Cut Out Those Crunches

If you've been trying to crunch your abs to perfection and not getting anywhere, my No-Crunch Ab Workout may be your ticket to getting results.

Researchers at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University recently tested over a dozen popular ab moves and gadgets to see how they stacked up in terms of muscle usage, safety and efficiency. The result? Crunches finished somewhere near the bottom on the list of useful ab exercises.

I've designed three routines that include exercises the San Diego State University study deemed most effective with a few other good moves for variety.

There's a beginner routine for those just starting out, an intermediate routine for those who are ready for more, and an advanced routine designed to challenge the lucky few whose tummies are already rock hard. The routines are progressive, meaning a more difficult version of a beginner exercise may appear in the intermediate or advanced workout.

As you advance through these three routines, you'll be able to see and feel the progress you're making. And best of all, there's not a crunch in the bunch!

Basic Guide to Abs

Do you need to be intimately familiar with the form and function of your middle body muscles to execute your exercises correctly? Well, no. But having a grasp of the anatomical fundamentals will help you understand which muscles you're working, when you're working them and why you're working them. To this end, a brief (and painless) anatomy lesson:

  • You have four abdominal muscles collectively known as "the abs."
  • Your largest abdominal muscle is the rectus abdominis or the rectus abdominals. This is a wide, flat sheet of muscle that runs down your middle, from your lower chest to below your belly button. The rectus abdominis's job is to curl your spine forward and keep it still when you move other parts of your body, such as when you lift a heavy box off the floor.
  • There are no such things as the "upper" and "lower" abs. Although an exercise may originate in either the upper or lower portion of the rectus, it will still hit the entire muscle. 
  • Your internal and external obliques run diagonally up and down your sides. In addition to helping your rectus curl your spine forward and stabilize your spine, your obliques enable you to twist and bend to the side. Because the fibers of your oblique muscles are interwoven and wrap all the way around your middle, they provide a lot of lower back support. 
  • The transversus abdominis, which resides directly beneath the rectus abdominis, is the deepest of all your abdominal muscles. This muscle isn't responsible for any type of movement per se, but you use it whenever you exhale forcefully, cough or sneeze. You don't need to target this muscle specifically, but know that you use it whenever you pull your abs inward and exhale strongly during ab exercises. 
  • Your chief set of lower back muscles is called the erector spinae and it runs down the entire length of your spine on either side of your vertebrae. They bend your spine backwards, stabilize and support your spine. They work together with the abdominal muscles so you can comfortably perform the exercises in this program, and everyday movements as well.

How to Make the Most of Your Ab Training
Here are a few guidelines that will improve your form and help you make these routines even more effective.

  • Many of the exercises call for you to "pull your bellybutton in toward your spine" or "pull your abs in." To do this, imagine you are wearing a girdle and you are pulling it tight to cinch your middle inward. Now imagine your girdle is two sizes smaller—that is what "pulling inward" should feel like.
  • Another instruction you'll see is "tuck your chin toward your chest." You do this to align your neck with the rest of your spine so just tuck, don't touch, your chin to your chest. 
  • Always exhale through your mouth when you are exerting an effort and inhale through your nose when you are releasing the effort. Proper breathing will ensure that you use even more abdominal fibers.
  • If any exercise hurts your neck, lower back or any other part of your body, stop! Review the instructions to make sure you're doing the move properly. If you think you're doing everything right and you still feel pain, don't do the exercise. You can always revisit it in a couple of weeks, once you have increased your middle body strength. 
  • Feel free to mix and match exercises from different routines. You may need to do a beginner version of one move but be able to handle an advanced version of another. The exercises are laid out progressively. In other words, the first exercise of the intermediate routine builds on the skills you've mastered on the first move in the beginner routine. 
  • Don't overdo it! Two to three workout sessions a week and one to three sets of each exercise are more than enough to see results. 
  • Remember, you're not going to melt fat away from your middle by doing these exercises. But you are going to strengthen, tone and define; you're going to improve your posture; and, if you have back pain , you are going to reduce or even eliminate it. Not bad!


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