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Strengthen your abs for your spine's sake

Exercise tips when performing crunches

1 Lift from your abdominals, not your neck, and do not allow head to fall forward onto your chest.

2 Place fingertips behind your head and do not lace fingers together. Keep elbows out to the side, shoulders relaxed.

3 Curl up and forward so your head, neck and shoulder blades lift off the floor and your torso is slightly rounded; pause then slowly return to the beginning of the movement.

4 Lift with a slow, controlled feeling. When you move fast you don't place much tension in the muscles; therefore, they aren't receiving an effective workout.

5 Avoid any abdominal exercise that places stress on the back. When lying on the floor, bent knees and contracted abs will offer support for the back.

6 Perform a variety of exercises rather than repeating the same exercises. Abdominals like variety; you will be recruiting different muscle fibers.

7 Exhale as you contract and lift your torso; inhale as you return.

8 Focus on the moment.

"I've been doing 100 and more crunches a day and I still haven't lost any inches." This is just one of the many comments made by frustrated "ab exercisers." Removing that overload of body fat remains high on the dream list for many people.

Much of this frustration is a result of unrealistic expectations as a result of being inundated by misleading advertisements, claiming that with just a few minutes of effort, we all can have flat abs. Some go so far as to say "flat abs in nine minutes." And when that doesn't work, many people attack their abs with such a vengeance that they do 200 to 300 crunches a day.

Though abdominal exercises don't eliminate the body fat around your midsection, there are several very valid reasons why you should pursue strengthening the abdominals: Strong abs have many responsibilities. The walls of the abdominal cavity depend upon the strength of the muscles, as there are no bones to provide support. Having strong abdominal muscles will help to stabilize the torso and maintain the spine in proper position. When the abdominals are in a weakened state there is a tendency to develop poor posture.

Arching of the back and a protruding abdomen can result from weakened abdominal muscles, which puts the spine at risk for injuries and causes back pain. Because there is a strong correlation between abdominal muscles and back muscles, it is recommended to include back exercises within the abdominal workout. To develop an effective ab workout you need to separate fact from fiction. Here are four persistent myths about ab exercises that have been around for years.

Myth 1: Ab Exercises will remove abdominal fat. Reality check: The magic of spot reduction does not exist. You could do several hundred ab exercises daily and you will not burn off fat in that area. Abdominal exercises will strengthen and tone muscles, but these are the muscles that lie beneath the fat. The way to lose "fatty abs" is to reduce your overall fat by eating less and performing whole body exercises with cardio and strength training. Even with this training, you cannot predict which area of the body will lose fat first, but you will begin to lose it. You will lose at sites that are genetically predetermined; this is called "fat patterning."

Myth 2: Your stomach has two separate muscles — upper abs and lower abs. Reality check: When you perform ab exercises slowly and with correct form, you will be working the entire abdominal muscle. However, lifting your upper body off the floor will emphasize the upper part of the abdominal muscle, while lifting hips off the floor will emphasize the lower part of the abdominals.

Myth 3: Sit-ups are better than crunches. Reality check: Sit-ups are when you lift up all the way to the knees. This movement could be hard on backs and it isn't even necessary to lift that high, as the hip flexors (muscles in upper thigh area) kick in to assist the abdominals. When you do crunches (see abdominal crunch tips) you are eliminating the assistance of the hip flexors, involving more of the abdominals.

Myth 4: You must do abdominal exercises daily. Reality check: You should treat the abs as you would any other muscle group, working them two or three times a week. It is not necessary to perform hundreds of repetitions in order to give your abs a good workout. Overtraining the abs can lead to neck and lower-back problems.

Meet your abdominals

Of our four abdominal muscles, the largest is the rectus abdominis, a wide flat band of muscle fibers that extend from your lower chest to below the navel. This muscle is responsible for forward flexion (forward bending) and assisting the oblique muscles when you bend to the side.

The transversus abdominis, the deepest abdominal muscle, is located directly beneath the rectus abdominis. This muscle is essential for trunk stability, acting as a girdle that wraps around the pelvis and helps to hold the internal organs in place.

The majority of spinal rotation as well as support for the lower back depends on a group of muscles called internal and external obliques. The exterior obliques are located diagonally on each side of the rectus abdominis and the internal obliques are located beneath the external obliques. They are involved when you turn or rotate the torso.

If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Write to Sally Anderson, a trainer, in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731.

Try this | Wanda Sullivan, 55, and

Jane Buechner, 61

Wanda is spa manager/pedicurist at J. Con Salon and Spa in

St. Petersburg. Her exercise favorites are biking, hiking and kayaking. Jane is a master hair stylist at J. Con and her regular workouts include the elliptical trainer, weight lifting and biking.

Exercise 1 (above): Crunch on the ball works abdominals, particularly rectus abdominis. Sit on the ball, walking feet forward until ball is under mid-lower back. Cross arms over chest or for better support, place fingertips behind your head, keeping elbows wide. Contracting abdominals, lift your head and shoulders off the ball, pause, then slowly lower. Tip: Keep abs contracted throughout the movement.

Exercise 2 (left): Oblique exercise with ball targets abdominals, particularly external and internal obliques. Standing tall with feet together and abdominals contracted; hold ball in your hands. Keeping legs straight, lift ball overhead, with straight arms. Standing as tall as you can, lean to the side with arms and head, keeping arms straight; pause; using your oblique muscles pull yourself upright. Tip: For a warm-up, begin with five to each side, using a small range of motion; progress to an increase in range of movement (never to the point of discomfort) and hold each pose for 10 to 12 seconds.

Exercise 3: Opposite arm and leg extension on ball strengthens and stretches lower back muscles. Lie with hips on the ball, hands and knees are on the floor. Extend left leg and right arm until both are parallel to the floor.

Strengthen your abs for your spine's sake 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 4:30am]
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