Optimizing Performance: Common errors in abdominal training— published: 10-14-2011
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.
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.