Many of us are in search of the elusive six-pack abs. We crunch, we twist, we buy potions and programs. But what, exactly, makes that six-pack so well-defined?
The segmented, rippled effect comes from a strong, white tendon sheath covering the abdominal muscles. Trouble is, there’s usually a layer of fat that hides those washboard-like abs!
Research shows that six weeks of abdominal exercises alone, five days per week, did not decrease bodyweight, body fat, or abdominal circumference. However, it did increase abdominal muscular endurance. While a regular core workout alone will not yield a toned tummy, core work accompanied by a proper diet and cardio exercise may do the trick.
Sure, we want to look great, but core workouts should be about more than physical appearance. A strong core can improve posture, increase balance and reduce the risk of falls by creating a stable center of gravity. Other benefits: increased athletic performance and reduced back pain.
All about technique
Correct technique for core work is important. Research supports a traditional crunch (performed with proper form) as the most effective exercise. Body position and slow, controlled movements are key. You don’t need equipment, unless it adds enjoyment (and, therefore, adherence) to the workout. Include a variety of exercises focusing on flexion, rotation and lateral flexion.
Traditional crunch (flexion): Lay on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip width apart. Slowly lift shoulders off the floor by shortening the distance between your rib cage and hips in an accordion fashion while exhaling. Inhale as you slowly lower the shoulders. Hands can rest on your chest, at your temple or support your neck.
Bicycle (rotation): Lay on your back, position hands lightly behind ears, with elbows flared out. Lift shoulders off the mat and rotate to bring left knee to right shoulder/elbow, and extend right leg off the floor. Alternate between opposite elbow/knee touches with other leg extended.
Alternating heel touches (lateral flexion): Start with traditional crunch position and raise shoulders off the mat. Keep hands by your side and touch right hand to right heel, and then left hand to left heel. Continue to alternate from side to side.
Dispelling common myths
Multiple studies support the findings that:
- The upper and lower abdominals cannot be separated.
- There is no difference in muscle contraction with hands behind the head or folded across the chest.
- Exhaling during the lifting phase can increase the abdominal contractions.
- Yoga and Pilates classes can be a great place to receive a solid core workout, since many of the poses have been proven to be effective.
Try something new
Enjoy working your core with the new strength equipment at the YMCA, including the Cybex Eagle line, Total Gym Elevate line, and Queenax, or see the group exercise class descriptions to see which classes are labeled with the Core Stability tag, CS.
—Erica Moe is an ACSM certified exercise physiologist who writes on behalf of the Mission Valley YMCA, where she is a fitness director.