Abdominal Exercises

Most of us are familiar with typical situps and crunches. These movements have been the primary abdominal exercises for the last few decades. Why? Because they can be done anytime, anywhere, with little focus. They are easy to “progress” by simply doing more. Finally, they leave the stomach sore. All these things sound pretty good, right?

Unfortunately, situps are one of the worst exercises for abdominal strength and stability!

The main problem with situps is that they are performed in a posture that places a great deal of stress on the spine. Unnecessary curving of the spine may damage the discs in the back and produce wear-and-tear on the vertebrae. We already tend to hunch in front of computers, driving cars, and carrying heavy objects – why exacerbate this rounded posture during exercise too?

coreAnother problem is that poorly performed situps, involving a bouncing motion and a pull from the legs, will only target one of many “core” muscles– the rectus abdominis. The hip flexors in the front of the thighs and hips, along with upper body muscles, will assist in the situp motion, taking focus away from the core. It is also very easy to “cheat” this exercise by relying upon momentum or a bounce off the ground.

Finally, situps are not a functionally specific movement. Very rarely in life do we have to fold our bodies forward at the hips. Alternatively, we do have to brace with all the muscles in our core when lifting an unwieldy object or even stepping down stairs.

Now that we know situps place undue stress on the back, don’t effectively work all the core muscles, and are not a functional movement, let’s look at some alternatives.

The single best exercise to learn is a “plank”. Start by laying facedown on the floor with the forearms andplank toes in contact with the ground. Tighten through the core, or think about drawing the bellybutton towards the lower back, to raise the hips off the ground until your back is straight. Hold this position for 3 seconds before slowly lowering the hips back to the ground. Perform for 10 repetitions. As these become easier, extend the time and eventually add more motion.

DeadBugAnother excellent movement is known as “dead bugs”. For this exercise, lay on your back, bring your arms and legs straight up toward the ceiling, and bend the knees to 90 degrees. While maintaining contact between the lower back and the ground, extend your right leg toward the ground and left arm overhead. Pause just before the limb touches the ground and fully exhale. Bring both limbs back up to the starting position and alternate sides. The most important parts of this exercise are making sure the lower back does not arch, and that you don’t forcibly hold your breath in the bottom position. Both these errors will result in lessened activation of the core muscles.

These exercises will target the deep core muscles, specifically the transverse abdominals and obliques, more effectively than situps. And, as previously mentioned, we’ll be working the core while lengthening the spine, ensuring better posture.

I hope this post provides some insight into how best strengthen the core, thereby relieving back pain while improving posture and balance. Please let me know if you’d like more exercise ideas or would like me to review the efficacy of other movements.

As always, thanks for reading!

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How to lift without “Getting Bulky”

paulromasco-com

 

My personal goals involve increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and performing heavy barbell lifts.

However, the majority of my clients do not share these goals. Most of my clients want to lose weight, regain function, improve posture, and reverse disease.

In fact, one of the most frequent concerns I hear from those trying to get in shape is that they “don’t want to get big muscles”.

For that reason, I’m going to discuss what causes muscle growth, and how you can avoid getting bulky muscles while still leaning out and improving performance.

The technical term for developing muscle size is “muscular hypertrophy”. Hypertrophy is merely the process of tissues increasing in volume. And the form of muscular hypertrophy that results in the largest muscular gains is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”.

Strictly speaking, 8 to 12 repetitions with a moderate weight is the protocol for hypertrophy training. However, intensity and volume are the real deciding factors.

Intensity is accomplished by working until the muscles can no longer perform the exercise properly, known as “failure”, and moving quickly between sets.

Volume is an equation of sets, reps, and weight. This means that 2 sets of 20 repetitions

Olympics_2012_Women's_75kg_Weightlifting.jpg

Female Olympian in the 165 lb. weight class. Does SHE look bulky?

with 5 pounds will result in more growth stimulus than 3 sets of 1 repetition with 50 pounds.

I personally perform an exercise for 4 sets of 15 repetitions if I am trying to increase muscle size. Almost any load can cause significant growth when performed for 15 slow and focused repetitions.

I bring up the topic of intensity to address those that avoid lifting heavy weights because they don’t want to bulk up. The classic bodybuilder approach of 8 to 12 repetitions means that “heavy weights” (relative to the individuals strength) cannot be used.

BulkyThe weights that bodybuilders handle may look heavy but this is merely because they are very strong and have been lifting, with regular improvement, for a long time. It may look like a bench press with two 75-pound dumbbells looks heavy, but if the individual is doing it for 8 or more reps, they could handle over 100-pound dumbbells for fewer reps.

Contrarily, lifting a massively heavy weight for fewer than 5 repetitions will actually train the mind more than the muscles. Yes, the body is getting a great workout, but lifting a maximum load for 1, 2, or 3 repetitions results in more neurological adaptations than muscular growth.

So, if any rep range can stimulate muscle growth, and 8 to 12 reps with a moderately-heavy weight is the most promising to grow muscles, what can you do to avoid “bulking up”?

  • Always feel like you could do 2 to 5 more repetitions with perfect form. The moment you go to failure, and technique breaks down, you are causing muscular damage that will result in the muscle growing larger during recovery.
  • Also, take the time you need to rest between sets. Many bodybuilder programs recommend timed recoveries under 60 seconds, sometimes as low as 15 seconds. Starting your next set before the muscles are ready is a surefire way to stimulate muscle growth.
  • Finally, don’t consume excess calories! One of the main goals of exercising is to increase lean body mass, but, if you don’t want your muscles to grow considerably larger, eat at, or even below, maintenance so your body replaces fat with lean mass.

One last point worth making is regarding “toning”. The same people that say they don’t want to “grow muscles” say that they “only want to tone”. Believe it or not, tone means muscle! There is no way to make fat or skin look “toned”. The definition or tone visible on a fit persons arms, legs, or torso, is actually their muscle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to train like a bodybuilder and put on 50 pounds of muscle to looked toned… but replacing body fat with lean body mass (also known as muscle) is necessary to achieve a fit physique.

The world of fitness, nutrition, and health is filled with mixed messages, preconceived notions, and bogus ideas. But please don’t give any mind to the false claims that lifting weights and increasing strength will make you bulky!

If you work within your limits, have a program structured to your goals, and don’t eat to excess, you will achieve a healthy and proportionate figure.

And as always, if you would like professional guidance, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at paulromasco@hotmail.com !

 

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