Abdominal strengthening: it’s not just about the six-pack

Susan Dawson-Cook

While some are still chasing the dream of six-pack abdominals, others are thinking, “I’m not twenty-five anymore so having a washboard stomach isn’t exactly top priority.”

It’s important to note that until the fat layer around the midsection is shed (which can only be accomplished by diet and cardiovascular exercise induced fat loss; not spot toning), the fruits of abdominal exercises will not be visually apparent. Putting aesthetics aside, performing abdominal and other core exercises regularly will make every daily activity easier whether it is athletic endeavors, housework or errand running.

Abdominal muscles include the transverse (deepest), rectus (central) and two sets of obliques (internal and external) on either side of the midsection. Abdominal muscles, particularly the deeper ones, are designed to hold your internal organs in place and to support your spine during movements and rotational activities. Since they are primarily comprised of endurance (slow twitch) muscles, they work constantly whenever you are standing or sitting without back support. Endurance muscles respond best to high repetition, low weight activities. Such activities are also less likely to incite hernias and separations in the abdominal wall.

Below are some tips for obtaining abdominal strength and tone without compromising health:

1: Workout in a manner that suggests no NFL tryouts are on the horizon. Hopefully this point is self-explanatory.

2: Perform two to four abdominal exercises (12 to 15 repetitions) at least three days per week. Mix them up for variety.

3: Target the central and the oblique abdominals. Torso rotations work the obliques and crunches and planks engage the central muscles. Many balance activities, such as standing on a BOSU ball work both the rectus and the oblique muscles because they contract in an effort to stabilize your body position.

4: Be mindful of spinal issues. Crunches can be harmful to people with osteoporosis and cervical spine (neck) issues. Twisting movements are also risky for people with osteoporosis. If in doubt, ask a certified personal trainer or physical therapist.

5: Think bodyweight; bodyweight exercises are the safest way to train the abdominals. Try planks, bicycles and reverse curls on a mat, for example, if appropriate. Always keep spine neutral and pelvis level when performing these exercises to minimize back strain.

6: Chair exercises are an option. If you can’t lie on the floor or the raised platform, you can march in place with a tall spine or try tip back crunches while seated.

7: Just say “no” to abdominal machines. Most people use too much weight on them. Overloading abdominals may increase the risk of hernias and abdominal wall separations. If you must use an abdominal machine, select the lowest weight settings (30 pounds or less).

Whether you’re aiming for the six-pack, to improve your tennis game or enhance enjoyment of time spent with your grandchildren, abdominal training can yield great benefits. While working to improve the ease of every activity, please don’t forget to keep safety in mind.