Strong Abdominals

Strong Abdominals

Whenever the word “abdominals” is mentioned in an article, an “expert” fitness promotion or in a seminar video; the ab fanatics come out of the wood-work and act as if the Pope himself had put in an appearance.

This fascination with the abdominal can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and their gods who’ve bestowed upon us common folk an ideal showing us what the eye-pleasing midriff is all about. As a result, the gym rats of today are determined (in the worst way) to sculpt for themselves esthetic, attractive muscles.

Rarely do you ever hear your friend or training partner boasting about their abdominal strength. Bragging seems to be specifically reserved for the beach muscle exercises such as the bench press and the barbell curl. If you do happen to catch them bragging, it’s usually because they’re proud of their “six pack,” (eight packs are reserved for freak status).

If a survey were taken of the top three muscles people would like to improve upon, the “abdominals’ would rate near the top. Most people aren’t too interested in the benefits of strong abdominals because what takes precedence for them is to visually impress those around them. This is usually achieved by (1) starvation diets, (2) 100’s of sit-ups, (3) excessive cardiovascular exercise, (4) or a combination of all three.

Heck, most people at the gym and out in the world will, with a quick glance, size you up by the appearance of your midsection. Who cares if the fridge you’re carrying can support a 400-pound squat or a 500-pound dead lift. As Bob Lefavi (PHD CSCS) has said, most people would rather “crunch till the cows come home.”

Too often people are caught up attempting to synchronize certain exercise fundamentals to bring about an aesthetically pleasing mid-section. Where this misconception had its beginnings is still a mystery, but rest assured, the body-building industry has done little to put this myth to rest. Instead, they’ve added more fuel to the fire by promoting one of _the_ biggest myths alive today. That is the one which says the repetitive execution of a variety of abdominal exercises will serve to reduce abdominal adipose (fat) tissue. A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts concluded that sit-ups have no effect on reducing abdominal fat of any sort (1). But whatever the research results say there still remains a steady flow of money being transferred from the pockets of consumers into various fitness company accounts.

Abdominal myths have survived for decades and can be found lurking in every gym. The primary focus of this article will concentrate on how to strengthen abdominal musculature through various muscle actions and patterns.

Training the Abdominal Musculature

There are several reasons why people train their abdominals but our attention will be directed toward one component, and that is _strength_. The definition of strength can be broken down into other areas such as concentric, eccentric, and the isotonic (which is nearly impossible to achieve through a full range of motion in any movement). There’s also limit strength, maximal strength, strength endurance, speed strength, and isometric strength etc. So, it can get quite confusing when it comes to setting goals and/or placing emphasis when it comes to the issue of strong abdominals.

It’s common to find abdominal training programs building themselves around dynamic muscle actions (concentric, eccentric muscle actions). There is little, if any, attention given to the isometric (static) portion of the lift. Isometric strength is often neglected when it comes to abdominal training or, for that matter, any kind of muscle training. Based on these tendencies one might conclude that isometric actions have little or no place in a bodybuilder’s abdominal program and that it would be better to stay with either or both the eccentric and concentric muscle action in any given movement. This is odd, since abdominal musculature as well as other trunk muscles are tonic in nature, that is, they are muscles that predominantly stabilize. During any kind of activity, a muscle always contracts from a resting position. This would mean that the body’s muscular actions are always working in three ways–concentric, eccentric and in some form of isometric action (2).

Kinesiological Review

Before proceeding, a brief kinesiological overview of the abdominal musculature is necessary

Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominis is one of the four muscles that make up the anterolateral wall. Its general muscle fiber architecture/arrangement is parallel in nature. The rectus abdominis functions are to:

  • compress the abdomen (increases intra-abdominal pressure)
  • flex the trunk/spine
  • lateral flexion about the spine

External Obliques

The external obliques can be found on the lateral abdominal wall. These superficial muscles are quite pronounced on a lean physique (7-8% >). Their functions include:

  • flexing the trunk
  • lateral flexion of the trunk
  • rotation of the trunk

Internal Obliques

These muscles, also known as the “inner abdominal muscles”, lie deep to the external obliques and are responsible for:

  • flexion of the trunk
  • lateral flexion of the trunk
  • rotation of the trunk

Hip Flexors

Even though these muscles (otherwise known as the villain muscles) aren’t a part of the anterolateral abdominal wall they can’t be ignored. They’re important because of their active participation in trunk flexion or lateral flexion movements. Many coaches, trainers and avid lifters think that the action of the hip flexors (psoas major and minor, iliacus, sartorius, rectus femoris, and pectineus) during movements such as sit-ups should be eliminated or restrained. Continued attempts to emphasize the “isolation” of the abdominal musculature and reduce the activation of the hip flexors are usually done in vain. Many times, it’s been said that the hip flexors are the dominant muscle when it comes to abdominal work.

It has been well established that synergistic co-activation of multiple muscles works in the attempt to create a smooth working pattern. What is seemingly forgotten is that the hip flexors can work statically to stabilize an erect posture by indirectly supporting the vertebral column and directly supporting the pelvis. Therefore, the close and dearly held belief that the hip flexors activation should be minimized is not entirely true at all.

Transversus Abdominis

The transverses abdominis fibers are the deepest of the abdominal wall. This muscle plays a very small role, if any at all, when it comes to traditional-style abdominal movements. Its function for those who don’t suffer from back pain is to compress the abdominal contents as well as to act as a belt supporting the spine (in conjunction with other muscles (5)) during various movements. Even though the transverse abdominis hasn’t been mentioned, this muscle will be involved in each exercise. Before the grumbling starts, it should be noted that the transverse abdominis in a lifter that is firing properly doesn’t need to be trained. There is no scientific evidence indicating that a healthy person whose deep abdominals are functioning properly should train them. Movements such as the Squat and the Dead lift (and the many variations of these exercises) will engage this muscle. On the other hand, people who suffer from back pain may have some success using some transverse exercises (6, 7).

Static/Quasi Isometric Abdominals

Day-to-day activities (sport, work, strength training) all require people to use this type of muscle action. On the surface isometric training may appear to be rather simplistic. Don’t be fooled since the actual concept is far broader a topic than most realize and it goes beyond the scope of this article. Isometric actions can be defined as a muscle action which occurs when there is no external (outside forces) or change in joint angle (8).

Isometrics can be also divided further into other groups which all have various results on the body’s systems. For the sake of simplicity, our focus will be on increasing the absolute strength (that is, the maximum amount of force your muscles can produce irrespective of body weight and time of force development) (9) of the abdominal wall through an isometric type of action. In addition, attention will be given to the quasi-isometric eccentric/concentric action in a movement. Now how’s that for some pseudoscientific babble?

Some notes:

  • Maximal isometric forces can only be held between 4-6 seconds (10).
  • Rest periods can range from 10 seconds to 5 minutes between each angle or set.
  • During a maximal isometric action, the contractile components (actin and myosin) are responsible for the fatigue in the muscle (10)
  • Strength attained at certain joint angles can be transferred throughout the movement (11).
  • Breath-holding and the lack there of plays a crucial role during isometric actions. It is advised that if a person suffers from high blood pressure (or is taking a supplement or drug that raises their blood pressure) that they proceed with caution when executing these movements.
  • ‘Shaking’ of the rectus abdominis may occur during isometrics. This occurs largely because either the motor units are not firing in a synchronized fashion due to fatigue, or there is a lack of coordination in the firing of the motor units.

The Exercises

Decline Static Holds

This exercise focuses upon isometric actions at the different joint angles.

In the starting position the back is kept as upright as possible. From this position there will be a slight movement towards the surface of the bench. Stop and hold it anywhere from 4 to 6 seconds. Then proceed to lower yourself further down and again hold the angle. Continue this until the lower back is touching the surface of the bench and the upper back is a couple inches off the bench. The strength of the abdominal wall will determine how far back you can go without the lower back taking the brunt of the load. If you find that the lower back is taking more load than the abdominal musculature then you will have to work within a small ROM until enough strength is acquired to move you into a greater ROM. Once a full range of motion is completed then the use of either bodyweight or some other means of external resistance such as a weight plate, medicine ball or dumbbell will increase the level of difficulty. The level can also be increased by changing the angle of the bench to a steeper angle.

Weighted Swiss/Sport Ball Holds

One of the rewards of using a swiss ball is the abdominal training that can be performed with this piece of equipment; many different exercises can be performed. One of them is the crunch. Since the abdominal musculature is worked through a full range of motion (30+ horizontal and -15 degrees horizontal) the swiss ball meets this requirement. Unlike conventional weighted floor, sit-ups most people tend to do.

Performing weighted floor sit-ups are likened to doing a half bicep curl, your just not making the most of the muscles involved in the movement. Moreover, if you’re not making the most of your workouts then it is inevitably a waste of time.

Using a swiss ball (or performing any type of crunch on an unstable surface) takes a certain amount of stability, which can change the degree of activation of the abdominals muscles (12). So be forewarned–if you aren’t familiar with this equipment get acquainted via a trainer at the gym with its proper use before diving in and performing any exercise on the ball.

The ball should be placed around the gluteus and lower back region with the back in a semi-upright position (this means the back is still straight). From there you will slowly lower yourself several degrees and hold the contraction. Continue this until the lumbar region is extended over the ball. If there is any feeling of pain in the back, modify the range of motion and work within that particular range until you feel strong enough to extend your back over the ball. Once you have reached full extension over the ball, you can reset yourself and start the movement again by resuming the semi-upright position. Hold each joint angle again for 4-6 seconds.

If stability is a big issue regardless of how well- familiarized you are with the ball, you can widen your stance to increase the amount of stability so that it won’t become the limiting factor in the movement. If bodyweight doesn’t offer enough of a challenge holding, a dumbbell or a medicine ball in the back of your neck will add further resistance. Also, to increase the range of motion, you can slide the ball towards the hips, and, to decrease the range of motion, you can slide the ball away from your hips. Adding one or all of these elements will provide further challenges and progression so that stagnation doesn’t occur.

Modified PNF Upper Trunk Pattern (8)

When the term PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) appears it usually refers to a type of stretching. Most people don’t realize that PNF is not just limited to stretching but also covers a wide variety of movement patterns. Although only two patterns have been shown the lifter, using a little creativity, can come up a bunch of upper trunk patterns that will challenge the abdominal musculature.

Flexion with Rotation to the right

This movement targets the external and internal obliques as well as the rectus abdominis.

In the starting position the upper trunk should be rotated to the right with the feet straight out on the ground. The feet should remain on the ground at all times. From there, a slow and steady ascent should occur with the body turning so that it is facing straight ahead. The body should then start to flex forward and rotate at the same time bringing the body to rotate to the right so that the end-position has the person rotated towards their right side. To increase the difficulty, have a partner kneel from behind and add resistance by placing their hands on the shoulders. Add just enough resistance so that the person who is performing this pattern can just overcome it and finish. Repeat until the quality of the movement deteriorates.

Extension with Rotation to the left

This movement targets the internal and external obliques as well as the rectus abdominis. Depending on how you perform this movement, the obliques will be emphasized to a greater degree.

Start with the arms, the trunk extended and the legs straight out. The person would then flex the trunk a little and rotate the body to the left ending up in a fully rotated position with arms extended to the left. As mentioned previously, increasing the level of difficulty can be accomplished by placing some pressure on the person’s shoulders.

Abdominal Program

Here’s an 8-week sample routine that can be incorporated into your program. The main goal each week is to increase some sort of variable that influences the lifter’s absolute strength. For example, the lifter can increase the weight used, or the time held in each position as a way of increasing the level of difficulty. The program should be placed at the beginning of your training week and should be done separate from your core lifts (squat, dead lift, military press). This minimizes the risk of injury.

Week 1

  • Modified PNF Trunk Patterns 4×6 (2 sets each for each movement)
  • Decline Static Holds 3×4 (hold each position for 4-6 seconds)
  • Weighted Stability Ball Holds 2×4 (hold each position for 4-6 seconds)

Rest periods: 4 minutes

Week 2

During this training week there will be two sessions where the abdominal musculature will be trained. Try to keep at least 72 hours in between training sessions.

  • Modified PNF Trunk Patterns 4×3 (2 sets each for each movement)
  • Decline Static Holds 3×1 (hold each position for 4-6 seconds)
  • Weighted Stability Ball Holds 2×2 (hold each position for 4-6 seconds)

Rest periods: 4 minutes

Week 3

  • Modified PNF Trunk Patterns 4×8 (2 sets each for each movement)
  • Decline Static Holds 3×5 (hold each position for 4-6 seconds)
  • Weighted Stability Ball Holds 2×5 (hold each position for 4-6 seconds)

Rest periods: 5 minutes

Take week 4 off and allow for some time to recuperate.

Then in Weeks 5-8, there will be a switch in the order of the exercises. The same rest periods will be incorporated.

Keeping the PNF, trunk patterns first switch the order of the decline static holds and the stability ball holds around. This way, there will be a fairly even balance between the strength gained in both of the exercises.

Finally, though I’ve merely scratched the surface, using different muscle actions and patterns other than traditional crunches and sit-ups will work wonders in the strength department as well as challenge all the muscles of the abdominal wall (13). If you want to keep your regular group of machine and abdominal devices, these will not serve you as well since you’re better off keeping the conventional crunch in the program instead (14). What needs to be kept in mind is that the abdominals need to be strengthened in conjunction with the other trunk muscles. Using the above program as a means of increasing the strength of the abdominal musculature will only result in increased lifts.

Greek gods/godesses and sculpted ancient statues aside, strong, eye-popping abdominals are impressive. Strict eating habits and abdominal strengthening will not only bring you this result but will give you more strength to squat, dead lift, power clean, and military press among other exercises.

Written by Maki Riddington

Discuss, comment or ask a question

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References

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2. Siff, M.C. (2000) Facts and Fallacies of Fitness 4th edition. Supertraining Institute, Denver, CO, pg 108.

3. Hall, S. (1995) Basic Biomechanics. St Louis, James M. Smith, pg 267.

4. Marieb, E. (1992) Human Anatomy and Phisiology. Redwood City, CA: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company Inc.

5. Cholewicki J, VanVliet JJ 4th. Relative contribution of trunk muscles to the stability of the lumbar spine during isometric exertions. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon) 2002 Feb; 17(2):99-105

6. Hodges PW, Richardson CA Inefficient muscular stabilization of the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of transversus abdominis Spine 1996 Nov 15; 21(22):2640-50

7. Hodges PW, Richardson CA Altered trunk muscle recruitment in people with low back pain with upper limb movement at different speeds
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8. Siff M.C. (2000) Supertraining 5th edition. Supertraining Institute, Denver, CO, pg 407.

9. Chek, P. (1995) Program Design Correspondence Course. Encinitas, CA, Paul Chek Seminars, pg 8.

10. Cafarelli, E. Isometric Exercise: Phisiology And Description [Online]. Department of Physical Education York University Toronto, Ontario Canada. Available from: Sportscience Journal Encyclopedia Drafts {Accessed April 15 2002}.

11. Thepaut-Mathieu C, Van Hoecke J, Maton B Myoelectrical and mechanical changes linked to length specificity during isometric training. J Appl Physiol 1988 Apr;64(4):1500-5

12. Vera-Garcia FJ, Grenier SG, McGill SM. (2000) Abdominal muscle response during curl-ups on both stable and labile surfaces.
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13. Axler CT, McGill SM. (1999) Low back loads over a variety of abdominal exercises: searching for the safest abdominal challenge.
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14. Demont RG, Lephart SM, Giraldo JL, Giannantonio FP, Yuktanandana P, Fu FH. (1999) Comparison of two abdominal training devices with an abdominal crunch using strength and EMG measurements. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. Sep;39(3):253-8.

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