"The reason I exercise is for the quality of life I enjoy."
Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper of the Cooper Institute
The up and coming new year is a good time to clear up some false information about the highly touted flat abs. The abdominal muscles seem to attract more misinformation than any other muscle group in the body. One of the biggest misunderstandings, yet most popular belief, is that performing ab exercises will burn off the unwanted "flab over the abs." So not true! Simply stated, there is no such thing as spot reduction for the abdominals — or any other body part, for that matter. While exercising ab muscles will increase the endurance and strength needed for overall stability, posture, balance and back support, you will not lose the fat that is on top of the muscle. You can't isolate fat loss to one part of the body. Fat belongs to the whole body, not just the muscle it's sitting upon. The only way to lose body fat is to create a calorie deficit by burning more calories than you take in and performing systemic whole-body exercises. Consistent cardio, strength conditioning and healthy eating habits are the winners when it comes to losing body fat, and even with that regimen you have no control over just where you'll lose that fat.
Here are three other popular abdominal misunderstandings:
You should do hundreds of repetitions: It is much better to go for quality rather than quantity, and variety rather than multiple repetitions. When you overdo it with the repetitions, there is increased risk of neck and back issues as well as a tendency to lose form and to perform the exercise incorrectly. The abs should be treated like any other muscle group. If you are performing the exercise correctly, you need only do one to three sets of eight to 15 repetitions.
Situps are better than crunches: With situps, you bring your upper body all the way up toward your bent knees. This movement does not agree with many backs. Because the abdominals are involved only in the first part of the movement, you do not need to rise to knee level. Once your shoulders lift off the floor, hip flexors and lower back muscles take over.
The upper abs and lower abs are two separate muscles: The rectus abdominis is one long sheet of muscle, so when you perform any ab exercise you will be working the entire muscle, not two separate muscles. That said, you may emphasize different parts of the muscle. When you lift your hips off the floor, for example, you will be targeting the lower abs, and when you lift your upper body off the floor, you will be targeting the upper abs.
Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but can't respond to individual inquiries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.