By David Peck, Ph.D.
Great abs are on the “most wanted” list for many of us this summer, yet you see so few people with mind-blowing six-packs. Unfortunately, the avenue to amazing abs is cluttered with training evangelism, and everyone has his own opinion, technique or idea about how to best train this often troublesome area. So, how can we find what exercises work best to tone and tighten the total midsection? To weed out the flack and uncover what really works in the elusive world of abdominal training, let’s turn to the reliability of scientific research.
Your abdominal area consists of four separate muscle groups. The transversus abdominus lies innermost and keeps your insides, well, inside! The internal obliques run from your pelvis diagonally up to your sternum, while the external obliques lie atop the internal guys and help you bend, twist and turn.
Outermost is the rectus abdominis, the muscle we lovingly call our “abs.” Originating in the pelvis and attaching to the sternum, the rectus abdominis supports the spine and allows us to bend forward. Bands of connective tissue run across this single muscle, and create the desired “six-pack” appearance most evident in a lean, toned individual. While certain movements can target different areas of the rectus abdominis to a greater degree, there’s really no such thing as the “upper” and “lower” abs; the entire muscle gets stimulated each time you perform an exercise.
Science and a Six-Pack
Although you can’t willingly divide your rectus abdominis in half like Moses did the Red Sea, you can choose exercises to work it wisely, and some exercises are scientifically superior to others. In a study conducted at the University of San Diego, California, 31 subjects were tested using an electromyography machine (EMG). Electrodes were attached to both the topmost and bottommost sections of the rectus abdominis, atop the obliques, and on the hip flexors. “When a muscle contracts, it sends out an electrical impulse which is read by the electrodes, and in turn computes into a reading,” explains Dr. Peter Francis, Director of the Biomechanics Laboratory and conductor of the study. “It’s this reading that tells us which exercises are eliciting the most work from the different areas of the abdominal region.”
Subjects performed 14 repetitions of 13 different exercises, and a ton o’ crunches later – 182 to be exact – the results were in. While all the exercises tested elicited lots of work from the rectus abdominis, three exercises beat out the rest when it came to total abdominal recruitment: The Roman chair leg lift, the bicycle crunch and the reverse crunch. “These exercises all put your pelvis in an unstable position, causing all of your abdominal muscles to contract to help stabilize it,” explains Francis. “This happens when you hang in space or pick your feet or hips up off the floor. Add to that a body rotation, and you generate even more muscle activity by recruiting the obliques to a greater degree.”
For all the exercises tested, Francis also found that the positive contraction (on the way up) evoked more muscular work than did the negative contraction (on the way down). And whereas some people are obsessed with keeping their hip flexors out of the exercise, Francis found this to be an anatomical impossibility. “The hip flexors, obliques and abs are synergistic – they work as a team and you cannot successfully use one without using the others,” he states.
Although they are technically separate muscle groups, your abdominals work together to support your body and enable you to run, jump or participate in a sport. With that in mind, try a new approach to wholistic abdominal training: Instead of focusing on which exercise works which part, concentrate instead on developing all your abdominals thoroughly to ensure good posture and balance, and to better procure that killer midsection.
Crunch and Munch
You can crunch and crunch until the cows come home, but if you’re still eating like one, you’ll never see the fruits of your labor. Reduction of body fat is the only way to uncover that hidden six-pack. Eat a low-calorie diet that includes lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and fruits and veggies. High-protein/low-carbhohydrate diets work best for fat loss and preservation of lean body mass. Combine your healthy diet with high-intensity cardiovascular activity seven days a week and the excavation of your abs will be underway. Shoot for 60 minutes of cardio inside, outside or on any piece of equipment. Try to stay in your target heart rate range for the majority of the session to best enable your body to utilize fat as fuel, and reveal that six-pack of your dreams. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get to work sculpting your stomach to reveal the six-pack that lives within us!
Plan of Attack
The Time Cruncher: Choose three to five of the exercises described, and perform them in a circuit manner. Execute 10-20 controlled repetitions for each exercise, doing one right after the other with no rest. Repeat the circuit two to three times. Nonstop circuits such as these should be performed no more than three times a week, with a minimum of 48 hours rest between sessions.
The Slow and Steady: If you prefer to train abs every day, choose one of the listed exercises and perform three or four sets of 15-30 slow, controlled repetitions per session. Choose a different exercise for each day you train, always using impeccable form and remembering to breathe.
Although you may be tempted to utilize only the top three in your routine, Francis warns against this. “Changing your exercises around and utilizing different strategies will best train your total abdominal region,” he says. “Beginners especially should work their way into the top three, as they proved difficult even for our more advanced participants.”
No matter which plan you choose to sculpt that stomach, use a count of four to elevate and a count of two to descend to elicit the most muscular activity possible.
1. Roman Chair Leg Raises
This exercise proves best for total muscular recruitment. Keeping your shoulders down and your back flat, balance your weight evenly between your forearms and allow your body to hang freely inside the machine. Exhale and slowly lift your legs upward, keeping them straight and avoiding the use of momentum, until your body forms an “L” shape in mid-air. Pause a moment before slowly lowering your legs back to the start. Repeat.
Alternative: Oblique Roman Chair Raises. Not only will this exercise target your six-pack, it will also trim and tighten your waistline. Position yourself in the Roman chair as you did for the straight leg lift, but begin with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle as if you were sitting in an “air-chair.” From here, exhale and simultaneously lift and twist, bringing your knees up to one side of your body. Pause a moment at the top before slowly lowering them back to the start. Repeat on the other side.
Alternative: Hanging Leg Raises. Take an overhand grip on a pull-up bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart, and allow your body to hang freely. Keeping your legs straight and your toes pointed, exhale and slowly lift your legs upward, avoiding the use of momentum, until your body forms an “L” shape in mid-air. Pause a moment before slowly lowering your legs back to the start.
Alternative: Hanging Oblique Raises. Position yourself on the pull-up bar in the same manner as for the hanging straight leg raise, and bend your knees as if you were sitting in a chair in mid-air. From here, simultaneously lift and twist, bringing your knees up and to the side of your body. Pause a moment before returning to the start and repeating on the other side.
2. Bicycle Maneuver
This exercise works the whole abdominal region, especially the obliques and hip flexors. Lie on the floor with your fingers touching your ears, your elbows flat on the ground and your knees bent. Lift your feet off the floor so they make a 90-degree angle with your hips and point your toes. This is the starting position. From here, lift and twist your upper body while simultaneously bringing one knee in toward your head. Try to touch your right elbow to your left knee without allowing your arm to fold across your face, and push your right leg out and away from your body. Come back to the center. Repeat on the opposite side.
3. Vertical Crunch
Lie on the floor with your back flat, your fingers touching your ears and your legs elevated straight up from your hips. Pick a spot on the ceiling on which to focus, and exhale, slowly lifting your head and shoulders off the floor by using your abs. Avoid pulling your head and neck with your hands.
4. Reverse Crunch (on floor)
This exercise initiates the work from the lower portion of the rectus abdominis, and utilizes all the abdominals for pelvic stabilization when the hips are in the air.
Lie on the floor with your back flat, your focus forward, and your feet straight up in the air above your hips. Place your hands either straight out to the sides like a cross, or underneath your hips for support. From here, press the soles of your feet straight up toward the ceiling and contract through your abs to pick your tailbone up off the floor three to four inches. Slowly allow yourself to return to the start and repeat.
Alternative: Reverse Crunch (on bench).
Position an abdominal bench so it rests at a slight angle. Lie on the bench with your hands over your head gripping the pad or bar behind you, your back flat and your knees bent and held above your hips. This is your starting position. From here, slowly curl your knees up and in toward your head, lifting first your tailbone, then your hips off the bench. When your knees come to eye level, reverse the motion and slowly uncurl one vertebra at a time. Pass the start position and extend your legs straight out and away from you, keeping your back on the pad and your shoulders down. Pause a moment and come back to the start. Repeat.
5. Exercise Ball Crunch
This exercise works primarily the rectus abdominis and allows the spine to move through its complete range of motion. Balance yourself on an exercise ball with your arms folded across your chest, your focus on the ceiling and your feet flat on the floor. Your starting position should find your back slightly arched over the curve of the ball. Exhale and slowly lift your upper body off the ball, keeping your focus high and your elbows wide. Pause a moment in the topmost position before inhaling and slowly lowering yourself back to the start.
You can also change the difficulty of this exercise by changing the positioning of your feet. The farther they are apart, the greater your balance and the simpler the motion. The closer they are together, the greater your imbalance, the more difficult the motion and the more stabilization you require from your obliques.
6. Cable Crunches With Rope
This exercise challenges primarily the rectus abdominis, but recruits work from the obliques as well balances and holds the body in space. Attach a rope to a high pulley and kneel on the floor approximately three feet away from a cable machine. Sit up and off your heels and hold the rope with both hands, keeping it close in to your ears with your elbows bent and pointed down toward the floor. This is your starting position. From here, exhale and slowly crunch downward and inward, aiming your elbows toward your knees, and keeping your hips and lower back stationary. Pause a moment at your peak contraction before slowly coming back to the start position, breathing in and resisting the pull of the weight stack on the return.
Finding Your Target Heart Rate Zone
220 MINUS [your age] x 0.65 = Target Heart Rate
(Example using age 30: 220 – 30 = 190 x .65 = 123.5)