One of the most popular topics in the area of physical and athletic fitness today is abdominal training. The current generation worships “Abs of Steel.” Problem is, most of what we hear about abdominal training is untrue. In fact, there is so much misinformation that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction – and from fraud. But we love a challenge, so let’s get started.
Despite hundreds of heavily marketed exercise toys that claim to develop the abdominals, the fact is an athlete can develop tremendous abdominals without ever performing a sit-up, crunch or anything involving fancy circus balls or other gimmicks. Core training, to use the popular buzzword, doesn’t have to be complex training. As evidenced by the muscular midsections of powerlifters and weightlifters, simply performing total-body lifts such as squats, power cleans and deadlifts can develop impressive abdominals. Peer-reviewed research supports this real-world evidence.
A study published in Physical Therapy in Sport in 2011 found that competitive female weightlifters had significantly stronger internal and external oblique muscles than a recreationally active control group. More specifically, the internal obliques were the thickest, followed by external, and then by transverse abdominis. This is a significant finding, as it represents a “structurally balanced” relationship.
We should note here that there is a controversy about the popular Swiss ball crunch exercise. This exercise works the rectus abdominis through an extreme range of motion; unfortunately, an overemphasis on this exercise could cause lower back pain and may create a muscle imbalance that may increase the risk of abdominal injuries and hernias. Further, and this is true for athletes who display an excessive forward tilt of the pelvis (i.e., lower cross syndrome), performing Swiss ball crunches could create shearing forces on the spine that could injure the disks. As for regular crunches, after a few sessions the exercise often becomes too easy to produce any strength training effects.
Although our position is that specific abdominal training is unnecessary for most trainees, we also understand that many trainees insist on supplementing their training with an occasional abdominal exercise. For those of you who decide to go this route, here are a few suggestions other than traditional crunch exercises.
One exercise you might consider is the single-leg jackknife sit-up (known for its popularity among Russian sprinters because it works the hip flexors and rectus abdominis in a coordinated manner such as occurs in running). In contrast to the classic jackknife sit-up, with this variation one leg is bent and the entire foot is in contact with the floor, with the other leg straight. With your arms held at your sides (or overhead and brought forward, lift your leg and trunk simultaneously as rapidly as possible. Perform an equal number of reps for each side, and increase resistance with the use of wrist and ankle weights.
Two more exercises are reverse sit-ups, with legs bent and with legs straight. With the bent-leg version, you start with the legs bent (or crossed at the ankle, such as with the Garhammer raise) and then lift the hips straight up. As you become stronger, perform the exercise with your legs straight. Although both these exercises activate the entire area of the rectus abdominis, they also strongly affect the subumbilical (below the bellybutton) area of the abdominals. Turning the feet inward, has been to increase the electrical activity of the rectus abdominis at the expense of the hip flexors.
In the weightroom, two great exercises are pullovers and straight-arm lat pulldowns. Although pretty much any pullover will affect the abs, you can perform a particularly effective variation by anchoring your feet on a sit-up board with your knees bent; pull the weight behind your head and then return to the start. The key is to keep your trunk stationary – you can make the exercise harder by leaning backward and holding heavier objects. As for straight-arm lat pulldowns performed on a high-pulley machine, the late biomechanist Dr. Mel Siff claimed that this exercise works the rectus abdominis muscle more strongly than sit-ups do! All front lever type of exercises, whether on rings or high bars are also superb for that purpose.
We maintain that the presence of specific ab training in a workout is usually a sign of faulty program design and too often a misuse of valuable exercise time. However, for those who don’t want to miss a trick, we’ve presented a few hardcore exercises you can occasionally add to your exercise mix. But the bottom line is that if you want abs of steel, you need to pump the iron!