance method. Some of the calculations and tables for the girth measurement method can be found on-line or your trainer at your gym may be able to complete the calculations if they have the tables available.
While this manual will provide all of the information you need to know about developing your abdominals to the greatest extent possible given your genetics, the majority of this manual is going to focus on proven strategies and tips that will help you reduce your bodyfat to such levels that your abdominals are clearly visible.