Abominable Ab Mania!

It seems as if the abdominals are the favorite target for exercise in the general fitness and aerobics world... the more, the better! A few minutes of abdominal exercise may strengthen your abs, but this will not automatically cure your sloppy posture.
It seems as if the abdominals are the favorite target for exercise in the general fitness and aerobics world -- the more, the better! There are probably more abdominal exercise experts than any other types of fitness expert on the fitness circuit (except possibly for stretching.

We have incredible abs, astounding abs, absolutely marvelous abs, marvelous midriffs, super abs, sexy abs and another hundred superlatively shaped ab words (all thinly disguised imitations of the book title "Legendary Abs" by my colleague, Jerry Robinson of Los Angeles.

In an earlier issue Dr. Siff dispels the myth of doing hundreds of sit-ups and crunches for a stronger back. Page 28.

If we followed the lead and philosophies of the ancient Greeks, we would probably worship Greek gods and goddesses of abdominal perfection, with a couple of Muses, Nymphs or demi-gods thrown in to take care of each striations on our washerboard abs!


Machines vs. No Machines

What about ab machines? Well, there are also probably more machines on the market aimed at trimming and shaping the abdominal muscles than any other devices out there. Why? The answer is quite simple... marketing and money! Nothing else.

Sure, some of these weird, wonderful or pretty machines are laughably useless, while other are a bit more successful, but the fact remains that virtually no serious physique athlete or competitive bodybuilder has ever relied solely on any form of AB machine to develop his/her exceptional abs. And if they are publicly claiming that they did, they you can be sure in most cases that they are heavily sponsored to say so!

No research project has ever compared matched groups of subjects working on ab machines with others working with 'crunches' on the mat, 'cable crunches', jack-knives or leg raises (yes - I am deliberately including some of the exercises appearing on 'hit lists' because some very successful bodybuilders swear by them, believe it or not!) I have also encountered some international level bodybuilders who hardly ever do situps or use ab machines, yet they have 'phenomenal' abdominals.

I have taken EMG readings and muscle tension measurements of the abdominal muscles while bodybuilders have been carrying out every imaginable type of ab exercise with and without machines and quite honestly cannot conclude that any machine-aided ab exercise is better than traditional bodybuilding ab exercises done with resistance.

In most cases, I note that carefully executed concentration crunches using powerful mental focus and held breath produced greater electrical activity and muscle tension than ab exercise in aerobics or on machines with the traditional breathing in and out patterns.


From The Eastern Experts

After a few research visits to Russia and collaborative projects with Eastern scientists and coaches, I learned that many of their experts regard special abdominal exercises as a total waste of time, because they consider that the trunk muscle are strongly involved either in stabilizing or moving some or other part of the body during other non-isolational exercises.

At one NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) conference in the USA, I remember one of the top Bulgarian strength coaches, Angel Spassov, laughing at questions from American football coaches who wanted to know the best way of doing situps or crunches to 'strengthen' the abs for Football. His response was that if players were squatting, cleaning and pressing, bench pressing, deadlifting and so forth, their trunk muscles were already much more strongly involved than they are during most situps, crunches or machine training.

His attitude and approach was not unique -- I encountered it time and again in Russia and among the world's finest Olympic athletes from the Eastern nations.

Are the Eastern Experts wrong? Are they idiots? Don't they know what they are talking about? Hardly -- their athletes have dominated sport for decades. Their gymnasts and many other athletes have trunk development and strength that the rest of us would die for. Well, you might say the the Russians, for example, do not produce the world's best bodybuilders. To answer that comment is not really straightforward, as it involves understanding the Russian system of human management.

They offer (or at least offered until a few years ago) little or no financial or technical support for non-Olympic sports or sports that do not promote national prestige. Bodybuilding is regarded as a vain egotistical pursuit that places the individual ahead of the State. Private funding to enter overseas competitions is virtually impossible when you are earning less that $200 a month! Training supplements, decent food and drugs are very difficult to obtain, so the cards are really stacked against you if you are a competitive bodybuilder in Russia.


Ab Exercise For What?

So, why on earth all this ab mania? I could hardly believe the fanaticism about ab exercise when I was invited to run a workshop and lecture at IDEA on abdominal and trunk exercise some years ago -- close on 900 delegates attended in a huge ballroom in Las Vegas. So many people just for abs--it was like a religious revival! Many of my colleagues always find the same -- mention abs and people will leave their deathbeds to be at an abs workshop!

Maybe the ancient Chinese were right when they said that the stomach was the center of power.

Maybe we have some sort of primitive memory of bygone times. Hearts and stomachs -- fanaticism about heart and stomach wellness! According to many traditions, the heart was the center of feeling and thinking and stomach was the center of power or ki! Maybe our urge to work these two regions is just some subconscious attachment to our mythical past!

Fitness-wise, it would appear that most people exercise the abs for one of the following reasons:

  • Shaping the midriff
  • Strengthening the abdominals
  • Trying to minimize or prevent back injury
  • Women trying to strengthen the abs for childbirth

We have read many valid comments about ab exercise doing nothing to decrease superficial fat depots around the waist. We have learned that it is highly unlikely that any amount of ab exercise with or without machines will trim you down and take off the fat (unless, of course, you believe so strongly in the exercise that the placebo effect helps you along!)

On the contrary, ab exercise will probably increase the muscle bulk around you waist and increase your girth (at least among the general public, rather than among advanced trainees who need much greater resistance to produce hypertrophy -- noting that our 'training threshold' changes as we progress).


Ab Exercise For Strength

Now, do situps, crunches, machine ab exercises and so on strengthen the abs, as is so often claimed? If you are doing dozens or even hundred or repetitions, then the answer is NO, unless you are pretty much a novice to training. Anyone in the fitness world knows that your ability to do a certain number of reps determines what sort of fitness you will produce.

So, if you want to enhance cardiovascular or 'aerobic' fitness, then you must do thousands of reps with little resistance for a prolonged periods, as in distance running, cycling or swimming. If you want bodybuilding hypertrophy, the 8-12 reps are the most commonly used. If you want strength, then 5-8 reps with quite heavy weights are the most popular. If you want to develop dynamic (not static) muscle endurance with resistance then one might do anything from 20-100 reps with a moderate weight. If you want power (like Olympic weightlifters, shotputters and jumpers), then you do as few as 1-3 reps at a time with very heavy loads. Remember that there are individual variations to these formula, but for the general, non-elite client, they still offer reasonably valid guidelines.

So, if you are doing high rep ab exercise then you are using a method that, at most, will produce local muscle endurance and a mild increase in strength and muscle bulk in the initial few weeks of a training program. After that, only your ability to perform more reps will increase, but certainly not your strength.

So. all these strength types in football, wrestling, the military and so on who are doing high rep ab exercise to produce major abdominal strengthening are wasting most of their time.

If you disagree with this remark, let us return to some basics about strength -- maximal strength usually is measured by having a person perform a One Repetition Maximum (1RM) -- have you ever tried a 1 RM sit-up or crunch with the heaviest weight you could ever lift on your chest or behind your neck? If not, try it to obtain a feel for the difference between ab strength and ab endurance. Some bodybuilders do kneeling cable crunches with big loads and have some idea of what ab strength really is (though many of them decrease the hip angle while pulling downwards and thereby use the hip flexors instead of mainly the abs).

The ab routines offered in the average fitness or aerobics class does little to increase ab strength significantly beyond the first few novice weeks -- so it is nonsense to talk about crunches or situps or any other form of ab exercise increasing strength unless you are using heavy weights for a few reps.


Is It Really Abdominal Exercise?

Unfortunately our terminology often makes us think that only the abs are involved during bent-knee situps or crunches. Unfortunately, that is also nonsense -- bending the knees to reduce lower back stress is generally rather meaningless, because this is not the way to try to eliminate the hip flexors (so called iliopsoas muscles) from the action.

You decrease, but never totally eliminate the involvement of the hip flexors by flexing the hip, not the knees. Bending the knees may reduce some of the stretch on the sciatic nerves running down the legs, but it does nothing mechanically to prevent the hip flexors from getting involved (because the hip flexor muscle do not cross the knee joint!)

Yet, most of the 'experts' go on and on about bending the knees. How do we know the above remarks are correct? We, we have used the EMG to study how the various muscles become involved and we know from university level anatomy courses about functionsl anatomy and neurology (for those really interested, read Basmajian's EMG textbook, Muscles Alive). For instance I have yet to find anything that diminishes dynamic hip flexor activity as much as straight leg crunches.

So, does it really matter even if the hips are not bent, so that both knees and hips are fixed? Heresy of heresies, the answer is no, if you do what the abs are meant to do, namely to flex the trunk forward against resistance or to stabilize the lumbar spine during locomotion, lifting or other activities. So, if you curl slowly upwards so that your back rounds like a prodded caterpillar, you are not allowing the hip flexors to tug on your lower spine and consequently you are not stressing the back, no matter how locked your knees and hips may be.

So, you think that this is controversial nonsense and simply my personal interpretation, then why does one find this type of straight-legged situps in one of the physio bibles on rehabilitation (the renowned PNF book by Knott & Voss)? Even physical therapists are sometimes surprised by this when I refer them back to a less prominent part of the book which relates to trunk strengthening.

Some of us have even had spinal patients (even with metal rods or plates in the spine) perform the straight-legged situp as described above without causing ay pain or disability. It is important to realize that there is a safe and an unsafe way of doing any exercise. It is not just a case of an exercise being unsafe, but largely a matter of the way of doing the exercise being unsafe. Always remember that before discarding some perfectly useful exercises.

Another point about AB exercise: Why do we sometimes think that the obliques are exercised only if you twist at the end of the situp or crunch? If we check our anatomy textbooks, we will see that if one flexes the trunk, rectus abdominis, both of the obliques are involved. The obliques certainly play a key role in trunk twisting, but if we do not turn left or right, they come to the aid of the 'abs' and work simultaneously to produce trunk flexion, as well. Hardly anyone points that fact out either. Strange!


Stabilizers Or Mobilizers?

One reason why there is so much controversy in the world of ab training is that people tend to forget that the abdominal muscles (or rather the entire trunk musculature, back and front) play two possible roles:

  • Mobilization (the ability to cause movement)

  • Stabilization (the ability to stabilize or prevent movement)

Now, so often it feels as if the abs have really worked vigorously during some exercise that really are involving the abs in no dynamic activity at all -- such as leg raises while hanging from a bar or when supporting oneself on the elbows on a leg raising machine. Even during supine leg raises on the floor, it really feels as if the abs are being worked to death. True or untrue?


Hanging Leg Raise

The answer -- yes and no! Statically, yes, dynamically no,! As soon as you lift your legs, the pelvis has to be stabilized by all the trunk muscles (back, front and sides -- erector spinae, rectus abdominis, obliques, quadratus lumborum) so that the hip flexors can do their job properly. The level arm length for your raised legs is great, so that the ab muscles have to contract strongly isometrically (*or statically) to stabilize the pelvis and trunk. The same situation occurs with many other exercises and this means that your abs often obtain an automatic static workout even during exercises so abdominally remote as bench press, press or pushups.

However, this does not mean that the trunk muscles are being exercised dynamically -- and this type of training is important if one participates in any sport or work activity that requires functional dynamic involvement of the trunk muscles.


Conclusion

Can you see now how difficult it can be sometimes to know whether a given exercise is or is not exercising the abs safely and effectively? It is an even more difficult task to identify any exercises or daily activities which no NOT involve the abs and other trunk muscles, either as stabilizers or movers.

You don't need an EMG machine to check -- just palpate (press or prod) your abs or those of someone during any exercises and list how many exercise (including walking) you discover which don't involve your abs. One of them is sitting slouched in front of your TV -- which is one reason why back pain and disability are so common in the sedentary West.

A few minutes of abdominal exercise may strengthen your abs, but this will not automatically cure your sloppy posture and banish back pain. Neither will this trim your waist without other exercise and sensible eating. This exercise will not even enhance your abdominal strength much for sport. If you wish to take this extensive and controversial subject further, please consult several sections of my "Facts and Fallacies" book which discuss many more aspects of abdominal training.

References

  1. Basmajian J Muscles Alive 1978
  2. Siff MC Facts and Fallacies of Fitness 2002
  3. Siff MC Supertraining 2000
  4. Archives to the Supertraining discussion forum at:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Supertraining/

Thanks,