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Ab Nauseum

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 35 – December 1998

How many do you do in a day? I am talking about crunches, the best known exercise to strengthen the abdominal muscles. Do you measure up to Demi Moore who is said to do 2,500 a week, or to Laurea Creavalle, a body-builder, with her 3,000 a day? Do you ‘crunch ’til brunch’? – crunch and crunch ad nauseam? Surely, there must be more to life than just flexing abdominal muscles. Is it worth the time and effort? It could well be that all this time spent on your waist is a waste of time.

The evolution of abs exercises has been one of small changes applied to the same basic formula. First, we had the sit-up, at one time respectable, now an old-fashioned and frowned-upon exercise.

This old-timer, although not dead yet, has been only recently supplanted by the crunch, an American export. It was realised that the sit-up did not deliver the goods: it shortened the hip flexors more than the abdominals. This is one of the reasons why the sit-up is not only a poor exercise for the abs but also a harmful one for the back.

The crunch was advertised as the perfect weapon to win the battle of the bulge. But it was not long before flaws were discovered in this variation of the sit-up. Only a few months ago I read about the birth of two new exercises designed to improve the once flawless crunch. They will be short-lived. I am afraid none of these exercises get my approval.

Vladimir Janda, of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine in Prague, observed that when back muscles were tight, “all exercises for strengthening the abdominal muscles resulted in strengthening of the trunk extensors. The imbalance between weak abdominal and tight back muscles became more and more pronounced.” He came to the conclusion that “…tight muscles play a more important and perhaps even a primary role in comparison to weak muscles…Therefore, it does not seem reasonable to start with strengthening of the weakened muscles as most exercise programmes do.”

Contrary to common belief, flexing the spine forward does not lengthen the back. During curling-up exercises, the lower back usually fails to flex forward, and keeps its arched shape. The abs contract but don’t shorten sufficiently. Even when the abdominal muscles are strong enough to counteract the lower back muscles, it is the neck and upper back that will present a concavity, hidden by the contour of the back which will be rounded from side to side. This indicates that the muscles in these regions have shortened. You cannot win! You might have shortened your abs but you have shortened your back muscles even more. And yet, fitness gurus always urge you to follow your ab training with exercises to strengthen your lower back. This is heresy! Believe me, there are no more good reasons to shorten the back muscles than there are to stretch the abs.

The only correct abdominal muscle exercises are the ones that preserve or restore the thoraco-abdominal line that runs from the nipple to the pubic bone, and which should be straight if it is to be normal. Any other exercise should be ruled out mercilessly.

To achieve this result, ab exercises must be carried out while the whole spine is lengthened to its maximum. This phases out any bending forward movement, the trademark of the crunch and kindred exercises. When the back muscles, as a whole, are elongated, the front muscles are drafted in automatically. In other words, the front of the thighs, the front neck muscles and the abdominal muscles contract and shorten vigorously and simultaneously. You kill three birds with one stone!

The dorsal muscles cannot be lengthened partially, nor the ventral muscles properly shortened, in isolation. That makes the common advice to isolate the abs a bad one. We should not imitate the body-builder (who should be more appropriately called ‘muscle-builder’) who concentrates on working isolated groups of muscles. They work their deltoids, then their biceps, and then their triceps, abdominals and so on. What a carve up!

Working the abs without the proper elongation of the spine will not ‘cure’ a protruding tummy, no matter how often and how hard you flex them. If you want strong and flat abs with a torso worthy of a Greek statue you need to stretch the whole dorsal musculature and shorten the front one simultaneously. Lying down on your back, legs straight and at right angles with the trunk, chin in, and breathing out deeply in such a way that the thoraco-abdominal line is straight, will achieve that. But beware, in spite of its apparent simplicity, this posture is not easy. That wouldn’t surprise me if your back muscles need to regain some of their elasticity before your front muscles can have a chance to play their proper role.

According to Mézières, a bodyworker of genius, the abdominal muscles concern the chest more than the gut; they safeguard it against potential distortions. Talking about guts, don’t take seriously the gut-busters’ advice to strengthen your stomach muscles or to tone up your gut. These words refer to the abdominal viscera which have nothing to do with the abdominal wall.

That being said, weakness of the abdominal muscles generally accompanies a general atony of the intestines and stomach. So, our gut does have a relationship with the state of our midsection. And, last but not least, working your guts out to get the perfect abdominal shape will be quickly negated if you are in the habit of stuffing yourself with food. You can’t both have your cake and eat it – make your choice: a ‘six-pack’ or a six-course meal.

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