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What you need to know about six-pack abs

Hundreds of crunches will not help you lose your belly fat, but might even injure you

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In the world of fitness, aside from the most common question on how to lose weight faster, the other question that we often hear from people is, “What abdominal exercises do I need to do to have a flatter tummy?”

First of all, do you really need to do hundreds of crunches everyday to lose your belly fat or develop six-pack abs?  The purpose of this article is not to discourage you, but to help you achieve your fitness goals by modifying your focus during exercise.

Realize that we have deeper and superficial muscles that you need to work on.

In the recent Stott Pilates course I took, I realized how important it is to balance fitness training by working on the deeper muscles of our body, like the transversus abdominis, before focusing first on the more superficial ones like the rectus abdominis (the muscle responsible for the six-pack abs).

These are muscles that we need to strengthen to make our movements more functional. We need to train our muscles as stabilizers and not only as mobilizers, to maximize performance potential and get the right balance.

You can train the deeper muscles of your body, or what we sometimes call the “core,” by becoming aware first of how to activate it.  In reality, you don’t really need too much effort to make it work, because just maintaining a neutral spine (the position of your spine between an arched and curved position) while standing, kneeling, sitting, and lying down can already activate your core muscles.

The goal is to make the deeper muscles work automatically, which requires consistent practice.  This is a great example of how to train the muscle stabilizers that we need  when we sit for longer hours in the office or play sports whish require effective stabilization of our torso, like running.

Deep muscles

Deep muscle  activation should be the foundation of the exercises for your more superficial abs, like crunches or roll-ups, so you avoid injuries and  work on the deep and superficial muscles of your midsection at the same time.

Balance your workout and work on your weaker muscles.  Work on your posture to avoid injuries.

“Exercise is not just about doing all the new moves and the latest set of exercise that you can learn from a new fitness studio or a popular personal trainer. Effective exercise is all about knowing your fitness level, strengths, and weaknesses, which movements to improve on, and which group of muscles to strengthen to become more functional or to improve  your sports performance.

Marilen Concepcion, one of my Pilates mentors, just recently told me that people hate to do the exercises they need most. They usually stick to their favorite moves  and often forget to work on their weaknesses.  But the real essence of exercise is to strengthen the weaker muscles and to work on imbalances.

An effective workout will help you lose weight and make you stick to an active lifestyle, but more importantly, it will only be created after a complete assessment and evaluation.  An abdominal crunch workout is not for everyone; it can actually be a contraindicated exercise if you have special back problems like lumbar disc herniation.

If you have back problems, consult your doctor and ask for some guidelines on what you should and should not be doing. The rule of thumb is , if you feel any pain or discomfort, stop the exercise immediately. You might be overdoing your spinal flexion exercise and/or doing it improperly.

A postural assessment is done in physical therapy centers, in some fitness centers, and in Pilates studios to identify the areas you need to strengthen and the natural spinal curves that you need to restore.

If you are lordotic (have an excessively arched lower back), then you will need to include some spinal (lumbar) flexion exercises to decrease the excessive lower back curve and to strengthen the abdominal muscles.

But if have a flat lower back, you might already have  stronger abdominal muscles, so the goal of the program can be  to balance spinal extension, flexion,  and rotation.  This shows that one’s program is also dependent on the existing posture and muscular condition, so abdominal exercises (like crunches) may not actually be good for all.

Hundreds of crunches will not help you lose your belly fat, but might even injure you.

A recent study published in Strength and Conditioning Journal shows that the stress induced by crunches also contributes to damage to the discs in your spine.

To prevent spinal conditions, exercisers should not do more than 60 repetitions of spinal flexion exercise or abdominal flexion exercises like crunches per session. Allow 48 hours of rest before you do them again.

Hundreds or thousands of crunches will not get rid of your abdominal fat. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that there was no significant effect of abdominal exercises on body weight, body fat percentage, and abdominal circumference even after performing seven abdominal exercises, for two sets of 10 repetitions, five days a week for six weeks.

So the best way to do to lessen belly fat is to eat right, burn more calories, and balance your workout by combining strength and cardio training to build muscle tone, lose body fat, and avoid injuries that can keep you from exercising and burning more.

E-mail the author at mitchfelipe@gmail.com.


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