Sit-ups arent the only way to strengthen your back and tone your torso

Abdominal crunches aren't the only way to build your abs  Credit: Budd Symes/Allsport
The Ab Roller craze of a few years back may be out, but abs are forever in and not just as sexy symbols of a fit, trim body.

Abdominal muscles are the key to strength, agility, and flexibility in everything you do from just reaching for a plate in your kitchen cabinet to out-hitting your spouse at the driving range to warding off lower back pain.

Basically, you cant do anything without using your trunk as a base, says Jake Kennedy, physical therapist and exercise physiologist at Kennedy Brothers in Boston. That is why its so unfortunate that sit-ups are one of the worlds least-loved exercises.

Kennedy thinks he has the answer. At his clinic, clients work hard on their abs with nary a sit-up and certainly not hundreds. Instead, they do a limited number of a variety of torso toners, which are unique and actually kind of fun. Kennedy shared his program with WALKING.

The warm-up: More important than stretching before doing ab work is warming up, Kennedy says. Thankfully, because of how the abdominals are designed, they are not apt to be pulled or injured. So instead, prepare for these exercises by doing about five minutes of mild aerobic exercise. Try a quick walk on a treadmill, or take a couple of laps around your house.

How many more?
For each of these moves, attempt to do three sets of five to eight reps, two or three times a week. Rest for about 40 seconds between sets. As you improve, go even slower during the working part of the move, and shorten your rest time between sets.

1. Nice and easy

Starting position: Lie back with your arms at your sides and your knees bent. Put your feet flat on the floor under something that will not move.

The preparation: Feel your feet doing all the work as you raise your torso up quickly, keeping your entire upper body in a straight line. Come up only half way, to about 45 degrees. If you want, rest your arms gently on your stomach.

The move: Once you are at an angle, release your foothold, and as slowly as possible, while keeping your torso in line, move back toward the ground. If your muscles are shaking, thats OK. As soon as it becomes easy (before your back is resting down on the floor), hook your feet again and come right back up to the 45-degree angle. You should be lowering yourself down 90 percent of the time.

Kennedys comment: You should only be able to do five to eight reps, until your muscles really burn. Youre really building muscle if you can reduce the rest time between sets.

2. A bit of rest

Starting position: Lie with your entire back flat on the ground and your feet just off the ground (be sure not to arch the small of your back). Bend your knees so that your thighs are at a 90-degree angle with your body but your heels are still close to the floor.

The preparation: Rest your arms at your sides, or under your head if youd like. There should be no change in your back throughout this exercise.

The move: Unbend your knees, as slowly as possible. Your thighs should be moving from 90 degrees to 45 degrees. Your feet should be close to the floor, but not touching it. Then quickly bring your legs back up to the starting point. And lower again.

Kennedys comment: It is a myth that there are upper and lower abs. It is really all one. Work slowly and maintain control.

3. A bit of side-rest

Starting position: Same as above, except this time you are working your obliques.

The preparation: Keep your back flat on the ground and rotate your hips slightly to the left.

The move: Again, slowly unbend your legs, but just to 45 degrees. Keep your feet off the ground. Complete sets on the left side. Then do it all again with your hips rotated just a bit to the right.

Kennedys comment: This is a good move because nothing we do is in a straight line. We are always rotating our muscles.

4. Feel your strength

Starting position: Stand at a pulley-weight machine, or tie an exercise band to something sturdy. The band or the pulley should be between waist and shoulder level (to the left of your left arm). Use enough weight so that five reps will make you burn. With the band, tie it tight enough to provide adequate resistance. Maintain proper posture, with your legs about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and steady your stance as if you are waterskiing. Keep your back straight.

The preparation: With both hands, quickly pull the cord, or the band, all the way out across your body, so that it is stretched tight. Keep your arms straight, level, and together, somewhere between your waist and shoulders. (Pulling it out too high can injure your shoulders.)

The move: As slowly as possible, gradually release the weight or the band back toward the machine or the sturdy object. Then quickly pull it back out, and repeat. After three sets, switch sides.

Kennedys comment: You will feel many different muscles working with this exercise. Dont worry, as long as you move slowly on the return trip, your abdominals are getting a great workout.

5. Take it slow

Starting position: This time, tie the exercise band to something low to the ground. Lie on your back, knees bent (with your left knee directly to the right of the object you tied it to). With your feet on the floor, step into the exercise band and wrap it around your knees. (Put a towel around your knees first, so the band does not rub and pinch your skin.) Again, be sure the band is tied so there is adequate tension.

The preparation: Quickly swing your legs to the right, so that your knees are either on the ground or are just about on the ground. (Now the band should be stretched very tight.)

The move:Very slowly, bring your knees back to an upright position. Then quickly take your knees back down to the floor, and again slowly release. You can switch sides after completing the three sets.

Kennedys comment: Do not rest between reps. Maintain a constant up and down. And be sure that you go quick on the way down and then slow on the return.

Back in business

If you have had back problems in the past, you should talk to your doctor before starting any new abdominal work. But there are some warning signs that everyone should look for. If you experience any of these, stop exercising immediately, and see a doctor if the pain persists.

  • Specific soreness on one side of the torso. (General muscle soreness should be on both sides.)

  • Any type of pain that does not go away after three days. (Safe soreness generally peaks a day or two after exercising.)

  • A sharp pain while completing the move. (Shaking, burning, and fatigue are all OK.)

  • Pain that causes you to change your technique.

  • Burning pain that does not fade in the break between sets.

  • Any sudden unusual pain.

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