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The Proper Way to Train Your Abdominals

This is an excerpt from Body Trainer for Men by Ray Klerck.

Abdominals: Moving Up to Middle Management

The muscles in your midsection are more unified than you may think. The six-pack isn't six or eight separate muscles; it's one band of muscle that is divided by tendons that make it look like a multimuscle washboard. It's then wrapped in supporting muscles such as the obliques and transverse abs that help you twist and turn in every direction.

Undoubtedly, the muscle group that regularly tops all the ‘most wanted' lists in girly magazines is abs. Even if you couldn't care less about those manufactured lists, a solid set of abs is bound to get you a little more attention. If aesthetics aren't your style, consider the other benefits: less back pain, improved sport performance, better posture and an iron gut that can easily absorb a sucker punch. Abs are also pretty useful in everyday situations such as staying balanced while carrying a load of boxes when you move house or showing up to the picnic brandishing a few crates of beer without sweating. Thanks to these selling points most blokes would pay any amount to get a stone-carved pack. This means that they often train abs differently than they train other muscles; this is wrong. Here is your guide to avoiding nepotism and getting yourself a pack you've seen only on television—the proper way.

Movement Does Not Equal Abs

Your abs don't work just when your torso or legs go up or down. In fact, some of the most taxing abs moves you can do are those where you don't move at all. The job your abs perform the most is flexing to keep your body upright. When you suspend your body above the ground, such as during a plank exercise, your abs have to work double time to keep it there. Resisting movement is often tougher than creating movement and will produce immovable abs.

Rest is Best

If you crank out your favourite abs moves every day you will be overtraining the muscles and depriving them of the precious recovery time they need to grow. Your abs are already one of the hardest-working muscle groups in your body. You use them to stand upright and walk into the gym and then use them again in almost every weightlifting exercise you perform. Ease off and train them with heavy weights two or three times a week and you'll soon see that warming the sofa in front of the box is just what you need in order to see your six friends again.

Look Forward When Your Back Aches

If you've ever had back problems, stop thinking your back is the problem. Back pain is often related to weak muscles in your trunk. The muscles in your midsection aren't isolated. Rather, they weave through your torso like a web of high-tensile steel—if they're in shape, of course. If your abs are weak, your glutes and hamstrings have to work harder to keep your spine stable; this can lead to back pain. Researchers (Childs et al., 2010) found that U.S. Army recruits who did exercises that worked core muscles had fewer days off as a result of back pain. Hop to it, soldier, and give back pain its marching orders by getting your abs in good shape.

Crunches Are Not the Only Move Worth Doing

If you're not doing squats for your legs, consider using them to build your midsection. Researchers who measured abdominal-muscle activity during several popular exercises determined that squats work the core harder than many abs and lower-back exercises do (Okada, Huxel and Nesser, 2011). Although squatting with the heaviest weights stimulated the most muscle, even light warm-up sets targeted the participants' abs intensely. Get squatting if you want the muscles above your legs to look good.

You Cannot Spot Reduce Your Gut

This isn't news to anyone who has managed to accrue even a single bead of sweat in a gym. But, for proof, take a look at the guy pumping out hundreds of sit-ups and crunches—there's always one. How does his gut look? Chances are it's wobblier than a bowl of unset trifle. Sit-ups are not an efficient use of your time; you'd have to do around 20,000 to burn a pound of fat. Stick to using heavy weights and doing only a few reps and you'll stress your abs enough for them to grow.

Out of Sight Should Not Mean Out of Mind

Just because you can't see your abs doesn't mean they're not there. Your abs could be making unparalleled progress but you'll never know it until you remove the covering layer of fat. If you're in need of some motivation, jab your fingers into your belly fat and feel about. Those hard slabs of muscle you feel are your abs. All you need to do is burn off the fat (see chapters 8 and 9) to reveal their true form. When you get to 10 to 12 per cent body fat, your abs will be poking people's eyes out.

You Cannot Target Your Upper and Lower Abs

Your abs connect to your rib cage and pelvis bones and are one large muscle. You cannot do one exercise for the upper abs and one for the lower abs. When you work your abs, you work the entire length of the muscle. This is pretty handy: It actually saves you time and means that your abs will always grow in perfect proportions. If your lower abs aren't as developed as your upper abs, it's because you're most likely to store your excess blubber in the spot that covers the lower abs. Sad but true. And it means that fat burning is the order of the day.

Swiss Balls Are Not the Answer to Abs

Plenty of men and women build eye-catching abs without the aid of these oversized balloons. In some cases, exercises on a Swiss ball actually recruit fewer muscles than exercises done without a ball. Swiss balls do have their place and are useful for a few exercises, but do not try to do an entire routine of bench presses and every other kind of exercise on them because you'll be weaker than if you did the exercises on a more stable platform. You'll sacrifice muscle everywhere else and your abs won't look any different.

Get a Feel for Your Abs

Tons of studies outline which abs exercise is superior to the next, but the funny thing about abs is that certain exercises work better for different people. What built your mate's six-pack may not have as pronounced an effect on your pack because the mechanics of your physique are unique. The trick is not to limit yourself. Go search and observe all abs moves and give them crack yourself. You'll know by the second set whether a move works your midsection the way you want it to. After you've found what works for you, you'll see how quickly your abs will join the party.

Suck In Your Stomach

The action of sucking in your gut, the way you would when someone attractive walks past you on the beach, is worth practising in the gym. When doing abs moves, try to draw your belly button in towards your spine while keeping your ribcage up. This is a Pilates technique that involves your transverse abdominals, which is a deep ab muscle that helps you breathe. Why should you bother? Training the transverse abdominals to stay flexed will help you keep your gut pulled in without having to think about it, making your abs look more pronounced. If a blonde in a bikini surprises you, your gut will look as though you've just finished 100 sit-ups and you can talk to her without holding your breath.

Read more from Body Trainer for Men edited by Ray Klerck.

More Excerpts From Body Trainer for Men