Posted by: 4pack | July 22, 2008

4 – 6 Pack Abs: Get Body Fat Down To 10-12%

The annual Beach Body propaganda begins sometime in the dead of winter. That’s when the prospect of summer sex appeal is used to mount a crusade for the grail we’re all supposed to covet: washboard abs, chiseled, chain-mail six-packs that channel sweat like Paul Newman on a shirtless road gang or that tuck inside a swimsuit in sleek silhouette.

Now that it’s July, let’s review our progress. So go the mirror, lift your shirt, and . . .

I thought so. Me too. Given that, perhaps a reality check is in order regarding abdominal training: what to do, what not to do and what to expect.

Let’s start with a few truths about ab training in general.

First, it’s annoying.

The abdominals are a complicated set of muscles: The rectus abdominis, which runs from the ribs to the pelvis and is given a segmented, six-pack look by tendonlike strands that run across it; the obliques, on the side, which also hook to the ribs and pelvis and, partly, to the back; and the transversus abdominis, a deeper muscle that forms a girdle around the body and basically holds our organs in place.

Developing them all requires three or four different exercises, and I don’t know why, but the pain you feel in the middle of a set of crunches or a bunch of knee-ups is more bothersome than what you feel during a chest or leg workout. Maybe it is the nature of the (generally thinner and less bulky) abdominal muscle fiber; maybe it is the nature of the exercises, which tend to rely more on repetitions than on weight.

Second, no matter how many ab exercises you do, it’s still quite possible you won’t see the muscles, or at least not all of them, or not in the same sharp relief we carry as an ideal. Because despite what the infomercials and the ripping, shredding, ab-torching DVDs or training programs tell you, exercise is only part of the battle.

The other part is diet: For most of us, men or women, the abdominals are not going to emerge until the body fat drops, maybe to as low as 10 or 12 percent, though that will vary from person to person. Even the folks at Muscle & Fitness magazine (who make no bones about their celebration of bulk and mass) put this disclaimer in their recently published “Big Book of Abs”: “Some people are born with the genetic factors necessary for awe-inspiring ab development, and some people have to work much harder for a lot less.”

Now they tell us.

The point of this is not to disappoint or dissuade, but to reorient. Because even if ab exercises are annoying, and even if it is unlikely your belly will ever look again like it did after the senior year of high school swim team, it is important to pay attention to what is going on around your middle. Much of what we take for granted in daily life — standing, walking, lifting, running, dancing, casual athletics — depends on keeping the center strong.

“Cosmetically, the abs are important because they are the center of the body. At the beach, that is what you are drawn to,” said Michael Everts, owner of District-based Fit Personal Training. “But physically, everything we do, whether we are jumping to spike a volleyball or raising the foot to do a karate kick, that is where the functionality comes from, the ability to stop and start.”

Like any trainer, Everts has his favorite go-to abdominal exercises. These include:


· Leg raises, in which you lie face-up on the floor and use the lower abdominals to lift your legs.


· Crunches, in which you work the upper abdominals by lifting your upper body off the ground about a third of the way to the knees (any higher and the value of the exercise declines).


· “Crisscross crunches,” which use the standard bicycle motion to work the obliques but include a three-second hold at the end of each twist to eliminate any assist from momentum.

But the “don’ts” are equally important. Although there are ab exercises to suit most every taste, the “don’ts” are pretty universal and good to keep in mind as you craft a program:


· Don’t buy expensive home equipment. The fancy ab machines that get peddled on television or elsewhere generally get panned when physiologists compare them with bodyweight exercises. If you want a toy to build your abs, get an inflatable Swiss ball, which is good for crunches, back raises and many other exercises. Or, if you have a partner to play catch with, try a weighted medicine ball.


· Don’t use your hip flexors or, for that matter, your shoulders, neck or lower back to do work meant for your abs. If the abdominals start out weak or grow fatigued during exercise, the hip flexor muscles at the top of the leg often kick in and help. Likewise, some ab exercises make us pull upward with the neck or arch the back if the motion proves difficult. Continuing this increases the risk of muscle or joint injury. Everts’s advice: Focus on working the abdominals and relaxing those other parts; if that does not work, stop, rest and start another set (or switch to a less difficult exercise).


· Don’t just do a million crunches. Doing your limit of this old standard might feel like a workout and might do wonders for the upper abdominals. But as noted above, you need to balance things with exercise that works the rest of the abdominal girdle as well, and also the lower back.

· Don’t obsess. The “Baywatch” body isn’t worth the time it takes to maintain, and often doesn’t work as well as it looks. Next time you ogle one of those musclemen on the beach, consider this: He might look great in that Speedo, but how well do you think he can throw a Frisbee?


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