December 19, 2015

Ab mania (excerpt from Knowledge and Nonsense: the science of nutrition and exercise)

Virtually everyone is obsessed with seeing the six pack (which is a matter of having a low body fat percentage, muscular development and low amounts of extracellular fluid). Training the midsection using thousands of reps does little to enhance midsection maximal strength. Over reliance on midsection movements can also lead to an imbalance in overall fitness.

The average trainee places too much emphasis on abdominal training at the expense of back training. It is the back muscles (erector spinae) that offer direct protection to the spine. Trainers who advise clients to train their abs if they want to strengthen their lower back have no idea what they’re talking about. To strengthen the lower back, you need to train the lower back.

Most general fitness enthusiasts don’t devote a sufficient amount of time and energy to training the lower back. Quite often, this is due to information they received from gym personnel or their favorite fitness magazine that suggested minimal lower back training. The lower back isn’t often considered a show muscle (aesthetically pleasing and impressive to onlookers). This makes it even less important in the eyes of many trainees.

Doing thousands of low intensity reps promotes strength endurance but does little to enhance maximal strength or power (with the exception of newbie programs where any stimulus can be high intensity relative to the previous regimen of doing nothing). Overemphasis on trunk flexion is also commonplace. This can result in tight hip flexors and decrease the functional range of movement of the hip extensors, which play a important role in jumping, kicking, running, and other activities performed in everyday life. It is important that rotational movements, lateral flexion, trunk extension, and core stabilizer movements all be incorporated into a mid-section conditioning program.

Another thing to think about is why are almost all ab exercises performed while lying down? In most sports and everyday activities, your midsection is not subjected to heavy stress while lying down. Get off your back and perform some standing mid-section movements such as overhead squats, standing trunk flexion, windmills, and oblique twists.

There are thousands of books, videos, and infomercials dedicated to abdominal training. For the most part, these over hyped circus ads are ridiculous. Below is further information concerning the abs and mid-section training.

The following is an excerpt from Ab Training Season by Jamie Hale:

“The abdominals consist of the rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominus. The primary role of the rectus abdominus is trunk flexion. Trunk flexion occurs when the sternum approaches the pelvis. The obliques form the middle layer of the abdominal wall. They are involved in trunk flexion and rotation (crunches and Russian twists). The deepest layers of the abdominal wall are called the transverse abdominus. These muscles serve as one of the primary respiratory muscles. The abdominals are constantly activated as they stabilize the torso during most movements. The rectus abdominus is crossed by fibrous bands, which are called the tendinous inscriptions (or tendinous intersections). These inscriptions pass transversely or obliquely across the muscle in a zigzag course; they rarely extend completely through its substance and may pass only halfway across it. These intersections give the muscle the six pack (or eight pack in some cases) look in trainees with low body fat percentages (and even more with low levels of midsection extracellular fluid).”
The practical implications for abdominal and trunk exercises are as follows:

  • Straight leg crunches greatly inhibit hip flexor stimulation.
  • High rep abdominal training has minimal effects on strengthening the abs (maximal strength).
  • Hanging leg raises or knee raises are a poor abdominal movement unless performed with a pike movement.
  • Do not neglect training the lower back.
  • Lower backs are generally weak because they are not exercised, not because of weak abs.
  • Lumbar stress and hip flexor activity increase when the legs are held or anchored.
  • Beyond 30 degrees above horizontal, the abdominals become less active because the hip flexors become the prime movers.
  • Ab training does not reduce fat around the waist line.
  • Maximal sit-up repetitions are primarily a test of hip flexor endurance.
  • Leg throw downs can produce a large torque on the hips and great stress on the lumbar region.
  • Side bends activate the side flexors (quadratus lumborum).
  • Sucking in the abs does not enhance the quality of ab training (in fact this technique can decrease stabilizer strength and be dangerous in some circumstances such as heavy squatting).
  • To adequately strengthen the abs, add resistance.
  • The abdominals are one body part. Do not neglect the remainder of the body.
  • Low body fat and extracellular fluid levels primarily determine the six pack (clearly defined mid-section) look.
  • The overwhelming majority of ab infomercial devices are ineffective.

To adequately strengthen the mid-section, concentrate on trunk flexion, rotation, lateral flexion, trunk extension, and core stabilizer movements (progressive increases in load and total work are necessary to optimize strength and hypertrophy). To enhance abdominal definition, concentrate on lowering body fat and extracellular fluid levels.

Sit-up testing

Is testing the maximum number of sit-ups or crunches that someone can do in a given time valuable? This is a widespread practice in the military, gym classes, and the fitness industry.

The practical implications regarding sit-up testing (for time) are as follows:

  • This is a test of local muscular endurance, but the primary role of these muscles in every day life is stabilization, which is largely determined by maximal strength.
  • Testing abdominal muscular endurance can’t be extrapolated to apply to overall muscle endurance (similar to using a sit and reach test to determine overall flexibility).
  • The speedy execution of sit-ups strongly and reflexively recruits the hip flexors as well as the abdominals. Thus, this test can’t be referred to as a test of abdominal endurance alone.
  • This type of test does not give any indication of static endurance (holding body at different angles of trunk flexion).
  • The time element takes away from testing for full capacity endurance (repetitions to concentric failure), but tells us the amount of work done per unit of time.
  • Almost all abdominal testing is done from a lying position, but sports and everyday activities that require heightened force production or stabilization occur in a standing position.
  • Trunk flexion tests are rarely combined with trunk extension tests, though they should be. To develop a strong lower back, you need to train the lower back.