Are high-rep crunches and sit-ups the best way to build athletic-looking six-pack abs? Until recently, most personal trainers and coaches preached that these exercises were the keys to building cut abdominal muscles. Greg Plitt, voted the number one fitness model in the world, said, “The most important measure of a fit-looking body is great abs.”
Most guys with beer bellies or love handles try to remedy the situation by doing crunches— hundreds of crunches. They make three mistakes:
1) High-rep ab exercises do nothing to decrease gut fat
2) These exercises are non-functional— the abs mainly act as stabilizers that help transfer force from the hip and thigh muscles
3) Excessive trunk flexion (bending forward at the waist) puts too much strain on spinal disks, which can eventually lead to injury, pain and back surgery.
Dr. Stuart McGill from the University of Waterloo in Canada showed that stressing the back repeatedly in flexion (bending forward at the waist) lowers its tolerance to injury. He studied the effects of high repetition trunk flexion and extension using pig spines attached to a mechanical bending machine. Pig spines often fell apart in as few as 4,000 repetitions of forward and backward bending. The machine applied a force on the spines similar to that used during crunches. In most cases, the back part of the disk ruptured. He concluded that bending the spine too often damages spinal disks and causes back pain.
Dr. McGill argued that the core muscles— those surrounding and supporting the spine— stiffen the torso to promote movements generated by the more powerful hip and thigh muscles. The core acts as a spring that braces and stops movement rather than actively promoting motion. Using the core muscles rather than the hips to rotate the body increases the risk of back injury.
Strength coaches Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld disagreed. Flexion exercises such as curl-ups build the rectus abdominis muscle (six-pack muscle) and obliques better than static exercises. Trunk movements provide nutrition and lubrication to the spine. People can do trunk flexion movements provided they have no pre-existing injuries and are not genetically predisposed to spinal deterioration. Core training should involve a combination of isometric and dynamic exercises. They warned against doing high rep curl-ups and sit-ups because of the risk of spinal injury but argued that spinal flexion exercises are important parts of resistance training workouts.
Electromyography studies (EMG; measures the activation of muscles) show that curl-ups, sit-ups, leg raises and bicycle exercises turn on the abdominal muscles better than static or isometric ab exercises. However, they also overload the spine. Young men and women might get away with doing high-rep dynamic ab exercise but end up having back surgery in their 30s or 40s. People in their teens and 20s often think they are invulnerable. Injuries sustained in high school and college can cause a lifetime of pain and agony. Why not do exercises that promote spinal health and make the abs look cut and buff at the same time?
Building Abs Without Breaking Your Back
You will never look buff and chiseled unless you have lean, muscular-looking abs. Most guys have a one-pack instead of a six-pack. Sixty-six percent of American men are overweight or obese and carry most of their fat in their guts. Abdominal fat looks bad. People with big guts look physically unattractive, undisciplined and unfit.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Excess abdominal fat increases the risk of premature death due to heart attack, cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart failure and accidents. Men deposit more fat in the abdomen than women, which may be the reason for gender differences in longevity. Abdominal fat also decreases metabolic health that can sap energy levels, destroy sexual performance, and trigger psychological depression.
Strong, fit core muscles allow force transfer from the lower to upper body. Peripheral joints and muscles receive increased stress in the face of core muscle weakness and instability. Poor core strength and endurance increase the risk of injuries to the back, knees, shoulders, elbows and ankles, and result in poor, weak performance.
The core maintains body control by keeping the body mass over its base of support during dynamic movements. Core support works much like a camping tent. The spine is like the pole holding up the tent and the muscles are like the ropes that stabilize the pole. The tent is most stable when all the ropes are tight and adjusted at the same tension. The tent will fall over in a stiff wind if the ropes are loose or if one rope is tighter than the others are. The core muscles lie in layers— some are deep and some are superficial— which increases central body stability. Muscular layers work much like the layers of plywood to increase strength and stability. The entire core is strongest and provides the most support when all of its elements are fit, toned and work together.
Core muscle endurance is more important than strength for stabilizing the spine and thorax. Muscles with good endurance are able to hold the spine in place and serve as stable platforms for large body movements. Spinal stability decreases as muscles fatigue, which places abnormally high stresses on other muscles and supporting structures (e.g., the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee).
Strengthen and tone the abdominal and core muscles by training them functionally. Do curl-ups but try not to move your neck and shoulders. Rather, maintain a neutral spine and contract the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscle) statically without moving the neck and shoulders. Hold each contraction for no more than 10 seconds. As suggested by strength coaches Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld, don’t too many of these exercises. Shoot for quality over quantity and you can build cut abs without damaging your back.
The core muscles act mainly as stabilizers. Build them to stabilize the spine during whole body movements. Many dynamic exercises build these muscles far better than curl-ups. Few of these exercises are obvious. Standing presses, snatches, cleans and squats are great ab builders because they force the muscles to brace the spine during intense whole body movements. Farmer’s walks and suitcase carries (carrying a heavy weight in one or both hands) will make your abs burn. Slam-ball (medicine ball on a rope) helicopters build speed and explosiveness while forcing the core muscles to stabilize the spine. Kettlebell swings and snatches are dynamic exercises that include a bracing movement with the abs, hips and thighs. If you do these exercises correctly, you will improve back health, while building cut, fit abdominal muscles. See the sidebar for exercises that build a powerful, buff-looking core that are consistent with the way you use these muscles— as a stable “spring” that makes almost all movements more powerful.
Toned, strong abdominal muscles won’t do much good if they are covered by fat. The combination of ab-core exercises, general weight training, aerobics and diet is essential for improving the appearance and function of the abdominal muscles and core. Do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise per week. Begin conservatively and gradually increase the volume and intensity of exercise. Cut back if you feel excessively fatigued or develop overuse injuries. Do aerobics after ab-core exercises and weight training.
Diet and Abdominal Fat Loss
As long as you don’t overeat, you will probably lose weight on almost any exercise program. The best way to improve the appearance of your abs is to cut calories. Try to eat a Mediterranean diet that emphasizes complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and olive oil. Carbs are important when you exercise intensely, so don’t cut them out of your diet. The best advice is to eat a balanced diet and cut down on snacks, desserts and large portions. A good nutrient proportion for losing fat and supplying energy for exercise is 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent fats and 30 percent proteins. Emphasize complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Avoid saturated and trans fats. Instead, eat more monounsaturated fats found in vegetable products and fats found in fish. Non-fat dairy products are excellent sources of protein and may help control body fat.
Combine Weight Training, Spine-safe Core Exercises, Diet and Aerobics
You can lose abdominal fat, build core-ab strength and endurance, look fit and healthy, and save your back. Losing your love handles, visceral fat and inches from your waist is no problem if you follow a few basic principles. More importantly, you can sustain your gains if you continue exercising and eating sensibly. If you start today, six months from now there will be a new you. You will be thinner, vibrant, healthier and look terrific. The ball is in your court— promise to make fitness and diet a priority in your life and you will achieve lean, fit abdominal and core muscles, and a healthy back.