There is a much debate over which exercises are most efficient at developing the abdominal musculature. The debate also lies in which exercise instructors deem as safest. There are a great number of trainers limiting which exercises they instruct their patients on due to their safety, according to small scale studies.1 There are many who take no heed to safety and instruct patients on a program of one size fits all, found in many aggressive boot camp type classes.
As a former state and National Body Building Winner, as well as currently a PT, AT and CSCS specialist, I have gathered evidence based and empirical data to demonstrate developing great abdominals is easy straight forward. Please read the below information and make your own decision as to the ease there is in developing your abdominal muscles. It shouldn’t be intimidating or daunting, just straightforward and progressive.
To make the most objective decision as to which exercise is deemed “best for their client,” the trainer needs to have a knowledge base of the fundamental principles of anatomy and physiology of the abdominal musculature. Knowing all the movements that the four abdominal muscles perform is imperative for complete development. The trainer should also understand what each abdominal exercise does for the positive in terms of development, but also what potential negative results could arise to stabilizing muscles and joints while performing the exercise. The trainer also has to understand that most studies that tout exercises as being “best” are classifying the best exercise according to EMG activity and not by comparing patients development, compliance or safety in training. (Hildenbrand, 2004)
There is very little argument of what exercises a client should do for their biceps. The bicep flexes the elbow with the wrist in supination. But since the abdominal muscles are basically four muscles, two of which you can’t visibly see, it leaves much to debate of what exercises are “best”. Understanding all the actions of the 4 muscle groups, instructing exercises in all those movement patterns following the principle of resistance training in a safe, enjoyable manner will yield the best muscular development.
The abdominal muscle group consists of 4 individual muscles. (Gray, 2000)
The first 2 muscles, Rectus Abdominus and External Oblique are superficial just under the skin.
1a. Rectus Abdominus - This muscle originates at the ribs and inserts into pelvis in a straight direction superior to inferior. Rectus means “straight ” in Latin. Its muscular action is to flex the spine forward. It is the muscle group which gives the six pack look!
1b. External Oblique - This muscle group originates at the back of the lower ribs and follows a diagonal direction to the pelvis. Its action, due to this diagonal direction, is to flex but also rotate and side bend the spine.
The second 2 groups, Internal Oblique and Transverse Abdominus are deep to the first 2 groups and can only be identified by dissection
2a. Internal oblique - This muscle originates deep to the external oblique at the pelvis and runs in a diagonal direction inserting to the lower ribs. Its action is to flex, rotate and side bend the spine, also like the external oblique. Since this muscle is deeper than the external oblique’s, it is felt it has a greater spine-stabilizing role.
2b. Transverse Abdomenus - This muscle originates at the ribs, thoraco-lumbar fascia, and iliac crest. It inserts in a wrap around direction to the Linea alba and pubic crest of the pelvis. Its action is to compress the abdominal contents and stabilize the spine. (Gray, 2000)
Now that we have identified the Anatomy of the Abdominal Musculature we now want to identify physiologically how we could develop these muscles.
The muscular action of the abdominal muscles, flexing the spine, rotating the spine, laterally bending and stabilizing the spine should be included in your exercises program. Some exercises accomplish some of these individual movements and some exercises encompass multiple movements. To leave any of these movement patterns out because of small scale studies deeming the movement as not having much motion or because the author doesn’t think it is a safe motion would limit the complete development of the abdominals. Medical contraindications for certain movement patterns would be the only reason why to limit a movement pattern. (I.e. trunk rotation with multilevel lumbar fusion). It is the trainer’s responsibility to train the athlete in all planes and movement patterns that the human body has and needs for everyday life and sports. However it is also the trainer’s responsibility to know if a certain movement pattern might be contraindicated because of prior or ongoing medical condition . (McArdle, 2006)
Types of Muscular Contractions
1. Isometric or stabilizing contraction - is one in which the muscle fires but there is no movement at a joint. In this type of muscle contraction, there is no change in length of the muscle, and no movement at the joints but the muscle contracts. Many sports require this type of contraction. In rehab it can be safe if joint motion is not warranted. However doing only exercises that utilize isometrics don’t stress the joints or pump the muscles with the exchange you get when performing lengthening and shortening contractions. Although the isometric contraction can develop a great amount of force some studies show it doesn’t give you the development of concentric (shortening) or eccentric (lengthening) contractions. i.e. Plank
2. Concentric or shortening contraction i.e. Curl up of the sit up
3. Eccentric or lengthening contraction i.e. lowering down of a sit up. (UCSD, 2010)
Principles of resistance training
Progressive Resistance Exercise is referring to adding more load or resistance to your muscles on a regular basis as you adapt and tolerate a workout. Some call it the “Overload Principle” As a muscle group is exposed to greater loads of resistance the muscle will strengthen and hypertrophy (grow in size.) This is most important rule of developing muscular abs!!!
How can you add more resistance? There are a number of ways!
1. Add greater resistance in the form of weights, resistance tubing, etc.
2. Add more sets or reps to your current workout
3. Take less time in between sets
4. Add more exercises to a workout or have a number of exercises available of which you can choose different exercises. (Baechle, 2008)
Frequently asked Questions
1. What is my Core?
The core is a very vague term described by trainers, health care professionals and consequently the clients. Most describe the core as purely abdominal training. The reality is the combination of lower back and abdominal musculature make up your core. Your core can be stabilizing where your abs and back are contracting equally in an isometric fashion. Your core could be more concentrically/eccentrically contracting your abs as in a sit up but concentrically/eccentrically contracting your para spinals during a back extension motion. Last your abs and Para spinals could act together isometrically. To efficiently train your core, you must know all the muscles and their actions as well as apply the above resistive training principles. (Look in future for information on Para spinal/Back training). (WebMD, 2010)
2. Can you differentiate between lower and upper abs during development?
EMG studies demonstrate that certain exercises cause the abdominal muscles to fire at greater levels. This supports the idea that certain exercises might make the abs to develop greater force but not necessarily different area of the muscle. A San Diego State University study revealed that through EMG studies you could not differentiate the firing of the upper abs vs. the lower. Empirically I feel that certain exercises do stress certain areas of the muscle better. Lower abs seem to have better development from doing lower body moving on upper body (i.e. knee to chest), While the upper abs have better development doing upper body on lower body/sit ups. This might be better neuromuscular control of that certain exercise which gives you a perceived feeling of better development. (UCSD 2010, WebMD, 2010)
3. Can you differentiate between Superficial Flexion and rotational musculature vs. the deep stabilizing musculature when performing a contraction?
Studies demonstrate that the deep transverse abdominal muscles work more with respiration but there are no conclusive studies to clearly demonstrate the deep muscles do not work to stabilize when working the superficial flexing and rotating abdominal muscles. (Allison, 2008)
We have all been blessed with abdominal muscles. Many just haven’t been stressed enough for them to develop and be visible. Or some have developed their abs but because they are hiding under a layer of body fat are not visible. Follow the rules of resistance training and develop your abdominal muscles. There doesn’t need to be any blaring music or intimidating people in tank tops present for your Abs to develop: just you and a progressive program. Meet with a Nutritionist to help set out a plan to lose excess body fat and shrink the extension of your stomach that might be hiding your great abs!!