Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Only Way to Work Abs – Part 1 of 2

We all know thousands of crunches and sit-ups are what it takes to get perfect abs, right?
Sadly, these exercises have grown synonymous with strong, attractive abs and they are probably what you see everyone doing in the gym too.  It turns out that crunches and sit-ups are incredibly ineffective for developing core strength.  And crunches and sit-ups actually do more harm than good!  I will just use crunches as an example from now on, but keep in mind the same rules apply for sit-ups.


Your core muscles were designed for one thing only – to keep your spine straight.  When performing a crunch, an unhealthy strain is put on your back at its weakest point.  This weak point is at the back of your lower spine, which contains a huge amount of nerves.  The high amount of nerves increases the potential of nerve damage.  Flexing your spine over and over with a crunch also puts you at risk for a disk hernia.  Your spinal disks can only take so many bends.  The more you bend, the closer you are to causing bulges or hernias.  Hernias can be debilitating, by the way. They can cause weakening of your entire body and incredible back pain.  You’ve always heard to lift with your legs to avoid hurting your back, right? So why would you do this same bend in a lying position?
“But crunches make my abs look good.” When you are doing a crunch, you are not using the muscles in the way they were designed.  And you are not building muscle for your health, you are only building them for looks. And guess what!  If you do enough of these excruciating crunches, you will actually have some horrible looking abs.  They will look great from the front, but when you see them from the side your stomach will actually poke out.  There are some guys in fitness magazines that appear to have incredible abs, but they are actually complete weaklings.  Not only have they created abs for the purpose of looks, they have put unnecessary wear and tear on their backs.  I’d like to think of them as chiropractors’ best friends.


Before we get started, I need your help.  I am soo tired of hearing the word ‘abs.’  I think it is the word ‘abs’ that got all of us doing these stupid crunches and sit-ups in the first place.  Can you help me by replacing the A-word with the word ‘core’ and vow never to use the A-word again?  Thanks, now let’s move on.
The best way to get the strongest, sexiest, and healthiest core is to work the muscles in the way they are designed.  Here’s a quick anatomy lesson to help us out – your core is composed of :
Rectus Abdominus – the six-pack, connects the rib cage to the pubic bone, balances the spine, creates abdominal pressure to help with lifting and going number 2 (these are my technical medical terms)
External Obliques – front side of body, assists in twisting and bending
Internal Obliques – underneath external obliques, assists in twisting and bending
Spinal Erectors – Run up both sides of the spine in the back.  I can always tell who is a strong lifter with a healthy core by looking at their spinal erectors.  The physical elite have big strong spinal erectors that make a ‘valley’ that runs up their spine.
Quadratus Lumborum  – also in the back, straightens the back and allows it to flex backwards
Multifidus Muscle – runs down the spine and connects to every vertebrae, forms scaffolding to keep back upright
Iliopsoas Muscle – connects at spine, goes through pelvis, connects to thigh, main posture muscle and strongest of hip flexors, allows you to lift your leg
Gluteus Maximus – a core muscle believe it or not, largest muscle in the body, moves leg backwards and rotates your hip, also important in straightening the back

To improve athleticism and your overall strength, you must train all of these muscles. The good news is you should not ever need to isolate any of these muscles and you can work them all at once.  

The best core exercises are the ones that require you to hold your spine straight.  The pushup is generally thought to increase strength in the chest, back, and arms, but it is an excellent example of a good core exercise.   Pushups force your core muscles to stabilize your body and keep your spine straight throughout the exercise and this is exactly what you want.  

In Part 2 of “The Only Way to Work Core,” I am going to provide you with a thorough list of excellent core exercises.  For now, I want you to try the plank (illustration below).  No, not the trend where people lie on their face in weird places, the exercise!  Support your body on your arms and toes. Keep your body perfectly straight (you might even say ‘as straight as a plank!’). And try holding this position for as long as possible. If you can hold it for 90 seconds or more, try lifting an arm or a leg and pointing it straight.  If you want a bigger challenge, try putting your elbows on a Swiss ball.  I have a challenge for you all this week.  See how long you can hold a plank and let me know your time in the comments below.  Remember not to dip your butt and keep your body straight! 3, 2, 1, go!

Let me know! Are you guilty of doing endless crunches and sit-ups?  How long can you hold a plank?

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