The 10 Worst Abdominal Exercises
by Phil Kaplan

A muscular man with a wide waist approaches the dumbbell rack. He picks up two 25-pound dumbbells, holds them at his sides, and begins a set of side bends. First he bends to the left, then to the right. His goal, we can guess, is to reduce his waist. Unfortunately, his approach might actually bring him a need for larger belts and pants sizes.

While quests for muscular arms, shoulders, and torsos have long been pursued, there is no more sought after physical attribute today than the "six-pack." If you were to form your opinion of Americans based solely on TV infomercials, you'd surmise that Americans want two things, great sex, and great abs.

The six-pack, more accurately referred to as an "eight-pack" is the result of a well-developed rectus abdominus being made visible by a low level of bodyfat. It is not six or eight different muscles, but rather a single muscle separated into sections by the linea alba, which runs vertically separating the rectus abominus into a right and left half, and tendinous incscriptions that run horizontally across the muscle.

While the number of individuals seeking "great abs" continues to escalate, so too does the proliferation of flawed ab training advice leading to mistakes destined to limit results, or in some cases, increase risk of injury. One of the most integral parts of a valuable abdominal exercise routine is the involvement of the core muscles and far too many offerings neglect those vital muscles completely.

The core muscles, such as the deep lying transversus, act to stabilize, balance, and support real world movement. The transversus acts as a sort of an internal corset, and is a primary contributor to the "flat tummy." A focus on the external muscles with neglect of the core musculature can lead to an appearance of abdominal distension.

Wayne Westcott, PhD., Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Boston has two primary concerns when considering the design of an abdominal exercise routine. According to Westcott, "in a routine where any abdominal exercise movement places stress on the back, the risks outweigh the potential benefits. In a nation where 80% of the population has back problems, caution is required. Secondly, anything that doesn't involve a range of movement of the abdominal muscles against a reasonable resistance is not going to be effective."

In constructing your abdominal program, you want to make certain you limit the exercise movements to those that are safe as well as effective. Peter Francis, Ph.D., of the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University, conducted a valuable study sanctioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in order to measure the efficacy of some of the ab promises. Francis compared 13 common abdominal exercise alternatives. Ab crunches on a stability ball proved to be the most effective and safe. This article, however, is not about "The Best," bur rather to provide you enough information so you avoid making limiting mistakes.

The study by Francis ranked the exercises in order, and some of the best selling infomercial products, those that make the boldest claims, landed at the bottom of the list. It's clear that the solution lies not in a piece of equipment or machinery as it does in knowledge and application of a sound technology. So, in order to help you veer away from ineffective ab routines, here are the "10 Worst!"

1. Electronic Ab Stimulation

You can't turn on the television on a Saturday morning without being besieged with offerings for electronic ab stimulators. The premise is, you switch on the power, and your body performs the equivalent of 600 or 800 sit ups in an hour. Does the premise hold water? Respected researcher, Dr. John Porcari, Professor, Department of Exercise and Sport Science at University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, explains that while in theory there might be some validity to an approach including electronic stimulation, these devices are certainly not the six-pack solution the ads promise. According to Porcari, who conducted a study on the value of EMS application, "All these machines are doing is telling your muscles to contract, causing what often equates to a painful contraction without fully activating all the neural and chemical signals that contribute to muscular development." His study asked 16 subjects, 9 women and 7 men to follow the recommended protocol included with the standard EMS unit. The group was divided into a subgroup of people who actually applied the electrical impulses, and a control group that was hooked up to absolutely no electric current. The results? There wasn't any difference between the groups in terms of fat loss, muscle development, or muscle definition. If you want to make the best use of electricity in your ab program, use it to activate a CD player while motivational music sets the background for a sound abdominal routine.

2. Bent Over Twist

Here's another infamous exercise that is used to "work the waistline." The exerciser holds a light bar or a broomstick behind his neck with his arms outstretched, bends forward from the waist so his upper body is parallel with the ground, and begins twisting from left to right. While this movement does require some involvement of the obliques, the primary muscles at work are the spinal erectors, straining to maintain force in order to keep your body flexed and stable at that 90-degree angle. A lot of strain is placed on ligaments and connective tissue. Gradual wearing away of soft tissue can lead to serious back problems.

3. Straight Legged Situps

Perhaps in high school gym class you had someone hold your feet with your knees locked, legs fixed along the floor, and you performed a number of situps. Thankfully, a high school student's body is far more forgiving of exercise mistakes than an adult's is. Performing straight legged situps with your feet stabilized is another way to put undue pressure on the lower spine, and the jerky movement required to lift from the floor can result in injury. The better abdominal exercises have the feet unsupported, knees bent, and replace the jerky muscle contraction with a slow and gradual curling movement.

4. Roman Chair Situps

This is a movement where, in practice, the exerciser's thighs are in a position parallel with the ground, and the upper body, beginning at 90 degree flexion, lowers down backward, often beyond the point where the spinal vertebrae are aligned as they are in a relaxed standing position. While you'll definitely "feel it" in the abdominal region, due to the range of motion resulting in a full extension of the rectus abdominus, much of the work on the return movement is performed by the hip flexors, muscles that have nothing to do with abdominal development. There are high compressive forces being placed upon the spine when it flexes or extends beyond safe limits. The use of a weight held behind the head or on the chest further increases the compression, further increasing risk of injury.

5. Two-dumbbell side bend

Earlier I mentioned a muscular man doing side bends. While side bends performed properly can target the obliques, holding two dumbbells negates the resistance. In other words, as you return from a position where you're bent to the right side, the dumbbell in the left hand is actually assisting, adding momentum. There is also some question both to the value of performing side bends in terms of the capacity to increase oblique size, and to the spinal safety of repetitive side bending against resistance. A common mistake lies in believing that side bends will reduce the waist. Without a concern for adequate nutrition, aerobic exercise, and resistance exercise for all major muscle groups, side bends will not have any effect on reducing fat. If you develop a muscle underneath subcutaneous fatty deposits, you may actually INCREASE waist size.

6. Straight leg double leg raises

Whether you perform this exercise on the floor or on the end of a bench, the abdominal muscles have little actual involvement. The majority of work is performed by the Psoas muscles. The Psoas muscles attach at the lumbar spine and the femur, thus the movement places unnecessary stress on the lumbar spine, low back discs, and spinal ligaments. According to Damian Stephens, Instructor for the National Council of Strength & Fitness in Miami, "In order to effectively, safely, and optimally target the abdominals, the exerciser should maintain a posterior pelvic tilt. In a straight leg double leg raise, the pelvis assumes a position where the pull of the psoas increases the lordodic curve at L5 S1, the place most back problems occur in the general population."

7. Ab rocker

This is one of the devices sold via infomercials with creative visuals supporting promises of abdominal improvement. As most infomercial products, it is presented as a quick, easy way to achieve a result. The premise is that a simple rocking motion can be used to "smooth" the tummy and waistline. Of the 13 exercises ranked in the study by Peter Francis, mentioned earlier, the abdominal exercise applying the ab rocker ranked last. It proved to be 80% less effective than the traditional abdominal crunch. You'll also see offers for devices that "swing," that "glide" and that "tighten" the abs in order to bring you that coveted six-pack, at least according to the claims. These are simply new "twists" on the flawed premise that a device will prove to be the ab solution.

8. The ab wheel

Many ab devices in the last couple of years have been developed to replicate the age-old movement performed by rolling a wheel out in front of you in order to target "those stubborn abs." The infomercials usually include testimonials from people who explain that they "really feel it." It's unfortunate that "feeling it" in the abs, isn't always in direct correlation with stimulating results. With the "wheel" or "rolling movement," little range of motion is actually undertaken by the abs. While the "ab wheel" might have its place in an advanced routine for a conditioned athlete, less conditioned users often report low back pain. If shoulder and upper back strength are limited, and the core abdominal muscles are not developed, this movement can put the lower back in a precarious position.

9. Improper use of the Nautilus abdominal machines

The Nautilus abdominal crunch machine has been a favorite of serious exercisers for years. Both the upper body and lower body are in motion during the movement with the lumbar and thoracic spine acting as the central pivot point. The problem here lies not with the machine itself, but with the room for error in positioning and movement. While it can provide an effective ab workout, if the seat is not adjusted properly, or the body is not properly aligned, flexion occurs from the hip joint asking the hip flexors to do most of the work and putting pressure on the discs of the lumbar spine.

10. Seated Spinal Twist Machine

These machines, found in well-equipped health clubs, allow the exerciser to flex the lumbar spine while twisting at the waist. This results in a great deal of pressure placed upon the spinal ligaments. The obliques can be worked with abdominal crunching or curling movements with far greater effectiveness and with greater safety.

You won't find any shortage of devices making promises of a flat tummy or great abs. There is an abundance of advice related to abdominal movements circulating through word-of-mouth wisdom on the workout floors of health clubs. It doesn't matter if it's an ab pusher, ab wrap, or abba-dabba-do, if it doesn't fit within the realm of safe and effective exercise it hasn't any place in your exercise routine.

* * *

San Diego State University/ACE Abdominal Study Results

For strengthening the rectus abdominus, the 13 exercise were ranked most to least effective: Bicycle maneuver

  1. Captain's chair
  2. Crunches on exercise ball
  3. Vertical leg crunch
  4. Torso Track
  5. Long arm crunch
  6. Reverse crunch
  7. Crunch with heel push
  8. Ab Roller
  9. Hover
  10. Traditional crunch
  11. Exercise tubing pull
  12. Ab Rocker

For strengthening the obliques, the 13 exercises were ranked most to least effective:

  1. Captain's chair
  2. Bicycle maneuver
  3. Reverse crunch
  4. Hover
  5. Vertical leg crunch
  6. Crunch on exercise ball
  7. Torso Track
  8. Crunch with heel push
  9. Long arm crunch
  10. Ab Roller
  11. Traditional crunch
  12. Exercise tubing pull
  13. Ab Rocker

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