Truth About Training The Abdominal Muscles

by Deborah L. Mullen, CSCS 

Spot Reduction
The Flat-Stomach Myth

Effective Abdominal Exercises

The fact that millions of Americans desire a trim waist is what keeps the ab equipment industry booming. Unfortunately, many of the abdominal exercise gadgets on the market are ineffective and sometimes even unsafe. The advertisements for these products perpetuate misconceptions about what really works and what doesn't. 

Spot Reduction

"Trim" is a word used frequently in ab products. In reality, no exercise equipment will trim or reduce your waist. If you haven't heard by now, you cannot spot reduce fat (except by liposuction!). So don't believe ANY abdominal toning equipment advertisement that promises to decrease fat around your waistline. The fact is that ab exercises will train your abdominal muscles, but you will have the same layer of fat sitting on top of these muscles unless you create a calorie deficit by burning more calories than you consume. The most effective combination is aerobic exercise, strength training and healthy eating habits. You might not like this answer, but it is the only one that will work in the long run. Don't look for quick-fixes--as we all know, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is!

The Flat-Stomach Myth:

Many people are on a quest to achieve a "flat stomach". The obsession with the abdominal area can cause frustration, anxiety, and can even lead to eating disorders. Unfortunately for many people it's not physiologically possible to achieve a flat-stomach.  Our abdominals aren't designed to be flat. Instead, the abdominal muscles form a rounded, not flat, shape. Gender, age, and individual body types can effect the size and shape of your abdomen. This is especially true of many healthy and fit women who, when they reach about 40 years old, tend to get a lower abdominal "pooch" due to hormonal changes. 

So instead of worrying about something you can't change, try focusing on something you can--like your posture. Poor posture can contribute to a "pot belly" look, while good posture can add to a trimmer-looking physique. Good posture consists of a slight bending of the knees, contracting the abdominal muscles to point the tailbone toward the floor, and keeping your shoulders back and your head balanced on your neck (not leaning forward). Think of a string attached to your head which is being pulled upward. Better posture will make you feel taller and slimmer.

Effective Abdominal Exercises

As mentioned earlier, ab exercises won't reduce fat from your waistline. Genetics, age and gender determine the shape of your abdomen. That said, with the proper exercises, you can improve the abdominal muscles. The abdominal muscles react to resistance training just like any other muscle group. Performing 100 biceps curls is not the proper way to overload the biceps--neither is doing 100 crunches to work the abdominals. Effective exercise will fatigue muscles in less than 20 repetitions and will produce better results.

You can achieve results without any equipment. You can even work your abdominals by performing a "pelvic tilt" while sitting in a chair. This method can strengthen your abdominals for better posture and for supporting the back. People with weak abs find this very helpful and easy to do. Other exercises:

Standard Crunch:
Lie on back with knees bent. Lift your shoulders off the floor, concentrating on moving your ribs towards your hips. Pretend a grapefruit is under your chin so you don't move your head. Easier: hands on chest. Harder: Hands on sides of head, but don't pull on head. Hardest: Hands straight out above head. Go slow and keep breathing. Try 2 seconds up, hold for 2 seconds, then 2 seconds going down. 

Reverse Curl:
This targets the lower fibers of the front abdominal muscle and also the side abdominals. Lie on your back and bend your knees toward your chest as far as is comfortable, keeping hips on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles to lift hips off the floor and bring knees toward chest. Don't swing your legs! Concentrate on using your abs to lift your pelvis toward your lower rib cage. Go slow and keep breathing. Easier: Hands on floor. Harder: Elbows on floor, hands in air.

Combination Crunch:
Do the standard crunch and the reverse curl at the same time. If you need a challenging ab exercise, this will work great.

Ab Exercises on the Ball
There are some legitimate ab products like the exercise ball (aka swiss, gym, stability ball, Fitball), which has been used by physical therapists for decades.
It's one of the safest and most effective training devices for the abs and low back. Lying on the exercise ball, your hips curve down so you start your exercise at a greater range of motion than you would lying flat on the floor. This means more of the abdominal muscle gets trained. 

Exercise balls  and dvds/videos targeting the abs at Simple Fitness Solutions.

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