If you're like me, you've come across countless articles on how to tighten your tummy or flatten a flabby midsection, but to quote the famous playwright, William Shakespeare, there's been, "Much ado about nothing."
Courtesy Mike Stefano
The most prominent layer, the Rectus Abdominus, is a thin sheath of muscle that runs midline from sternum to pelvis. It's what most of identify as the ab sixpack. Sometimes referred to as the lower and upper abdominals respectively, the Exterior Oblique and Interior Oblique muscles wrap the lower torso and also tie into the pelvis. Finally, the Transverse Abdominus are deep horizontal muscle fibers that from run side to side, holding together your internal organs. The major action of the abdominal muscle group is to support the back and spine, as well bring the trunk towards the pelvis.
Just take a look around the average firehouse; I'm sure there's no shortage of beer bellies. But before we explore some possible reasons behind this sub-pectoral protrusion, let's take a quick look at the actual musculature of the abdomen.
Traditional Abdominal Exercise
When performing traditional abdominal exercises (IE: crunch, sit up) there's a tendency for the body make muscular substitutions, and allow muscles that are not being targeted to do most, if not all of the work. Sometimes the notoriously short and tight hip flexors (the muscles responsible for elevating the thighs towards the chest) are allowed to take over.
To get a sense of where the hip flexors are and what they do, place your hand over the junction between the pelvis and either thigh as you sit in your chair. Now raise your foot (same leg) off the floor an inch or two. As you do, the hip joint will flex, and the powerful hip flexors will contract.
The traditional crunch is usually done with excessive flexion at the hip joint overriding most, if not all abdominal muscle activity. In order to perform an effective crunch motion that challenges the abs, let's first attempt to quiet down those pesky hip flexors.
Phase One - Hip Flexor Stretch:
Lie flat on your back, bend at the hips and knees with your feet flat on the floor hip width apart. Extend the right leg straight out and bring left knee towards your chest, taking hold of your bent knee with both hands. Do not allow your tailbone to roll up off the floor as you squeeze your knee to your chest. If the back of your extended thigh cannot remain flat on the floor, your right hip flexors are tight.
If your hip flexors are not tight, skip directly to phase two.
Using the muscles in the back of the right leg and buttocks, draw the right thigh to the floor while the low back remains on the floor, and the left knee is held to the chest. Only stretch to a position of slight discomfort, NOT pain. Hold for five to ten seconds, performing three sets on each side. Work up to 30-second holds.
Phase Two - Crunch Time:
Lie flat on your back in the supine position, legs straight. If your hip flexors are tight, your low back will be arched and away from off the floor. Slowly, bending at the hips and knees, slide your feet towards your buttocks until the arch in your low back disappears and the back flattens on the floor. This is your crunch position. If necessary, support the knees with a pillow or folded blanket to ensure total relaxation of the hip flexors throughout the movement.
Now fold your arms across your chest and slowly curl up from the floor with your head, shoulders, and chest, with the sensation of bringing your ribs towards your navel. The only muscles working should be the Rectus Abdominus, as well as both Internal and External Abdominal Obliques. It's imperative that the low back remain flat on the floor, and the hip flexors stay relaxed.
Phase Three - Pelvic Tilt:
If you also have a problem with rounded, or hunched shoulders, forgo crunches altogether, as they tend to increase the curvature of the upper spine. Instead, from either the supine position (lying with legs straight), or from the relaxed, hip flexor-supported position (with knees bent), press your low back into the floor by contracting your abdominal muscles, hold then release. Keep your entire lower body relaxed. Your arms should be held out in a tee position, palms up. Perform two or three sets of 10 to 20 repetitions with a brief hold (or you can do one set of two or three repetitions with a 10 to 30 second hold).
Wall Standing is a variation on the pelvic tilt. Stand with your back flat against a wall, heels out at least six inches. Keeping your shoulders and pelvis against the wall, press the low back into the wall with a strong abdominal contraction. The closer to the wall you are with your feet, the more abdominal effort it will take to flatten your back. Hold for 10 seconds up to 1 minute.
The above combination of exercises, if done properly, will flatten, tone, and tighten your abdominal muscles, improve posture and appearance, and possibly relieve symptoms of low back pain. Of course, no amount of abdominal work will remove the layers of fat you've accumulated over the last 20 years through overeating and under exercising. A properly orchestrated strength and cardiovascular program, combined with sensible eating is the best way to achieve that.
FDNY captain, Michael Stefano is the author of the Firefighter's Workout Book. Captain Mike also creates custom workouts for both firefighters and civilians alike. To learn more, visit his website at: www.firefightersworkout.com