Who wouldn’t like firmer, strong abs? They look fabulous in a bathing suit, but strong abdominal muscles and a core of steel also protect against back injury. Plus, you generate power from your mid-section, so strong abdominals will make you a better athlete and improve your functionality. There’s a reason they call the abs and core a powerhouse. It’s here that you generate the momentum you need for movement. So function matters as much as aesthetics. Now, let’s look at some tips to help you get the most out of abdominal and core training, so your mid-section will be strong and powerful too!
Don’t Overdo the Crunches
Crunches shouldn’t be the only exercise you do for abdominal strength and definition, and some sources will tell you shouldn’t do them at all. The reason? Concerns about repeated flexion of the back and spine. In one study, researchers removed the spines from pigs and subjected their spines to repeated flexion and extension. Under artificial conditions, they found that repeated flexion and extension were damaging to the spine and could increase the risk of disc herniations. However, this study used a spine from a dead animal and the number of extensions and flexions they subjected it to was in the thousands and tens of thousands. That isn’t consistent with the volume of crunches most people do. Plus, living tissue has a greater ability to adapt to such stress.
Therefore, it might be premature to label crunches as harmful to the spine, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vary the exercises you do and include exercises, like planks, that don’t force you to flex your spine, especially if you have lower back pain. If you don’t have back pain or a history of a back injury, include crunches in your routine, in moderation, but use good form. The benefit of doing crunches is they’re one of the most effective exercises for hypertrophying the rectus abdominis muscles.
Don’t Use Ab Exercises as a Fat Burner
Some people assume that focusing more on their abs will help them get more abdominal definition. However, if you have too much body fat, the fat will obscure the underlying muscles and hide your six-pack! You need some abdominal stimulation to build strength and muscle size, but you don’t need countless sets of crunches and other abs exercises. Three or four quality sets of core exercises is enough to strengthen your core and hypertrophy the muscles. That leaves you more time to do compound exercises that work more muscle groups and burn more calories. Bonus: Compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts, also work your core. The sad reality of crunches is that it takes almost 250,000 of them to burn a pound of fat. In contrast, compound strength exercises burn more calories as you do them and also elicit an afterburn where you burn more calories once the workout is over.
Work Your Deeper Core Too
One of the hardest ab muscles to work is the transverse abdominis, also known as the TVA muscle, a muscle that helps pull in your abdominal region like a corset. Abdominal exercises, like crunches, aren’t effective for working this muscle. However, you can target it when you do other weight training exercises. The key is to take a deep breath and tighten your core during the lifting phase of an exercise and then exhale the air forcefully when you bring the weight back down. Learn how to brace your abdominal muscles too when you do all strength-training exercise. One way to learn how to tighten your muscles is to contract them as if you’re preparing for someone to punch you in the stomach.
Remember, There Are No Shortcuts!
Be patient and get ready to put in the work if you want to maximize your abs. Every so often, a new ab exercise gadget comes out that promises to make it easier to get flat defined abs. Remember the ab rocker, a popular gadget for working the abs? Research show it activates the rectus abdominis muscles 80% less than a standard crunch. So, don’t waste your time with the latest and greatest exercise gadgets. They can’t match time-proven exercises like unaided crunches, planks, and their many variations.
Use Progressive Overload
Abdominal muscles do not differ from other skeletal muscles. They grow with progressive overload. However, most people don’t use progressive overload when they work their abs. Instead, they do a few sets of crunches and planks before moving on to other exercises. Eventually, your muscles will adapt to this regimen and stop growing and getting stronger. To hypertrophy your abs, your abdominal muscles need a progressively greater challenge.
You can add progressive overload by increasing the resistance. One way is to hold a weight disc or dumbbell across your chest when you do crunches. You can also dial up the overload by doing more crunches. But, as mentioned, doing many crunches may not be healthy for your spine. So increasing the resistance is the smarter approach. Also, you can decrease the rest period between sets of crunches to add more of a challenge and make the exercise more metabolically stimulating.
The Bottom Line
Hope these tips will help you get more out of your abdominal training and lower your risk of injury. But don’t forget that what you eat matters even more. Cut the sugar, refined carbs, and ultra-processed foods out of your diet and your abs will emerge as you lose excess body fat. Even if you exercise, you can undo your gains by making the wrong food choices. So, focus on making healthy dietary selections too. Your muscles need a proper balance of nutrients to grow!
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 4 – p 8-18. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182259d05.
- Runners World. “The ab exercises you shouldn’t be doing, according to research”
- SuperAbs Resource Manual. Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
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