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Abdominal Exercises


Abdominal Exercises
are important enough to merit a page on their own. Here is a comprehensive article from 'Wellness Web' devoted entirely to the muscles of the abdomen:

This page starts with the abdominal muscles (abs) - actually the muscles of the abdominal cavity (see Note 1). If we work the front, we have to do the back as well, to maintain muscle balance; and the sides complete the package. The abdominal muscles may actually be done at either the end of, or the beginning of, your workout. At the beginning, the ab routine can function as part of your warm-up. There are some who prefer to do them at the end of their workout, especially those who do very intense workouts, because of the heavy support role that the abs play in all other exercises. They are isometrically contracted for trunk stability, and some exercisers feel that an early ab routine tires them out before the really heavy work comes up, and prevents maximal effort. For fitness exercise, this is not a problem. A frequently asked question is: "how often should I work my abs?" There is no absolutely correct answer to this question. In the past it was frequently said that the abs couldn't be over-trained, so do them every day if you like. More recently it has been said that they should be treated as any other muscle. I, personally, do them with each workout; others may do them twice a week and be satisfied with the results. It is important to note that you can't burn off fat and get "shredded" abs just by doing lots of reps. You could build "killer" abs that are invisible because they are covered by fat. Only aerobic exercise "burns" fat, and it comes off more-or-less uniformly - there is no such thing as "spot" reducing.

Note 1 - The abdominal cavity consists of the abdominal muscles - the rectus abdominis, stretching between the bottom of the last rib on each side and the bottom of the sternum, and the pubis in the hip girdle; the internal and external obliques on each side of the rectus abdominis; and the transverse abdominis, which runs laterally between the pubis and the lower ribs, and beneath the rectus femoris. On the sides of the trunk, running between the Iliac Crest and the last rib, are the quadratus lumborum muscles, whose only function in life is side bending. And, finally, the erector spinae group, which runs up the back along each side of the spine, and is active during bending. Some exercise professionals also like to mention the intercostal muscles (there are 22 pairs of internal and external intercostals located between the ribs), but they can't be isolated - they work, or not, depending on what exercise is being done, so we will ignore them.

There are two types of traditional abdominal exercises that I was going to omit from this discussion: sit-ups and leg-lifts. Sit-ups have, in recent times, been supplanted by "crunches," because of the possible back problems associated with them. The problem may be due more to improper technique, than to inherent risk, but crunches are both safe and effective, so we will stick with them. Leg-lifts are omitted because they aren't technically abdominal exercises; rather, they primarily work the hip flexors. As support muscles both the abdominal and the quadriceps muscles are in isometric contraction, but because variations on the "reverse" crunch are effective for the lower abs (which is what leg-lifts were touted to do), we will stick with them. But we will address leg lifts again, later.

There are four basic spinal movements: 1) flexion - bending forward from the hips, 2) extension - straightening up from the flexed position (bending back past vertical is hyperextension) 3) lateral flexion/extension - side-bending. and 4) rotation -either twisting the upper body with the hips maintained in the forward facing position, or twisting the lower body while the upper body remains fixed in the forward facing position. There are three basic ab exercises that, supplemented with side bends and back extensions, cover the complete abdominal cavity: front crunches, reverse crunches, and right- and left-side diagonal crunches.

  • Front Crunches - For this exercise, which concentrates on the "upper" abs (the upper portion of the Rectus Abdominis), one starts by lying in the supine (on your back) position, knees up, to relieve stress on your lower back; and with the arms in one of the following four positions, depending on your state of abdominal conditioning: 1- straight arms between your knees (This is the beginning position; the easiest centre-of-gravity (C-O-G) position for doing crunches.), 2- arms crossed on your chest (The next highest degree of difficulty.), 3- hands clasped behind your neck, with your elbows pointed out to the sides (This position is to allow you to support the weight of your head, but not to allow pulling your head forward.) and, 4- hands overhead, with arms relatively straight (This is the most advanced C-O-G position. You can only raise the level of intensity now, for this exercise, by adding weights - barbells or dumbbells - except by doing more reps, of course.). Now that you have assumed the desired starting position, raise your shoulders off the floor/mat, with your eyes looking out at about a 45 degrees angle - the point here is to keep your neck in the neutral position, your chin should not touch your chest. Your neck should, in fact, not move during any crunch. The distance that your shoulders raise off the floor is not really important. The goal here is to contract the abs to their max, not to reach 25 reps, or 50 reps - it is to make your abs work. When one thinks about reaching a specific number of reps, one often holds a little in reserve, and, therefore doesn't get the most benefit for effort expended. In addition to the neck talk, there is one more postural "thing" that needs to be mentioned - the lower back. You will often be told to keep it "flat." That can be interpreted to mean that you should maintain its normal, slight, inward curve - also called "slight lordosis," or the "neutral position." The real point to be made here is to avoid excessive arch in the lower back - always. When you have reached the top of your crunch, pause, then slowly lower yourself back to just short of the starting position (i.e., keep a little tension in those abs - they'll love you for it). You have now completed one rep. Now do as many reps as you can up to 50. When you can easily do 50 reps, it's time to change your arm position, add weights, go to multiple sets, or just add another lower ab exercise to your program.

To avoid having to repeat cautions, reps, etc., this insert is to instruct you to do all crunches using the guidelines provided above for "Front Crunches."

  • Reverse Crunches - For this version, which concentrates on the "lower" abdominals (this is still the Rectus Abdominis, but from the lower attachment), one, again, assumes a supine position. With your thighs vertical, and your feet as close to your rump as you can keep them, move your knees toward your chest until your hips roll up off of the floor; pause, then slowly return your thighs to vertical. You have now completed one rep. Note that Front Crunches may be combined with Reverse Crunches in a compound movement that stresses both attachments of the Rectus Abdominis at the same time. In this variant, as you raise your shoulders, you simultaneously start pulling your knees toward your chest. This exercise is oddly enough called a "Double Crunch."
  • Diagonal Crunches - For this exercise, again assume a supine position with your knees very flexed. As you start to raise your shoulders, you move one shoulder (actually, one side of your chest) toward the opposite knee. The object is not to touch the elbow to the knee, it is only to add rotational movement to the crunch, and thereby concentrate on the Obliques. You can alternate from side to side, but you will get more out of the exercise by completing all reps to one side, and then switching to the opposite side. Note that these muscles are more important to flattening the abdominal wall than is the Rectus Abdominis, so don't neglect them.
  • "Suck-'m-ins" - This uniquely named exercise is not part of the "Big Three," obviously, and is not very commonly done, but it focuses on the Transverse Abdominis, which plays a significant role in flattening the abdominal wall. You can do this exercise in almost any conceivable position, but let's start in the standing position, hands-on-hips. Now start contracting your abdominal muscles - do this as if you were going to touch your abdominal wall against your spine. The contraction is really a forced exhalation. When you have completed the abdominal contraction, then slowly relax and inhale. Complete up to 10 reps. Note that what is important is the intensity of the muscle contraction, not the length of the "hold," or the number of repetitions.
  • Side Bends - This exercise involves the Quadratus Lumborum, Obliques, and the Rectus Femorus, with heaviest emphasis on the Obliques and Quadratus Lumborum muscles. Starting in a standing position, feet relatively close together, a dumbbell in each hand; bend to one side - be sure to keep your body properly aligned; that is don't lean either forward or backward as you bend to the side, and keep your hips/legs stable-no swaying. As you bend, slide a dumbbell down your leg to your knee - as close to it as you can get, or below it if you can. The objective is to get a full side stretch, but the movement should be under control so that you don't stretch beyond your normal range-of-motion. Repeat to the other side. Do up to 50 reps per side. Both arms should be fully extended throughout this exercise. Relatively light weights and high repetitions typically result in toning/firming the sides of your waist; but, again, if you are excessively fat, the toning effect will obviously be invisible. It is theoretically possible to increase the size of your waist with this exercise, if you use heavy weight/ low reps and build muscle.
  • Back Extensions - This exercise is done at the conclusion of your ab exercises as a stretching/strengthening routine for the muscles in your lower back (Erector Spinae group). This is done even if your workout includes a back routine. This exercise is part of the normal "stretch what you train" theory. In its simplest form this can be done at home with no equipment, unless you count your body. Start from a prone position - your arms may be anywhere you like: overhead, next to your sides, wherever. Now raise either your upper body, or your legs/feet, or both at the same time Hold for 10 seconds and do 10 reps. Both of these numbers are arbitrary - do what feels good. The goal here is to stretch your abs and strengthen your back. Note that you do not want to excessively hyperextend your back. If you put your hands on your lower back as you start to raise up, you will feel the muscles contract instantly. An inch or two is plenty. For those of you who care, your buttocks get a good squeeze out of this too, particularly if you raise your feet (with straight legs, of course). If you happen to have access to a gym, you will do this exercise on a back extension machine (it isn't really a machine - it just sits there, actually, it is like a weird looking chair). With your feet under a support pad, and your hip bones (Iliac Crest) just beyond the hip support pad; lower your trunk until it is perpendicular to the floor, pause, and return to the horizontal position. Just do a few - more if this is part of a back routine.

Now that we have defined a set of very basic exercises to work the entire abdominal cavity, let's add a few alternative exercises so you can change your workout - it can get a little boring doing the same thing all the time, and a change can sometimes spur the body to new responses (maybe it gets bored too), as well as renew your interest in your workout. The previous exercises can all be done at home, without equipment. The alternative exercises will include some that require access to a gym (health club, health spa, whatever).

At this point, the generalities: how often do I do abs, how many reps, how do I position my neck/lower back, when do I breathe, all that stuff - we have covered, so that will be omitted from now on.


  • Rope/Pulley/Cable Crunches - These are all the same, but have a variety of names, and typically require a gym access. Using a high pulley with a rope attachment, start on your knees (this can be done standing, but bent forward from the waist); pull down on the rope, while keeping your thighs vertical - do not lower your hips - in fact, don't move them during this exercise. The only movement should be a curling action of your abdominals, and you should pull the rope down until your face or elbows are within about one inch from the floor (unless you are standing, of course). >From this position, slowly uncurl your abdominals until they are no longer contracted, then repeat. Note that these crunches may also be done diagonally so that the obliques are doing most of the work.
  • Front Crunches with legs vertical - These are done exactly as described above, only your body position is different. You fully extend your legs from your hips - straight up in the air, or leaning against a wall. This modest positional change is intended to lessen the influence of the hip flexors. As long as we are on the subject, we might as well discuss these muscles. First, they include the Rectus Femoris, which is the largest muscle in the Quadriceps group (front of the thigh); the Iliopsoas-this is actually two small muscles, according to some anatomy books, but regardless, they act as one, which run from the lower spine and hip areas to the upper part of the Femur (the Lesser Trochanter, if you must know); the Tensor Fascia Latae, which runs down the outside of the leg between the Iliac Crest (hip bone) and the lower part of the Femur; the Sartorius (the longest muscle in the body), which runs from the outer part of the hip girdle, diagonally across the thigh, down along the outside of the knee, and then curves under and attaches beneath the knee; and finally, the Pectineus, which is another short little guy running between the Pubis and the Lesser Trochanter. Okay, that's them, and now you know more than you ever wanted to know about the hip flexors. Note that these attachment points are very general, and that is good enough until we get very intimately involved in skeletal anatomy. Bet you can't wait. Now, let's talk about what they, hip flexors, that is, do. As you may have guessed, they flex the hips. As in walking or running, or millions of other activities - well, one or two, anyway. The point of even mentioning the hip flexors is that they always get worked a little during ab exercises, and some people get intense about isolating the abs. But there is really no need to worry. These muscles need work, and they are only really intensely worked during leg lifts, sit-ups, and a few other exercises, and they get identified for those of you who might worry about isolating abs.
  • Front Crunch with legs on a bench - This is just another positional variation aimed at minimizing the hip flexors. One lies in a supine position on the floor or a mat, perpendicular to a bench, with thighs vertical, and lower legs supported by the bench.
  • 1-2-3 Crunches - This variant requires three distinct upward movements. Raise your shoulders, and hold; raise again and hold; raise a third time, and really squeeze those abs. Now return to the starting position. The movement between "stops" is not significant, but the exertion at each stop is.


  • Hanging Knee Raises - For this exercise you must have something to hang by (NO, not your neck) - like a chinning bar. With your hands gripping the bar at about shoulder width, raise your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. You are now at the starting position. Raise your knees toward your chest, and feel your hip girdle start to curl up. Now your abs are working. Raise your knees as high as you can. Slowly return your thighs to the parallel position. That's one. Do as many as you can - well, not more than 50. Do 3, 5, 20, whatever you can do. The number of reps is less important than the "squeeze." A training partner (TP) can be a big help with this exercise, because there is an irresistible tendency for your body to start swinging. If he/she just holds a hand on your lower back, it will hold you still. I use a Smith machine, and set the bar at the level of my hips, and that will do the same thing. Another tip is that you might benefit from wrist straps. Some people will find that grip strength fails well before their abdominals. For those of us with this problem, a wrist strap may be the answer. A wrist strap is a strip of tough canvas-like material, about an inch wide and 12 inches long, with a loop sewn in one end. Insert the loose end through the loop and put the loop around your wrist. Wrap the loose end around the bar (this can be used with chinning bars, dumbbells, barbells, etc.) and it will reinforce your grip. Some variations on this exercise are: keep your legs straight, rather than the bent knee variation. You can also do this exercise with a diagonal lift, so that you are stressing your obliques.
  • Leg Lift/ Knee-In combination - This exercise can be done easiest on a bench where you can hold on to its edges. Start from a sitting (lean back a little so you won't fall off the bench) position on a bench with your hips at one end, legs extended out into empty space, and your feet below the surface of the bench. Now raise your legs until your feet are above the surface of the bench, and then pull your knees toward your chest. From this position. extend your feet straight out, and then lower them to the starting position. You have now done one rep. This exercise can be done without the leg lift. It would now be a simple knee-in (I guess that's pretty obvious, isn't it?).
  • Leg throws - Start this exercise from a supine position on the floor. First get a training partner. You are the "throwee," and he/she is the "thrower." Raise your legs until your feet are above your head, and hold on to your TP's ankles. She/he should be standing by your head and facing your body. If you are a little person, and your partner isn't, this may not work, but here is the drill. Your TP "throws" your legs toward the floor. You allow your legs to start on their way, but just before your heels hit the floor, you stop the downward momentum, and reverse the direction of your legs. When you reach the starting point, your TP will continue this pendulum-like movement. Continue until your abs say to stop. You might want to ask your TP not to try to throw your feet through the floor, and you should hope that he/she doesn't fall on you. That might be a little disconcerting for both of you.


  • Knee-Over Crunches - Again in the supine position, your knees should be flexed and "laid over" so one leg is flat on the floor, with the other one directly on top of it, both knees are flexed about 90 degrees, and your back remains relatively flat on the floor. This should sound slightly contorted, because you are, if you're doing this correctly. Now you just do your crunches - both sides - and the only difference is that you are directly stressing your Obliques.
  • Bicycle Crunches - Start in the ... you guessed it ... position. Hands are behind your head, thighs vertical. Now you do a Double Crunch, but move only one knee at a time toward your chest, and move your opposite shoulder toward the in-coming knee.
  • Trunk Twists - Standing with feet at about shoulder width, and holding a bar behind your neck and across your shoulders (If you are at home, this can be a broom, a towel, or nothing at all - do what is convenient and comfortable; if you are at a gym, "they" typically have a special plastic bar specifically for this exercise.). Now, for the movement. You twist at the waist until your shoulders are as perpendicular to the line of your feet as you can get them. The trick is to keep your hips as still as possible (i.e., facing forward). Only your upper body moves. It is important that you refrain from wildly swinging from side-to-side. Keep constantly under control. There is no death penalty for failure to reach perpendicular, just move through your own unique range-of-motion. Of course this exercise doesn't just work the Obliques, it's actually a pretty good full abdominal cavity exercise. It's pretty low intensity, so it might be more beneficial to a beginner, or as part of a warm-up.
  • Reverse Trunk Twist - In a supine position, legs straight up, rotate your legs to one side until they come to about an inch from the floor, then reverse their direction to the other side. Always keep the movement under control, and don't let your feet/legs touch the floor. For body stability, some people lie with their arms out to the sides (body like a cross) and with their palms facing the floor. This will work in a pinch, but I tend to move around without something to hold on to. At home, I once used the legs of a heavy coffee table. If you have a TP, you can hang on to his/her ankles. In a gym, there is usually something handy to hold onto. Also, if you want to increase the intensity of this exercise, ankle weights work well, but, at the very least you have the weight of your legs, without any additional equipment; that is why I prefer this to standing Trunk Twists.


  • Supermans - All right, I'm no misogynist, so you may call them Superwomans, if the shoe fits; and I can take artistic license to mix metaphors as much as I like. Anyway, a good starting position for this exercise is to be on all fours. Raise one arm to shoulder level, and raise the opposite leg (fully extended), and make sure there is just enough tension in your back so that you can feel it. Hold about 10 seconds, then switch the arm/leg combination. Do about 5-10 reps.
  • Back Twists - This exercise is done on a ham-glute developer, or a back extension "machine" if you have access to a gym; a bench will do at home, if you have a TP. In a gym, you will be lying prone on a "whatever;" your hip bones will be at the edge of the hip support pad, and your heels/ankles will be under a support pad. From your hip bones to the tip of your head, your trunk will be unsupported. Your muscles will be holding your trunk in a position in-line with your legs, or your trunk may be slightly higher than your legs. Now rotate your shoulders in either direction, as near as you can toward perpendicular. Note that you are essentially doing a back twist, but in a prone position. Keep the movement under control; this is not an aerobic exercise. If you are at home with a TP, he/she must lie across your legs to keep you from falling on your face.

Some final comments about sit-ups. They are all right to do, but have some low back risk, and are hip flexor intensive, which is okay. They need exercise too. You will get more out of sit-ups if you only raise your trunk to about 60 degrees - keep some tension on those abs - and definitely not more than 90 degrees - which compresses the anterior (sorry - "front") aspect of the vertebrae too much. If you have access to a slant board, you can take this exercise to a new dimension, but be careful with your back - you want to avoid excessive arch in your lower spine.

One more note about abdominal exercises: Inhale before you start to "crunch." Hold your breath during upward movement; then forcefully exhale at the top. As you return to the initial position, begin to inhale. Your lungs should be full by the time you are ready to start the next rep.

It has recently become apparent that it is time again to talk about abdominal exercises; not specific exercises, but postural positioning/body awareness during crunches, in particular. It is true that a complete abdominal routine should include side bends for the internal and external obliques and the quadratus lumborum, and back extensions for the erector spinae muscle group; but this "discussion" applies only to crunches for the muscles of the front and sides of the abdominal cavity - the rectus abdominus, obliques, and the transverse abdominus muscles. Let's start with what happens with your head and neck. It is very common to see someone on their back, knees up -- okay so far, but then they clasp their hands behind their heads, and with their elbows pointed straight up. Now the neck abuse begins - they raise their shoulders off of the floor by pulling on the back of their head. The result is that the head is snapped forward and the chin bounces off the chest. This movement is frequently performed at warp speed, and is intended to help frequently weak abdominal muscles raise the shoulders to "crunch" the abs. But even fit individuals can often be seen using this rapid neck snapping technique. Don't do that! The vertebrae in your neck (cervical spine) may be damaged by the back-and-forth jerking action. Instead, start with your elbows pointed out to your sides, and your hands behind your head - without locked fingers; or just touch the sides of your head. The purpose of your hands during crunches is mainly to support the weight of your head, not to help pull you into a crunch. Keep your eyes looking up at about 45 degrees, and keep your chin off of your chest. Think of it like having an apple or orange under your chin, and maintain that space throughout your crunch. Your neck should be in- line with the rest of your spine.

A second part of doing a proper crunch is to think of it as moving your shoulders upward - not curling them up. Because the range of movement is relatively slight, your body will curl slightly, but just think of it as raising your shoulders straight up.

A third item is the "flat back" issue. You will most likely hear the admonition to keep your back pressed to the floor during abdominal exercises. That instruction is intended to make you avoid seriously arching your lower back. It is actually okay to maintain the normal, modest inward curve in the lower spine (slight lordosis); but severe arching increases risk of lumbar spine injury, and keeping it pressed to the floor obviates problems.

Another issue is the speed of the exercise. It should be done slowly under control (both upward and downward movements). There are no prizes for speed, and the faster you go, the more you introduce momentum into exercise, and thereby reduce the amount of work done by the target muscle.

Hypothetical Question and Answer

(Q) I WANT flat, washboard abs. I do 500 abdominal crunches a day, but I haven't seen any improvement. When I started exercising I was about 20 pounds over-weight, and that has not substantially changed. A friend told me to get one of those ab machines that are advertised incessantly on TV. That they are more-or-less guaranteed to give results. So I did, but with nothing to show for my time (three months) and money. Did I get the wrong machine?

Big Al, Mendocino, CA

(A) No, you didn't get the wrong machine, but probably the wrong parents.

There are a couple of problems here (at least). One is that your abdominal exercise does not target abdominal fat. Even if it did, not much fat is burned by resistance exercise. You need to do aerobic exercise to get the most calories (from whatever source) burned. Sessions of 30-40 minutes or more, would be ideal, but doing anything is better than nothing.

Now the "flat" part. Lose the fat, and you'll be flat. Usually. There are anatomical reasons why some people will never have flat abs. They can just be the best they can be; whatever that happens to be. I'm sorry for the clichés, but they can't always be avoided.

Now for the mom and dad part, if you don't have a genetic propensity for building muscle, you won't develop the washboard look, but there will be some visible lines in the abs. A vertical "division" (the linea alba, a tendonous material) will appear between the left and right sides of the rectus femoris (but it is still all one muscle), and there will also be a couple of similar horizontal lines. If you are very lean, you get the lines, but without the genes, you won't get the washboard.

Now, back to the machines. They won't do anything for you, as far as muscle development goes - or losing abdominal fat either. But they can help with head support, but usually so can proper technique. And remember that abdominal training should include the whole abdominal cavity. Yes, that includes the lower back. You don't (or shouldn't) train abs just for cosmetic reasons - trunk support is more important. The bottom line is that you don't have to spend money to effectively train your abdominal muscles, but you can if you want.

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Wednesday September 08, 2010 10:10:34

| home | abdominal exercises | aspartame | blood pressure | BMI | calculators | contacts | diet advice  | dumbbell exercises | exercises | fitness | fitness links | fitness log | gym equipment | lifts | men's page | MFW | MFW Trolls |  Misc | schedules seniors' page | sitemap | useful links | weight training | women's page

This is the home of Physical Training & Fitness - 'Fitnwell' - It is hoped that you enjoy your time here and that you find something of interest. Do let me know if you have any queries, and also your feedback.