Building The Base For Abs

Abs IK modelOkay, so with a website name like ours, we have to have the odd post dedicated to developing abs, only, this one is going to be more about developing your core and overall strength as a base for getting solid abdominals.

First off, sit-ups and crunches alone aren’t enough. It’s a lot of uncomfortable effort for not a very good return. There’s too much emphasis on the front muscles, which I can wager most people don’t balance out on their lower back.

Imbalance can lead to a few problems with your back and posture and can even lead to chronic injury with short spells of acute pain. I’m not saying these exercises are pointless, but they’re sometimes counter-productive if they are the only ab work you do.

Pure Aesthetics or Functional Form

Think long and hard about why you want a washboard stomach. Is it to look good, or to feel strong and powerful in your core…and also look good?

The reason I ask that is because too many people concentrate solely on the showy muscles of the body when they workout rather than the functional core muscles that serve as a strong base for the whole operation.

Those hours of sit-ups and crunches I was talking about is lots of time spent on the show muscles, but without a strong core, they aren’t nearly as functional and strong.

Look around you in the gym; there will be a lot of guys curling dumbbells and watching themselves in the mirror. Biceps are a show muscle. They tend to develop anyway – certainly if you do a lot of back exercises – but people spend a long time isolating their biceps at the cost of time spent on many other larger and more useful muscle groups.

My point is, get your core strength in line and the rest will come so much easier. That way you get the best of both worlds.

Isometric Training

This term is applied to exercises where you don’t move, basically. No bending of the limbs at the joint and no contraction or movement of the muscle. It’s static strength training, and it’s one of the best ways to develop your inner core strength.

Over time, people have gotten quite inventive with their own take on isometrics, but one of the earliest and most prominent forms of practising it is Yoga.

Now, Yoga may not be for everyone, but a few of the principals of isometrics applied to your workouts and daily life are going to improve your strength and tone your body in ways you ever thought possible.

The Transverse Abdominal

Transverse AbdominalOtherwise known as the Transversus Abdominis, which I’m sure Gladiators would have called it, are the lesser known inner abdominal muscles (small inner pink ring on diagram).

In many ways – possibly all ways, in fact – the transverse abs are more important than the rectus abdominis that is the fabled six pack muscles down the front of the trunk.

The Transverse Abdominal muscle is like a thin sheet which wraps around your entire mid section to form an inner oval cylinder. Seen from above in cross section, this muscle tissue would not look like much compared to the thicker front muscles, but it’s so important.

For starters, it’s not really a contracting muscle; you can think of it like a wall – a tubular one that is built around your whole mid-section. Strengthening it is like strengthening that wall. This means your upper body weight can be supported, which in turn means you can build your upper body without fear of developing a bad back etc.

It also binds the upper and lower sections of your body together for more complete overall strength. Without a strong transverse abdominal muscle wall, you will never realise your full potential.

The True Core

The transverse is the true core. After strengthening that, the sit-ups and crunches will be like icing on the cake.

Due to this muscle wrapping round your torso, almost as a single unit, it not only ties your upper and lower body, but you front and you back too.

How Do You Develop It?

Everyday development comes in the form of posture awareness and transverse engagement. Posture awareness is the easy one: it’s where you walk and sit (especially when you sit) with a straight back and as tall as possible, no slouching or stooping. It’s important when you are sitting not to let your lower spine sink as the pressure on your lower back will eventually cause long-term damage.

Sitting is one of the most corrosive things we can do to our backs. Remember your posture always. I have a sticky sign on my computer that says “POSTURE”, which constantly reminds me. This is especially important for those people who work at a desk.

Transverse Engagement takes a little more concentration at first but can also be done on an everyday basis. This is something they teach to women after they have had a baby; it helps strengthen the transverse wall after it has taken a baby beating.

It entails sucking in your abdomen at the point on and immediately below the belly button. Not a lung or diaphragm suck; actually you should be able to breathe normally while you are doing this. It’s a muscular suck. Not too much, just enough to feel the slight tension – like 30% effort – and hold for 15 second intervals at the start.

After a while, you’ll be able to hold this muscle virtually all the time and you won’t even feel like you’re doing it.

TIP FOR GUYS: This may sound weird, but men seem to be particularly confused at what effort to put in here, so imagine you are trying you lift up your (ahem) genitals slightly with your transverse abs. That’s the force and level at which you should start.

The Plank

traditional plankThe famous plank. No doubt you have heard of this and no doubt you think one day you’ll get around to it. Make this the day, because it’s going to be your secret weapon. Stick to it and it’s going to make you stronger in ways you didn’t think were possible.

Also, it doesn’t take a gym full of gear to do the plank. The basic way is the best to start: forearms flat on the ground (mat), on your toes, and body taught through the static pose.

Engage the transverse as mentioned previously and breathe normally. Start off by timing yourself until you start to feel slight discomfort, and then rest for 30 seconds or something before repeating.

At the beginning, 20 seconds will feel like a long time but once your core strengthens from it (which will not take long), you will notice some excellent improvement.

You’ll get up one day, after doing the plank everyday for a while, feel your mid-section and wonder how it got so solid!!

Side Plank

After a little while you can throw in some side plank and see how that goes. You have to be a little more aware of your posture here so as not to droop, but that will really toughen up the oblique abs and give you even more concrete strength.

Big Balls

I’m not talking about the guy doing squats with loose shorts on. You’ve all seen the Swiss Balls – the big inflatable balls in the gym…use them.

You might think you look a bit odd, but you’re there to workout not look cool (at least I hope so). I’ve seen people use the big balls for many types of exercise. You can even do some dumbbell presses while lying back on one, and guess what…it engages the core better than a bench can.

Work It All The Time

There should come a point where the only time you are not engaging your core muscles is when you are asleep.

Finish off every workout with a five minute plank session and you will be so happy with the results you’ll wonder why you weren’t doing it along.

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