Perfectly toned abs -- everyone wants them but few people have them. Developing a strong core is important for maintaining good posture, assisting in breathing and relieving back pain. If you're reading this because you just want that elusive "six-pack," that is fine because, admittedly, we all like looking our best.
1. Sit-ups are a great abdominal exercise. Sit-ups may actually injure your back. Anyone with chronic back pain would most likely cringe if asked to perform a sit-up. Stuart McGill, spine biomechanics professor at the University of Waterloo, has explained what happens when you perform a sit-up or flex your spine. He states that inside each disk is a mucus-like nucleus and continuous flexing of the spine and bending the disk repeatedly causes the nucleus to slowly breach the layers and leads to a bulging or herniated disk. It is best not to do sit-ups and save your back.
2. Abdominal training will trim belly fat (spot reduce). Though I am not sure how it happened, people began thinking that if you do bicep curls, your arms will get bigger, but if you do crunches your beer belly will shrink. This logic doesn't make sense. If you want to lose fat, it requires diet and exercise and you cannot control where you are going to lose fat. The unfortunate truth is, the first place you add fat is usually the last place you lose it.
3. You need to train your upper abs and lower abs separately. Leg raises and other hip-flexion exercises do not isolate your lower abs. When performing hip-flexion exercises, your hip flexors produce a burning sensation in the pelvis that is often mistaken as the lower abdominals. It is not isolating your lower abdomen, it is lactic acid building up from working hip flexors.
When performing effective abdominal exercises, the rectus abdominus contracts from its origin to its insertion. The exercises that work your upper abs also work your lower abs and cannot be isolated. Exercises, such as reverse curls, have shown in EMG studies to activate the lower abdominals slightly more than the upper abdominals, but you shouldn't expect a sudden visible difference in the bottom four abdominal muscles.
4. High-repetition abdominal training builds a great six-pack. If your goal is hypertrophy of the abdominal muscles, the technical term for getting the six-pack look, you will not succeed with high-repetition abdominal training. If doing reps of 50 bicep curls isn't beneficial for building your biceps, reps of 50 will not work for your abs.
5. Arnold Schwarzenegger abs vs. hot yoga teacher core. Developing big body-building abs that protrude on the beach and developing a strong healthy core are completely different.
The truth is, the best way to develop abs like Arnold had in his Mr. Olympia days is to perform heavy compound movements and diet down to single-digit body fat. Heavy compound movements induce hypertrophy of the abdominals (make them stick out). Getting down to a single digit of body fat, or at least below 12 percent, makes them visible.
Compound movements are whole body movements that engage the abdominal muscles. These exercises can include squats and deadlift variations, pull-ups, chin-ups, gymnastic movements and Olympic lifts. Sprinters, gymnasts and Olympic weight lifters do not develop that "shredded look" from direct abdominal training. It is obtained through whole body movements and being eight percent body fat.
Your sexy yoga instructor may not have abs that protrude like Arnold, but she most likely has a well-developed core that allows her to move fluidly and without pain. This can be attributed to spinal endurance and stability, which has nothing to do with hypertrophy of the abdominals (the six-pack look). A well-developed six-pack may look good for the beach, but it will not improve your posture and may injure your back.
I hope this article helped clear up many myths surrounding abdominal training.
Lehman, G.J., & McGill, S.M. (2001). Quantification of the differences in electromyographic activity magnitude between the upper and lower portions of the rectus abdominis muscle during selected trunk exercises. Physical Therapy, 81, 1096-1101
Katch, F. I., Clarkson, P. M., Kroll, W., & McBride, T. (1984). Effects of sit-up exercise training on adipose cell size and adiposity. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 55, 242-247
Luttgens, & Wells, K,F. (1992). Kinesiology (8th ed). Dubuqe. W.C. Brown.
Kendall, F. P., McCreary, E. K., Provance, P.G. (1993). Muscles and testing function (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
Low Back Disorders, by Stuart McGill.
Ultimate Back and Fitness, by Stuart McGill.
Stuart McGill's website.
For more by Dr. Mike Hart, click here.
For more on fitness and exercise, click here.