If there’s one body part that is the focus of many workouts, it’s the waist. Having a waist that is not only trim but also displays well-developed abdominals muscles suggests a high level of fitness. Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of misinformation about ab training that may do more harm than good. Let’s take a closer look.
The rectus abdominis is the muscle responsible for shaping the envied “six-pack.” It is one long, single muscle that extends from the top of the sternum and rib cage to the pubic bone. As such, the entire rectus abdominals is activated to some degree in virtually every exercise for this muscle group.
Most trainees understand that no matter what abdominal exercise they do, their abs will not show if they are covered by a large layer of fat. That being said, here are 10 lesser-known points to consider when selecting exercises to work the abs.
1. Clasping the hands around the head during sit-ups may increase neck strain. One commonly-heard recommended to reduce neck strain when performing sit-up exercises is to clasp the hands behind the head. Often, this results in the trainee pulling on their head for leverage and thereby placing the muscles and connective tissues of the neck at a high risk of injury.
Further, raising your upper arms causes a reflex contraction of the muscles behind the head to stabilize the shoulders. A better approach is to tuck your elbows in and place your hands on your forehead. The pressure on the forehead stimulates the muscles on the front of the neck to contract, thus causing the muscles behind the head to relax.
2. Rotational torso machines are poor oblique exercises. The muscle fibers of the obliques are arranged in a primarily diagonal alignment, not in an alignment that is transverse to the trunk. Rotating the spine on a single axis as these machines force the user to do is an unnatural movement pattern, and performing this exercise seated significantly increases the shearing forces on the spine. A better alternative to seated rotational torso machines is a wood chop exercise performed with cables.
3. Swiss ball crunches may cause hernias and neck pain. The Swiss ball crunch works the rectus abdominis through an extreme range of motion that cannot be duplicated on a flat surface. However, overemphasis on this exercise could cause lower back pain and create a muscle imbalance that may increase the risk of a hernia. Further, the Swiss ball can increase the range of motion of the neck during a sit-up or crunch exercise, causing the neck to easily go into hyperextension and cause neck pain.
4. The Garhammer Raise was invented by Dr. Richard Herrrick. In the early 1970s, Dr. John Garhammer wrote an article for a weightlifting magazine called International Olympic Lifter in which he discussed a version of the reverse sit-up that he learned from Dr. Richard Herrick. With this exercise you start with your legs crossed and then lift your hips, pulling your knees towards your chest. Although this exercise activates the entire area of the rectus abdominis, it strongly works the subumbilical (below the belly button) section of the abdominals. Because Dr. Garhammer wrote the article, bodybuilding writers started calling the exercise the “Garhammer raise,” and the name stuck.
5. Bending the knees doesn’t eliminate the work of the hip flexors during sit-ups. Bending the legs is one popular way to try to reduce the involvement of the hip flexors during sit-ups, but the hip flexors are still active but through a shorter range of motion. Overuse of these exercises can cause tightness in these muscles and result in an excessive anterior pelvic tilt that can increase the risk of lower back pain.
6. The straight-arm lat pulldowns is a great ab exercise. Straight-arm lat pulldowns are primarily used to develop the lats. However, because they strongly contract isometrically during this exercise, they also effective for developing the rectus abdominus. The late biomechanist Dr. Mel Siff claimed that this exercise contracts the rectus abdominis muscle more strongly than sit-ups!
7. Olympic-style weightlifting effectively trains the internal and external obliques. As evidenced by the muscular midsections of athletes who practice the sport, Olympic-style weightlifting exercises can develop impressive abdominals. A study published in Physical Therapy in Sport in 2011 found that competitive female weightlifters had significantly stronger internal and external oblique muscles than a recreationally active control group.
8. Abdominal strength influences posture. The subumbilical section of the abdominals plays an important role in maintaining optimal posture. Many athletes, such as gymnasts, often devote so much attention to the hip flexor exercises such that they create a relative weakness in this “lower abdominal” section of the abdominals that may cause excessive lumbar curvature. This abnormal posture reduces the shock absorbing qualities of the spine, increasing the risk of lower back pain.
One popular test to determine if the subumbilical section of the abdominals is weak is to lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Place your hands just above the hipbone, lift your elbows off the floor and keep your head in contact with the floor. Now try to lift your upper legs straight up. If you can’t perform this test without moving your knees towards your head, or if you have to brace your elbows on the floor or raise your head to perform the movement, then you have weak lower abdominals. This test can also be used to train the abdominals.
9. Weak abs can decrease athletic performance. When the pelvis is rotated forward due to muscle imbalance, the subumbilical section of the abdominals are stretched and become difficult to contract. A tennis player with such an imbalance, for example, would not be able to generate as much power when he or she serves. Weakness in this section of the abdominals can also adversely influence running mechanics.
10. Weak abs can cause hamstring pulls. Having an excessive anterior
pelvic tilt from abdominal weakness places the hamstring on a greater stretch during athletic movements and thus could continue to hamstring pulls.
It’s true that a workout emphasizing large-amplitude movements such as squats, deadifts and the Olympic lifts may be enough by themselves to develop impressive abdominals. But you want to take your training a step further and add a few additional exercises for you “core” muscles, consider these 10 ideas so that you can train not just harder, but smarter.