The Belly of the Beast

How to train abs

(Image from Northside Sports Medicine)

The muscles of the abdomen are a layered complex of the rectus abdominus, external and internal obliques, and the transversus. They make up part of the all-important core, but only a part and have complex functions.

Whether you are motivated by achieving an impressive “six pack,” improving sports performance, or just losing a few pounds around the middle, you must train the abs properly to get optimal results. Training abs is different from training other muscles:

1. You do not have to build up the abs for them to be visible. Definition comes from low abdominal body fat which lets them show through under thin skin, not their size.

2. Abdominal exercise will not help you spot reduce and get rid of fat around the middle. You cannot spot reduce fat (except by surgical liposuction). Abdominal exercises will not get rid of that spare tire.

Getting rid of abdominal fat requires consideration for diet, cardio and resistance training of other muscle groups, not doing lots of abdominal exercises.

Train abs every day

Abdominal muscles support the core and, significantly, your lower back. Well-toned abdominals can alleviate low back pain. For that reason, the abs should be trained every day. You are not training for size, like biceps or pecs, but for tone.

You don’t need weights to train them effectively. In fact, I recommend against it because of the limited benefits and the significant chance of injury.

Measuring your waist is the only measurement you need when your goal is losing weight. The scale cannot tell the difference between muscle, fat, bone or water. But fat is virtually the only component that makes a difference in your waistline.

Here is the regime I got from Arnold Schwarzenegger:

1. Do 200 crunches every day first thing in the morning.

2. At least once a day, stand with your back to the wall as tall as you can and suck in your belly and hold it.

My personal routine

I do between 100 and 200 crunches every morning before breakfast, but I split them up to work the different components. I’ll do 40 – 50 straight crunches to work the rectus muscles. Then do trunk twisting crunches to work the obliques, 40 – 50. In between sets, I work the transverse muscles by exhaling, sucking in my belly to make it as thin as possible and holding for about 10 seconds, then repeat 4 times.

The neglected transversus

The transverse abdominals are unique and very important. They are also the most neglected. While the rectus and oblique groups squeeze the abdomen down, tightening the transverse group elongates the trunk. It is the muscle most responsible for a narrow waist and flat tummy. Exercising the transverse group also displaces the abdominal organs and fat upward, countering the effect of gravity.

I do this exercise lying down in between crunches, but while walking throughout the day, I constantly remind myself to stand tall. This habit will help keep the belly toned, tummy flat and render a more youthful posture. (Ever notice how old people tend to hunch themselves over compared to young people?)

Try it. Stand up and try to make yourself as tall as possible. Notice how even subconsciously you engage the muscles around your waist to squeeze yourself taller.

What about other abdominal exercises?

A variety of exercises is always good. They work the muscles from different angles and give better results no matter what the goal. But there are a handful of exercises I recommend avoiding:

Sit ups. First, they mostly engage the hip flexors (e.g. the iliopsoas) which can stress the low back and cause or exacerbate injury. Crunches will do everything you want sit ups to do for you without the danger of injury. Sit ups with weights are especially dangerous.

Roman chair with weights also carries an even greater risk of injury. Any abdominal work with an extended body can be done effectively and more safely without weights.

V-sits. Straight leg raises increase the risk of injury by engaging chiefly the hip flexors and stressing the low back. Unless you are a gymnast, you should avoid most abdominal exercises involving straight legs.

Side bends. I honestly don’t know why anyone would recommend this, but you see it all the time. It’s not effective for reducing “love handles,” working any particular abdominal group, or improving mobility. And it puts unnecessary pressure on the lumbar spine.

No exercise is effective unless you do them consistently, so I recommend finding something convenient you can do every day. To train abs, all you need is a floor.