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 abdominals/abdomen can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and their gods who 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 aesthetic, 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" (while 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:
...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 (Ph.D., CSCS) has said, most people would rather "crunch 'til 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 bodybuilding 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 tissue (fat). A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts concluded that sit-ups have no effect on reducing abdominal fat of any sort. 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 and 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
Before proceeding, a brief kinesiological overview of the abdominal musculature is necessary.
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
The external obliques can be found on the lateral abdominal wall. These superficial muscles are quite pronounced on a lean physique (BF < 7-8%). Their functions include:
- Flexing the trunk
- Lateral flexion of the trunk
- Rotation of the trunk
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
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.
The transversus 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) 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 Deadlift (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.
Static/Quasi Isometric Abdominals
Day-to-day activities (sports, 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.
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) 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?
What You Need To Know
- 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 thereof) 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.