Abdominal exercises are important for proper posture, alleviating lower back problems and generating a positive self image. Too often they are also the bane of an exercise regimen, among the most tedious of fitness endeavors. Perhaps that's why there are so many get-fit-quick devices on the market.
Even without venturing to the store for the latest ab tool, though, the exercise options abound. A study of a wide variety of ab exercises, rating them from most to least effective, would be infinitely useful. The American Council on Exercise asked researchers at San Diego State University to do just that.
Thirty healthy women and men aged 20 to 45 were put through a battery of ab exercises, including the traditional crunch, modified crunches, and exercises using both gym and home exercise equipment, including the Torso Track and AB Rocker.
Muscle activity in the upper and lower abs, as well as in the obliques, was monitored with EMG equipment. Researchers also recorded activity in the hip flexors, which would indicate incorrect form or the need to recruit muscles other than abs and obliques.
Topping the list of the most effective exercises was the bicycle maneuver, followed closely by the captain's chair. Crunches on an exercise ball came in third overall.
Some variations on the crunch were less effective than others. The long arm crunch and the crunch with heel push were shown to be only slightly more effective than the traditional crunch. The Torso Track, the most recent variation on the handled wheel of old, was marginally better than the traditional crunch. But lower back discomfort was reported by a significant number of subjects using this device. The AB Rocker was shown to be up to 80% less effective than a basic crunch.
It's clear that you don't need to purchase a piece of exercise equipment to strengthen your abs. But variations in daily ab workouts can contribute to the longevity of an ab program. Whatever you choose, try doing a five-minute exercise session daily.
To perform the bicycle maneuver, lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed to the ground. Put your hands beside your head. Bring your knees up to about a 45 degree angle and slowly go through a bicycle pedal motion. Touch your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee. Keep even, relaxed breathing throughout.
The captain's chair involves a rather large piece of gym equipment, whereas an exercise ball is an inexpensive home device that makes that crunch variation quite feasible. The vertical leg and reverse crunches are equipment-free. For details on performing these and other ab exercises, visit www.acefitness.org.
It's a good idea to include some twisting sit-ups and other maneuvers that work the muscles in all planes of motion. If you are an athlete who needs to develop a certain degree of explosiveness to better compete in your sport, remember that the speed at which you perform ab exercises will increase your strength only for like speeds-slow and controlled exercise won't make you stronger at fast speeds.
ACE also recently exposed electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) as an utterly ineffective late-night TV hoax. After eight weeks of "training" using EMS, subjects experienced no significant changes in weight, body-fat percentage, strength or overall appearance. These machines are expensive, painful and time consuming as well.
(Strength & Conditioning Journal, 2002, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 9-12; American Council on Exercise, www.acefitness.org)