If you could pick one part of your body to change, sculpt and shape, what would it be? For those of us with multiple body parts that don't quite match our desired shape, that's a tough question. But, almost none of us would turn down the promise of a flat, sculpted belly with a six-pack for everyone to see and admire.
The harsh truth about that is that, for many of us, this is a fantasy our bodies aren't likely to achieve, at least not without more work than many of us are capable of and/or have the time and desire to do. Barring that, there are genetic factors that may stand in our way, making the goal of flat abs one that's just out of reach.
We may not always be able to control how our abs look, but we can control how strong they are. Six-pack abs look good, but strong abs can make you feel good. A supported spine makes daily activities easier and protects you from back pain and injury. Moving beyond crunches, beyond the six-pack, can show you what your abs can really do.
The Truth About Abs
Ab myths have been around for decades, perhaps even centuries, all due to that singular goal for flat, toned abs. If this is one of your goals, one that you've failed to reach no matter how many crunches you do, knowing a few facts can help you get a clear view of what you can and can't do to tone your abs:
- Ab exercises won't give you six-pack abs. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that six weeks of ab exercises (with no other types of training) did not reduce fat around the abs at all.
- Genetics plays a crucial role in the ability to get flat abs, with women having a tougher time than men, simply because they are predisposed to store excess fat and the favorite place for fat to live in women tends to be around the belly, especially after menopause.
- Six pack abs look great at the beach or the gym, but strong abs can do a whole lot more for you: A supported spine and protection from lower back pain and injury.
- Focusing on strong abs with a variety of exercises can not only give your body more support for daily activities, it can free you from that elusive goal of getting flat abs. What a relief to let go of something that's caused nothing but angst and frustration.
Beyond the Six-Pack
Focusing on strong abs means a basic understanding of what your abs do:
- The muscles of your abs stabilize your torso to maintain good posture.
- Strong abs and back muscles are crucial for preventing lower back pain and injury.
- Everything you do; walk, bend, sit, stand, reach, and lift, involves your abs and back. If your torso isn't strong or is imbalanced, you'll quickly become one of millions of people with chronic lower back pain.
- The Transverse Abdominis (TVA) is often ignored in favor of the more visible muscles of the rectus abdominis (the six-pack), but is extremely important for every day functioning. It actually wraps around your spine, giving maximum stability to the spine.
Getting The Most Out of Your Ab Workouts
We now know that doing hundreds of crunches every day is not the most effective way to strengthen your abs. An effective ab workout involves the following steps:
- Choose 5-10 exercises that work all the muscles of the core, the TVA, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis and the lower back. You also want to include exercises that involve flexion (like ball crunches), rotation (like bicycles) and bracing or isometric exercises (like the plank).
- Include both floor exercises and standing ab exercises to target both strength and functionality.
- Do 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps of each exercise about 3-5 days a week.
- Perform each exercise in slow, controlled movements. Going too fast involves using momentum, which makes the exercises less effective. You can also add resistance (holding a weight during crunches, for example) if you need more intensity.
- Do a complete program of cardio, strength training and stretching along with your ab routine for best results.
- Eating a healthy low-calorie diet with your program is essential for losing body fat.
Now that you're educated on what your abs do and how you should exercise them, check out this abdominal workout that includes exercises for the TVA, rectus abdominis, obliques and the lower back.
Next page: Abs & Back Workout
Vispute, et al. "The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat." J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2559-64.