How to survive that dreaded ab work
June 26, 2008
With the air quality still low from all of the Northern California fires, some may not want get outdoors for their usual exercise. So here is your opportunity to finally give some much-needed attention to your midsection.
This week, we’ll concentrate on the rectus abdominis, which is the flat muscle that travels down the front of the belly, from just below the chest to the pelvic area. Next week, we’ll whittle the waist even more by focusing on the other ab muscles, the transverse abdominis and obliques.
I surveyed Sam Wade’s Body Sculpt class at Sierra Athletic Club on Wednesday morning to find out what the students liked and disliked about working this important yet often ignored muscle group. Joy says they are tough for her, because her generation never focused on core work and subsequently still has weak abs, but added that she’d die for a six-pack. One student claimed they are boring; another stated they hurt her lower back. Maryanne said she likes doing them because she knows she is doing something good for herself.
Right on, Maryanne – when you have strong abs, you have support for your ribs, pelvis and spine. The muscles stabilize your torso to maintain good posture. Building this muscle group is crucial for preventing lower back injury and pain. You look sexy, strong and confident. You feel powerful and “supported.”
But many people, even those who exercise regularly, avoid getting down on the mat. Abdominal work can be the most dreaded form of exercise unless you know the tricks of the trade to help make them tolerable:
— Work into it. I remember junior high gym class, when we were forced to do the State Fitness Assessment. Even if you never had done a sit-up in your life, you were suddenly expected to perform 50 reps. Whatever. Start with one set of 10 with perfect form every other day, then gradually increase to 16. Remain consistent and continue to add reps and sets, and you may end up with the elusive six pack.
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— Have good form. One of the biggest complaints I hear from new “crunchers” is that it hurts their necks. Most people are so weak in the midsection that they automatically involve their cervical spine, thus straining it. In Pilates, one of the first things you’ll learn is the Head Nod: gently tuck your chin, lengthening the back of your neck. Hold your “nod,” then move from your center. Do not untuck your chin until you’re done. It also helps to lightly support your head with your fingertips, elbow wide, never pulling. Remember to inhale to prepare and exhale to execute the move.
— Do it first. These days, all my clients do their core work near the beginning of the session, when they still have some strength and motivation left. I suggest you do the same.
— Take a day off. Abdominals can be overtrained just like any other muscle group, so alternate days to get maximum results.
— Get a partner. If you can recruit someone to do abdominal work with you, your competitive side may take over, which would be a nice distraction.
Many clients come to me for occasional coaching for a program they do on their own. When it comes to abs, I always recommend exercises that I am confident they can and will do without coaching. Otherwise, they will conveniently run out of gym time or just “forget.”
Several class members said they feel ab work is easier on a ball, so I have included one for you to try.
If you are new to the resistance ball, try this as a warm-up. Sit on the ball and place your hands on the ball for balance, or place them behind your head (more difficult). Slowly begin to roll the hips in a circle toward the right, making small circles, then, as you get comfortable, larger circles. Do 10 to 20 circles, then repeat to the left.
1. Lie face up with the ball resting under your mid/lower back.
2. Cross your arms over the chest or place them behind your head.
3. Contract your abs to lift your torso off the ball, pulling the bottom of your rib cage down toward your hips.
4. As you curl up, keep the ball stable (i.e., you shouldn’t roll).
5. Lower back down, getting a stretch in the abs, and repeat for 12 to 16 reps.
If you don’t have a ball, do these basic moves on a carpet or a padded yoga mat:
— Crunch: Lie on your back with your fingertips supporting the base of your head. Place your feet on the floor with legs bent. To begin the exercise, lift your torso, lifting shoulder blades off the floor and crunching your rib cage toward your lower belly. Hold for two counts, then lower slowly to the starting position. Repeat for 10 to 16 reps and two to three sets.
— Reverse Crunch: Lie on your back with knees bent, feet a few inches off the floor. Slowly contract the abdominals, focusing on rotating the pelvis up and bringing your knees toward your rib cage. Concentrate on letting your abs do the work and keeping your head and shoulders on the floor. Hold at the top, then slowly lower your knees to the starting position. Repeat for 10 to 16 reps and two to three sets.
You are going to want to show off your new centerpiece you’ve worked so hard on. Unless you change your eating regimen and add some cardiovascular and weight-bearing exercises, you will not be able to drop inches or see any of those abdominal muscles.
– Rhonda Beckham is a nationally certified personal trainer with teaching certificates in Pilates and kickboxing.