All Abdominal Exercises are Not Created Equal

by J. R. McNeal, M. S., C.S.C.S. and W.A. Sands, Ph.D.

The fitness industry is replete with exercise devices designed to enhance fitness or sculpt the body. They are marketed to the unsuspecting and often gullible consumer, promising quick fixes and effortless results. Oh, if only it was that easy! Considering the amount of money Americans spend on fitness gadgets, we should be the fittest nation in the world instead of the fattest! One of the most recent trends in the industry is the emergence of the various abdominal conditioning devices, designed to “isolate” the abdominals (as if that were possible!), reduce neck strain, and in general make exercising the abdominal muscles an enjoyable experience. Are all of these devices created equal? How do they compare to a regular crunch, or the “forbidden” situp? The purpose of our investigation was to answer these questions. We decided to compare 6 different commonly performed exercises and devices to see if indeed there are differences in muscle activation and range of motion. By comparing the amount of muscle activation achieved, we can make recommendations regarding the relative value of one exercise over another with respect to force generated by the target muscles (the abs). Range of motion meanwhile, is a variable that has been virtually ignored in the fitness research literature. Watch virtually any throwing activity for example, and you can see that the range of motion of the trunk during such movements is large indeed.

We asked 20 active, college-aged students to participate in this investigation (10 females, 10 males). The exercises selected were 1) a regular crunch from the floor, 2) a regular situp with feet constrained, 3) a situp with the addition of the AbMat™ pad, 4) a crunch performed with an ab-roller type device, according to the recommendations of the manufacturer, 5) a crunch performed with the ab-roller combined with the AbMat™ pad, and finally 6) trunk flexion utilizing the Ab Bench resistive device. The exercises were demonstrated to the subjects, and they were allowed to practice each until they were comfortable with their performance. They were then videotaped with high-speed video while performing 3 trials of each exercise. Various anatomical structures of the subject were marked with reflective tape so that they were evident on the screen. This allowed the videotaped performances to be digitized and analyzed for specific kinematic information; in this case, angular displacement. Electromyography electrodes were placed on the upper and lower abdominals to assess muscle activity.

For the lower trunk angle, the AbMat™ and Ab Bench achieved significantly greater ranges of motion than did the ab-roller exercises, the situp, or the regular crunch, although the traditional situp was significantly better than the ab-roller exercises and the regular crunch. At the hip and upper trunk angles it was again discovered that the AbMat™, Ab Bench, and the traditional situp were better than the ab-roller devices or the regular crunch at moving through a large range of motion. In most cases, the ab-roller exercises and the regular crunch did not differ from eachother, making the purchase of an ab-roller for specifically conditioning the abdominals questionable when compared to the regular crunch, which doesn’t cost anything! However, if the goal is exceptional conditioning of the abdominals through a large (“functional”) range of movement, then devices such as the AbMat™ and Ab Bench, which place the abdominal muscles in a slightly stretched position prior to each repetition, may be a wise equipment investment.

The muscle electrical activity provided even more insight into the efficacy of these particular exercises. It was of particular interest to us that the recordings from the abdominals could be described by different characteristic recordings; the regular crunch, ab-roller exercises, and the AbMat™ were characterized by a continuous activation pattern with a low amplitude (low force output), while the Ab Bench and situp were described by two distinct phases, concentric and eccentric which were of much higher amplitude. We did not feel we could adequately compare the two groups of exercises against each other due to these differences and thus the results basically compare exercises within each group. This is one example of the problems that can influence the results of electromyography studies of the abdominals, and any study not accounting for these differences should be considered with some reservation. Another problem which is inherent in electromyography investigations of the abdominals (but rarely if ever acknowledged by researchers in their results!) is the problem of skin and fat rolling that occurs whenever the trunk flexes. This makes the nature of the muscle electrical activity change as the electrode moves farther from and closer to the muscle. We feel that it is important to be aware of such shortcomings in this type of research so that you can become a more knowledgeable consumer.

The continuous activation exercises were not different in their activation of the upper abdominals. However, for the lower abdominals the AbMat™ elicited significantly more activity than did the ab-roller exercises. The regular crunch was superior only to the ab-roller exercise used simultaneously with the AbMat™. Therefore, the AbMat™ seems to be the superior exercise of this group for eliciting muscle activation, especially when the lower abdominals are considered.

The situp and Ab Bench exercises as stated earlier, were different in their EMG patterns. Because the EMG was greater in these exercises, but occurred over a shorter time period, these exercises may be better choices if large force production is desired, rather than muscular endurance. For both the upper and lower abdominals the situp produced greater activation than the Ab Bench. It is critical to note, however, that due to the limitations of this study and these typical subjects, we were not able to approach any kind of maximal load on the Ab Bench. The Ab Bench allows resistance to be added to the exercise, which would cause an increase in muscle activation to move the increased load. In other words, one should be able to get any level of activation up to a maximum with the Ab Bench. The situp is constrained by the weight of the individual’s upper body. This was likely a major drawback in the ability of this study to properly distinguish between these two exercises. Common sense would tell us that if we were able to increase the resistance provided by the Ab Bench, the muscle activation results would have been different.

In conclusion, it can be recommended that ab-roller devices may not be any better than the regular crunch in conditioning the abdominals. For specificity of movement, equipment such as the AbMat™ and Ab Bench which place the spine in a slightly hyperextended position prior to abdominal contraction may be better choices, especially for sport performance. The situp appears to also be a good choice for both range of motion and activation, although it is limited in the amount of resistance and thus less muscle activation which can be achieved

J. R. McNeal, M. S., C.S.C.S.
W.A. Sands, Ph.D.
Dept. Of Exercise
SLC, UT. 84112

Get the most out of your abdominal workout

There are so many people looking for the secrets to great abs. You see all the hype on TV infomercials. Companies peddling all types of equipment that will help you build rock hard abs and a miraculous mid section. Without spending tons of money or any money at all, I’ll discuss a simple and effective way of building great looking abs. It can be done at home or at your gym.

Now we all want defined, toned abdominal muscles. Mostly to look great. A lot of men strive for a 6 pack or close to it, while most women’s goal is for a tight toned mid section. Let me stress that besides the cosmetic reasons for having great looking adominals, having a firm and toned mid section has many other benefits. You’ll ease any extra stress a belly or extra weight puts on your back, improve your posture, increase your stamina and endurance because you are not carrying any extra weight and improve your self esteem. You’ll feel even better about yourself and what you have accomplished. Anyway, this is pretty basic knowledge, but it is good to reflect on why you want to have solid great looking abs.

To develop solid abs, you need to shed some excess body fat. This is accomplished by eating properly and consuming less calories each day than your body burns.

Secondly, your abdominals must be trained in accordance with proper resistance training. I’ll discuss Ab Crunches as an effective exercise to build your abs.

Ab crunches can be performed anywhere:

Starting Position:
Place your hands crossed on your chest and lie flat on the floor with your knees bent. By bending your knees you’re providing your lower back with support. You can also place your hands behind your head if you prefer, but this position often leads to poor posture and unnecessary strain on your neck. In other words, you also end up cheating by lifting yourself using your arms and neck rather than your abs.

Performing the Exercise:
Slowly raise yourself using your abs, with your lower back always pressed against the floor. Raising your lower back will put unnecessary stress on your back. There are many exercises specifically for your lower back and remember, the abdominals create the exercise. Following the same method, slowly lower yourself.

Try 4 sets of 24 with a short rest in between. The great thing about abs is that they can be exercised every second day or on consecutive days depending on your time and workout schedule.

Try the same procedure by raising your legs or when you want to work on your obliques. Most people forget about working the oblique muscles (your side stomach muscles). Lie on the floor the same way as for regular crunches and cross your legs over to begin the exercise. If this feels uncomfortable or difficult, you may want to try the exercise standing up.With a reasonable weight in one hand, slowly lower one side and then return to the starting position. Repeat the procedure on your other side.

These are just a few of the many ab exercises that you can perform almost anywhere.

Pilates vs. Yoga

by Kathy Smith

When people speak of the physical benefits of exercise, they tend to focus on the three S’s: strength, stamina and slimming. With this in mind, their training programs usually consist of weight lifting to build muscle, with some form of aerobic activity to build cardiovascular endurance and burn calories. But there’s a second tier of benefits we’re starting to value. These include flexibility, coordination, posture and stress relief.

It’s not that these secondary benefits weren’t always important — it’s just that they’re more in the spotlight these days thanks to the growing popularity of so-called “softer” training modalities. Two of the most popular of these are yoga and Pilates.

Yoga, of course, has been popular in the U.S. for decades. I started practicing yoga more than 20 years ago and it’s still one of my favorite ways to tone my body and calm my mind. Pilates though is a newer trend that apparently still has many people baffled. I often get letters inquiring about the difference between Pilates and yoga and asking which I recommend. As with most “which do I recommend” questions, the answer depends on your physical goals. Simply put, the difference between yoga and Pilates is that between East and West. Both systems build strength and flexibility; the difference between them is not so much physical as it is philosophical.

A Tale of Two Workouts

Let’s take yoga first. Yoga is based on the Eastern idea of moving energy through your body. The more freely the energy flows, the healthier and more energetic you feel. Physical tension hinders the flow; over time, areas of tension in your body can become tight and rigid, even painful. The goal of yoga is to keep the body supple through movement and stretching. But there’s another dimension. Yoga is a holistic spiritual discipline with its roots in Eastern forms of meditation. The physical postures, although they condition the body, are really aimed at the mind. They symbolize the goal of living your life in a state of balance and composure. When I spend an hour in a yoga class, I melt into a kind of meditative state and emerge wonderfully relaxed and refreshed.

Pilates on the other hand is physical conditioning first and foremost — and there’s nothing quite like it. Its creator, Joseph Pilates, was looking for a way to rehabilitate injured soldiers after World War I. He developed an assortment of curious machines with names like the “Reformer” and the “Cadillac.” Using cables and trolleys and unusual body positioning, Pilates exercises stretch and strengthen and are unique in their ability to encourage coordination between the muscles that stabilize the body.

Pilates techniques quickly became a hit with dancers, who found them a highly effective way to improve body awareness and alignment and promote graceful, fluid motion. Machine-based Pilates actually has more in common with weight training than with yoga since it involves moving against resistance (provided by springs) with the aim of overloading the muscles. In particular it resembles functional strength exercises such as squats or cable pulls. There’s also a new form of Pilates, the Pilates mat class, which relies more on callisthenic-style exercises and stretches. This form is physically more similar to a yoga class though the emphasis is still on physical change rather than on spiritual development through postures and breathing.

The Choice Is Yours

Generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say yoga is more about how it makes you feel while Pilates is about how you look — how you carry yourself and move. So if you’re looking for a limbering, rejuvenating workout that will provide as much of a lift for your brain as your body — and you’re not too concerned about building muscle –I’d recommend yoga. If you’re interested in a more dynamic system of muscle conditioning — or if you just want to try something new and different — Pilates may be the answer.

In fact, it doesn’t have to be an either-or choice. After all, no single training system can give your body all the types of conditioning it needs. That’s why my week includes a variety of activities, from weight lifting to hiking, running, yoga and more. My best recommendation is to try everything — experience it all — and see what works best for you. East or West, the important thing is to explore!

Strength Training Is For Every Body

A visit to your local health club weight room will reveal a space filled with dazzling steel and chrome machines. Not long ago, these modern-day “torture chambers” were places for dedicated body builders, mostly of the male gender who had very little body fat and a whole lot of rather large, hard-to-miss muscles. There was a distinct aura to that room, a feeling of raw power and intimidation. The moment you entered, something told you to get out quickly – you didn’t belong there.

Not so today. Although the appearance of weight rooms today has remained somewhat the same, the game has changed and so have the players. Where once only getting “bigger muscles” was the goal of strength training and mostly men participated in the routine; today, women and men alike; young and old; thin and fat; healthy and not so healthy are finding their way into weight rooms and realizing the magic of strength training – beyond simply achieving a beautiful body.

Why all the sudden fuss about strength training? It’s really quite simple. Fitness experts have finally realized that there’s more to being “fit” than just cardiovascular strength. Muscle strength is an equally important component to overall health and fitness. According to Dr. Michael Pollock, chairman of the American College of Sports Medicine’s position paper on exercise guidelines, “With society living long and longer, it makes sense to keep people functionally capable and independent.” Strength training is a means to achieving this end.

Although physical appearance is certainly a plus that comes with strength training as well as a motivation factor for a great number of people, “physique perks” are not the primary goal of strength training participants. There are three additional reasons every body can benefit from strength training, regardless of age.

It’s a fact. You will lose 1/2 pound of muscle for every year you age past 20, if you do not incorporate some type of resistance strength training into your exercise routine. Think about that for a moment. That means if you weighed 120 pounds at the age of 20 and you weigh 120 pounds now at the age of 40, you’ve replaced 10 lbs of muscle with 10 lbs of fat, even though your weight is exactly the same. Pretty shocking isn’t it?

We all recognize the health risks associated with excess body fat, but did you know that muscle actually burns more calories than fat? That’s right, one extra pound of muscle will burn 50 more calories a day, just at rest. On the other hand, every pound of muscle you lose will burn 50 less calories a day.

This may explain why you were able to eat more when you were young. And, since muscle is denser than fat and takes up less space (even though you weigh the same), your body doesn’t quite look the same and that size 8 is now a size 12.

Aerobic exercise will help burn the excess fat, but cannot delay the natural diminishing in overall body muscle tissue associated with the aging process. There are no magic pills or treatments…strength training is the only cure.

Skeletal muscles are the major shock absorbers of your body. Some of these muscles work up to 24 hours a day, such as the ones that help maintain your posture as you stand or sit. Muscles help protect your bones and joints every
time you take a step or dance during Jazzercise participation. lt’s easy to see how strengthening your major muscle groups (i.e., the shoulders, arms, legs, back, and abdominals), will diminish the stress of impact forces and lessen the
risk of exercise-related injury.

Strong muscles also help one to perform daily tasks with ease and efficiency. Activities such as climbing stairs, gelling out of bed, lifting groceries and children, cleaning the house and mowing the lawn all become easier to perform.

Although strength training cannot turn back the clock on osteoporosis once you have it, recent research indicates that regular strength training can help to maintain bone mass and reduce a woman’s risk of developing osteoporosis.

There you have it – three excellent reasons to start some type of resistance strength training. What does it take to get those muscles in shape? Not as much as you may think. You can choose from a variety of resistance equipment. There
are weight machines, free-weight dumbbells, wrist/ankle weights, bands, balls, or even your own body weight with calisthenics. Naturally, your fitness level and goals will dictate what type of equipment is best for you.

In terms of recommended training routines…if you ask ten different experts, you’re likely to get ten different answers. There are numerous routines for increasing strength depending on your specific goals. Working out “hard” and “long” may elicit greater improvement in strength, but it also increases your risk of injury. So why not take a sensible,
yet effective approach.

After years of research, here’s what the experts have found:

  • Frequency of training: Minimum of two times per week.
  • Number of Repetitions: 8-12 per set
  • Number of Sets: Minimum of one set per muscle group.
  • Number of Exercises: 8-10 exercises which focus on the major muscle groups.
  • Movement Speed: Slow to Moderate
  • Amount of Weight: Enough to fatigue your muscles by the last few reps. (8-12 reps for strength training, 15-20 reps for endurance training.)

Isn’t it great! You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to significantly improve your strength. You can be in and out in as little as 20 minutes. Now, that’s a schedule we all can live with!

Remember, you don’t have to be in perfect shape to work with weights. Strength training is now considered an important component of a weight loss program;  along with diet, aerobic exercise, behavior modification, and is recommended for people suffering from certain types of arthritis and chronic back pain. Once believed dangerous for the elderly, research has confirmed that a low to moderate resistance strength training program is safe for the older population and people with high blood pressure or heart disease. Of course, if you happen to be one of those people in less than perfect shape, be sure to get your doctor’s “OK” before you start lifting away!

What are you waiting for? Now’s the time to turn your body into a strong and efficient, lean and mean calorie-burning machine. Strength training is for every body…start your program today!

Cardiovascular Exercise Principles and Guidelines: Part One

For maximum effectiveness and safety, cardiovascular exercise has specific instructions on the frequency, duration, and intensity. These are the three important components of cardiovascular exercise that you really need to understand and implement in your program. In addition, your cardiovascular program should include a warm-up, a cool-down, and stretching of the primary muscles used in the exercise. This article is part one of a two part series discussing the very important principles and guidelines of a safe and effective cardiovascular exercise program. Part one will explain the proper methods of warming-up, stretching, and cooling-down and discuss the frequency and duration of a sound cardiovascular routine. Part two will discuss how to monitor exercise intensity and heart zone training.

Warming Up and Stretching
One very common mistake is stretching before muscles are warmed-up. It is important to stretch after your muscles are warm (after blood has circulated through them). Never stretch a cold muscle. First warm up. A warm-up should be done for at least 5-10 minutes at a low intensity. Usually, the warm-up is done by doing the same activity as the cardiovascular workout but at an intensity of 50-60% of maximum heart rate (max HR). After you’ve warmed-up for 5-10 minutes at a relatively low intensity, your muscles should be warm. To prevent injury and to improve your performance, you should stretch the primary muscles used in the warm up before proceeding to the cardiovascular exercise.

Cooling Down

The cool down is similar to the warm-up in that it should last 5-10 minutes and be done at a low intensity (50-60% of max HR). After you have completed your cardiovascular exercise and cooled-down properly, it is now important that you stretch the primary muscles being used. Warming-up, stretching, and cooling-down are very important to every exercise session. They not only help your performance levels and produce better results, they also drastically decrease your risk of injury.

Frequency of Exercise
The first component of cardiovascular exercise is frequency of the exercise, which refers to the number of exercise sessions per week. To improve both cardiovascular fitness and to decrease body fat or maintain body fat at optimum levels, you should exercise (cardiovascularly) at least three days a week. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends three to five days a week for most cardiovascular programs. Those of you who are very out of shape and/or who are overweight and doing weight-bearing cardiovascular exercise such as an aerobics class or jogging, might want to have at least 36 to 48 hours of rest between workouts to prevent an injury and to promote adequate bone and joint stress recovery.

Duration of Exercise
The second component of cardiovascular exercise is the duration, which refers to the time you’ve spent exercising. The cardiovascular session, not including the warm-up and cool-down, should vary from 20-60 minutes to gain significant cardiorespiratory and fat burning-benefits. Each time you do your cardiovascular exercise, try to do at least 20 minutes or more. Of course, the longer you go, the more calories and fat you’ll “burn” and the better you’ll condition your cardiovascular system. All beginners, especially those who are out of shape, should take a very conservative approach and train at relatively low intensities (50-70% max HR) for 10-25 minutes. As you get in better shape, you can gradually increase the duration of time you exercise.

It is important that you gradually increase the duration before you increase the intensity. That is, when beginning a walking program for example, be more concerned with increasing the number of minutes of the exercise session before you increase the intensity, by increasing your speed or by walking hilly terrain.

Please check back for Part Two, where I’ll discuss how to monitor your training intensity and how to use heart zone training to achieve the specific results you desire. Until then, remember that cardiovascular exercise should be done a minimum of three times a week and a minimum of 20 minutes per session. Once your muscles are warm (after warm up) and after the cardiovascular exercise, you should stretch those muscles used in the exercise. For example, after bicycling, stretch your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, hips, and low back. After doing the rowing machine, stretch your legs, back, biceps, and shoulders. Good luck and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of cardiovascular exercise.

Which Pilates is Which

Authentic Pilates

The Pilates Guild is dedicated to the preservation of Pilates in it’s purest
form the way it was taught by Joseph himself.

Contemporary Pilates

While Pilates was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time, the science of exercise has evolved
throughout subsequent decades. Contemporary adaptations of Pilates’ principles
have emerged, leveraging advances in physical therapy, spinal research,
biomechanical principles and anatomical understanding to ensure each exercise is
performed with optimal safety and results in mind” – quote from Prime Time
for Pilates by Moira Stott-Merrithew with Catherine Komlodi and Alison Hope.
Modern Pilates

Unlike the traditional method, which focuses on constantly holding in the lower abdomen and
on extremely effortful movements, modern Pilates is firmly based on the
functional movement possibilities of the body. The exercises in this book are
influenced by developments in therapeutic massage, osteopathy, and the
Feldenkrais method, Butoh (a Japanese performance art developed in the 1950s),
and ante- and postnatal work. With easy-to-understand diagrams, drawings, and
photos, it provides exercises for maintaining good posture, fitness, strength,
grace, flexibility, and freedom from injury” – quote from the Publishers of
Modern Pilates by Penelope Latey.
The differences:

In the book Return to Life through Contrology, (edited, reformatted and reprinted by Presentation Dynamics Inc): Joseph wrote the following; and in italics modern or contemporary Pilates suggests:

Open Leg Rocker: “Roll” over backward trying to touch mat or floor with toes -roll over only onto the top of the shoulders your head should never touch the mat.

Many exercises suggest that knees should be ‘locked’ – not locked

Double Kick: Thrust chest out with head thrown back as far as possible… – a long neck, centered and held steady

About the spine: “be sure wherever indicated, to keep your back full length always pressed firmly against the mat or floor” – respect the natural curves of your spine.

The Seal: “press soles and heels firmly close together pointed inward”
– heels together, attracting ankles together.

Maybe these examples don’t sound so different, not different enough to matter anyway. But there are differences and that’s something to remember – you decide which you prefer.
Yogalates: A fusion of the ancient discipline of yoga with the modern Pilates techniques, the exercises mix both disciplines to develop core strength, help tone muscles, increase flexibility and reduce
stress. Yogalates is trademarked by Louise Solomon.

“Expand your Self, move gently and celebrate the many possibilities which the union of Yoga and Pilates will reveal. Through the comparison of breath, core strength and inner spirit, discover new sensations through familiar movement. Awaken your self, enliven your lines and brighten your Yoga/Pilates experience. – the

Yogilates: (book) Integrating Yoga and Pilates for Complete Fitness, Strength and Flexibility by Jonathan Urla
The Pilates Method / The Method: a name coined first by The Physical Mind Institute in Santa Fe (they have subsequently moved to New York) to represent the traditional Pilates exercises when the law suit was ongoing and the “P” word couldn’t be used.

Pilates with Chi: (book) combining Pilates with the eastern influences of Chi

PowerHouse Pilates ™: provides a fitness approach to Pilates education, founded by Marci Clark and Christine Romani-Ruby in an effort to make Pilates education easily available for fitness professionals.

Also a book by Lynne Robinson “Body Control 5 – Powerhouse Pilates with Lynne Robinson” and Mari Winsor “The Pilates Powerhouse”

For a leaner stomach, exercise and get good nutrition

How do I get a lean stomach?
Best results are exercise, and menu planning for nutritional benefits. Each person is different, and needs a specialized plan to eat certain foods, especially for allergies.

Exercise should include abdominal muscle strengthening: contracting your stomach muscles for strong “abs,” and optimal pelvic area for circulation. This is called the abdominal crunch. To accomplish this, lie down in a horizontal position, bend your knees, and place your feet flat on the floor. Roll your upper body forward, contract your stomach muscles, and release after holding for a count of 15 or 20, then let go. Repeat as many times as possible, being sure not to push hard beyond your ability. Start slowly and steadily build up. Make this a daily routine.

Lift your shoulder blades off the ground, hold the pose, contract your stomach mus cles and lower yourself slowly. Repeat this three or four times, gradually building up. Most exercises need to be done every other day for the rest of your life.

Get a bicycle with a comfortable, padded seat and start moving your legs vigorously.

Ride around our beautiful island and take note of the beautiful scenery as you are increase your circulation. For beginners, take it slowly to start and you will reap your rewards. It is advisable to consult with your doctor before embarking on any exercise program.

Ask your nutritionist about high energy foods that will help you build muscles and strength. Remember, it takes work, time and your patience for as much as several months to achieve optimum results.