A Six-Pack of Myths on Ab Training
© Joan Price. May not be reprinted without permission.
Chiseled, rock-hard, six-pack, washboard, ripped, cut, chicklets, speed bumps, killer abs! Contrast those nicknames of affection and awe with what we usually see in the mirror: pot belly, beer belly, paunch, sag, bulge, gut, pooch. We're midsection maniacs, obsessed with our dream of the perfect abs we'll have some day - if we can just do enough sit-ups. Visit a gym on any given day and you'll find both guys and gals working their abs with fury and commitment. The problem is, they're often doing it wrong. Waste-of-time wrong. We consulted with a bevy of exercise experts who helped us debunk the following six myths of abdominal training.
1. Abdominal muscle
is different than regular muscle.
Ab muscle is muscle. Like your quads, your biceps, your lats. Period.
"The abdominals are different only in location," explains Alice Lockridge, MS, an exercise physiologist based in Renton, Washington. "They are not resting on a bony surface, like the biceps or quads - instead they span like a bridge over a cavern. But that doesn't change basic physiology or laws of science."
2. You have to train
abs at least every other day.
Train them at most every other day so you leave time for recovery, just like any other muscle group, says Ken Alan, BS, Power Bar Athlete, spokesperson for American Council on Exercise, and Los Angeles-based trainer of personal trainers. "Your abs can get strong and stay strong with twice a week," he suggests, but you have to train them hard enough.
The key is to choose exercises that are hard enough to fatigue the muscles, so that they need recovery time to get stronger. Add some exercises that use the abs functionally - the way they're used in real life. For example, abdominals are used to stabilize the body. Feel this function by holding a push-up position without letting your belly sag. Don't do the push-up - just keep holding the position and feel your abs going crazy trying to isometrically contract enough to stabilize your body. If that's easy, put your feet up on a weight bench or, even better, a stability ball. Now you'll really feel your abs!
Another tough ab variation is a reverse crunch that Lockridge calls "pizza feet." Lie on the floor with your legs up (straight or slightly bent), soles of your feet aimed at the ceiling. Imagine that you're holding a pizza on your feet. Lift the pizza straight up until your hips are off the floor. Don't swing the feet, or you'll lose the pizza. Keep your hands by your hips, "helping" slightly by pushing, if necessary. If you're strong enough, keep your arms off the floor.
3. Ab exercises
melt away abdominal fat.
Spot reducing has been disproved over and over again, but it still persists. "You can't get rid of fat by repeatedly exercising one body part," says Douglas Brooks, MS, an exercise physiologist based in northern California. "Study after study has refuted that. Any physiology textbook will tell you that. Spot reducing is a dead dog - you don't have to beat it any more."
Chew gum - you won't get skinny cheeks. Do crunches in the best form - you won't whittle your waistline or belly. You may develop abs of steel, but they'll still be covered by body fat if you don't burn enough calories to reduce it.
"Doing ab exercises for reducing the waistline is a fool's errand. Reducing the waistline has to do with reducing body fat," explains Bryant Stamford, PhD, director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Burning abdominal fat is the same as burning fat anywhere on your body: You have to exercise off more calories than you take in. "[Proper] diet and large muscle activity will accomplish much more than a thousand sit-ups a day," says Stamford.
4. High repetitions
are required to make gains.
Let's say you want to work your biceps. Would you do 100 concentration curls with a 2.5-pound weight, or 10 with a 25 pound weight? Making abdominal gains follows the same principle: Overload.
The reason we think we have to do so many reps is that we're not working them hard enough. "If you find you have to do 50-100 crunches before fatiguing, focus on this: Slow down, and work on perfect technique," says Candice Copeland Brooks, a fitness expert who presents abdominal technique workshops to fitness instructors. Here are some of her technique tips:
- Pull the shoulder blades together on the crunches so you can't cheat by pulling your head forward or rounding the upper back.
- Make your abdominals contract before anything moves. First the rib cage moves, then the rest follows.
- Slow down. If you go too fast, you use momentum and not muscle.
5. All you need
to do is lots of sit-ups.
Forget full sit-ups. They primarily strengthen muscles that are already strong, and these are not even abdominal muscles. "If you come all the way up, you work your hip flexors, which have nothing to do with your six-pack at all," says Alan. "What's better is to do a variety of exercises to attack the six-pack muscle from different angles, and engage other abdominal muscles."
That "6-pack muscle" is the rectus abdominis, today's glamour body part. Although it's the muscle that shows the most, one of the more important reasons to strengthen the abdominal area is for back health. Just working the rectus abdominis won't protect your back as well as combining a few different exercises that will also strengthen the external obliques, internal obliques, and the transverse abdominals. Variety is the key.
6. Barbell twists
are great to trim your abs.
Performing barbell twists - holding a barbell on your shoulders and twisting at the waist - is a great way to help your chiropractor send his kid through college at your expense. "You have to rate barbell twists way up at the top of stupid things people do when they're in the gym," says Stamford. "You're creating momentum with weight on your back. There's extraordinary stress placed on the lower back area, [and] that's potentially very damaging to the lower back."
Besides being dangerous, this exercise is also ineffective. The force of gravity brings the weight towards the floor rather than opposing the contracting muscle fibers. Instead, Lockridge suggests this super-hard exercise for the obliques:
- Kneel beside (not facing) a stability ball, and drape one arm over the ball, armpit resting on it.
- Push onto your feet in a wide stance. Your body will now be draped even farther over the ball.
- Put your hands behind your head in the international signal for "I'm doing abdominals now." Your armpit and torso are balancing your body on the ball.
- Do a lateral crunch - like a windshield washer action - pivoting up on your hip and bringing your elbow toward your hip. Don't twist.
- As you get more advanced, bring your feel closer together.