Abdominal Training Faq
From: timbomb@cs.uq.oz.au (Tim Mansfield)
Subject: The Abdominal Training FAQ
Date: 1997/01/16
Message-ID: <abdominal-training_853415113@rtfm.mit.edu>
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supersedes: <abdominal-training_850804000@rtfm.mit.edu>
followup-to: misc.fitness.misc
x-last-updated: 1996/06/11
organisation: University Of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
summary: Information about Training The Midsection (Monthly Posting)
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keywords: abs, abdominals, situps, love handles
reply-to: timbomb@cs.uq.oz.au (Tim Mansfield)
newsgroups: misc.fitness.misc,misc.fitness.weights,misc.fitness.aerobic,misc.answers,news.answers
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Archive-name: abdominal-training
Last-modified: Thu 4 Apr 1996
Version: 0.13c
URL: http://www.dstc.edu.au/RDU/staff/nigel-ward/abfaq/abdominal-training.html
Maintainer: Tim Mansfield <timbomb@cs.uq.oz.au>

 The Abdominal Training FAQ

The Abdominal Training Frequently Asked Questions list (FAQ)
is intended as an introduction to the basic principles of training
the abdominal area, sometimes known as the belly or the abs. The
creation of this FAQ was motivated by frequent questions on the
topic in the newsgroup misc.fitness. 

This is version 0.13c, Last modified Thu 4 Apr 1996

Table Of Contents

   I. INTRODUCTION AND CAVEATS 
   II. QUESTIONS 
      Q1: How do I get abs like giant ravioli? 
      Q2: Should I do lots of situps to reduce fat around
      my middle? 
      Q3: How do I reduce the fat covering my middle? 
      Q4: How do I exercise the abs? 
      Q5: What's wrong with situps? 
      Q6: What are good ab exercises? 
      Q7: Is there a specific order I should do exercises
      in? 
      Q8: How do I structure an ab routine? 
      Q9: How often should I train abs? 
      Q10: Should I do side bends to reduce my love
      handles? 
      Q11: Gee, but shouldn't I balance my abs with my
      spinal erectors? 
      Q12: Are there any special abdominal exercises
      during pregnancy? 
      Q13: Does the XXX ab machine/gadget work? 
   III. REFERENCES 
   IV. CONTRIBUTIONS OR COMMENTS 
   V. CONTRIBUTORS 

I. INTRODUCTION AND CAVEATS

The information in this FAQ is based on 

   Health For Life's Legendary Abs booklet 
   endless threads about abdominal training in misc.fitness
   and on the weights mailing list and 
   sundry other sources. 

See the references list at the end for how to get hold of these
things for yourself. 

This FAQ is once again under constant monthly revision. If you
are reading a version which has a Last-Modified date which
shows it to be more than a month old then you should try to get a
more up-to-date copy. New versions of the FAQ are posted
every month to misc.fitness and misc.answers. 

A hypertext WWW version is available for World Wide Web
browsers like Mosaic using the URL: 
http://www.dstc.edu.au/TU/staff/timbomb/ab/. 

The text version is also available via anonymous ftp from the
following sites: 

rtfm.mit.edu    /pub/usenet-by-group/misc.fitness/The_Abdominal_Training_FAQ
archie.au       /usenet/FAQs/misc.fitness/The_Abdominal_Training_FAQ
nctuccca.edu.t  /USENET/FAQ/misc/fitness/The_Abdominal_Training_FAQ

Folks who cannot access ftp or the Web can get the FAQ from
the Weights Mailing List archive server by sending mail to
weights-back-issues@fa.disney.com with the command "abs" in
the body. 

Finally, if nothing else works, requests for the FAQ may be sent
to the FAQ maintainer: 
Tim Mansfield <timbomb@dstc.edu.au> 

II. QUESTIONS

Q1: How do I get abs like giant ravioli?

Getting visible abdominal muscles or "abs" depends on reducing
the amount of fat covering the abs, see Question 3. Getting hard,
lumpy abs depends on developing the underlying muscles, for
details, read on... 

Q2: Should I do lots of situps to reduce fat around my
middle?

No. Exercising the area from which you want to lose fat is called
"spot reduction". Spot reduction is now believed to be a myth.
Research shows that fat is lost all over your body, not just in the
area that you work. Situps are also bad for your lower back (see 
Question 5). 

Q3: How do I reduce the fat covering my middle?

The answer comes in two parts: diet and aerobic exercise. 

DIET

This is controversial, but most people agree that eating very little
fat and lots of complex carbs (like rice, pasta and potatoes) helps
ensure that you don't add additional fat. Then you have to work at
using the fat you already have stored which involves... 

EXERCISE

Again a bit controversial, but it's widely agreed that regular,
moderate, aerobic exercise 3-4 times per week works best to
burn fat that's already stored. 

"Moderate" because intense exercise burns glycogen not fat, so
keep the intensity at about the level where you are beginning to
puff a little. 

"Aerobic" means (very vaguely) the kind of exercise that requires
you to inhale more. Some suggest that building more muscle
through weight training helps as well, since muscle burns fat just
by being there and moving your body about; so some weight
training couldn't hurt and will probably help. 

Many misc.fitness people agree that exercise periods of more
than 20 minutes work best. But note that the longer you exercise,
the more prone you are to injury since your muscles also begin to
weaken. Two things which help prevent injury are: 

a good warmup 
   5-10 minutes of light exercise to warm your muscles, try
   to break a sweat 
stretching 
   cautious 20-30 sec stretches for every muscle (for an
   excellent source of information on the topic, see the 
   Stretching FAQ). 

For more information on exercise in general consult the 
misc.fitness FAQ. 

Q4: How do I exercise the abs?

The abs are designed to perform one main task, to shorten the
distance between your sternum, or breastbone, and your pelvis.
The only way to do this is to bend your spine in the lower back
region. 

In short, any exercise which makes you move your sternum
toward your pelvis or your pelvis toward your sternum is good.
To do this safely, the lower back should be slightly rounded, not
arched. 

In general when exercising the abs, try to maintain the natural
arch of you lower back. The lower back will round slightly as
you perform the exercises. Don't fret about pressing your back
into the ground. 

Q5: What's wrong with situps?

Traditional situps emphasize sitting up rather than merely pulling
your sternum down to meet your pelvis. The action of the psoas
muscles, which run from the lower back around to the front of
the thighs, is to pull the thighs closer to the torso. This action is
the major component in sitting up. Because of this, situps
primarily engage the psoas making them inefficient at exercising
your abs. More importantly, they also grind the vertebrae in your
lower back. 

They're inefficient because the psoas work best when the legs are
close to straight (as they are when doing situps), so for most of
the situp the psoas are doing most of the work and the abs are just
stabilising. 

Putting the thighs at a right angle to the torso to begin with
means that the psoas can't pull it any further, so all of the stress is
placed on the abs. 

Situps also grind vertebrae in your lower back. This is because to
work the abs effectively you are trying to make the lower back
round, but tension in the psoas encourages the lower back move
into an exaggerated arch. The result is the infamous "disc pepper
grinder" effect that helps give you chronic lower back pain in
later life. 

There may be a way to do situps safely and thus exercise your
psoas muscles. If anyone knows what it is, please let the FAQ
maintainer know. 

Q6: What are good ab exercises?

We've divided the exercises into upper and lower ab exercises.
Note that there aren't two separate muscles that you can truly
isolate, so all the exercises stress the whole abdominal wall.
However there are "clusters" of muscle separated by connective
tissue (these make up the "washboard" or the "six-pack"). You
can focus on the upper clusters by moving just the torso and the
lower clusters by moving the pelvis. 

For the lower abs, in increasing order of difficulty: 

   lying leg raises 
   reverse crunches 
   vertical lying leg thrusts 
   hanging knee raises 
   hanging leg raises 

For the upper abs: 

   ab crunches 
   1/4 crunches 
   cross-knee crunches 
   pulldown crunches 

Lower Ab Exercises

Lying Leg Raises

Lie on your back with your hands, palms down under your
buttocks. Raise your legs about 30cm (12") off the floor and hold
them there. Now trying to use just your lower abs, raise your legs
by another 15cm (6"). Do this by tilting the pelvis instead of
lifting the legs with the psoas. Make sure your knees are slightly
bent. 

If you're big or have long legs or both, you should probably avoid
this exercise. For people with legs that are too heavy for their
lower abs strength, this exercise pulls the lower back into an
exaggerated arch which is bad (and painful). For reasons why it's
bad, see Question 5. If you have this problem you can either try
bending your knees slightly and making sure you keep your lower
back fairly flat, or just try another exercise. 

Reverse Crunch

This exercise can be done on the ground or on an incline situp
board. All you need is something behind your head to hold. If you
use the incline board, use it with your feet lower than your head. 

Lying on your back, hold a weight or a chair leg (if lying on the
floor) or the foot bar (if using the situp board). Keep the knees
slightly bent. 

Pull your pelvis and legs up so that your knees are above your
chest and then return to beginning position. 

This exercise is very similar to a hanging knee raise, but a little
less intense. 

Vertical Lying Leg Thrusts

Initial position: 

   Lie on your back. 
   Put your fists under your buttocks to form a cradle. 
   Raise your legs in the air 20-30cm (10-12") off the
   ground, knees slightly bent. 
   If you feel any strain on your lower back, bend your knees
   a little more. 
   Raise your head and shoulders off the ground slightly if
   you can to help keep the abs stressed. 

The exercise itself has four phases: 

 1. Raise your legs until your feet are above your pelvis;
   focus on contracting the abs. 
 2. Thrust your heels to the ceiling, breathe out, keep
   contracting the abs raising the pelvis out of the cradle of
   your fists. 
 3. Lower out of the thrust back to your fists, leaving your
   feet above your pelvis. 
 4. Lower your legs back to the initial position. 

Legendary Abs II recommends these as safer than Lying Leg
Raises. 

Hanging Knee Raises

You need a chin-up bar or something you can hang from for this.
Grab the bar with both hands with a grip a bit wider than your
shoulders, cross your ankles and bring your knees up to your chest
(or as close as you can get). Your pelvis should rock slightly
forward. Pause at the top of the movement for a second and then
slowly lower your knees by relaxing your abs. Don't lower your
legs all the way. Repeat the movement using just your abs to raise
your knees. 

Make sure that you don't start swinging. You want your abs to do
the work, not momentum. It's important that you don't move
your legs too far or your psoas muscle will be doing a lot of work
and possibly causing back problems as in a situp. 

Make sure your pelvis moves, your lower back stays neutral or
slightly rounded, not arched, and that your abs are doing the
work, not your hips. 

Hanging Leg Raises

Just like knee raises except you keep your legs straight. This
requires good hamstring and lower back flexibility, see the 
Stretching FAQ for details. 

Although Legendary Abs recommends these, The American
Council on Exercise's Aerobics Instructor book warns that they
have the same back problems as conventional situps. This makes
sense since, like situps, the legs are kept straight and the hips
move. The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA)
also regards hanging leg raises as dangerous. 

For safety you should probably stick to leg thrusts and knee raises.

If you do do hanging leg raises, make sure your lower back stays
neutral or rounded. 

There is an isometric variant done by gymnasts called the
"L-Support", which basically consists of taking the leg raise
position with the legs held straight at a level just above the hips.
The position is held for 10 seconds. When you can complete this
easily, try a higher position. The same cautions about back
position still hold. 

Upper Ab Exercises

Ab Crunches

Lying on your back, put your knees up in the air so that your
thighs are at a right angle to your torso, with your knees bent. If
you like you can rest your feet on something, like a chair. Put
your hands either behind your head or gently touching the sides
of your head. 

Now, slowly raise your shoulders off the ground and try to touch
your breastbone to your pelvis, breathing out as you go. If you
succeed in touching your breastbone to your pelvis, see a doctor
immediately. 

Although the actual movement will be very small (your upper
torso should move through less than 30 degrees) you should try to
go as high as possible. Only your spine should bend, your hips
should not move. If the hips move, you are exercising the psoas. 

Do these fairly slowly to avoid using momentum to help. 

You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by extending your
hands out behind your head instead of keeping them at the side.
Make sure you don't jerk your hands forward to help with the
crunch, keep them still. 

1/4 Crunches

Same as an ab crunch except that you raise your shoulder up,
instead of pulling them toward your pelvis. You can do these
quickly, in fact it's hard to do them any other way. 

Cross-Knee Crunches

Like ab crunches, take the lying, bent-knee position, but this time
crunch diagonally so that you try to touch each shoulder to the
opposite hip alternately. At the top position, one shoulder and one
hip should be off the ground. 

Pulldown Crunches

Drape a towel or rope around the bar of a pulldown machine so
that you pull the weight using it instead of the bar. Kneel facing
the machine and grab hold of the towel and put your hands
against your forehead. Kneel far enough away from the machine
so that the cable comes down at a slight angle. 

The exercise is the same movement as an ab crunch, but using the
weight instead of gravity. The emphasis is still on crunching the
abs, pulling the sternum (breastbone) towards the pelvis and
making sure you exhale all your air at each contraction. 

Q7: Is there a specific order I should do exercises in?

According to Legendary Abs, you should exercise the lower abs
before the upper abs and do any twisting upper ab movements
before straight upper ab ones. Twisting exercises work the
obliques as well as the upper abs. 

Q8: How do I structure an ab routine?

According to the guidelines in Legendary Abs: 

   Try to do sets in the 15-30 rep range. 
   Follow the ordering rules in Question 7. 
   Pick easy exercises to start with and when you can happily
   do about 2 sets in a row of an exercise, try harder ones. 
   Only rest when you absolutely must, so take a short
   (10-15sec) rest between two sets of the same exercise, but
   none between lower and upper abs. 
   Try to take about 1 second for each rep, except for ab
   crunches which you do slower (2 secs/rep) for a better
   contraction and 1/4 crunches which you should do fast (2
   reps/sec) because you're hardly moving. 

Q9: How often should I train abs?

Some writers recommend doing abs at every workout. Others
recommend doing them however often you do anything else in
other words treating them as you would any other body part.
Health For Life's Legendary Abs recommends three or four
times a week. 

Since most people want good abdominal tone more than freaky
abdominal size, it probably makes sense to exercise the abs with
lower intensity and more frequently, rather than with high
intensity and less frequently. 

Q10: Should I do side bends to reduce my love handles?

Nope. Love handles (the pads of fat above the hip bone at the side
of the waist) are fat and only shrink with a low fat diet and
general aerobic exercise (see Question 3). You can't just remove
the fat from that area on its own. Legendary Abs claims that side
bends develop the oblique muscles under the fat and therefore
make the fat more prominent, but some people feel that the
obliques simply can't get big enough to be noticeable. If anyone
feels they can offer an authoritative answer on this question,
please contribute. 

Q11: Gee, but shouldn't I balance my abs with my spinal
erectors? 

Thanks for asking. If you develop your ab strength without
similarly developing your spinal erectors (the muscles that
straighten your lower back), you will end up with strange and
possibly damaging posture. 

Hyperextensions are a good lower back exercise. Deadlifts, both
straight and bent-legged give the lower back a lot of exercise, so
if you do them you don't need to add anything else. Make sure
you get someone to show you how to do them properly and keep
your lower back arched through the whole movement. For more
details consult the misc.fitness FAQ which contains extensive
descriptions of both sorts of deadlifts and lots more besides. 

One other exercise is a gymnast's basic strength move called a ``
back lever'' which among many other things strengthens your
spinal erectors. 

Hyperextensions

Hyperextensions are best done on a hyperextension bench, but can
be done on a bed or ordinary bench with something (or someone)
holding down your ankles. 

Lie face down, with your hands touching the sides of your head
and your body draped over the edge of the bench. Make sure your
hips are supported so your pelvis can't move. Slowly raise your
torso to the horizontal position, but no higher. 

Keep your head, shoulders and upper back arched through the
whole movement. 

Try to do a couple of sets af around 12 reps after each ab routine
or after each back routine. Don't exercise your lower back more
than about three times a week. Don't exercise it if it's still sore
from the previous workout. 

The Back Lever

The back lever is a gymnastic strength move, it requires a lot of
upper body strength and basic gymnastic conditioning before you
even attempt it. 

This exercise is dangerous for many people, use caution! 

The exercise can be done on still rings, the high bar or a chin bar
set a fair way from the ceiling. You hang upside down with an
underhand grip. If you're using a bar, the bar has to be behind you
so try hanging with the bar in front of you and walk you legs
through. 

When you have the position, lower yourself, pivoting at your
shoulders until your body is parallel to the ground (or as close as
you can safely get) belly facing downwards and hold the position
for several seconds. When you can't hold it anymore bring your
self back up to vertical. 

Take care as you have to be able to get out of any situation you
get into, so don't go too low on the first try and make sure you
only do it over a crash mat or with a couple of helpers to catch
you if you have to let go. 

If you're confused about the description, the HTML version of
this FAQ available via the World Wide Web, contains pictures
which will be below if you're using a graphical browser like
Mosaic. 

Many thanks go to Keith Smith for patiently explaining the back
lever to me. 

Q12: Are there any special abdominal exercises during
pregnancy?

The following brief summary of how to modify your routine is
from Colleen Porter. 

Modifications for Pregnancy and Postpartum

During pregnancy, abdominal exercises can help preserve muscle
tone and take strain off the lower back. However, you might need
to learn new routines, since most experts have counseled against
lying on your back after the fourth month due to pressure on the
vena cava, the blood vessel that returns blood from the lower
body to the heart. The books "Pregnancy and Exercise" by Raul
Artal (currently out of print) and "Essential Exercises for the
Childbearing Year" by Elizabeth Noble offer many suggestions
for safely strengthening the abdominals during pregnancy. One
exercise is the Rocking Back Arch: kneel on all fours and count
to five as you rock back and forth, then return to the original
position and arch your back. Repeat five times, several times a
day. 

Postpartum moms should check their abdominal muscles for
separation before starting any abdominal exercise program,
because damage can be exacerbated by exercise if there is
separation. Test this by pressing your fingers into the area by
your belly button as you attempt to do an abdominal crunch. If
you can put more than one or two fingers in between the muscles,
they have separated and you will need to modify your crunches.
Place your feet the same way, but cross your arms across the
abdomen and squeezing the muscles together as you exhale and
contract the abdominals, lifting only your head (not the
shoulders). You may also use a length of material (such as old
sheeting) wrapped around the abdomen and pulled across to
achieve the same effect. 

The following ab training tip for pregnant women comes from
Robin Burton: 

Belly Dancing

"My midwife cautioned against crunches after the belly rose
above the pubic bone, saying that the stress this caused was a
factor in abdominal separation. I found that an excellent way of
exercising the abdominals during pregnancy was belly dancing!
The dancing strengthens the muscles of the abdomen with very
little strain and the movements help during labor, too. Of course
it isn't going to give anybody a washboard stomach, but no
pregnant woman is going to have one of those anyway!" 

Q13: Does the XXX ab machine/gadget work?

There are several types of abdominal machine provided in gyms
and many more plastic varieties available in stores and via mail
order. These things mostly are not much better than doing the ab
exercises listed in this FAQ, many of them are significantly
worse. 

The more complex ones that you find in gyms have the advantage
of progressive resistance, but you can achieve very similar effects
by simply holding weight plates during crunches. 

To evaluate whether a machine is worth using should be
reasonably simple - if it encourages an ab contraction under a
load it's good, if not don't bother. An ab contraction (as
explained in Question 4) is when the sternum is pulled toward the
pubic bone or vice versa as the main action. 

The fundamental thing is to have good form in ab exercises, no
machine can force that. If you have the form, machines are not
greatly useful. 

Dissenting opinions are welcomed (and will probably be included
in the FAQ) as are reviews of popular ab gadgets and machines. 

III. REFERENCES

The Complete Book of Abs by Kurt Brungardt, Villard Books,
New York, NY 10022, May 1993.
Highly recommended. 245 pages. Illustrations. Shows over one
hundred different exercises for the various abdominal muscles
plus routines, diet and general advice. Hard to beat. 

Legendary Abs and Legendary Abs II are available from: 
Health for Life 
8033 Sunset Blvd. 
Suite 483 
Los Angeles, CA 90046 
(800)874-5339 (U.S.) 
+1 310 306 0777 (International) 
+1 310 305 7672 (Fax) 

To subscribe to the Weights Mailing List, contact Michael
Sullivan at: 
weights-request@fa.disney.com 

The Stretching FAQ is available in ascii, texinfo, postscript, dvi,
and html formats via anonymous ftp from the host `cs.huji.ac.il'.
Look under the directory `/pub/doc/faq/rec/martial.arts'. The file
name matches the wildcard pattern `stretching.*'. The file suffix
indicates the format. For WWW users, the URL is:
http://www.cs.huji.ac.il/papers/rma/stretching_toc.html 

The misc.fitness FAQ is available via anonymous FTP from 
ftp.cray.com in the /pub/misc.fitness directory. It will also be
posted monthly to misc.fitness and misc.answers, which makes it
available from 
http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet/FAQ-List.html.

Aerobics Instructor (ISBN 096 180 16162) is available from: 
The American Council On Exercise 
5820 Oberlin Drive, Suite 102
San Diego, CA 92121-3787 

The Aerobics and Fitness Assocation of America (AFAA) can be
contacted at: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
15250 Ventura Blvd., Suite 200
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403-3297 

IV. CONTRIBUTIONS OR COMMENTS

If you disagree with anything from this FAQ either from
personal experience, or because you've read or learnt otherwise
or if you have any tips, information or exercises to add or you
notice any typos, please send them to the FAQ maintainer: 

Tim Mansfield <timbomb@cs.uq.oz.au> 

The entire FAQ is Copyright 1994 Tim Mansfield, except for the
section on exercise during pregnancy which is Copyright 1994 
Colleen Porter. Please notify the FAQ maintainer if you intend to
distribute this FAQ by any means other than via USENET feed
or from an Internet archive site. 

There are no problems with making copies for personal use or to
share with friends, but please ask before you reprint it in a book
or periodical or or dump it onto a CD-ROM or something. 

V. CONTRIBUTORS

The following people contributed suggestions or material for this
FAQ: 

   Tim Mansfield <timbomb@cs.uq.oz.au> 
   Nigel Ward <nigel@cs.uq.oz.au> 
   Kevin Digweed <ked@mfltd.co.uk> 
   Steve Cariglia <sjc@cyclops.haystack.edu> 
   Michael Sullivan <sullivan@fa.disney.com> 
   David Will
   <DavidW@ccsdsmtp.columbiasc.NCR.COM> 
   John Blaska <blas0003@gold.tc.umn.edu> 
   Patrick Wai <pwai@mv.us.adobe.com> 
   Keith R Smith <krw@cbnewsk.cb.att.com> 
   Colleen Porter <SDP@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu> 
   Ben Mook <c2mxmook@fre.fsu.umd.edu> 
   Robin L. Burton <Robin_L._Burton@orbit-1.com> 
   Todd Siechen <tsiechen@sensemedia.net> 
   Larry DeLuca <henrik@husc.harvard.edu>
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License