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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.


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.

Sibling support

Siblings play an important role in supporting service members.

Strong sibling relationships are tied to good mental and emotional states, and more. A study by the University of Southern California shows that siblings appear to be deeply affected when a brother or sister decides to enlist in the military. While research shows that people in war-zone environments experience many sources of stress, the same sources of stress can in fact help bring family members closer together. As the sibling to a service member, it is important not only to accept the decision your brother or sister has made, but also to provide support—because it truly helps!

What is Supplement Safety Now?

Supplement Safety Now is a public safety initiative to help consumers know if an OTC supplement is safe to use.

A myriad of dietary supplements make their way to the market labeled as “healthy” for the public. However, many contain dangerous substances, including steroids, and consumers have no idea they are taking harmful substances. Supplement Safety Now, a public protection initiative, was founded by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to make sure over-the-counter supplements are safe for consumers. For more information, read more about this initiative.

Could sleep be your single most important health habit?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Guest contributor Dr. Daniel Johnston of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness makes a case for why he thinks sleep is the most important health habit.

Have you ever had one of those days that never seemed to go well, from the minute you heard the alarm clock go off? Maybe you didn’t have time for breakfast, forgot your laptop at home, lost your temper when someone cut you off on your way to work, replied to an e-mail in a way you really wished you hadn’t, ate poorly all day, couldn't concentrate at work, and then couldn't find the energy to go the gym?

Ask yourself how you slept the night before. One factor that can contribute to bad days is lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is all too common in the military and across the country—it’s often looked at as the price you pay to get ahead. Some sacrifice sleep for social activities at night—web surfing, e-mailing, watching TV, playing video games, or one more drink out with buddies—which further worsens the issue.

Bottom line: Not getting enough sleep is pervasive throughout all ranks and has major negative impact on your health, relationships, and career. The effects of sleep loss affect performance in much the same way that alcohol intoxication does. So coming to work deprived of sleep is rather like coming to work drunk. Your interactions with others and your job performance suffer—which has a huge impact on safety. Losing sleep isn’t sustainable for the long run.

But the damage doesn’t stop there. In fact, sleep loss has a ripple effect throughout virtually every aspect of health and wellness, including your physical, emotional, social, family, and spiritual well-being (see the five program components of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness here). It increases your risk of disease and harms your social relationships and possibly your professional reputation.

Sleep deprivation can be a byproduct of mission demands, of course. In the military, sleep loss is sometimes used on the battlefield as a weapon, wearing the enemy down through non-stop engagement. The problem is that this strategy affects our own Warfighters, too. Senior leaders are cautious in employing this tactic, and it’s used only for specific, organized, orchestrated periods of time, allowing for a full rest and recovery before massive errors occur that can cost lives.

Where many of us go wrong is thinking this type of sleep schedule is normal and maintaining it post-deployment. Most people aren’t able to tell when their state of mind—alertness, mood, concentration—has been compromised by lack of sleep until gross errors are made.

I believe sleep is the single most vital wellness function we do every single 24-hour period, and yet it requires no treadmills, no weights to be lifted, no personal trainers, and not even special clothes. It has dramatic implications for your entire body and sets you up for optimization everywhere else. Sleep is commonly overlooked at the doctor's office because physicians (including myself) don't understand exactly how it works, and in fact, there is no standardized medical test to see if you are getting enough sleep. But that’s no reason to ignore the health treasures afforded to those who get a great night's sleep on a regular basis.

On average, we spend 20-25 years of our lives sleeping, and five to seven of those are spent the critical dream periods known as "Rapid Eye Movement." REM periods occur at regular intervals throughout a night of good rest (when not impaired by alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs). Unfortunately, many of us look at this time as wasted, yet it can be some of the most glorious "unconscious" time to improve our health!

During REM periods, your brainwave patterns register signals much like those produced when you are awake and concentrating. During sleep you also secrete hormones that repair tissue and renew microscopic damages to cells and organs before they develop into bigger problems. In fact, you actually concentrate and focus for several hours throughout a good night's rest as you repair your body! Your brain, the center of all health, is exercising while you lie quietly in dreamland! When you destroy the quality of your REM sleep, the result is poor performance, inattention, obesity, hormonal imbalances, poor appetite, lack of normal growth, high blood pressure, poor interpersonal skills, no energy for the gym, possibly diabetes, and more.

Getting enough sleep means you are more likely to live longer, experience less disease, retain information better, perform better, and get more out of your workouts. You will be more patient with others, less demanding and prone to anger, and able to optimize all aspects of human performance, including your family relationships. For more about getting enough sleep, visit the HPRC’s Sleep Optimization page. Don't overlook the simplicity of a good night's rest.

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.

Look over there! Diverting deployment stress

Distractions are a great way to keep a child’s mind off of deployment stressors.

Distractions are a great way to help reduce stress, as they allow a child or teen to take his or her mind off of deployment—to a point. A great idea for parents is to provide plenty of opportunities for social activities (i.e., sports, clubs, etc.). Many of the sources of stress from a deployment have no ready solution, so distractions can be helpful. Providing events that families can partake in together (i.e., bowling, arts and crafts, etc.) are a great way to bring families together. Research shows that the most common forms of adolescent distractions are reading, drawing, playing computer games, listening to music, and playing with pets.

Omega-3 food sources

Find out what food sources contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Salmon is commonly touted for its omega-3 fatty acids. HPRC recently received a question about what foods other than salmon are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. For a complete answer, including the recommended intakes from the American Heart Association, please see HPRC’s answer.

Reporting adverse events associated with dietary supplement use

Reporting adverse events from dietary supplement use is essential for determining the safety of available products and ingredients.

Many adverse events associated with dietary supplement use go unreported. HPRC has developed one page information resources on how to report adverse events. Warfighters and their families can follow the directions for reporting adverse events to MedWatch (FDA) and Natural Medicines Watch. In addition to these sites, Health care providers can follow step by step directions for reporting via AHLTA.

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.

Plan a complete training program

If you want your training program to really optimize your performance and fitness, you need to incorporate four kinds of exercise: aerobic, anaerobic, strength, and flexibility.

In order to reach your optimal performance level and minimize injury, you should incorporate aerobic, anaerobic, and strength training into your training program, and also give your body time to adapt as you work towards your fitness goals. Just last month, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published its new guidelines for exercise professionals, the first update since 1998. (Warning: ACSM publications tend to be a bit technical, but they have great information for the motivated reader.) Among other things, it emphasizes the need for diversity.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart muscles and improves your heart’s ability to pump blood as needed when you are active. Some examples of aerobic exercise are walking, running, cycling, fitness classes, and any other type of activity that requires movement of your large, lower body muscles. This type of exercise can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases, lower your resting heart rate, and improve your breathing, and your tolerance to more vigorous exercise.

Anaerobic exercise

With anaerobic training, you will see significant increases in your muscular strength and speed. Basically, anaerobic exercise involves exercising at such a rate that your bloodstream can’t get enough oxygen to your muscles to meet the demands. It can be achieved with any activity that produces brief spurts of high-intensity activity, including sprinting and sports such as football, basketball, and soccer. Weight lifting and interval training can also provide anaerobic exercise. This type of exercise helps your body become better at higher levels of exercise with less fatigue.

Strength Training

The third key component to a complete exercise program is strength training, such as using weights or resistance equipment. Not only can it enable you to increase your strength and muscle size, it can help you build stronger muscles that will enable you to lift heavier loads. However, you need to plan your strength exercises so that they maintain the mobility and stability of your muscles as well as build size and strength. Your muscles need to maintain or increase their range of motion to help prevent injury. The ACSM also has recommendations on how to ramp up your strength training.


The final link in the fitness chain is flexibility. Long debated by the exercise community, flexibility exercises have earned new respect by way of a “Position Stand” just released this year by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). It summarizes the value of flexibility exercises as improving range of motion and stable posture (the ability to keep your body in a stable, balanced position). The report covers the various methods of stretching that can be incorporated into a complete training program. The ACSM’s June 2011 press release includes an excellent summary of these new guidelines—which cover all aspects of exercise—as well as a link to the complete document.

If you incorporate all four of these types of exercise into your training program, you will have a healthy heart and lungs and more endurance (aerobic exercise), speed and power (anaerobic), and range of motion (flexibility training). And by diversifying your exercise regimen, you will feel fresher and be less likely to become bored. Best of all, you will be on your way to Human Performance Optimization!

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