The Abdominal Training Frequently Asked Questions list (FAQ) is intended as an introduction to the basic principles of training the abdominal area, sometimes known as the belly or the abs. The creation of this FAQ was motivated by frequent questions on the topic in the newsgroup misc.fitness.
This is version 0.13b, Last modified Wed 10 Jan 1996
The information in this FAQ is based on
See the references list at the end for how to get hold of these things for yourself.
Getting visible abdominal muscles or "abs" depends on reducing the amount of fat covering the abs, see Question 3. Getting hard, lumpy abs depends on developing the underlying muscles, for details, read on...
No. Exercising the area from which you want to lose fat is called "spot reduction". Spot reduction is now believed to be a myth. Research shows that fat is lost all over your body, not just in the area that you work. Situps are also bad for your lower back (see Question 5).
The answer comes in two parts: diet and aerobic exercise.
This is controversial, but most people agree that eating very little fat and lots of complex carbs (like rice, pasta and potatoes) helps ensure that you don't add additional fat. Then you have to work at using the fat you already have stored which involves...
Again a bit controversial, but it's widely agreed that regular, moderate, aerobic exercise 3-4 times per week works best to burn fat that's already stored.
"Moderate" because intense exercise burns glycogen not fat, so keep the intensity at about the level where you are beginning to puff a little.
"Aerobic" means (very vaguely) the kind of exercise that requires you to inhale more. Some suggest that building more muscle through weight training helps as well, since muscle burns fat just by being there and moving your body about; so some weight training couldn't hurt and will probably help.
Many misc.fitness people agree that exercise periods of more than 20 minutes work best. But note that the longer you exercise, the more prone you are to injury since your muscles also begin to weaken. Two things which help prevent injury are:
For more information on exercise in general consult the misc.fitness FAQ.
The abs are designed to perform one main task, to shorten the distance between your sternum, or breastbone, and your pelvis. The only way to do this is to bend your spine in the lower back region.
In short, any exercise which makes you move your sternum toward your pelvis or your pelvis toward your sternum is good. To do this safely, the lower back should be slightly rounded, not arched.
In general when exercising the abs, try to maintain the natural arch of you lower back. The lower back will round slightly as you perform the exercises. Don't fret about pressing your back into the ground.
Traditional situps emphasize sitting up rather than merely pulling your sternum down to meet your pelvis. The action of the psoas muscles, which run from the lower back around to the front of the thighs, is to pull the thighs closer to the torso. This action is the major component in sitting up. Because of this, situps primarily engage the psoas making them inefficient at exercising your abs. More importantly, they also grind the vertebrae in your lower back.
They're inefficient because the psoas work best when the legs are close to straight (as they are when doing situps), so for most of the situp the psoas are doing most of the work and the abs are just stabilising.
Putting the thighs at a right angle to the torso to begin with means that the psoas can't pull it any further, so all of the stress is placed on the abs.
Situps also grind vertebrae in your lower back. This is because to work the abs effectively you are trying to make the lower back round, but tension in the psoas encourages the lower back move into an exaggerated arch. The result is the infamous "disc pepper grinder" effect that helps give you chronic lower back pain in later life.
There may be a way to do situps safely and thus exercise your psoas muscles. If anyone knows what it is, please let the FAQ maintainer know.
We've divided the exercises into upper and lower ab exercises. Note that there aren't two separate muscles that you can truly isolate, so all the exercises stress the whole abdominal wall. However there are "clusters" of muscle separated by connective tissue (these make up the "washboard" or the "six-pack"). You can focus on the upper clusters by moving just the torso and the lower clusters by moving the pelvis.
For the lower abs, in increasing order of difficulty:
For the upper abs:
Lie on your back with your hands, palms down under your buttocks. Raise your legs about 30cm (12") off the floor and hold them there. Now trying to use just your lower abs, raise your legs by another 15cm (6"). Do this by tilting the pelvis instead of lifting the legs with the psoas. Make sure your knees are slightly bent.
If you're big or have long legs or both, you should probably avoid this exercise. For people with legs that are too heavy for their lower abs strength, this exercise pulls the lower back into an exaggerated arch which is bad (and painful). For reasons why it's bad, see Question 5. If you have this problem you can either try bending your knees slightly and making sure you keep your lower back fairly flat, or just try another exercise.
This exercise can be done on the ground or on an incline situp board. All you need is something behind your head to hold. If you use the incline board, use it with your feet lower than your head.
Lying on your back, hold a weight or a chair leg (if lying on the floor) or the foot bar (if using the situp board). Keep the knees slightly bent.
Pull your pelvis and legs up so that your knees are above your chest and then return to beginning position.
This exercise is very similar to a hanging knee raise, but a little less intense.
The exercise itself has four phases:
Legendary Abs II recommends these as safer than Lying Leg Raises.
You need a chin-up bar or something you can hang from for this. Grab the bar with both hands with a grip a bit wider than your shoulders, cross your ankles and bring your knees up to your chest (or as close as you can get). Your pelvis should rock slightly forward. Pause at the top of the movement for a second and then slowly lower your knees by relaxing your abs. Don't lower your legs all the way. Repeat the movement using just your abs to raise your knees.
Make sure that you don't start swinging. You want your abs to do the work, not momentum. It's important that you don't move your legs too far or your psoas muscle will be doing a lot of work and possibly causing back problems as in a situp.
Make sure your pelvis moves, your lower back stays neutral or slightly rounded, not arched, and that your abs are doing the work, not your hips.
Just like knee raises except you keep your legs straight. This requires good hamstring and lower back flexibility, see the Stretching FAQ for details.
Although Legendary Abs recommends these, The American Council on Exercise's Aerobics Instructor book warns that they have the same back problems as conventional situps. This makes sense since, like situps, the legs are kept straight and the hips move. The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) also regards hanging leg raises as dangerous.
For safety you should probably stick to leg thrusts and knee raises.
If you do do hanging leg raises, make sure your lower back stays neutral or rounded.
There is an isometric variant done by gymnasts called the "L-Support", which basically consists of taking the leg raise position with the legs held straight at a level just above the hips. The position is held for 10 seconds. When you can complete this easily, try a higher position. The same cautions about back position still hold.
Lying on your back, put your knees up in the air so that your thighs are at a right angle to your torso, with your knees bent. If you like you can rest your feet on something, like a chair. Put your hands either behind your head or gently touching the sides of your head.
Now, slowly raise your shoulders off the ground and try to touch your breastbone to your pelvis, breathing out as you go. If you succeed in touching your breastbone to your pelvis, see a doctor immediately.
Although the actual movement will be very small (your upper torso should move through less than 30 degrees) you should try to go as high as possible. Only your spine should bend, your hips should not move. If the hips move, you are exercising the psoas.
Do these fairly slowly to avoid using momentum to help.
You can increase the difficulty of the exercise by extending your hands out behind your head instead of keeping them at the side. Make sure you don't jerk your hands forward to help with the crunch, keep them still.
Same as an ab crunch except that you raise your shoulder up, instead of pulling them toward your pelvis. You can do these quickly, in fact it's hard to do them any other way.
Like ab crunches, take the lying, bent-knee position, but this time crunch diagonally so that you try to touch each shoulder to the opposite hip alternately. At the top position, one shoulder and one hip should be off the ground.
Drape a towel or rope around the bar of a pulldown machine so that you pull the weight using it instead of the bar. Kneel facing the machine and grab hold of the towel and put your hands against your forehead. Kneel far enough away from the machine so that the cable comes down at a slight angle.
The exercise is the same movement as an ab crunch, but using the weight instead of gravity. The emphasis is still on crunching the abs, pulling the sternum (breastbone) towards the pelvis and making sure you exhale all your air at each contraction.
According to Legendary Abs, you should exercise the lower abs before the upper abs and do any twisting upper ab movements before straight upper ab ones. Twisting exercises work the obliques as well as the upper abs.
According to the guidelines in Legendary Abs:
Some writers recommend doing abs at every workout. Others recommend doing them however often you do anything else in other words treating them as you would any other body part. Health For Life's Legendary Abs recommends three or four times a week.
Since most people want good abdominal tone more than freaky abdominal size, it probably makes sense to exercise the abs with lower intensity and more frequently, rather than with high intensity and less frequently.
Nope. Love handles (the pads of fat above the hip bone at the side of the waist) are fat and only shrink with a low fat diet and general aerobic exercise (see Question 3). You can't just remove the fat from that area on its own. Legendary Abs claims that side bends develop the oblique muscles under the fat and therefore make the fat more prominent, but some people feel that the obliques simply can't get big enough to be noticeable. If anyone feels they can offer an authoritative answer on this question, please contribute.
Thanks for asking. If you develop your ab strength without similarly developing your spinal erectors (the muscles that straighten your lower back), you will end up with strange and possibly damaging posture.
Hyperextensions are a good lower back exercise. Deadlifts, both straight and bent-legged give the lower back a lot of exercise, so if you do them you don't need to add anything else. Make sure you get someone to show you how to do them properly and keep your lower back arched through the whole movement. For more details consult the misc.fitness FAQ which contains extensive descriptions of both sorts of deadlifts and lots more besides.
One other exercise is a gymnast's basic strength move called a ``back lever'' which among many other things strengthens your spinal erectors.
Hyperextensions are best done on a hyperextension bench, but can be done on a bed or ordinary bench with something (or someone) holding down your ankles.
Lie face down, with your hands touching the sides of your head and your body draped over the edge of the bench. Make sure your hips are supported so your pelvis can't move. Slowly raise your torso to the horizontal position, but no higher.
Keep your head, shoulders and upper back arched through the whole movement.
Try to do a couple of sets af around 12 reps after each ab routine or after each back routine. Don't exercise your lower back more than about three times a week. Don't exercise it if it's still sore from the previous workout.
The back lever is a gymnastic strength move, it requires a lot of upper body strength and basic gymnastic conditioning before you even attempt it.
This exercise is dangerous for many people, use caution!
The exercise can be done on still rings, the high bar or a chin bar set a fair way from the ceiling. You hang upside down with an underhand grip. If you're using a bar, the bar has to be behind you so try hanging with the bar in front of you and walk you legs through.
When you have the position, lower yourself, pivoting at your shoulders until your body is parallel to the ground (or as close as you can safely get) belly facing downwards and hold the position for several seconds. When you can't hold it anymore bring your self back up to vertical.
Take care as you have to be able to get out of any situation you get into, so don't go too low on the first try and make sure you only do it over a crash mat or with a couple of helpers to catch you if you have to let go.
If you're confused about the description, the HTML version of this FAQ available via the World Wide Web, contains pictures which will be below if you're using a graphical browser like Mosaic.
Many thanks go to Keith Smith for patiently explaining the back lever to me.
The following brief summary of how to modify your routine is from Colleen Porter.
During pregnancy, abdominal exercises can help preserve muscle tone and take strain off the lower back. However, you might need to learn new routines, since most experts have counseled against lying on your back after the fourth month due to pressure on the vena cava, the blood vessel that returns blood from the lower body to the heart. The books "Pregnancy and Exercise" by Raul Artal (currently out of print) and "Essential Exercises for the Childbearing Year" by Elizabeth Noble offer many suggestions for safely strengthening the abdominals during pregnancy. One exercise is the Rocking Back Arch: kneel on all fours and count to five as you rock back and forth, then return to the original position and arch your back. Repeat five times, several times a day.
Postpartum moms should check their abdominal muscles for separation before starting any abdominal exercise program, because damage can be exacerbated by exercise if there is separation. Test this by pressing your fingers into the area by your belly button as you attempt to do an abdominal crunch. If you can put more than one or two fingers in between the muscles, they have separated and you will need to modify your crunches. Place your feet the same way, but cross your arms across the abdomen and squeezing the muscles together as you exhale and contract the abdominals, lifting only your head (not the shoulders). You may also use a length of material (such as old sheeting) wrapped around the abdomen and pulled across to achieve the same effect.
The following ab training tip for pregnant women comes from Robin Burton:
"My midwife cautioned against crunches after the belly rose above the pubic bone, saying that the stress this caused was a factor in abdominal separation. I found that an excellent way of exercising the abdominals during pregnancy was belly dancing! The dancing strengthens the muscles of the abdomen with very little strain and the movements help during labor, too. Of course it isn't going to give anybody a washboard stomach, but no pregnant woman is going to have one of those anyway!"
There are several types of abdominal machine provided in gyms and many more plastic varieties available in stores and via mail order. These things mostly are not much better than doing the ab exercises listed in this FAQ, many of them are significantly worse.
The more complex ones that you find in gyms have the advantage of progressive resistance, but you can achieve very similar effects by simply holding weight plates during crunches.
To evaluate whether a machine is worth using should be reasonably simple - if it encourages an ab contraction under a load it's good, if not don't bother. An ab contraction (as explained in Question 4) is when the sternum is pulled toward the pubic bone or vice versa as the main action.
The fundamental thing is to have good form in ab exercises, no machine can force that. If you have the form, machines are not greatly useful.
Dissenting opinions are welcomed (and will probably be included in the FAQ) as are reviews of popular ab gadgets and machines.
The Complete Book of Abs by Kurt Brungardt, Villard
Books, New York, NY 10022, May 1993.
Highly recommended. 245 pages. Illustrations. Shows over one hundred different exercises for the various abdominal muscles plus routines, diet and general advice. Hard to beat.
Legendary Abs and Legendary Abs II
are available from:
Health for Life
8033 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
+1 310 306 0777 (International)
+1 310 305 7672 (Fax)
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Look under the directory `/pub/doc/faq/rec/martial.arts'. The
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The misc.fitness FAQ is available via anonymous FTP from ftp.cray.com in the /pub/misc.fitness directory. It will also be posted monthly to misc.fitness and misc.answers, which makes it available from http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet/FAQ-List.html.
Aerobics Instructor (ISBN 096 180 16162) is available from:
The American Council On Exercise
5820 Oberlin Drive, Suite 102
San Diego, CA 92121-3787
The Aerobics and Fitness Assocation of America (AFAA) can be
contacted at: Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
15250 Ventura Blvd., Suite 200
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403-3297
If you disagree with anything from this FAQ either from personal experience, or because you've read or learnt otherwise or if you have any tips, information or exercises to add or you notice any typos, please send them to the FAQ maintainer:
Tim Mansfield <email@example.com>
The entire FAQ is Copyright 1994 Tim Mansfield, except for the section on exercise during pregnancy which is Copyright 1994 Colleen Porter. Please notify the FAQ maintainer if you intend to distribute this FAQ by any means other than via USENET feed or from an Internet archive site.
There are no problems with making copies for personal use or to share with friends, but please ask before you reprint it in a book or periodical or or dump it onto a CD-ROM or something.
The following people contributed suggestions or material for this FAQ: