Why You Have No Abs
by Jim Vaglica
So you’ve done more leg lifts than a toll gate and you’ve spent more time in a Roman Chair than Julius Caesar but that coveted six pack is nowhere to be found.
Before you read any further let me warn you: By the time you finish this article you’ll hope that a lot of the information is incorrect because you’ll soon realize how much of your time and effort, over the years, has been wasted. So stop reading this if “You can’t handle the truth.”
Obviously you realize that you could posses abdominal muscles that resemble the bottom of an ice cube tray but if your body fat level isn’t low enough no one will ever see them. But getting your body fat level down is an entirely different subject, not to be covered here.
The subject of this article is how to build your ab muscles. Which exercises are effective and the many, that I believe, are not.
Take a look at any rack of magazines and any one of them, that even remotely involve health or beauty, will have something to do with abs on the cover. You can’t watch an hour of television without being subjected to the newest invention in the war against belly flab. Americans have an obsession with washboard abs and subsequently this muscle group is without a doubt the most prolific literary subject in the history of fitness. The ironic thing is it’s also the most confusing.
What exactly is a ‘Six Pack?’
The abdominal region is made up of several different muscles but the actual ‘Six Pack,’ that shows through, is the rectus abdominis. This is the muscle we will be targeting. The rectus abdominis is made up of mostly slow twitch fibers, designed for endurance, but it’s basically a muscle, like any other, and it should be worked with the same principles of muscle building that you would apply to all your other muscle groups. Ironically, the ‘Six Pack’ is a single muscle. It’s long and flat like a small surf board. It runs vertically from your hips to your rib cage. The ‘Six Pack’ appearance is formed by the fibrous tendons reinforcing the fascia that covers the muscle. The function of the rectus abdominis is to pull the hips toward the chest or the chest toward the hips. (notice the legs are not involved) Think of it this way: If your spine was a bow, your abs would be the string.
Which exercises are most effective?
If you ask ten fitness ‘experts’ how to build great abs I guarantee you’ll get vastly different answers. Some would say you will achieve them by performing structural exercises like squats, dead lifts and standing overhead lifts. While these exercises are some of the most effective for building overall strength and involve just about every muscle in your body, you still need to address each muscle group separately for maximum muscle growth.
Another ‘expert’ would have you doing static holds like planks, dead bugs or supermen. These too are worthy of your effort because they’ve been shown to improve your core stability and protect your spine but would you expect to build any other muscle group with a static hold?
Another strategy I see in most articles, and from most trainers, is a long list of low intensity ab exercises all done one after the other. This adds up to hundreds of reps. I guess the intention is to make the trainee believe that these never ending reps are going to burn that fat right off your belly. I hope there’s no one out there that stills believes in the myth of ‘spot reduction.’ Sadly, the general rule of body fat is “the first place you gain the fat is the last place you’ll lose it.”
I often see ‘expects’ advising the various leg lifts or knee lift movements, whether lying on the floor or slant bench, or suspended from an Abdominal chair or hanging from a bar. Let’s get one thing straight. Your ab muscles are not connected to your legs! The hip flexor muscles are responsible for pulling your legs forward.
Don’t believe it? Take this test:
Stand up straight and relax your abs. Press your fingers into your abs so you would feel if they activate. Now raise one leg up in front of you. Did you feel any flexion in your abs? NO!
If your spine isn’t moving you’re only using your abs for stabilization and holding them in a static position. For leg lifts or knee lifts to be at all effective you need to crunch for hips toward your shoulders.
Just as the rectus abdominis serves a duel function of bringing your hips toward your shoulders, and vice versa, so do your hip flexors. They pull the legs forward but also serve to pull the torso toward the legs.
So if your legs are stabilized in a roman chair or your feet are anchored for old fashioned sit ups, chances are you’re just holding your abs in a static contraction and the hip flexors are doing all the real work.
I often see the same situation when someone’s doing cable crunches using a high pulley. They’re holding their spine in a fixed position and the hip flexors are responsible for all the effort.
If you want to know if your ab muscles are really working, during any exercise, you need to answer one question: Is your spine moving?
My 1st choice for the best ab exercise: Knee raises on a bench.
Lay on your back on a flat bench. Skooch yourself down so half your butt is hanging off the bench. The edge of the bench should be just at your tailbone. Reach behind you and grab both sides of the bench firmly. Your knees should be at a 90 degree angle and your toes should be touching the floor. You should feel a stretch in your abs. This is your starting point. Now slowly tense your abs and bring your knees up, in an arc, until they are pointing straight up toward the ceiling. Continue to contract your abs, bringing your butt off the bench, until your knees touch your elbows. Hold for a second. This is your finish position. Slowly lower your knees back down and tap your toes on the floor before starting another rep. This exercise feels like it’s performed in two stages and it actually is. While you cannot truly isolate the upper and lower abs, the first stage of this movement emphasizes the lower abs and the second stage really hits the upper abs hard.
My 2nd choice for the best ab exercise: Full crunches on a stability ball or bench
First you need to get into the correct position on a fairly large stability ball. If you’ve never worked with one, be advised, they can be tricky. Take a wide stance and put your lower back against the top half of the side of the ball. Lower your butt while leaning back and raise your arms over your head. Lean your head and your arms all the way back and feel a deep stretch in your abs. This is where you’ll need to find where your perfect position is on the ball. I love the feeling of this stretch and I tend to linger here for a while, not only because it feels good, but because it serves to stretch out the fascia encasing your abs. If you think about it, your abs are almost always working but the muscle and fascia never get fully stretched out so take full advantage of this opportunity. Keep your hands on top of your head but avoid pulling on your head, as this could cause neck problems. Now contract your abs and crunch your shoulders toward your hips, while expelling air from your lungs, until your abs are fully contracted. Hold for a second and slowly lower yourself back down to your fully stretched out position. I perform my first set, as a warm up, without any weight for 20 reps. If you are able to complete this set without any problem it’s time to grab a weight and hold it above your head for your next set. You can hold a dumbbell as if you were doing behind the head tricep extensions but I prefer to hold a weight plate. Work up to a weight where you fail at twelve reps. I find that 3 or 4 working sets is all I need. Many gyms have done away with stability balls, due to liability issues, but you can perform this same movement laying perpendicular on a flat bench.
“Weight till you see your abs”
Another question that often arises is whether to add resistance to your ab work. Some would advise against it claiming that it will make your waist wider and your belly protrude. I don’t believe this to be true. The rectus abdominis is a thin wall of muscle framed by the fibrous bands, of the fascia, that retain its thickness. The result of building mass in the muscle is that the individual sections ‘pop’ out showing that desired grid pattern. The further out these sections ‘pop’ the more body fat you can carry and still have them visible. Because the abs are made up of slow twitch fibers I wouldn’t work them with anything less than 8 reps but stay below 25.
Does moving sideways set you back?
No article on abs is complete without discussing some kind of twisting movements. Any twisting or bending sideways involves the obliques. The oblique muscles attach your hips to your ribs and run diagonally on both sides of your trunk. One of the most popular exercises, aimed at the obliques, is the good old ‘Broom Stick Twist.’ Think about this movement for a minute. What is it supposed to do and how could it possibly be effective? It’s one of those exercises people do because, for years, they’ve seen a lot of other people doing them. They must do something, Right? Well guess what? ‘Broom Stick Twists’ are a big waste of time!
Let’s move on to the other oblique favorite: the ‘Dumbbell Side Bend.’ First of all my favorite side bender people are the ones holding a dumbbell in each hand. They must have been absent the day this principle was covered in physics class. Equal weights at each end of a horizontal beam (your shoulders) cancel each other out. The correct way to perform this exercise is to hold a dumbbell in one hand and then work the opposite oblique. The problem is working your obliques, with resistance, builds thickness in the muscle and you end up with a blocky waistline. Did you ever see a guy with ripped up abs and he still looks like he has ‘love handles?’ That’s not fat. Those are well developed obliques.
While we’re still on the subject, of our sides, I need to address another popular exercise. The‘Seated Trunk Rotation Machine.’ Not only are you creating a thicker waistline, but this machine causes harmful shearing forces on your spine. I suggest you avoid any version of this machine.
I’ve got your Six
It’s time to drive home some important points. Work your abs like any other muscle group. Stay in the 8-25 rep range and use a full range of motion. Keep in mind that your core muscles are constantly working so don’t over train them. And don’t build mass in your obliques.
Much like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster…
Ab training seems a mystery and the subject of so much conflicting and confusing information. Maybe because the abs have so many fuctions and are responsible for so many movements. Maybe it’s the infinite number of ab exercise choices. Or it could be all those TV commercials offering the new secret ab weapon for $29.95 (plus shipping & handling.) But I believe most of the mystery surrounding the abs comes from the fact that, much like Sasquatch & Nessie, they are such rare and illusive sights.
Don’t kill the messenger or throw rocks at my website
If the information contained here has made you realize how lost you’ve been, in your ab training, take heart in the fact that you now know the right path to Muscle Beach.
About the Author
Jim Vaglica is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Team Labrada Athlete, Jim competed on the Reality TV shows American Grit, hosted by John Cena, and Mark Burnett’s Expedition Impossible. He is a Police Sergeant with 16 yrs on SWAT and the Owner of JimVaglica.com