Throughout the ages, great artists, sculpters, and philosophers alike have pondered the question: what makes a great body. Is it protruding pecs, bulging biceps, or perhaps a great set of calves? Well, take a gander at any Greek statue, and the you will notice the Adonis line leads straight to a firmly toned midsection– just ask Zeus. Today, great abs are a must for any model, but while some were blessed with genetic perfection (we hate these people) most of us have to sweat for our reward. Luckily, with the proper training program, you too can build a chiseled set of abs that even Zeus would proud of.
Bracing for Success
Anyone that has worn a back belt is familiar with the way it tightens to provide support during heavy lifting. The abs are designed in a similar manner, wrapping around both the mid section and lower back to provide support to the spine and torso. During times of stress, abdominal bracing (think bracing to get punched in the gut) signals the abs to tighten in a similar fashion to the way a back belt would during exercise. This bracing technique– which fully flexes the abs– is particularly useful on photo shoots where definition is required at a moments notice, but can only be fully developed by training the entire abdominal (otherwise known as the core) region together. The rectus abdomens (stomach muscles) is the largest area of the core and where the “six-pack” is located. A common mistake in training this area is attempting to work the “upper” and lower” portions separately. While this part of the core is made up several sections, evidence has shown that all sections are activated together during exercise for the torso– and thus one requires only one exercise (either leg raises or setups alone are effective). Equally important to developing a great midsection are the often overlooked side oblique’s. The oblique’s are responsible for your ability to suck in and hold an abdominal crunch (think crunching the abs during a photo shoot) But as opposed to the up and down motion of exercises for the abs, the oblique’s—which are located on each side of the abdominal muscles– respond to exercises which involve twisting of the torso and legs. But for models, perhaps the most sought after portion of the core are well defined pelvic muscles (also known as the Adonis line). Not only does this area look great in a Speedo, but it also plays a major role in stabilizing the lower back and hips. Consequently, this area is trained by any exercise which requires hip motion. So what does this mean for abs training? Research suggests that training with a variety of movements (twisting, bending, and turning) recruits the greatest number of muscle fibers– helping the abs to become strong and defined. So rather than spending time on multiple exercises for one part of the core (leg raises and setups being an example), try challenging your abs from a variety of angles.
Weight versus Form
For many, the use of weighted exercises has become a popular approach to training the abs. But while hypertrophy (growth) is necessary to define that six pack, form often suffers with the use of added resistance. As a result, the bulk of the workload is shifted to other parts of the body—the hip flexors, and low back. Conversely, EMG research has shown that unloaded exercises such as the crunch, reverse crunch, V-sit, and crunch with a twist all activate the ab muscles to at least 60% of their maximum capacity, with a high point of 75% for some exercises. As the largest region of the core, the rectus abdominus (stomach muscles) respond best to traditional weighted exercises—along with changes in reps and sets. This area has the greatest potential for growth, and therefore can benefit most from weighted exercises. But while this area benefits from exercises like weighted situps and stomach crunches, compound movements such as squatting and deadlifts do little to build your sixpack. “These exercises challenge the abs, but not in a traditional bodybuilding sense” explained Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. “During a traditional squat, the majority of the load is placed on the spine while the abs act as a support mechanism.” According to McGill, a better alternative for building strong abs is to perform these exercises on one foot. This helps to directly recruit the abdominal muscles to provide stability to the torso more than a traditional two legged stance. But unlike tradition muscles—which take up to 72 hours to recover from a weighted workout—the abs can benefit from short stints of training up to 7 days per week. “The abs generally suffer less trauma due to their limited range of motion.” said McGill. “Therefore using three exercises in a session is more than adequate: one crunch variation, one reverse crunch or double crunch variation, one exercise using a twisting motion.” It is important to note that each individual will respond differently to ab training. But while there is no single best way to train the abs, here are a few suggestions:
1) Weighted and non weighted exercises should remain in the range of 8-12 repetitions for the rectus abdominus (stomach). The oblique’s (side of the abs) by contrast, respond better to exercises in the range of 15-20 reps to build muscular endurance. 2) Core muscles groups (pelvis, abdominals, and oblique’s) tend to fatigue quickly and requires no more than 3 exercises performed at 2-3 sets each. 3) Given their quick recovery time, the muscles of the core are ideally trained with rest periods of no longer than 90 seconds. 4) These areas can also be trained individually by performing an isolation exercise (such as stomach crunches or torso twists) after a compound movement (such as a squat, or deadlight) to recruit a great number of muscle fibers. 5) One legged squats and deadlifts work the muscle more than traditional two legged exercises by challenging stability of the torso.
– Weight situps – Russian twists – Side planks Chris Kelly is a NASM Certified Fitness Trainer, nutritionist, and editor of the Spotter, a devoted to health and fitness on the go. Chris’s work has been featured in numerous publications including Men’s Fitness, Health Magazine and the Boston Globe. He can be reached directly at [email protected]