Back to School - Abs 101
If you're like me, you've come across countless articles on how to tighten your tummy or flatten a flabby midsection, but to quote the famous playwright, William Shakespeare, there's been, Much ado about nothing.
But before we explore some possible reasons behind your sub-pectoral protrusion, let's take a quick look at the actual musculature of the abdomen.
The most prominent layer, the Rectus Abdominus, is a thin sheath of muscle that runs midline from sternum to pelvis. It's what most identify as the ab sixpack. Sometimes referred to as the lower and upper abdominals respectively, the Exterior Oblique and Interior Oblique muscles wrap the lower torso and also tie into the pelvis. Finally, the Transverse Abdominus are deep horizontal muscle fibers that from run side to side, holding together your internal organs. The major action of the abdominal muscle group is to support the back and spine, as well bring the trunk towards the pelvis.
Traditional Abdominal Exercise
When performing traditional abdominal exercises (IE: crunch, sit up) there's a tendency for the body to make muscular substitutions, and let non-targeted muscles to do most of the work. This allows the notoriously short and tight hip flexors (the muscles responsible for elevating the thighs towards the chest) to be recruited instead of the abs.
To get a sense of where your hip flexors are and what they do, place your hand over the junction between the pelvis and either thigh. Now raise one foot off the floor an inch or two. As you do, the hip joint will bend, and you'll feel the powerful hip flexors contract. For a great full body workout click here.
The traditional crunch or situp is routinely done with excessive contraction at the hip joint, overriding most, if not all abdominal muscle activity. In order to perform a crunch motion that effectively challenges the abs, we need to first quiet down those pesky hip flexors. Try this 3-phase approach.
Phase One - Hip Flexor Stretch
Lie flat on your back, bend at the hips and knees with your feet flat on the floor, hip width apart. Extend the right leg straight out and bring your left knee towards your chest, taking hold of the bent knee with both hands. Do not allow your tailbone to roll up off the floor as you squeeze your knee towards your chest. If the back of your extended thigh (straight leg) cannot remain flat on the floor, your right hip flexors are tight.
If your hip flexors are not tight, skip directly to phase two.
Using the muscles in the back of the right leg and buttocks, draw the right thigh to the floor while the low back remains on the floor, and the left knee is held to the chest. Only stretch to a position of slight discomfort, NOT pain. Hold for five to ten seconds, performing three sets on each side. Work up to 30-second holds. Breathe naturally through all holds.
Phase Two - Crunch Time
Lie flat on your back in the supine position, legs straight. If your hip flexors are tight, your low back will be arched and away from off the floor. Slowly, bending at the hips and knees, slide your feet towards your buttocks until the arch in your low back disappears and the back flattens on the floor. This is your crunch position. If necessary, support the knees with a pillow or folded blanket to ensure total relaxation of the hip flexors throughout the movement.
Now fold your arms across your chest and slowly curl up from the floor with your head, shoulders, and chest, with the sensation of bringing your ribs towards your navel. The only muscles working should be the rectus abdominus, as well as both internal and external obliques. It's imperative that the low back remain flat on the floor, and the hip flexors stay relaxed. Repeat in a slow and controlled manner to moderate muscle fatigue.
Phase Three - Pelvic Tilt
If you also have a problem with rounded, or hunched shoulders, forgo crunches altogether, as they tend to increase the curvature of the upper spine. Instead, from either the supine position (lying with legs straight), or from the relaxed, hip flexor-supported position (with knees bent), press your low back into the floor by contracting your abdominal muscles, hold then release. Keep your entire lower body relaxed. Your arms should be held out in a tee position, palms up. Perform two or three sets of 10 to 20 repetitions with a brief hold (or one set of two or three repetitions with a 10 to 30 second hold).
Wall standing is a variation on the pelvic tilt. Stand with your back flat against a wall, heels out at least six inches. Keeping your shoulders and pelvis against the wall, press the low back into the wall with a strong abdominal contraction. The closer to the wall you are with your feet, the more abdominal effort it will take to flatten your back. Hold for 10 seconds up to 1 minute.
The above combination of exercises, if done properly, will flatten, tone, and tighten your abdominal muscles, improve posture and appearance, and possibly relieve symptoms of low back pain. Of course, no amount of abdominal work will remove the layers of fat you've accumulated over the last 20 years through overeating and under exercising.
A properly orchestrated strength and cardiovascular program, combined with sensible eating is the best way to achieve that. Find out more about Michael Stefano, and his customized programs. Let Captain Mike help you lose weight, while achieving optimum health and fitness.
MICHAEL STEFANO is the creator and author of the Firefighter's Workout (Harper Collins 2000). Mr. Stefano is a health and fitness writer and contributor to eDiets, eFitness, & Firehouse.Com. In addition, Michael's articles have appeared on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! His workouts have been featured in magazine and newspapers from around the country, as well as in numerous network and cable TV segments. He also offers a customized version of his amazing program, via a comprehensive 22-point fitness profile form.