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More Than a Six Pack: Lessons in Abdominal Strength

By L.K. Regan

Think your 300-crunches-a-day abs routine is giving you true abdominal strength? Think again. With an eye toward building core abdominal strength worth bragging about, we talked to Devin Wicks, ACE, AFAA, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams. He regretfully informed us that most people work their abs completely incorrectly.

Lucky for all of us, he was willing to tell us how to fix it. And as a bonus, he threw in some exercises to take your abs to the edge.

Transversus Whatus? An Anatomy Lesson
But first, a brief anatomy lesson. Your “abs,” as we affectionately call them, aren’t just the six little muscles you’re always trying to make pop out in the front; they’re actually made up of an interacting group of muscles. The major ones (though there are others) include transversus abdominis (lower front), rectus abdominis (central front; these are your six-pack muscles), and internal and external obliques (to either side of center).

What does that mean to you? It means to build your core the right way, you need to focus on strengthening all of these muscle groups using a variety of exercises, and not just the six pack in front.

That said, some muscles are more important than others: “Your transverse abdominal muscle is the foundation of all core stability,” says Wicks. "It has to engage for your targeted exercise to work properly. So even if you’re targeting your rectus abdominis or obliques, engaging your transverse is key.”

Key to the Core: The Proper Crunch
Your transversus abdominis wraps around the front and sides of your body like a cummerbund, crossing your front underneath your rectus abdominis and connecting around your sides. Because it runs horizontally around your middle, contracting it will pull all the muscles across your center up and in; because it connects fairly far back, contracting it, Wicks says, “teaches your abs to work in a spine-stabilizing way, which is key to true core strength.” Your transverse abdominus is the muscle that, when toned, gives you a long, lean, flat look. And while you can’t selectively burn fat from your middle, training your transversus abdominis makes you stand up straight, which goes a long way towards giving you a slimmer, more athletic appearance.

Well, you say, no worries. I do a lot of crunches! Yes, but you probably do them wrong. Most people have a tendency to do crunches and other abdominal exercises using a host of other muscles—hip flexors, glutes, and quads—that take the strain off the transversus abdominis. So first things first, you have to learn how to do a proper crunch. “The purpose of a crunch,” Wicks says, “is not to get your shoulders off the floor at all costs. It is, instead, to engage your transverse abdominal muscle, and then add the weight of your shoulders to that contraction, to intensify it.”

To learn how to find your proper crunch, Wicks suggested the following two-part learning method:

Step 1: Feel the spinal pull: Lie face down on the floor, with your legs extended and your arms at your sides. Your spine should be neutral—with a natural slight arch in your back. From this position, try to lift your belly button off the floor. Important note: Do not lift your hips, or tuck your tailbone under, or tighten your glutes. The only change should be the contraction through your center to lift your belly button. Wicks suggests doing this several times, holding the contraction each time for several seconds, to get the feeling of engaging your transversus abdominis without rotating your hips or pelvis. By practicing this, he says, “you can learn to use that feel as the basis of a crunch.”

Step 2: Learn the crunch: Now turn over on your back. Bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor, and put your hands behind your head, with your elbows out to the side. Do a crunch, developing that same feeling of pulling your belly button straight toward your spine as you lift. But here’s where you need to be careful: Make sure you don’t put weight on your feet as you lift. “Your feet should be on eggshells,” Wicks says. Don’t tip your tailbone or pelvis upward. And don’t flatten your lower back into the floor. Again, focus only on contracting through your transverse abdominus, a contraction given added intensity by the weight of your shoulders lifting off the floor. “Almost everyone does a crunch by digging in with their feet, or pressing their lower back into the floor for leverage,” Wicks say. If your hips lift up as you crunch, that’s a dead giveaway. Leaving your pelvis in a neutral position, and not pushing through your feet, will give you a totally different feel.” So try practicing crunches until you get that feel. Once you have a solid feel for a crunch, you can use that foundation for a wide variety of abdominal exercises, even ones that target other muscles. You can add in work for the upper and central portion of your abdominal muscles, targeting the rectus abdominis to try for the ever-elusive six pack (side note: you’ll never, ever get your six pack without an accompanying eating plan to significantly reduce your body fat). You can work your obliques, building the part of your abs that control turning, and that give you that long, cut look. But for whatever exercises you do, your base of support will be the correct engagement of your transversus abdominis.

The Intense Five: An Exercise Plan for a Strong Core Foundation
To get you started strengthening on your core, Wicks provided the following set of intense abdominal exercises, which he himself follows to build a strong, functional core. These exercises target all of your abdominal muscles, and are all designed to depend on the foundation of a correct transverse contraction. The first of these, Wicks tells us, he does for 100 reps per day. We believe him. But we should warn you that this reporter did all of four reps and began quietly sobbing. Do this exercise routine several times per week to increase your core strength quickly and properly. Best of luck, friends. It’s been nice knowing you.

Band and Ball Crunch
Find a stability ball of the size that, when you sit on it with your feet on the floor, allows your thighs to be horizontal. You will also need a resistance band with handles. Pull the band around an upright post, or the leg of a flat bench that is bolted into the floor. Put the stability ball one half of the band’s length away from the band’s point of attachment on the pole or bench leg. Taking one handle of the band in each hand, sit down on the ball and slide to lie down on it, until the ball is under your lower back, midway between your sacrum and scapula. Your legs will be bent with feet on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Holding a handle in each hand, extend your arms straight down, until your palms cover where your front pockets would be if you were wearing jeans. The tube will be stretched over your shoulders, extending to the pole. Now, keeping your arms locked straight (no bending your elbows!), use a transverse abdominal contraction to draw your navel inward as you lift your shoulders and slide your palms down your thighs until you touch your knees. Start with three sets of 12, and eventually build up to doing three sets of as many as you can do while maintaining form.

Abdominal Roll Outs
You will need either a hand wheel, if your gym has them, or, if not, a fixed barbell with plates that can spin. Get on all fours on the floor, with the wheel or barbell in your hands, hands under your shoulders, and palms facing in toward you. Pulling your navel inward, and without rounding your back, roll the wheel or barbell away from you, controlling its motion through your center. Your hips will open somewhat as you do this, and your arms will come ahead of your shoulders. Roll it only as far away as you can control, and then, still contracting through your transversus abdominus, pull the wheel or barbell back in, closing your hip angle and keeping your spine neutral as you pull your hands back to their original position beneath your shoulders. Do three sets of 12 to start, and build up from there as your strength develops.

Weighted Crunches
Find a set of light- to medium-weight dumbbells. Lie on your back on the floor in the traditional crunch position, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Take one dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms straight toward the ceiling from the shoulder, with your palms facing each other. Keeping your spine neutral, and without adding any pressure on your feet, draw your belly button inward as you press the dumbbells straight toward the ceiling. Your shoulders will come off the floor, but only as far as they can without tipping the dumbbells toward your feet. Do three sets of 12 to start, and build up from there as your strength develops.

Russian Twist with Barbell
For this exercise, you will need a stability ball and either a mini fixed barbell, or a bicep curl bar without weights. Hold the barbell or bar vertically, with one hand above the other. Sit on the stability ball and slide down until the ball is under your back, between your sacrum and scapula, and your feet are flat on the floor with knees bent. Extend your arms toward the ceiling, still holding the barbell or bar. The bar will be parallel with your body’s central axis. Now, draw your belly button in to engage your transversus abdominus as you use your obliques to bring both arms over to the right, keeping your arms extended and allowing your shoulders to turn. Your hips, however, should stay square to stabilize you. Bring your arms back to center, still keeping them straight, and then repeat to the left. Start with two sets of 12 on each side, and then build up from there as you develop more strength in your obliques.

Medicine Ball Twist
Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat. Take a medicine ball in both hands and extend it directly toward the ceiling. Without tipping your pelvis upward, and without digging in with your heels, engage your transversus abdominus to lift your shoulders slightly off the floor. Holding this position, bring the medicine ball all the way over to the right. Your arms may be somewhat bent. While your shoulders will turn with your arms, your hips should remain square. Come back to center and, if you can, take the ball over to the left. You may then lower your shoulders back to the floor before repeating, or, for a tougher challenge, maintain the central contraction and keep your shoulders off the floor as you continue to alternate sides. Start with two sets of 12 on each side, and then increase your reps as you develop more strength.