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Filed under: Fitness

Optimizing Performance: Common errors in abdominal training

Training your abdominal muscles helps strengthen your core and develop that “six-pack,” but only if you do it correctly. Here are some tips to help.

There’s probably no other body region people work on so hard to get results than the abs. The common goal of sporting a “six-pack” is why abdominal equipment machines make up the largest part of the commercial fitness industry. People are constantly searching for the key to the washboard stomach they desire, whether it’s the newest fad piece of equipment or traditional bodyweight-driven exercises.

Unfortunately, many of these abdominal exercises provide little improvement to the target musculature and inadvertently place the lumbar spine in a position that could lead to lower back pain and injury. Just a few examples of hip-flexor-dominant exercises that can place the exerciser at risk are supine leg lifts, supine leg lifts with partner-assisted push down (a partner pushes down on the raised legs while the exerciser attempts to decelerate leg movement), hanging leg lifts, leg levers (lying supine while maintaining feet six inches off floor), and leg levers with unilateral or “scissor” kicks are.

To understand why these movements are both inefficient and contraindicated, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the abdominal anatomy. The rectus abdominis, the primary “six-pack” muscle responsible for the flexion that occurs during a curl-up, extends from the pelvis to the lower sternum. It is not involved in moving the legs. The hip flexors are responsible for the leg movements in the exercises mentioned above, while the rectus abdominis and associated muscles attempt to stabilize the spine Without adequate stabilization, the strong pull of the hip flexors leads to a marked anterior tilt of the pelvis. The abs are often unable to maintain stability, and the strong pull of the hip flexors causes the pelvis to tilt, creating an increased curvature in the lower back that compresses the lumbar area. Over time, this can lead to back pain and injury.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re unable to maintain a stable spine position, or if you have a history of lower back pain or injury, these exercises should not be performed. There are other abdominal exercises that you can use to train more efficiently and more safely.

Crunches

Even the most novice exerciser will be familiar with this common abdominal exercise: the bent-knee abdominal curl-up, or “crunch.” It has replaced the traditional sit-up as a staple in abdominal training due to its ability to recruit the abs without excessive hip-flexor activity. By varying hand placement—across the chest, behind the head, or extended overhead—the difficulty of the movement can be increased.

Crunches with a stability ball

A popular method to increase the difficulty of crunches is to perform them with a stability ball. Therapists have used stability ball training for years, and they are now becoming a common sight in gyms, as well. By reducing stability, the ball forces the exerciser to use his or her core-stabilizing muscles to maintain position, increasing the challenge to the abs. The result is a significantly greater amount of abdominal activity when compared with regular crunches.

Standing crunches

A method of ab training not used often is the standing crunch, in which you flex and rotate your torso in various ways from a standing position. During the high to low “wood-chop,” for example, the rectus abdominis and oblique muscles are active during both the downward and upward phases. With rotation, emphasis is concentrated on the obliques. These exercises also have more “real-world” functional relevance, as they mimic everyday movements. In addition, various types of resistance—such as medicine balls, cables, resistance bands, and cords—can be used to make these exercises more difficult.

It’s important to be aware that many common abdominal exercises are not only ineffective but, more important, can place stress on the lower back. Try one of the safer alternatives above, focusing on correct form. The right abdominal training can benefit your trunk muscle strength and endurance, increase core stability, and improve functional movement—and can also start you on your way towards developing your “six-pack” abs.

Avoid that flab!

Don’t wait until you need to lose weight! Start now and avoid it altogether. Your body will thank you.

Carrying extra weight in the form of fat has many downsides: It not only impairs your self-image, but it also hinders your athletic performance, leads to disease, and contributes to the aging process. What’s the best way to lose that extra flab? While intense resistance and endurance training—such as lifting weights and running—will achieve great results, experts say that the best form of fat loss is fat prevention. Here are a few tips to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid fat accumulations:

  • Find activities you enjoy, like swimming or running with a friend.
  • Participate in community events that encourage exercise.
  • Get outdoors with your children and pets.

Remember that it’s important to begin slowly and increase exercise gradually so that physical activity is an enjoyable experience. You can get more tips from this news release by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Find time to exercise

Running to keep up? Try running—or walking or climbing or playing—through everyday life instead to get and stay fit.

With the schedules of most Americans more hectic than ever, many individuals find it difficult to fit in a long run outside or make the trip to a gym. Here are some simple ways to change your lifestyle and get some exercise: If you live near a place you go to regularly, such as the grocery store or a friend’s home, try walking instead of driving. According to the American Hearth Association, for every hour you walk, you could add up to two hours to your life! If you have children who like to play, whether at the park or at home, play with them. It will keep your children healthy, too. Instead of sitting down to watch your favorite TV show, invest in a few pairs of dumbbells or resistance bands and work out while watching that show. If your house has stairs, there are all kinds of exercises you can do on them.

Every small thing you do adds up, so whether you try bicep curls with groceries or climbing on the monkey bars with your kids, you’re doing something to help keep your body healthy. For lots more about how to fit fitness into your life, check out Get Moving! from the American Heart Association.

Jump for fitness

Plyometric training involves the kind of muscle contraction you experience in jumping. Using it as part of your exercise routine can improve your athletic performance.

One review of studies on the effects of plyometric (explosive jump) training, or PT, suggested that plyometric training can enhance vertical jump ability and leg power for healthy individuals. This training can be as simple as drop jumps, counter-movement jumps, alternate leg bounding, and hopping. And there are PT exercises for the upper body, too! The purpose of PT is to improve your athletic performance by increasing the speed or force of muscle contraction that enables you to jump higher, run faster, throw farther, or hit harder during a game. The full article is available online from the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

No place to exercise?

Not having a place to exercise is no excuse. The whole world can be your gym if you just put a little thought into it.

The last excuse a trainer wants to hear from a client is that they don’t have enough space—or the right space—to exercise. The truth is that with a little effort and imagination, you can find a whole world of places and practices to improve your strength and endurance. Just think about all the free equipment outside at the park, on your way to work, or at your child’s school playground. You can make use of just about anything. Want to gain upper body strength? Start climbing the monkey bars and don’t stop ‘til you drop. Or try push-ups—a great way to get moving without standing in line at the gym. All you need for walking or running is a good pair of shoes and any path, road, or bike trail—the same places work for a bicycle, too, and they don’t cost a dime. By now you should be getting the picture. Just get rid of that mental block about needing a special place or equipment that is keeping you from getting a healthy, fit body. Just think of all the new forms of exercise waiting for you the minute you walk out the door! Here are five simple exercises to get you started.

Ditch the elevator

Bored with going nowhere on that stair climber at the gym? Try using real stairs, and get where you are going while exercising.

A good way to keep up with your daily workout goals is by giving up the elevator and making good use of the stairs. Stairs will not only get your legs and arms moving, but they will also raise your heart rate. What’s more, you need to take breaks from your daily tasks, and exercising during that break can help you think through what you’ve been working on. Working a little stair-climbing action into your day can be as convenient as—and healthier than—walking to the soda or snack machine. The first couple days will be the hardest as you focus on breaking the elevator habit and getting all your muscles reactivated. Stick to it, and you’ll soon find that the climb is easier and you feel better about yourself. It’s good for you and your heart, so why not start using the stairs more, wherever you are: at home, at work, or at the park? Even better, it’s free!

Swimming for fitness

Try swimming to improve your overall fitness while minimizing your risk of injury.

Swimming is a wonderful way to improve overall fitness while minimizing your risk of injury. It’s easy on your joints and improves your cardiovascular fitness. Although training in a pool may not simulate your specific duties, cross-training reduces the risk of injury from other repetitive exercise such as running. Effective pool training sessions should vary in intensity and emphasis. To avoid shoulder joint and upper back issues, warm up by swimming for five to ten minutes at a pace slower than your usual training pace, and include kicking and pulling drills. To improve both strength and endurance in the water, try interval training. Shorter rest intervals will improve endurance, while longer ones will stress your anaerobic system and improve your strength and power. Alternating between aerobic (longer and slower) and anaerobic (shorter and more intense) workouts will optimize your overall performance for both combat swimming operations and cardiovascular fitness in general.

For more detailed information about pool interval training and examples of training regimens check out Chapter 4: Swimming for Fitness in The US Navy SEAL Guide to Fitness and Nutrition.

Changes in diet and lifestyle can prevent long-term weight gain

Obesity has become a national crisis, and as developing countries adopt our western culture they too seem to face the growing problem of obesity. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) looked at how changes in diet and lifestyle affect long-term weight gain in the U.S.

In a recent Healthy Tip, we briefly described a notable article in the June 2011 New England Journal of Medicine about long-term weight gain. The 20-year study involved more than 120,000 healthy men and woman of normal weight. All were examined at four-year intervals and were found to have gained an average of almost a pound a year. That doesn’t seem like much—unless you consider that if you’re a fit 160 pounds at age 30, you’ll have put on 20 pounds by age 50. At that point your extra weight may be compounded by diabetes, bad joints, heart disease, and perhaps even cancer—all of which are associated with obesity. So now you’re forced to find ways to lose weight.

Wouldn’t it have been better to maintain a healthy weight all along? Some of the study’s observations regarding food choices and exercise might prove helpful in maintaining your weight as you age.

The study found that some foods were significantly associated with weight gain: potato products such as potato chips and French fries, sugary beverages (sodas, for example), red meat, processed meat products, and refined grains. On the other hand, foods associated with no weight gain were vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt.

Other factors found to be associated with weight were physical activity (increase = no gain in weight); alcohol consumption (increase = weight gain); sleep habits (less than six or more than eight hours per night = weight gain); and TV habits (more TV = weight gain), a correlation that seemed partly due to more snacking (Superbowl, anyone?) and less activity.

A single change in diet or lifestyle had less effect than several together. It makes sense that if you exercise less and eat more foods associated with weight gain, you’ll gain weight more easily than if you exercise less but still eat well.

Why some foods seem to contribute to weight gain more than others is still not fully understood, but it probably has a lot to do with what makes us feel satisfied when we eat. High-calorie food and drink that go down fast and easy and quickly enter our bloodstream may not make us feel full when we consume them, so we tend to eat more of them. High-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables fill us up and are low in calories. Even high-fiber nuts, which tend to have a lot of calories, are associated with no weight gain, perhaps because they satisfy us and keep us from eating candy and cake that do cause weight gain. Yogurt is an interesting case, since there has been a lot of interest lately in probiotics (bacteria felt to contribute positively to our health). Perhaps yogurt changes the bacterial flora in a way that contributes to weight stability and loss.

The reason we discuss this study in more depth is twofold. First, it highlights the fact that Americans have a tendency to gain weight as they get older. Knowing that, we can be vigilant of what we eat and how active we are in order to help prevent this weight gain. Second, it warns us of the most common food offenders to avoid—and those to embrace—and underscores the concept that weight is a balance between the calories we consume (foods and beverages we eat) and the calories we expend (physical activity). Make sure you find the proper balance when you’re young, so you won’t be overweight—and perhaps sick—when you’re older.

Get FITT to optimize muscle strength

Optimize your muscle strength and endurance by following the FITT principle.

Muscle strength is an essential component for successful Warfighter performance. Developing optimal muscle strength and endurance maximizes job performance and reduces risk of injury. The FITT principle can help you achieve this goal. FITT refers to “frequency, intensity, time (or duration), and type” of activity.

  • Frequency is the number of sessions in a week that an individual trains. At least two days per week of strength training is recommended.
  • Intensity, considered the most important aspect of strength and endurance conditioning, is defined by the amount of weight used per repetition. For muscle endurance, training should involve 20-60 repetitions of 30% to 50% of one repetition max (1RM; the maximum amount of weight one can lift for one repetition) per set. For muscle strength, training should involve 1-12 repetitions of 65% to 90% of 1RM per set.
  • Time of sessions should range from 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Type of exercise should vary in strength and conditioning routines to prevent boredom and improve gains. A combination of free weights and machines is recommended.

For more detailed information on strength training, read Chapter 6, Strength Training, of The Navy SEAL Physical Fitness Guide.

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Mix up your training routine

HPRC Fitness Arena:
If you are bored with your training or find yourself stuck in a rut, consider adding some variety to your program.

Maintaining a physically fit body requires consistent training and motivation. It’s common for individuals to get stale or fall into a training rut. Consider cross-training, adding new activities and exercises, or just doing something physical for fun!

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