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AWESOME ABS? Training Secrets For Your Abdominals
By Davey Dunn
Is there a more awesome looking part of the human body than a well-defined set of abdominals? Men and women alike seek to achieve the holy grail of bodybuilding by developing the famous "six pack." You would think that with all the attention that abs receive from an aesthetic standpoint they would receive the lion share of quality training but that is clearly not the case. Most people relegate abdominal training to a secondary exercise they do provided they have enough time after they have completed their main exercises. The reality is that if you want to develop a fantastic set of abs then you need to train your abdominals with at least as much intensity and effort as you put into your other exercises.
In order to understand how to properly train your abdominals it is first important that you understand the role that abdominals play in the human body. In addition to looking great abdominals actually perform several very important functions. Abdominal muscles are responsible for three different bending actions of the trunk: they bend the trunk forward which is flexion of the spinal column; they twist the trunk from side to side which is rotation of the spine; and they bend the trunk sideways which is lateral flexion of the spine.1 Exercises that most closely mimic these actions are the ones that are most effective in developing the abdominal muscles.
What may be the most important role the abdominals play has nothing to do with movement but concerns the effect abdominals have in increasing intra-abdominal pressure. When the abdominals contract they compress the fluids and gasses in the body cavity. This is very important because increased intra-abdominal pressure helps to stabilize the spine and counteracts some of the force that the erector muscles in the lower back generate when they contract to lift a heavy object.2 The reason it is important to wear a lifting belt is actually to help increase the effect the abdominals have in increasing intra-abdominal pressure and not to directly support the low back muscles. If you have a belt that is wider in one section you would be better served to put the wide section across your front instead of your back.
What all this means in relation to developing great abdominals is that you need to be aware that the abdominal muscles are involved in a lot of exercises in their role of increasing intra-abdominal pressure. Just because you experience a burning sensation and a pump in the abdominals does not mean they have been properly trained. Many of the popular exercises that people perform in an attempt to work their abs actually have a much greater effect upon other muscle groups. Exercises such as leg raises, hanging knee raises, roman chair sit-ups and anchored sit-ups actually provide much more work for the hip flexors than the abdominals.
In addition to not properly working the abdominals, movements that work the hip flexors may actually be dangerous because of the increased stress they place on the lower back. The illiopsoas is the primarily muscle used in these types of exercises. The illiopsoas muscle is attached to the lower lumbar vertebrae and it has been estimated that they may exert a pull of nearly 1360 pounds when fully contracted.3 Anyone with existing low back problems would be well advised to avoid these types of exercises.
Another drawback in training the hip flexor muscles is that, not surprisingly, they will grow bigger and stronger. Since these muscles run down through the abdomen and pelvic region that is where the development occurs. Unfortunately when this happens in some individuals it will make them look like they have a gut even when they have low body fat. This seems to be especially true in women. I have seen it happen to several that had been performing a lot of hanging knee raises.
The proper way to train the abdominals is with exercises that "curl" the trunk since this most closely resembles the trunk bending function of the abdominals. The most popular curling movement is the crunch. The key is in realizing that the abdominals are only involved in the first 30 to 40 degrees of movement.4 After 30 to 40 degrees the primary mover becomes the hip flexors. There is a simple way to tell when you reach 30 to 40 degrees. When you perform a crunch with your knees bent, the point where your feet want to come off of the floor is about when you hit 30 to 40 degrees and the hip flexors start to kick in. Any movement beyond this point is a waste for training the abs. Once you get used to the proper range of movement for abdominal work you will begin to feel a big difference. Properly isolating and targeting the abdominal muscle is the key to developing awesome abs.
Another important point to remember when training the abdominals is that they respond to stress the same way other muscles respond. Performing sets of 100 repetitions is not going to do much good. As your abs become stronger you need to add intensity in the form of more weight just like you do for exercises like the benchpress and squat. You can either hold weight behind you head or on you chest. Probably the best way to increase the intensity is to perform crunches with a barbell on your chest since you can use as much weight as is required. The only drawback is that you need help to get the bar on and off of your chest. It is also advisable to wrap a towel around the bar or it tends to dig into your chest. Give this exercise a try and I bet you will be amazed. When properly performed you really feel the difference, especially the next day.
Rest and recovery are also important for the abdominals just as they are for other muscle groups. Too many people want to train their abs every day when they only train their other muscles two or three times a week maximum. Muscles grow bigger and stronger only when they have had time to recover and re-build. The abdominals are no exception. Since your abdominals receive a lot of training when you squat and deadlift you should do your abdominal work on the same days and let them rest and recover the rest of the time.
Once you begin to train your abdominals with the right exercises and the right intensity they will begin to develop just like other muscles develop: big and strong. In order to develop a "six pack" you also need to remove as much of the fat that sits on top of your abs as possible. The biggest factor, however, is still how you train so start focusing more attention on your abdominals and get ready to have your own "Awesome Abs."
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1McLaughlin, T. "The Biomechanics of Powerlifting: Assistance Exercises: Abdominal Training Part 1" Powerlifting USA, Sep. 1981, p. 27.
2McLaughlin, T. "The Biomechanics of Powerlifting: Assistance Exercises: Abdominal Training Part 1" Powerlifting USA, Sep. 1981, p. 27.
3Michelle, Arthur A., Illopsoas, Springfield: Charles C Thomas p. 123. 1962.
4McLaughlin, T. "The Biomechanics of Powerlifting: Assistance Exercises: Abdominal Training Part 2" Powerlifting USA, Oct. 1981, p. 19-20.

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