Late-night television infomercials show you the latest ab-training gizmos. Fitness magazines keep you updated on the latest abdominal workouts. All of this information is irrelevant if you're doing it wrong. The most effective abdominal workouts follow a set of basic training principles. Understanding your abdominal anatomy and movement mechanics, and knowing which muscles can wreak havoc on your workout, empowers you to make the right exercise choices.
External Abdominal Anatomy
Your abdominal group has four muscles, which work together as a team. The first two team players, the rectus abdominis and external obliques, sit just beneath your skin. The rectus abdominis flexes the spine forward and gives your abs that six-pack look. Your external obliques originate at the back of your lower ribs and follow a diagonal line toward your pelvis. These muscles perform flexion with rotation, as well as side-bending movements.
While your rectus abdominis and obliques have fun flexing and rotating, your lower-back muscles are just dying to step in and take over. It's a good thing you have your spinal stabilizing core muscles. This deep muscle team literally has your back. It's members include the transversus abdominis muscle, internal obliques, mulifidus and the pelvic floor. During exhalation, your transversus abdominis muscle, or TVA, presses against the diaphragm to expel the air. Pilates exercises maximize TVA engagement by using a deep exhalation during abdominal flexing movements. This exhalation also triggers a co-contraction of your pelvic floor muscles. This coordinated effort increases spinal stability.
The word core is more common than cat videos on Facebook, but few people understand its true meaning. Your fibers of your core muscles are considered slow twitch, meaning they were designed for endurance. Your lifestyle habits sort of messed that up. Many people sit hunched at their computers, go to the gym and flex their spines through a few hundred crunches, then come home and hunch over their computer for a few more hours of social networking. Through perpetual flexion, the rectus abdominis has been turned into an endurance muscle, and made your core muscles lazy in doing so. Exercises such as the plank, which use your core muscles in their stabilizing function, might help you fix the problem.
Your Evil Hip Flexors
Your lumbar muscles are not the only muscle group conspiring to take over your ab routine. Watch out for those hip flexors! During leg raises and full, straight-legged situps, they pull against your spine and cause your back muscles to arch. The back pain is obvious, but many people think they can work through it. Epic fail. Deactivating your hip flexors is the only solution. Spend a few minutes each day assuming a prone position on a foam roller. Let your body weight sink into the roller, then gently roll back and forth. Follow the foam roller session with hip flexor stretching. Until you have deprogrammed your hip flexors against monopolizing your ab workout, modify some of the exercises. Use bent-knee positions for the crunches and leg raises.
Ab Program Design
Choose between five to 10 abdominal exercises that combine spinal flexion, rotation and lateral flexion exercises. Every two to three weeks, vary the workout by changing your body position or changing the type of equipment. Emphasize quality over quantity, by performing smooth movements and drawing your belly in during contractions. To add challenge, increase the range of motion of the exercise, impose a balance challenge by using a stability ball, or add resistance with weights or exercise bands.
- University of New Mexico: Super Abs Resource Manual
- NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training; National Academy of Sports Medicine
- Bodybuilding.com: Inner, Outer & Whole Unit Ab Training
- British Journal of Sports Medicine; Abdominal Muscle Training in Sport; C.M. Norris
- TNation: Feel Better for 10 Bucks
- Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies; Functional Load Abdominal Training Part 1; C.M Norris
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images