Techniques are presented to improve abdominal muscle strength and flexibility in athletes. These include sit-ups, leg raises, and torso twists.
- "Coach, what exercises can I do for my stomach?"
Rather surprisingly, the best answer to this common question is: "Go eat something."
The stomach is the organ primarily responsible for the breakdown and digestion of food. It is made up of smooth muscle that contracts involuntarily and, for most of us, gets plenty of action.
The abdominal muscles are often less fortunate. They are composed largely of three different muscles: the rectus abdominals, the internal oblique, and the external oblique. They form the anterior midsection of the body, commonly referred to as the abs, and work together in a broad range of functions, such as:
1. Help maintain proper posture.
2. Allow the body to stand erect.
3. Aid in the respiratory process.
4. Be active in the normal elimination of waste products.
5. Protect vital organs such as the stomach, pancreas, liver, and spleen.
6. Flex the torso (bend forward).
7. Extend the torso (bend backward).
8. Flex the torso laterally (bend side to side).
9. Rotate the torso (twist side to side).
10. Help raise and lower the legs in walking and running.
Because the abdominal muscles are the stabilizing force that allows the body to move in many complex and unique positions, it is critical for both the average individual and the competitive athlete to strengthen them. Poor posture and chronic lower back pain are often attributed to weak back muscles, when it is the muscles of the abdominal wall that have failed.
While women tend to store added body fat more easily in the hips and buttocks region of the lower body, men typically deposit excess body fat around the midsection of the body.
The first place excess body fat is stored is often the last place the body is willing to let it go. This is doubly bad news for men who have excess body fat and weak or underdeveloped abdominal muscles. Poor posture and chronic lower back pain is almost sure to follow.
It is important to note that an individual can have very little excess body fat around the midsection and still have weak or underdeveloped abdominal muscles. Likewise, some individuals may have very strong well-developed abs that are not visible because they are covered by a layer of fat and strong abdominal muscles.
According to Ellington Darden, in A Flat Stomach ASAP, abdominal exercises require an average of 7.5 calories per minute. Thus, each five-minute abdominal workout uses 37.5 calories. It would take seven hours and 47 minutes of continuous repetitions, or 93 days of five-minute workouts, to get rid of 3,500 calories or one pound of fat.
The proper combination of diet and aerobic exercise is critical in abdominal strength training. If our goal is a well-developed "six pack" of abs, we have to prioritize the elimination of excess body fat.
There are literally hundreds of ways to train the abdominal muscles, from the old-fashioned straight-legged sit-up (not recommended) to the use of specifically designed exercise equipment. No other area of the body has incited such variety.
Exercise marketers continue to add to the abundant variety of abdominal exercises by making small adjustments in body positioning - or inventing the "latest and greatest abdominal device ever sold on TV." One recent study estimates that more than six million home unit abdominal devices were sold via infomercials from 1996 to 1997 alone. Some exercises are safer and more effective than others. Some equipment is smoother, more comfortable, and more effective than others. You can increase the possibility of setting realistic and attainable goals by seeking to understand the advantages and disadvantages of various abdominal exercises and equipment.
Here is a look at three simple, yet highly effective abdominal strength-training exercises that our players use:
When performed correctly, the sit-up remains one of the best abdominal exercises available. No equipment is needed and the weight of the torso provides the appropriate resistance. In this movement, the spine is flexed forward by the activation of the rectus abdominis muscles as well as support from the internal and external obliques.
The athlete starts by lying on his back with his legs bent at the knees. The feet are placed flat on the floor at a comfortable distance from the buttocks (feet together or apart, a personal preference).
The hands can be crossed over the front of the shoulders or placed gently behind the head. If the hands are placed behind the head, the athlete must make sure not to pull the head forward with the arms.
Note that the shoulder blades are slightly elevated from the floor, placing tension on the abdominal muscles. The athlete raises his torso approximately 35 to 45 degrees off the floor and pauses in the contracted position.
Since the back is rounded in this position, it is unnecessary and potentially dangerous to raise the body beyond 45 degrees. Tension begins to be taken off the abdominal muscles as stress is added to the spine. The athlete returns to the start position in a slow and controlled manner, allowing the abs to perform all of the work.
Coaching Point: We perform one strict set of 15 to 25 reps. As strength levels increase, resistance can be added by holding onto a free-weight plate or having a partner apply manual resistance.
Note: The Crunch has become a popular abdominal exercise and is executed much like the sit-up. The starting position of the torso is higher off the floor and the range of motion is approximately half of the sit-up.
Abdominal crunch machines are also a very popular way to develop the rectus abdominis muscles.
Leg raises are another excellent exercise for developing the rectus abdominis muscles. This movement can be performed in a variety of ways, depending on the equipment in your facility. If you do not have access to a leg raise station, we would recommend hanging from a chin-up station or lying on the floor.
The athlete begins this movement by locking the upper body into position and placing his feet together. He bends his knees slightly and slowly raises his legs until tension is felt across the entire abdominal region - this is the correct starting position.
To properly execute a rep, the athlete must slowly raise his legs until the upper leg is parallel to the floor or forms a 90-degree angle with the torso. Raising the legs past parallel will not activate the abdominal muscles any more and may cause pinching of the anterior discs of the spine.
The athlete must pause momentarily in the contracted position and then lower the legs in a smooth and controlled manner - allowing the muscles, not gravity, to perform all of the work.
Coaching Point: We perform one strict set of 15 to 25 reps. As strength levels increase, we can add resistance in a number of ways by maintaining straight legs throughout the movement, by placing free-weights between the feet or knees, or by having a partner apply manual resistance.
Note: All abdominal exercises involve some activation of the hip flexor muscles. During the leg raise movement, the hip flexors are very active in helping to raise the legs and stabilize the pelvis.
The torso-twist movement places emphasis on strengthening the internal and external oblique muscles. No equipment is needed and the weight of the legs provides the resistance.
The athlete lies on his back with feet together and arms outstretched on either side. He then raises his upper legs perpendicularly and bends his knees to bring the lower legs parallel to the floor.
He maintains angled leg positions throughout the movement.
To begin the exercise, he slowly rotates the legs to one side of the body until the lower foot lightly touches the floor, making sure to keep the legs, shoulders, and arms in the original starting position. He maintains tension on the obliques by pausing momentarily in the contracted position before raising the legs back to the starting position.
This tense torso rotation is alternated left and right. As the internal oblique muscles on one side of the body rotates, the external oblique muscles on the opposite side fire, enabling the body to perform the twisting action.
Coaching Point: Have the athlete perform one set of 15 to 25 reps. As strength levels increase, additional resistance can be added by straightening the legs at the knee or by having a partner apply manual resistance.
Note: Rotary torso machines also provide an effective way to isolate and develop the internal and external oblique muscles.
It is not necessary to train the abs every day. Treat the abdominal muscles like any other body part by paying strict attention to proper form and intensity. Understand that the proper combination of diet, aerobic exercise, and abdominal training will ultimately determine how fit athletes' abdominal muscles become.
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