One of the most commonly asked questions in the gym is…
What can I do to get rid of this excess around my middle?
Invariably the anticipated answer is to do a bunch of ab crunches. You know, that classic exercise where you lie on your back, knees bent, hands behind your head, and then curl forward as many times as possible.
But, lets take a look at that answer. Does flexing your middle section do anything to get rid of extra pounds that have settled in over your abdominal muscles? No! But let’s say that doing a bunch of ab crunches burns some calories. Would that help? Yes! IF it is part of a larger weight loss program. HOWEVER, your body has its own plan for where it puts pounds on and off. Just because you want to lose your weight in that area does not guarantee that your body will cooperate! So does that mean that you shouldn’t bother? Of course not…
Doing ab crunches is a fine thing to do as part of an exercise program (unless you have some spine problems or osteoporosis). Having a strong set of abs is a great thing for helping posture, protecting your spine from injury, and providing a solid base for other motions. If you have a tight midsection, it can help you stand taller (aka, look thinner), and may give you some definition there that can help you look and feel better.
Getting a tighter belly or even a six pack basically involves working only one of six basic abdominal muscles, each with its own special purpose. The six pack muscle, the rectus abdominus, is the one that helps you bend forward. The others are more involved in diagonal motions (the obliques) and bracing the lower area (the transverse abdominus). A good exercise program will work all of these muscles in a balanced way.
For now, however, lets take closer look at doing crunches. Suppose you get on a tear and do 200-300 in a row. When you do tons of an exercise like that, it probably means that it is not particularly difficult for you. In this case, you are building muscle endurance for that motion, but not necessarily making it stronger. In order to make sure that you get some strengthening from this exercise, you need to work it hard. That means that it will feel tired after 8-15 repetitions, not 200.
To make sure you are getting the most out of your efforts, here are a few cues that you can use. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Place your hands behind your head with your fingers gently supporting the back of your head. Keep your elbows out to the side, not folded next to your ears. Start to curl forward by thinking of peeling your head and then your spine, one vertebra at time, off the floor. Do this slowly and smoothly so that you can feel what your spine is doing. Fairly soon you will get to the point where you want to stop because the movement ceases to be easy and comfortable (as in, you could do 200 of them). KEEP CURLING PAST THIS POINT. You will not have to go very far past the point of comfort in order for you to really feel your abdominals contracting. Stop there, pause, and then uncurl slowly back to the floor. This is one repetition. Go for 8-15 and then take a break.
FYI, the true range of motion for this exercise is a curl of between 30-45 degrees, so don’t feel bad if it seems like you are not getting very far with your curl. Just keep at it, listen to your body, and feel the muscle contracting each time. When you are done with a set of 8-15, you can reward yourself by stretching out totally flat, arms reaching overhead, and legs stretching away from the center of your body. Then you can move on to doing one or two more sets if desired.
Doing crunches this way will help you get a better result from your efforts, and with consistency will have you feeling great about having a strong midsection.
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