Like it or not, people develop perceptions about you the first time they see you. How you dress, the car you drive and other outward trappings do, all make a statement to the world about your status, education and savoir-faire. Your body makes your most important statement. Men with fit, toned bodies say to the world, “I take care of myself; I’ve got it together.” Overweight, unfit men can often project the image that they are undisciplined and possess the sex appeal of a troll. Your ab muscles are the center of a fit, toned physique. You can have crusher pec muscles, tree-trunk legs and boa constrictor arms and still look slovenly if you have untoned abdominal muscles. Few things enhance a handsome, manly appearance and announce a good physique better than well-toned abs.
Until recently, most personal trainers and coaches thought the key to fit, rock-hard, chiseled abs was to do lots of sit-ups. Sure, you had to lose fat around the middle to bring out the muscles underneath (and this is still very important indeed), but sit-ups were the key. After more than 100 years, however, we now know that not only are sit-ups not the best ab exercise, they are dangerous. Do enough of them, and you will probably be a candidate for back surgery. The best strategy for building a firm, toned midsection is to build all the muscles of the core- the abs, back, side stabilizers and hips. Build these muscles as a unit and you will not only look toned, lean and mean, but you will have a healthy back and core that will make you feel and look like a hard-bodied dynamo.
Key to a Toned Functional Body
Guys who weight train seriously often try to isolate muscles to make them grow. Isolation is a great way to build individual muscles, but that can lead to imbalances that can make your body look funny. Worse, imbalances put abnormal stresses on key joints that can cause injuries throughout your body. All the muscles in your body create a link between joints that scientists call the kinetic chain. What this means is that every joint movement depends on other joints in the body to provide stabilization or assist in the movement. The key to these linked movements is the midsection- the ab muscles, deep side-stabilizing muscles and spinal extensor muscles. Build this core, and you will have abs that are the envy of your friends. Do the ab and core exercise program and say hello to chiseled, six-pack abs and say goodbye to back pain and that round potbelly you’ve been building for so long.
Dr. Stuart McGill from the University of Waterloo, in Canada, is widely regarded as the leading expert in the world in spinal biomechanics and back pain. His extensive research on the spine has provided valuable information about how to develop the muscles of the abdomen, back, hips and legs, and how to prevent back pain. Dr. McGill has said that when choosing core exercises- particularly abdominal exercises- you must also consider the load on the spine. While sit-ups may be excellent for developing the abdominal muscles, they increase the risk of back injury.
Dr. McGill’s research shows that stressing the back repeatedly lowers its tolerance to injury. The upper limit of back compression for preventing back injury is 3,300 Newtons (N). A Newton is a measure of force. One bent-knee sit-up creates 3,350 N, while straight-leg sit-ups create a whopping 3,506 N- greater than the maximum level set by researchers for predicting back injuries. Crunches, one of the major exercises in our ab/core program, created only 1,991N of spinal compression and side-bridges (a great exercise for your obliques, the muscles on the sides of your abs) created 2,585 N.
Part of our preoccupation with sit-ups comes from a misunderstanding of the role of the abdominal muscles in movement. The torso region needs stability to transmit forces between the upper and lower body. The main function of the rectus abdominis – the long, wide muscle on the front of the abdomen- is not to shorten and flex the trunk. Rather, it’s an important stabilizer and force transmitter. This is suggested by the structure of the muscle: tendons break the muscle into four portions, which give the well-developed rectus a six-pack appearance. The muscle is designed to transmit stresses around the spine, which increases the efficiency of the obliques. The rectus abdominis is more important as a spinal stabilizer than as a major muscle in trunk movement. Always tense up your transverse abdominis muscle when doing weight-training exercises. Do this by pulling your belly button to your spine. This activates your core and protects the spine during exercise.
The Ultimate Ab-Core Workout
This workout consists of abdominal and lower-back exercises. Some of these exercises, such as the deadlift, work many of the major muscles of the body, while others isolate and develop specific muscles in the abs and core. This program is based on the results of electromyography studies- a powerful technique that shows how muscles are activated during exercise.
Roman chair leg raises (2 sets of 20 reps)
Hanging leg raises (2 sets of 10 reps)
Bicycle maneuvers (2 sets of 20 reps)
Vertical crunches (2 sets of 10 reps)
Reverse crunches on a bench (2 sets of 10 reps)
Cable crunches with rope attachment (2 sets of 10 reps)
Exercise ball crunches (2 sets of 20 reps)
Side-bridges (hold for 2 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
Superman on the exercise ball (hold for 2 sets of 30 seconds)
Back hyperextensions (2 sets of 10 reps)
Deadlifts (2 sets of 5 reps)
Exercise ball back extensions (2 sets of 20 reps)
Exercise ball reverse back extensions (2 sets of 10 reps)
Exercise ball ab stretches (hold for 2 sets of 20-30 seconds)
Ultimate Ab Exercises
Roman Chair Leg Raises
Grip the handles, place forearms on supports and stabilize your back on the pad of the Roman chair. Hold your body upright with your legs dangling below. Lift your knees in toward your chest, then return them slowly to the starting position.
Hanging Leg Raises
Hang from a pull-up bar. Lift your knees in front of you until your thighs are parallel with the floor; hold the position; slowly lower your legs to the starting position.
Lie flat on the floor on your lower back with your hands beside your head. Bring your knees toward your chest to about a 45-degree angle and make a bicycle-pedaling motion with your legs, touching your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee.
Lie on your back and put your legs up in the air with knees fully extended (bend knees slightly if this position is uncomfortable). Place your hands loosely at ear level, and curl your upper body by contracting the rectus abdominis muscle- the long, flat muscle that dominates the front of your torso. Return slowly to the starting position.
Reverse Crunches on a Bench
Lie on a bench and stabilize your body by grabbing the bench above your head. Lift your legs so your feet are pointed at the ceiling and bend your knees slightly. Contract your lower-abdominal muscles and lift your tailbone off the bench; push your feet slightly toward the ceiling and push your lower back into the bench. Return to the starting position.
Cable Crunches with Rope Attachment
Do this exercise either standing or on your knees. Grasp the rope in each hand and pull down until your hand touches the top of your head. Bend forward slowly and do a crunch. Return to the starting position.
Crunches on Exercise Ball
EMG shows this exercise works the abs best on an exercise ball, but it can also be done on the floor. Lie on your back on the ball until your thighs and torso are parallel with the floor. Cross your arms over your chest and contract your abdominal muscles, raising your torso to no more than 45 degrees. Increase the stress on your oblique muscles by moving your feet closer together.
Lie on your side and support your body between your forearm and feet. As you increase fitness, move your non-support arm across your body as you hold the side-bridge. Do this exercise on your left and right sides and try to hold your spine straight- don’t let it sag during the exercise. This is not a well-known exercise. However, EMG studies show that it strengthens the obliques and helps stabilize the spine.
Ultimate Core and Lower-Back Exercises
Begin these exercises conservatively- start off slowly and build strength and muscle endurance gradually.
Superman on the Exercise Ball
Lie on an exercise ball at chest level with your legs extended to the rear. Extend your arms and place both hands in front of you as though you were flying like Superman. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds, rest and repeat.
Back Hyperextensions With Weight
Lie facedown on an extension bench at waist level, with your feet firmly anchored. Grasp a weight plate with both hands and pull it tightly toward your chest. Bend at the waist, lowering your head toward the floor (do not flex your trunk all the way to the floor). Keep your spine straight as you return to the starting position using your lower-back muscles. This is a good hamstring exercise because those muscles stabilize your body as you extend your trunk.
Stand with feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart and toes pointed slightly outward. Squat down and grasp the bar using either a deadlift (right palm one way, left palm the other) or pronated (palms toward body) grip. Keep back flat, chest up and out, arms straight and eyes focused ahead. Lift the bar by extending your knees and hips. During the lift, maintain a flat back and straight arms, and keep the weight close to your body. Pull up the weight to a standing position. Slowly return the weight to the starting position, taking great care to keep your back straight.
This is one of the best overall weightlifting exercises for building the major muscles of the body. It loads the quads, hamstrings, glutes and spinal muscles. It also loads the shoulder and upper-back muscles. There are two deadlift styles- traditional and sumo. While most powerlifters use the sumo style, people interested in overall shaping and conditioning should use the traditional style because it works the quads and glutes better.
Exercise Ball Back Extensions
Lie facedown on the ball at stomach level with your legs fully extended behind you, toes touching the ground and hands touching each ear. Lift your head and chest off the ball slowly, using your lower-back muscles. Return to the starting position.
Exercise Ball Reverse Back Extensions
Lie facedown and place the ball under the front of your hips, and place your hands on the floor in front of the ball. Extend your legs behind you with feet apart slightly. Lift your legs off the floor slowly, keeping your knees straight, until your back and legs are straight. Hold the position for two to three seconds and then return to the starting position.
Ab Stretches on the Ball
Sit on top of the ball and then walk forward until the ball is supporting your lower back. Stretch your arms out to the sides. Hold for 20-30 seconds.
Warning: Don’t Do Exercises That Overdevelop the Obliques!
Unless you are training for power sports, you do not want to overdevelop the oblique muscles- the ones on the sides of your abs. These exercises will broaden your waist and make you look fat in your clothes. Exercises to avoid include oblique crunches on the Cybex back hyperextension machine, oblique crunches on the Cybex crunch machine, and oblique side bends. Do the exercises in this killer program, and you will have abs to die for. It will help if you eat properly and burn plenty of calories during the day.
Fahey, T. Basic Weight Training for Men and Women. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. (5th edition).
Fahey, T., Insel, P., and Roth, W. Fit and Well. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003 (5th edition).
McGill, S.M. Low Back Disorders. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2002.
Suzuki J., R. Tanaka, S. Yan, R. Chen, P. T. Macklem and B. Kayser. Assessment of abdominal muscle contractility, strength, and fatigue. Am J Respir Crit Care Med, 159: 1052-1060, 1999.
Vera-Garcia F. J., S. G. Grenier and S. M. McGill. Abdominal muscle response during curl-ups on both stable and labile surfaces. Phys Ther, 80: 564-569, 2000.