Abdominals – Deep six

Judging by the growing number of TV commercials and infomercials that guarantee you an incredible abdominal in just 8 weeks; it is evident that American’s obsess over their midsection. The secret to a tight, well-defined midsection comes down to an integration of healthy well rounded eating plan and a consistent cardiovascular routine combined with a comprehensive progressive abdominal training program. Piece of cake…obviously not based on the news that

7 out of 10 Americans are obese. A great looking abdominal doesn’t come easy, especially if you haven’t been blessed in the genetic department.

Unfortunately, if the core is the most important component to upright posture, it also tends to be the most overlooked. Your core is comprised by the rectus abdominis, the internal and external obliques but also muscles of your lower back which most individuals don’t even notice. Your standard ab routine may need a functional face-lift. Let’s take a look at the abdominal from a different perspective and explore which muscles support the back, pelvis, and abdominal organ. The human being stands upright which reflects the function of your abdominal from the get go. In the upright posture whether sitting or standing, the abdominal is used as a stabilizer not just assisting in movement. So training in an upright position should be a priority…right. The answer is yes. Start training your abdominal as an integrated unit (back and abdominal), because that is how it works aesthetically, functionally and anatomically. And there is the fact your spine and lower-back muscles form the power center of the human body. 

For normal alignment and pelvic stabilization in the upright position, the abdominal muscles need to be recruited from the bottom up, like a reverse curl and not as much from the top down, like a normal crunch.  And we want to work from the inside-out referred to as “core training” and not work just the external global muscles. Your exercise selection should focus on the recruitment of external and internal obliques and the transversus abdominis. 

When thinking about abdominal structure and function, it is extremely important to build active internal stabilization (Pilates and core training) and not rely on passive external stabilizers (resistance machines) during all exercises, activities and sports. The use of isometric strength and endurance is another essential characteristic of a healthy torso and back.  Muscular endurance is represented by the amount of time spent in the neutral position verses measuring the number of repetitions performed.

The external and internal obliques represent the body’s girdle.  These muscles are crucial stabilizers and movers of the pelvis and lower back.  In the upright position, the obliques usually functions unilaterally to move the torso and bilaterally (right and left sides contracting together) to stabilize the trunk. To understand the abdominal simply think about designing a garment to support the back and the internal organs of the torso. This garment would probably wrap the front and the back of the body in several layers of fabric from sternum to hip flexor.  This would give the trunk a lot of reinforcement.    

Abdominal Function

The abdominal muscle is a flexor of the lumbar spine which is why we tend to use abdominal crunches to train the abs.  When referring to muscle function the traditional focus is on what a muscle can do as it contracts concentrically against resistance (gravity).  Then we use an exercise that targets that muscle group, causing it to perform that plane of motion.  For example you can say the bicep muscle is a flexor of the elbow and use a bicep curl to effectively train the bicep muscle.

Concentric contraction is where a muscle exerts force, shortens the distance between two points, and overcomes a resistance.

Eccentric contraction is when a muscle exerts force, than lengthens to overcome resistance.

So when does the abdominal muscle group flex the spin in an upright position? The lumbar spine doesn’t flex in an upright position or in a sitting or standing position.  In upright posture, flexion is controlled by eccentric contraction of the back extensors as they lower the weight of the torso in the same direction as gravity. Electromyographic (EMG) studies show very little activity in the rectus abdominis, particularly when reviewing the upper muscle fibers while in an upright position. So why do trainers spend so much time making clients execute the torso crunch when the human structure and location of the muscles seem to indicate that the internal and external obliques primary function is stabilizing and supporting the back and pelvis in the upright position.  The logical conclusion is to focus training time on the obliques rather than constantly focusing on the upper rectus. The abdominal can only flex the spine in the supine position (on your back) yet it doesn’t flex the lumbar spine forward when you are upright. The rectus functions solely to move the torso to the upright position from a supine position or from a backward lean; basically to get you up or out of bed.

Oblique Function

Electromyographic (EMG) studies reveal very little function of the rectus, particularly the upper fibers, in upright position indicating the rectus is not the primary mover of the trunk in the upright posture.  While studies of the obliques indicate controlled movements that lean, twist sideways, and rotate. Perhaps our time would be better spent training abdominals to be more effective at upright functions. EMG studies show that the internal obliques are the only abdominal muscles that maintain constant activity in upright posture as in standing.  Other EMG studies have shown that the external and internal obliques were very active during bearing down to lift heavy objects. While the rectus show little to no activity (Floyd and Silver 1950: On 1958). When looking at day to day movement like forced expiration, coughing and singing, the patterns of activities remained the same. What seems to be a contraction or tightening of the rectus abdominis during these types of daily activities (except coughing) was actually just a passive bulging of the muscle and its outer sheaths. It has been recognized that the sheath of the rectus not the rectus muscle, protects the abdominal during daily activities that cause straining, lifting, bearing down, sneezing and forced expiration. And the sheath that protects the rectus is formed by the external and internal obliques and transverse muscles.

During a traditional abdominal crunch or curl-up (on your back), the rectus abdominis is very involved while the obliques are moderately active (Campbell 1952; On 1958). By focusing on the curl-up we spend time and effort doing an exercise that strengthens the rectus yet contributes minimally to the integrity of the abdominal wall and protection of the back during lifting. Torso curls don’t train the abdominals to stabilize.  They train the rectus abdominis to move the torso upward when a person is lying down. And when we use ab machines to condition and strengthen the abdominal, machines provide passive external support for the torso and lower back. So when you get off the machine and want to use all that “strength” what actually supports your back and torso?  This example illustrates the logical conclusion that training the obliques, back, and hip extensors rather than constantly contracting the upper fibers of the rectus should be the thrust of our training if we want a well conditioned abdominal.  The obliques seem to be addressed at a minor level of exercise which may not adequately prepare our trunk for day to day activity such as lifting, coughing, and bearing down to lift an object. One of the best ways to exercise the abdominals is to build their endurance by increasing the amount of time you can hold in neutral spinal alignment while sitting or standing. During a work-out, if you just don’t have the time to devote an entire training session to core work, do it at the end of the work-out because fatigued abs and lower-back muscles may predispose you to lower-back strains or injury during exercise. Practice performing neutral isometric training while sitting in their office word-processing, in the car between lights and while grocery shopping. Endurance of ab and back muscles in the neutral zone is essential when it comes to long term quality of every day life. 

Professional singers like Madonna, Britney, Sting, and Janice Jackson all say the hardest part of their concert tour is standing upright in what is referred to as “singing posture” which is usually 2 to 3 hours in duration for most concerts.

Core stability training is a critical component to back care.  The use of structured exercise to improve strength, mobility, coordination and endurance has been well documented (Jackson and Brown 1983).  Emphasis has been placed on muscular strengthening and support of the trunk. There has been much discussion surrounding the rationale for the treatment and prevention of lower back pain through the use of exercises. Because stronger muscles can enhance the spine’s ability to withstand various degrees of external loads making them less prone to injury. 

Let’s work from the premise, to have a healthy torso the abdominals need to be better stabilizers not just movers:

  • Emphasize hip flexor work and stretches
  • Work your abdominals in the position where your ab muscles are actively stabilizing your back against the floor and without using the feet to passively stabilize the back against the floor
  • Execute each curl in four phases: with a tilt, curl, uncurl, than untilt.  In other words, press the back down using only your abdominal (do not squeeze your buttocks), lift your rib cage to clear your shoulder blades off the floor, lower the rib cage, then release your pelvis to neutral.  Remember the abdominal muscles front and back attach to the rib cage.
  • Focus on recruiting the abdominals from the bottom up, rather than from top down, add more reverse curls to training strategy or more lateral curls, performed in a side-lying position.  The lateral fibers of the abdominal tend to be weak compared to the rectus abdominis. 
  • As for the abdominals, no sit-ups, they place devastating loads on the disks.  Instead a core exercise program should emphasize all of the major muscles that girdle the spine, including but not concentrating on the abs. 
  • Do not hollow your stomach or press your back against the floor.
  • Gently lift your head and shoulders, hold briefly and relax back down. 

Note: The cue is to move the rib cage, since the obliques attach to this on the front and back.

In support of what I believe about abdominal exercises, there is a growing dissent among sports scientists about whether all of this attention to the deep abdominal muscles actually gives you a more powerful core and a stronger back and more importantly whether it is even safe.  One thought provoking article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year asserted that some of the key findings from the first Australian studies done at the Australian physiotherapy lab during the mid-1990’s regarding back pain may be wrong and the results might not apply to the generally healthy and fit. 

The core remains a somewhat abstract concept; but most researchers consider it the corset of muscles and connective tissue that encircle and hold the spine in place.  If your core is stable, your spine remains upright while your body moves around each day.  The muscles of the core must be balanced to allow the spine to bear large loads.  If you concentrate on strengthening only the set o f muscles within the core, you risk destabilizing your spine by pulling it out of alignment.

An analogy I loved that was delivered by Gretchen Reynolds compared the spine to a fishing rod supported by muscular guy wires.  If all of the wires are tensed equally, the rod stays straight but if you pull the wires closer to the spine as you do when you pull in your stomach while trying to isolate the transverse abdominis the rod buckles. So what they found was the amount of load that the spine could actually bear without injury was greatly reduced when the subjects pulled in their belly buttons during crunches and other exercises. McGill a highly regarded professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a back-pain clinician who has been crusading against ab exercises that require scoping or hollowing your belly suggests a gentle lift your head and shoulders, hold briefly and relax the back down, the side plank, and the bird dog. He goes on to say, “I see too many people who have six-pack abs and a ruined back”

What about the Low Back Connection to the Abdominal

Studies suggest that adequate flexibility of the oblique abdominals, hamstrings, hip flexors and low-back muscles are critical in sustaining a healthy lower back (Foster & Fulton 1991, Plowman 1992).  When individuals experience lower back pain, often it is exhibited though limitation in movements patterns of the pelvis and trunk. The flexibility of the lumbar spine supports a functional advantage, while tight or shortened back muscles adversely affect spinal mechanics (Farfan 1975).

Another factor critical to low back health is muscular endurance.  In studies, a relationship existed between low-back pains and decreased muscular endurance.  In a review of EMG fatigue curves (De Vries, 1968) differences were seen between those individuals whom back pain did and didn’t develop during prolonged postural stress.  De Vries’s findings laid the ground work for a convincing relationship between low-back pain when there was muscular deficiency and low muscular endurance.  This same muscular deficiency was reported in occupational postural disorders studies, where prolonged maintenance of particular posture occurred, with low back pain (Magora, 1974).  With this being said, it is important to distinguish between the idea of muscular strength and that of muscular endurance.  The characteristic of muscular endurance can be trained without corresponding improvement in muscular strength (Biering-Sorenson, 1984). 

The onset of most low-back pain episodes is not associated wit extreme movements or posture, or with high-load activities.  In actuality many painful events occur during routine light movements, such as bending over or reaching for a light object, putting a child in a car seat, gardening, and other daily activities.  It is thought that these incidents may well be caused by a lack of accurate movement control or body awareness combined with having great difficulty performing simple exercises requiring isolated movements of the lumbar spine which caused a concentration of stress leading to injury. Although the causes of back pain are not fully understood they seem linked to lifestyle, which includes stress, lack of exercise and poor posture; physical injury or disease.

Exercise recommendations for low-back pain follow specific guidelines:

  • Execute trunk (ab and back) exercises within a full range of motion including the lumbar extensors and flexors.
  • Incorporate strengthening exercises for lower body; leg curls for the hamstring and leg extensions for the quadriceps and upper back movements like compound row and latt pull downs for the trapezius, latissimus dorsi and rhomboids.
  • Add flexibility exercises to safely stretch the lumbar extensors, thoracic rotators, hip extensors and hip flexors. 
  • Add muscular endurance training for overall body conditioning.
  • Add aerobic exercise.  Aerobic fitness may aid in preventing any undesirable physical changes associated with spinal inactivity, musculature weakness, and neuromuscular health.

Whether an athlete, fitness enthusiast, weekend warrior, or an individual with a physically active life style, these strategies will help you build a new foundation of abdominal fitness.

Ab-Blaster Workout

A progressive exercise routine is key and the variables are exercise selection, diet and cardio.  Most gym-goers will tell you with pride that they train their abs every day.  I guess the belief is that more abdominal work is better but the truth is more is just more.  Training the same body part every day is a recipe for overtraining with minimal training effect. The abdominal is like any other muscle group requiring stimulation and then rest in order to recover. If your abdominal is still sore from the previous workout, they aren’t ready to be worked again. 

Key thought:   Exercise and Recovery

Some individuals are willing to put in the work but fail to develop the necessary intensity to really stress the ab muscle.  David Roskin, a physical therapist at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina says, “Not enough people do progressive resistance training.” Which means load/resistance should be added to an abdominal routine or the selection of movements should provide greater challenge, if you want your abs to change shape.

Key thought:   Intensity and Variation of Exercise Selection

The abdominal responds to overload like any other muscle and must be challenged in new and different ways to retain a training effect.  Roskin believes that doing the same sets-and-reps combinations in every workout is like always using the same weight when executing each exercise. 

Exercises and technique is everything.  When training abs you should start by building a base of muscular endurance hitting lower, upper, sides and lateral regions of the abdominal front and back for muscular balance. 

Key thought: Focus training time on the obliques rather than constantly focusing on the upper rectus

Cardiovascular training is critical for firing up the metabolism, burning calories and body fat. 

Key thought:   Cardio training 5 to 6 times a week minimum of 30-45 minutes at a moderate to high intensity without running

Diet will help define the midsection.  Too many calories and you’ll never see your abdominals. Start by creating a food diary and get into the habit of writing it all down.  Logging in your mindset, nutritional and exercise patterns is a huge awareness exercise giving you a way to track your lifestyle, target problems, and overcome barriers to change.  Eat six small, well balanced meals throughout the day, consisting of nutrient-dense, low fat foods, adequate protein, low fat dairy (about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight daily-28g = 1 ounce) and plenty of vegetables and fruits. Make sure to eat as close to natural state as possible to assure essential nutrients including fiber is not lost.  Then tune up the types of calories you are consuming week to week according to how your body responds to the program.  Don’t forget to drink plenty of water, water rich foods for adequate hydration.

Key thought:   Balanced diet x 6 small meals (if you have highs and lows in your sugar/insulin levels throughout the day. Otherwise a whole food diet works just fine with intermittent fasting for faster results

Keeping your body in proper balance will improve your overall posture alignment, energy level, performance, and overall sense of well-being.