PT on the Net Research

Training the Abdominals


SPECIAL NOTE: The following article was submitted by Lou Barrie a couple of weeks before he passed away on March 3, 2001. Though he never had a chance to send the photos for the article, we felt the piece stood well on it’s own as a fine example of Lou’s work, and his descriptions go a long way to making up for the lack of pictorial imagery… As he would have wished, we hope you gain a lot from the article.

"All I want is a Six Pack!" It is almost a standard request to a personal trainer from a prospective or current client. There’s no getting away from it; we are literally obsessed with our physical appearance and no body part (other than maybe the butt) has perfection wished upon it more often or receives more specific work and attention than the abdominals!

This is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that the cosmetic enhancements come along with improved health and functional benefit. Nor is it a surprise! The abdominals are the centerpiece of the body and one's eyes are automatically drawn to that area, so it stands to reason that we would want them to look good.

From a functional perspective, a great set of abdominals are the key to optimal performance in a multitude of exercises and activities as well as being a major key in the prevention of back injuries and pain!

However, a great looking set of abdominals will not necessarily be functionally effective.

The goal of working this muscle group (and any other) should be to get the ultimate in both cosmetic development and functional value.

We must also be very careful about subscribing to a myth that none of us really believe in (or shouldn’t): spot reduction! "I would never be guilty of promoting that!" I hear you say? Think again! How many times has a client told you that he wants to lose fat off his waist/hip and/or wants lots of abdominal/thigh work for the same purpose? How many times have you responded by giving him what he asks for and usually at every single session with high repetitions and multiple reps? For what purpose is the A.B.T. (Abs, Butt & Thigh) class promoted other than to support the ridiculous notion that spot reduction is possible? How many gyms provide such classes and direct "appropriate" clients to participate? If you fall into any of these categories, then by association you are indeed guilty!

To achieve the ultimate in abdominal development in both function and form in minimum time, the trainer must approach the task from three directions, targeting three specific factors:

  1. The deep abdominal and spinal stabilizers used in everyday activity
  2. The external (visible) spinal flexors
  3. What you or the client eats

In short, this article is not about diet, but let me say this: if you insist on shovelling in copious amounts of starchy carbohydrates, then the majority of you should forget about ever making significant visual acquaintance with your "six pack" no matter how hard you work ‘em. This statement is a whole other article that needs to be addressed separately.

So, in reality, we are only addressing factors 1 and 2.

Factor 1 – Deep Abdominals and Spinal Stabilizers

I’ll keep this simple. This group of muscles generally act in an involuntary fashion. They are skeletal muscles, and we do have the ability to voluntarily contract them, but they are most active in a stabilizing role, reacting to shifts in the body’s centre of gravity in relation to its base of support as well as altered pressure on joints. In short, these factors are known as "tilt and equilibrium reactions" and "proprioception."

Training for these skills is a cinch. Basically, you just have to perform free standing, resistance training exercises or, for that matter, any activity that has you moving in multiple directions (i.e., aerobic classes) possibly except swimming. Why not swimming? In the water, you are supported partially in three dimensions, gravity exerts less effect, creating less need for these particular muscles to be active to support the skeleton and another factor may be that eccentric resistance is all but absent in water. (I am not saying that swimming is a redundant health pursuit. I am simply saying that it is not productive in developing the core stability and joint proprioception required for life outside of water!)

Free weight, resistance training exercises (including cables and pulleys) will generally require good levels of activation of the deep core and abdominal muscles and are most effective for the development of the same. Following these simple tips during workouts can enhance this:

  1. Replace benches and seats with a Swiss Ball.
  2. Train the body unilaterally (one side at a time) without hanging on to something.
  3. Maintain perfect posture – don’t let the weight dictate your position.
  4. Activate deep abdominals by pulling in the stomach.
  5. Don’t use a weight-training belt.
  6. Reduce your base of support (stand on one foot) during upper body exercises.

One of the added benefits of training this way is a significant increase in calorie expenditure! By bringing multiple deep stabilizers, proprioceptors and other extraneous muscle groups into play, the amount of energy required to perform the exercise is significantly increased. The increased innervation of the nervous system results in a hormonal situation that is highly favourable to fat metabolism. The functional/real life value of the exercise is greatly enhanced as well as a much improved injury prevention ability, not to mention that the resultant fat loss will serve to make your abs more visible. The time taken for the session is the same, but the calorie usage is greater! Whichever way you look at it, you can’t lose!

Factor 2 - External Spinal Flexors

This group of muscles simply consists of the Rectus Abdominus and the External Obliques. As with all muscles in the body, they act in an integrated way with numerous other muscle groups to perform a particular movement: in this case, spinal flexion, rotation and lateral flexion. Movements to work this area should consist of variants of these movements.

It is unwise (if not impossible) to try and isolate these muscles for three reasons:

  1. Muscle isolation does not happen in real life and is rarely necessary in training.
  2. Greater loads and/or intensity can be applied to a "group" of muscles as opposed to a muscle working autonomously (resulting in the hormonal situation mentioned above).
  3. Functional integration and "real life carry over" inevitably results in greater training effects in energy expenditure, strength development, injury prevention capabilities and inevitably far better cosmetic results.

Factors that one should consider implementing are:

  1. Train the muscle(s) through as full a range of movement as safely and as practically as possible.
  2. Utilize resistance from weights, cables and even machines.
  3. Train to at least concentric failure and, if possible, eccentric failure on working sets.
  4. Keep repetition rage below 15-20.
  5. Perform multiple movement patterns, even within the same set.
  6. Limit the use of "fixed path of resistance" machines.
  7. Vary the exercises, resistance and repetition range from session to session.
  8. Keep working sets and exercises to no more than two of each.
  9. Train this muscle group 1 – 2 X per week, program it like any other body part and always train it last in the session.

Technical Issue

Past, and even in some quarters, current teaching criteria would indicate that during crunch type exercises, the lower back must remain in contact with the floor. This is incorrect and dysfunctional from the point of view that if the spine remains flat on the floor, it stands to reason that the spine remains in flexion – not even approaching neutral curvature. The lumbar spine is not naturally flat! It has (or should have) a lordotic (concave) curve in it!

If this is considered, then the muscle that flexes the spine will remain in a contracted/shortened state with the spine staying in flexion through the exercise. The target muscle will not be worked in anything approaching full ROM. This then poses two issues that need to be carefully considered.

  1. The muscle is only being worked through partial ROM and is likely to only be strong through the range that it is worked! Considering the target muscle in this case is the Rectus Abdominus and it is a "back up" muscle to the Transverse Abdominus (TA) in preventing the spine going into forced, passive extension! (It inevitably takes over that role when the TA ‘lets go’ – generally in extension beyond neutral). Should it not be trained in the ranges that it might be required, then it is unlikely to be much use when it is actually needed for the task.
  2. Working the abdominals with the spine maintained flat on the ground and the head/neck continuously protracted is simply promoting and developing a kyphotic (round shouldered) head forward posture! An unacceptable amount of individuals in modern society already suffer chronically from this condition - the last thing we should be doing is promoting and developing it! Especially in the highly repetitive manner that happens in "Exercise to Music" classes. We are just enforcing an already deeply established bad habit and making it worse!

The Exercises

The numbers of exercises available to you for this muscle group are immense. It would be impossible for me to list and describe even half of them here. So, I have selected my top 5 "Ab Killer" exercises and described them, along with photographs for your perusal and subsequent trialing.

Before embarking on the description of the exercises, I should probably enlighten you on some of the terminology I’ll use to describe some exercises.

1. Extended Range Balance Crunch – (Ball, DuraDisk or Folded Mat)

To do this properly requires a high degree of skill, abdominal strength and control. I will describe to you the advanced version and then give you some interim techniques to assist you in getting there.

For the "full" version, a 4–5 Folded Mat or DuraDisk is required. Start position is with the mat or disk placed at a "balance" point between the hips and shoulder blades. Thighs should be in the vertical aspect, the knees bent and the ankles crossed. The hands should be positioned at the temples.

Begin the movement by simultaneously lifting the hips and the shoulders off the ground until the abs are fully contracted and you are "balanced" on the mat/disc. The return to the start position should be a controlled and simultaneous descent of the hip and shoulders, both coming into contact with the ground at the same time.

It is unlikely you will ever need resistance for this exercise, and if you can make 10 repetitions unassisted (especially on the disk), you are exceptional.

Slightly easier variations would include placing the heels on a bench (you can lie across a Swiss Ball for this version) or in the hands of the trainer to allow some purchase through the heels or have a trainer assist your balance. Some adjustment of the placement of the mat/disk may be required to find the individual point of balance.

2. Swiss Ball Reverse Crunch

Place a large (65cm+) Swiss Ball up against a machine with 2 upright posts (be sure to protect the ball from any sharp edges). Lie against the ball at angle of 45 degrees to the posts and grip them with both hands. Lift the legs until the thighs are at 90 degrees to the torso; this is the starting position. Perform the movement by flexing the spine and drawing the pelvis up off the ball to full spinal flexion then return to the start position.

An easier variation could be done by placing a DuraDisk or Folded Mat under the Lumbar spine while lying on an incline abdominal bench or even while flat on the floor.

3. Weight Resisted Extended Crunch – (Ball, DuraDisk, Folded Mat or Bench)

Lie supine across a DuraDisk, Folded mat, Swiss Ball or with the upper torso hanging off the end of a bench (see instructions for correct performance of this particular version earlier in the article). Hold a weight plate on the chest or forehead or set up with cables or elastics. Make sure that the neck is in extension and that the head is supported on the Ball or ground (dependent on the exercise) prior to the commencement of each repetition.

Begin the movement by flexing the neck first and then allow spinal flexion to occur sequentially to the point where the ribs and pelvis are as close together as possible. At this point the spinal flexors have reached their point of full contraction and to continue beyond this will inevitably engage the hip flexors. This is acceptable and even quite functional as it is rare that spinal flexion will happen without some hip flexion in real life, so it may improve the functional benefit of the exercise to perform the full sit up. However, if you are using a weight plate, be advised that resistance to the target muscle groups is reduced as the plate travels closer to and above the hip joint. This shortcoming is eliminated if cables or elastics are used instead of or in conjunction with the weight.

Functionality and effectiveness can be increased by reaching out behind with the arms at the point of full extension and by pulling them in as the client comes up.

This exercise can be made easier by using less folds in the mat, less air in the DuraDisk or bringing the client further forward on the ball.

4. Bench Kneeling Cable Crunch

This is probably my favorite abdominal exercise. I see many people performing versions of this but very few get it right.

Start position requires you to kneel on a flat bench that has been pushed up in front of a Lat Pulldown machine or overhead pulley with a rope attachment. Tuck the toes over the end of the bench for grip, maintain a right angle at both hip and knee throughout the movement and have the spine in the position of full extension. Hold the rope in your hands and rest the forehead on the thumbs.

Select a weight that is heavy enough to support you comfortably in the start position. If it is too light, you will find yourself falling face first onto the bench. The exercise seems to be more effective if you are back from, rather than directly underneath, the pulley wheel. A 20kg disk placed between the bench and the machine will give the desired result.

While maintaining hip and knee angles, begin the movement by contracting the abdominals and flexing the spine. Imagine yourself curling around a pole directly under your abdomen. Return to the start position under strict control. (A tip here for greater effectiveness is to "suck in" the stomach hard during the eccentric phase – it seems to increase the workload on the abs.) Remember that the exercise is spinal flexion not hip flexion – keep the hip joint stationary!

Adding a twist (right elbow to left knee) into this movement (and the others described previously) gives a good functional variation.

5. Dumbell Bent Press

This is an exercise from the distant past of weight lifting and was a competitive lift way back in the 1800s. It may seem like a strange exercise to do for the abdominals – until the morning after the session and your obliques feel like they are on fire!

Hold a dumbell in one hand at the shoulder (same as a press), in the upright position, feet slightly wider than hip width. This is the start position. Perform the movement, not by pressing up the dumbell but by pushing and rotating the body away from it. Imagine that you are attempting to pick up a weight off the floor and between your feet with your free hand (which is in fact an exercise/lift known as "Two Hands Anyhow").

While keeping the dumbell at arms length, return to the upright position and then lower the dumbell to the shoulder to begin the next repetition.

A floor pulley system can be used to provide variety for this exercise.

Conclusion

Effective training of these muscles should be no different to the training philosophy applied to other muscle groups. The emphasis should be placed on avoiding homeostasis! That basically means that a muscle or muscle group will cease to respond favourably in strength, size or appearance if the necessity to adapt to the particular stress diminishes. Simply increasing the load or volume of work is rarely enough! The body will adapt to a "movement pattern" very quickly and become very efficient at performing it, even with increased loads.

Increased efficiency, while in some instances we desire it, in this case is not a desirable outcome. Efficiency means that we are using less effort to complete the exercise. It means there is less neurological recruitment of muscle fibres, and it basically means we are not going to reap the same benefits from the exercise as we were prior to the adaptation taking place. Remember the great improvements that you made as a beginner? These improvements were simply adaptation. Once adaptation took place, improvements diminished. Simply put, we must continually prevent our body from becoming too familiar with any one particular exercise. This factor alone may be the prime determining factor in "plateauing."

"IF NOTHING CHANGES, THEN NOTHING WILL CHANGE"

Chronic use of the same movement pattern, especially with "fixed path of resistance machines" will also induce a phenomenon known as pattern overload and slow down progress even quicker. These machines should be used sparingly.

In short, I am basically saying that it is more favourable to vary the exercises for any muscle group on a session-to-session basis rather than follow them religiously for extended periods of time.

References

  1. Pattern Overload Part 1 & Part 2 by Paul Chek. Personal Training on the Net. Online. September 2000.