ABS: the Inconvenient Truths
The body part of the millennium, that sexy landscape of bumps and grooves which is a key factor to many folks being in the gym. The six pack, the flat stomach, the tight belly, those chiseled abs.
Give me a break, people. Remember when working out was about your health? Remember that? Huh? No? Oh.
This is it. This is the information no one wants to hear or read because it means responsibility and dedication, not magic potions or god-sent gizmos. There is some good news though, which I’ll start with, but first, we’d better do some explaining.
A modern vernacular for the midsection musculature has arisen that needs to be assessed. Starting with the word ‘abs,’ let’s find common ground for definitions and anatomy so a decent dialog can exist.
Truth #1: If we’re being literal, there is only one ‘Ab.’
Now this is simply anatomical pickiness. ‘Abs’ seems to commonly refer to the anterior, or front, of the midsection. Ya know, the belly button area, while the sides are called ‘love handles’ and the back is called…uh, the back. ‘Abs’ is slang for rectus abdominus, the fancy-pants word for the muscle running from the ribs to the pelvis. Notice how it is singular, not plural. It is only one muscle, not a collection of little muscles making up an upper, lower and middle section, geographically defined by the 6- or 8- pack that appears on the coveted midsection of underwear models. So, literally, it would be an ‘ab,’ but let’s put pendantics aside for a moment, since it has become a blanket term for the collection of muscles making up the trunk of the body, often referred to as the ‘core.’
Truth # 2: The ‘core’ isn’t always the core.
Now ‘core’ represents the center of something, and although the lower spine can be considered our center of gravity for a passive standing body, any movement will change that center and therefore the ‘core’ of the movement will change. So ‘engaging the core’ for, say, a bicep curl could be considered contracting the muscle involved in flexion of the elbow and have little to do with the spinal or trunk muscles. In other words, the pendantic police say ‘nay’ to the overuse of ‘core’ in common fitness-speak.
Also, ‘core’ training focuses too much on the ‘abs’ while most of the spinal muscles go largely ignored, often under the mistaken belief that training the ‘abs’ strengthens the spine. So…
Truth #3: Strengthening the ‘abs’ doesn’t necessarily strengthen the spine (and isolating them is a joke).
To justify the hundreds of crunches and twisty things folks do on the floor, instead of just admitting they’re trying to look pretty, the excuse is often related to strengthening the back. In fact ask the average gym rat how to strengthen the back and they will show you a crunch or sit up, and tell you to strengthen the ‘core.’ Although the intentions are good, the truth is there are far more important muscles then the rectus abdominus when it comes to spine health, and the over emphasis on ‘abs’ may actually exaggerate a problem. First of all, the rectus abdominus doesn’t even connect to the spine. Although it is a stabilizer and flexor of the spine, there are a slew of other muscles that actually attach to the spine that will play a great role in its health. If the spine isn’t involved in extension exercises, or exercises that require a large amount of stabilization and support (big lifts like squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, etc), then all the crunches in the world won’t help it.
Try this nifty little example. Stand up. Now lock your fingers behind your head and exaggerate good posture. Now let that relax into bad posture, let the shoulders slump, the tush tuck under and the spine round. Hold that bad posture for a second while you think about this. If your hands are still behind your head, you’re mimicking a crunch or how most folks perform a sit up. Now imagine doing that over and over again, and ask yourself how that is helping your spine. If your back is against the ground, a good deal of those spinal muscles are probably pacified, relaxed. Meanwhile that crunch or sit up position is simply forcing you to create bad posture on purpose, repeatedly, while the other spinal muscles kick back and have a smoke break.
Good posture=happy, bad posture = sad.
Truth #4 Abs do not need to be “worked” everyday, or even every other day.
That’s the good news. But this needs clarification. You’re wasting precious time doing those various crunchy twisty thingies every single day. Guess what? If you hold that spine the way it should be held, proud and stable, for every exercise you do and learn what your mama told you about sitting up straight, plus learn to not fear picking up heavy objects once in a while, you’re gaining a considerable amount of “core strength.” But who the heck wants “core strength,” whatever that is? We want ABSSS! Poppin’ out everywhere like speed bumps to heaven. Then work those trunk muscles like you would any other muscle group, very hard and through chains of motion, not wasting time with isolation and definitely not that sloppy, formless mess that seen writhing on the floors or twitching in some ab gizmo all the time.
You’ve got abs. In fact, if you workout well and consistently, you probably have considerable ab strength. You don’t see them because they’re hiding. They’re ducking behind your fat layer and can’t be coerced out until the fat goes away. NO AMOUNT OF AB WORK MAKES THAT FAT GO AWAY !!
So doing those silly isolation exercises every day is precious time that could be spent doing much better things, and potentially dangerous in the long run. No muscle needs to be beaten up on like that.
Truth #5 If you are doing hundreds of repetitions, you’re doin’ somethun’ wrong. Back to that formless mess. Aw, just see Truth #8
Truth #6 There is absolutely no need for a machine or device, especially the junk sold through infomercials.
A small group of people are making truckloads of money off the uneducated masses needing a quick fix. Their product will not do any of the wonderful things they say. They are lying, absolutely lying. Don’t pay them to lie further. Imagine if you bought some magical machine for every body part. You’d have a big room of junk. A mini gym of dumbness.
Traditional freeweight or bodyweight exercises are far superior in every way. Some folks swear by those giant inflated beach-ball-on-steroid things that offer several options for playing with the spine muscles. There is no real need for any special piece of Ab Machinery. With standing cable or freeweight exercises, or even with a ball, the movements require strong abdominal and spinal function as either movers or stabilizers, offering more effective ways of training the trunk then doing a bunch of crunches or investing in an AbTerminator.
Truth #7 Abs are just a small part of the overall picture and should be trained within an entire trunk training program.
When was the last time you crunched in day-to-day life? It’s not a motion we utilize daily (if it is, you have a unique occupation), so why train our abs that way when their #1 job is stabilization and balance, often during dynamic situations. Don’t put your chiropractor’s kids through school by going for the burn that several thousand crunches may give you. Just because you wanna be ripped doesn’t mean you have to be stoopid.
Truth #8 (this is a biggie) There isn’t a single ab exercise, device or routine in the world that will reduce the fat directly from the waist line. THIS IS IMPORTANT!
In other words, ab exercises alone won’t make your waist smaller! Remember, those coveted midsection muscles might be hiding, but torturing them through some monster ab routine or on an infomercial gizmo does not affect the fat around them at all. Fat and muscle are two different tissues without direct effect on each other. In other words, fat is not immediately affected by the muscle that happens to be close by it. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
Truth #9 Eating better is the number one way to reduce the stubborn fat around the midsection, not cardiovascular exercise, and definitely not abdominal exercise.
Who wants to hear this garbage, just give me a Torso Obliterator, a handful of pills and be done with it. This is the bad news no one wants to hear. That’s right, the absolute best way to affect the fat around the midsection is changing your eating habits. Yes, that takes real work, not just the toil and sweat of a workout. Now don’t get me wrong, cardiovascular exercise will help put the body in a calorie deficit and therefore promote fat loss from all over the body, but studies have shown that the stubborn belly jiggle responds best to diet changes. Sorry, but I did say this takes responsibility and dedication.
Truth #10 Most people perform ab exercises ineffectively, if not dangerously.
Hey, how cool am I? I just did three hundred crunches! Then you, my friend, are doing something wrong. If the rest of your weight workout rep range is about 8 – 15 reps, why should your ab muscles follow different laws? Would you do 300 leg presses or 300 bicep curls? Somewhere, maybe around rep 250, why didn’t you think “what the heck kinda waste of time is this?” Heck, crunches may be the most overused, yet functionally useless exercise around.
Truth #11 You cannot target the “lower abs.”
Lower abs is a geographic location, not an anatomical description. Ain’t no special muscles down there that are separated from the rest. You may have acquired an unwanted attachment that has become determined to set up camp on you lower midsection, but since we’ve discussed in great length earlier how you can’t choose where that goo should melt from, “targeting” this area won’t do a lick of good. If you’re working the “upper abs,” you’re working the “lower abs.” You might not feel it as much but it’s not a separate muscle group, so it has to work whenever you do any ab exercise. Let’s say this again: there is no exercise that specifically isolates the “lower abs,” since there is no such thing! That would be like saying you can target your lower biceps. Sorry, can’t be done.
There is reason to focus on movements that turn the pelvis and spine in different directions, but this is to train movement patterns, not muscles. In other words, certain movements utilize the rectus abdomius differently, but it is still one muscle and, again, doesn’t directly affect the fat surrounding it.
TRUTH #12 Learn Technique Before Adding Weight.
When you feel the need to increase the intensity of your ab workouts, learn to do the exercises properly, which is an easily skipped step. Your body weight will usually be sufficient for many floor-based exercises, but most floor exercises are nonsense, so get up off the floor, then start light and master form. Great, so you can bend your spine with added resistance. Can you balance? Are you in control of the movement? This is an area that trainers need to greatly increase their knowledge in, because many gyms across the world have trainers torturing people’s abs in silly and dangerous ways.