The World’s Best Abdominal Exercise

Abs. Six-packs. Washboards. Everyone wants them, yet only the elite athletes who spend hours a day training seem to be able to achieve them. Nearly every Olympian, male and female, you will see has the physique we all want, including a shredded six-pack. How do we get those muscles out from “under the covers”? “Some are more predisposed to visible abdominal muscles.” “You just don’t do enough ab exercises.” “Run.” “Cut back on carbs.”  After all, to define a muscle, we just have to use it a lot. Right?  All of the above are questions and assumptions that I have either heard or bought into myself over the years.  Understanding not every body is the exact same and there are certain genetic predispositions we have, I thought the genetic explanation was a pretty good one.  That being said, my family seems to have a tendency toward gathering abdominal fat.  I’m not saying this isn’t a factor, but when I was able to physically see abdominal muscles defined, my opinion changed.  I didn’t think very much about it until I began work in my current position as a personal trainer/fitness consultant.  The questions I encounter on a daily basis are all very similar in regard to fat-loss.  “I want definition in my triceps.”  “How do I lose my cafeteria-lady arms?” “How do I lose stomach fat?” “How do I get abs and arms?” “How do I tone up?” These questions are great, and if you aren’t asking them out loud, chances are you’ve asked them at home, by yourself, as you get ready in the mirror and see a little jiggle that wasn’t present six months or six years ago.

I posted a status on Facebook that asked for my friends to pose any question with regard to health, fitness, wellness, etc. that they have always wanted to ask OR have asked and never gotten a practical response to.

I thought I was going to answer them in order, but decided to go with the second question first.

Whitney asks, “What is the best lower ab exercise to do and how often should you do it?”

GREAT question, and I would respond with the following question: “Why are you doing the exercise?”

If you are exercising the “lower” abs strictly to strengthen just the “lower” abs (however, your body doesn’t say “let me recruit the pooch-hidden lower abs” it recruits your rectus abdominus as a whole–most “low ab” exercises are really hip flexor exercises), you could do a reverse crunch or leg raise. I do not believe this is the best exercise someone could do–when I put training programming together there are two main questions I pose:

1) Is it optimal and does it help the client to attain his/her goals?  Will this exercise carry over into real life and actually be of benefit there as well?

2) Is it efficient?

While the reverse crunch is often listed amongst the “top low ab exercises” alongside leg raises, I would not consider it the top dog in functionality or efficiency. Think about how many times you do a reverse crunch or leg raise in real life: only when you are doing reverse crunch or leg raises as part of an exercise routine.  I would say they may be a good supplement to my top-recommended low ab exercise, but that is about it.

The short of it: There is one exercise I would recommend for most people I work with to strengthen their low abs, obliques, chest, back, legs, butt–basically any major muscle group that you need to absolutely rock to rev your metabolism and get strong…and chase the kids, run out that infield single, beat your opponent in a breakaway, survive a long bike ride, or expend energy in consecutive short spurts and not be struggling to hang onto life after the first spurt: SPRINTS. I also would add one qualifier: you must use good sprint form and have a good knee pickup.

Doesn’t that seem a lot more practical?!  Your first movement with the sprint begins with an abdominal and oblique contraction as you pull your leg up and forward, pushing off of the track rubber with the other leg, and the abdominal/hip flexing musculature is what continues a good knee pickup for the duration of the sprint.  From an athletic perspective, a good knee pickup and leg drive propels you forward and lengthens your stride, while a quick gluteal contraction and fast arm swing result in greater stride turnover and thus greater speed.  For abs, legs, butt, back, arms–sprint.

I am going to get a little nerdy on you, so please bear with me–this is why I would, with almost no hesitation unless you have no legs, recommend sprinting as the abdominal exercise that is superior to the others that could be done. I have strange epiphanies a little later on in life that I should–but I am grateful to God that I actually have them. What would life be like without sudden understanding?!   In the middle of my Sophomore year at Liberty University, as I was studying for the practical exam on muscle identification, I had the aforementioned epiphany (that I am sure everyone around me had figured out before high school): if an exercise is going to “work” the muscle, you must actually use the muscle in the exercise. How to determine if you would use the muscle is basically by determining the line of pull of the contracting muscle and making your associated skeletal bones move in that direction via contracting the muscle.  I had a whole textbook of diagrams of the human body with defined muscle striations which make the line of pull of the muscular contractions clear–the average person does not have access to this. In this instance, what would be of use to Whitney would be an exercise that would employ the musculature of the lower rectus abdominis.

In order to do so, one needs to look at both the muscle striations (which indicate the direction of pull that a muscular contraction would cause) as well as the origin and insertion.  The main abdominal muscles are the rectus abdominis (the musculature responsible for the “six-pack”), transverse abdominis, external oblique, and internal oblique.  All of these work together to keep your internal organs in, and give you a stable core with which to derive your movements.  In working one, you likely will be working others.

Focusing on the rectus abdominis, the origin is the anterior (front) of the pelvis on the pubic crest, while the insertion is the cartilage of the fifth, sixth, and seventh ribs, as well as the xiphoid process (that little piece of cartilaginous tissue attached to your sternum).  This means that when the muscle contracts, it pulls between these two points.  In order to achieve maximal engagement, the lower body must be engaged in a forward movement.  So, the rectus abdominis will essentially be pulling the front of the pelvis up as the leg swings forward in the sprint.  This action will continue, alternating between right and left sides, throughout the duration of the sprint.  One will be getting maximal abdominal engagement between the other musculature as well, resultant of the hip flexion and posterior pelvic tilt that occurs.  This employs the rectus abdominis and obliques, while the heavy breathing you experience immediately after the high-intensity exercise (or during, depending on duration) a sprint is aided by your transverse abdominis.  It also will employ almost every, if not every, leg muscle, as you are flexing, extending, maintaining leg-stride alignment, etc. so for those of you ladies looking to tone up your tush and inner thigh, here you go!

As far as how long someone should sprint, my recommendation is to base that on cardiorespiratory conditioning and ability to maintain good sprint form.  If your muscles fatigue to the point that you are no longer using good form, your body will compensate in other ways and usually this is detrimental to the function of the compensatory body part(s). Please stop.  As I said before, if you are not using the muscle, it’s not being exercised.  With distance, if you are a beginner or beginning sprints after a multi-month or multi-year hiatus, I would recommend a shorter maximum distance of 40-50 yards.  Focus on knee pickup and long strides.  Your recovery time between sprints should be an equivalent distance or two to three times whatever the time it takes to sprint the given distance is.  I would recommend 10 sprints.  I find that this is challenging if the sprints are long enough and emphasis is on maintaining form.  Build from there.  From there, the building of your sprint workout is up to you.

I would recommend mixing your sprint workouts up–2 sprint workouts per week.  One sprint workout would be less sprints but longer distances, the other would be a shorter distance per sprint but more of them.  I like to keep volume the same–so if I did ten 200m sprints, that’s 2000m.  That would be twenty 100m sprints, or forty 50m sprints.  I don’t think forty 50m sprints will be happening anytime soon, though.  Might be a nice mental challenge to take on.  Forty of anything is a lot to endure mentally.

Research has indicated that anaerobic exercise (the style that sprinting falls into, that is nearly impossible to maintain for longer than three minutes, and often for longer than 60-90 seconds) creates an optimal environment for growth hormone (GH) levels to increase.  GH plays many roles in the body, from being a part of hormonal regulation to being responsible for triggering muscle growth and fat-burning.  These are the results that many people are looking for, and this is a highly effective way to achieve them.  As far as GH levels go, it is released in spurts, the most common and predictable times being during maximal exertion exercise (all-out running sprints, as more muscle groups are engaged as compared to cycling), around an hour into sleep, and the third and fourth stages of NREM sleep.  All of that being said, maximal exertion exercise as well as sleep are some major players in fat-loss and muscle toning.

In summary: Sprinting gives you the absolute best bang for your buck–great cardiorespiratory conditioning, will improve fat-burning hormone levels, and will help in developing total-body strength!

The signals that you are achieving the results you want physiologically will be a burning and fatiguing within the muscles, as well as breathlessness as your body is attempting to play catch-up on the oxygen deficit you created within the muscles as they were producing ATP—your body’s energy currency.  The workout will feel like work.  It needs to feel like work, or you are wasting your time.

Your body will let you know it is being challenged and the hormones that are needed for muscle-building and fat-burning are being activated, thus, getting a good workout.  You will experience:

1. Burning–this is indicative of the presence of lactic acid in deoxygenated blood.  What thrives in an acidic environment? Growth hormone!! What helps us burn fat and build muscle?  Growth hormone!!

2. Breathlessness–your heart and lungs are getting a good workout.  Your body is working hard to replenish oxygen to keep you going!

3. Heat–your body is generating heat like crazy! This is a byproduct of caloric expenditure–calories are a measure of heat energy.  This applies to your body’s response to exercise, not merely sweating while laying out in the hot summer sunshine.

4. Progressive fatigue–do not confuse this with what you are feeling while you are warming up.  Often I have felt more fatigued as my body is moving through a warm-up than I do by a quarter to halfway through a workout.  The last few sprints should be hard–it’s okay!! Progressive overload–pushing your body just beyond a limit will make you stronger due to neuromuscular adaptations.  Some of this is mental, but a lot is physical.  You are getting stronger with each exertion!! REMIND YOURSELF OF THIS!!

Anticipate some serious soreness following your first sprint workout.  Treadmill sprinting is not the same thing, as I found out following my first sprint workout of the season—twenty 100m sprints.  My core was sore for three days afterwards.

Supplemental exercises for the lower abdominal region that I would recommend:

1)     Glider Pikes (on a hardwood floor, using paper plates or the purple gliders one would find in a gym, place one under each foot and assume a plank position.  Using the low abs, and keeping the legs relatively straight, pull the feet forward toward your hands.  Your hips will raise up and you will be in an upside-down “V” position.  Slowly allow your feet to slide back out so you are back in a plank position.  Repeat four to nine more times for a total of five to ten repetitions.)

2)     Burpees (Squat, jump back into a plank, jump forward into a squat, jump up. Repeat for a total of ten repetitions.)

3)     Tuck jumps (Jump, pulling your knees up toward your chest.  Land softly. Repeat for a total of ten repetitions.)

Nutritionally, I would recommend maximizing your water intake, green/leafy vegetables, and protein.  Fruit and other starchy carbohydrates are best eaten early and about 30 minutes post-workout.  Four to five meals per day, with protein and fibrous carbohydrates at each.   This will help keep you full and regulate your blood sugar so it doesn’t spike and crash.

For a look at the muscle striations and lines of pull I was talking about, check out this interactive website, courtesy of Yahoo!

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