Thursday, June 28, 2007

Abs abs abs!


Sorry, that was me reading the title of this post. At this point, I can't even look at the word "abs" without shuddering. We've seen it everywhere: "Flat abs for summer!" "Six-pack abs in six weeks!" "Recipe for rock-hard abs!" and so on. Inevitably these headlines point to articles that suggest you do six different variations of crunches, with seperate exercises for "lower abs", obliques, and so forth. I've always found it funny how these prescriptions are so readily embraced by the masses; women who eschew squats for fear of bulking will happily knock out an hour of sit-ups per day. But fortunately, if you're reading this article then I'm willing to bet you're not a blind lemming of The Cult of Abs. Read on for the real deal.

The reason why the constant references to one's "abs" makes me grind my teeth is because I think that it is a deceptive phrasing with regards to the goals most women have. While resistance exercises won't make you bulky, they do have the effect of making a muscle group larger. With abs, no matter how much you build up the muscles, if they're covered with fat you won't have anything to show for your hard work. Unless they are VERY lean, most women aren't really seeking "abs", in the sense of rectus abdominis hypertrophy. What they want is a smaller waist.

In terms of actually shrinking the size of your waist, diet is your best bet. You need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat. Moreover, hydrogenated oils are the enemy of your gut. From ScienceDaily:

Kylie Kavanagh, D.V.M., presented the findings today at the 66th annual Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association in Washington, D.C. She said that over six years, male monkeys fed a western-style diet that contains trans fat had a 7.2 percent increase in body weight, compared to a 1.8 percent increase in monkeys that ate monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.

All that extra weight went to the abdomen, and some other body fat was redistributed to the abdomen. Computed tomography (CT) scans showed that the monkeys on the diet containing trans fats had dramatically more abdominal fat than the monkeys on the monounsaturated fat. "We measured the volume of fat using CT," Kavanagh said. "They deposited 30 percent more fat in their abdomen."

The monkeys all were given the same amount of daily calories, with 35 percent of the calories coming from fat. The amount of calories they got should only have been enough to maintain their weight, not increase it, Rudel said. "We believed they couldn't get obese because we did not give them enough calories to get fat."

Hopefully this is enough to convince you to rid your cupboard of anything with the word "hydrogenated" with the ingredients. I lost four inches off my waist when I eliminated trans fats from my diet. Of course I was also in a caloric deficit, but my middle has always been my problem area.

Now, on to exercises. To illustrate why I don't like the language of "toned abs", I'm going to borrow a bit of bodybuilding terminology. Competitive bodybuilding is not just about becoming big and huge. It's largely about shape and symmetry, and achieving what is known as a "V-taper" and "X-frame".

An X-frame entails building up various elements of the upper body so that it is wider relative to the waist (the "V-taper"), and emphasizing the outer "sweep" of the quads and glutes. This gives the illusion of a narrow waist. But don't worry; the exercises I'm about to suggest won't make you look like Big Ron in the photo above. Don't balk at the idea of increasing size, because if you do so evenly, you can carve yourself a nice firm hourglass.

Hence, instead of focusing on building up abs, I prefer to think of creating an X-frame. Unless you are very advanced, the routine for achieving this is not much different from the usual workout I recommend. For the most part, if you do basic compound exercises for all the major muscle groups, you'll maintain a nice symmetry and overall shape. So, first I'll discuss what I explicitely DON'T do, and then follow it up with some tweaks you can make to your routine if you're trying to shed your apple shape.

I personally don't find it necessary to do a battery of direct abdominal work. It's just another muscle; there is no need to train it every day or with multitudes of exercises. I do recognize that abs tend to have a faster recovery time than other muscles. But, if you're already doing a routine with lots of free weights and compound movements, just about every single exercise is hitting your ab muscles. I think that modified planks are ideal for beginners who need to achieve core stability, as it will assist you in other exercises. Once you can hold a plank for a few minutes, I would add something that trains ab strength, such as hanging leg-hip raises or ball crunches. I also usually do a few bicycle crunches as part of my warm-up. And that's about all you need.

In particular, I would shun any and all exercises which specifically target obliques. These will only contribute to a wider waist. I always value functionality over aesthetics, but since oblique exercises are so isolated, I don't find them to be necessary at all.

Now, on to the inclusions. For a nicely curved waist, instead of building up obliques, I would seek to extend the latissmus dorsi, or lats.

It should be clear from viewing this picture how this might affect the shape of your sides. The best exercises for emphasizing this area are wide-grip overhead pulling motions. If you can do pull-ups or chin-ups, perfect! If not, I like to do the assisted pull-ups in step 2 of this pull-up progression. Specifically the ones on a bar, rather than the assisted machine.

As for the rest of the V-taper, if you're still beginner-to-intermediate, you don't need much more than the classic compound movements which you should be doing anyway: shoulder presses, chest press, and so on. Bodybuilding sites will often suggest tons of little isolation exercises for nitty-gritty sculpting (which is fantastic if you're on steroids, as many bodybuilders are). However, just because an exercise is more direct does not necessarily mean that it is more effective. In fact, the nice thing about basic exercises is that the smaller synergist muscles tend to fail first while the major muscle group continues to carry the load, so your smaller muscles can effectively work past failure. Additionally, routines which have lots of isolation work have to be split over a greater number of days, so you train each muscle group less frequently, and thus may sacrifice muscle gains.

If you are advanced to the point where when you're done with your workout you're still ready for more, there are a few fine-tuning exercises which I find particularly effective. However, do not pace yourself to be able to do these exercises. Continue to go all-out on your bench press, rows, shoulder presses, and so forth. Only do these auxiliary exercises AT THE END if you're still up for more:
  • Rear delt rows. Since I assume you're already doing bent rows for your back, I sometimes like to throw in rear delt rows as well to thoroughly work the posterior deltoid and rhomboids. The motions for targeting these muscles are almost identical to a bent row, except instead of pulling to your waist, you pull toward your neck. I like to do one (either bent rows or rear delt rows) with free weights, and do the other either supine, with a different type of free weight (i.e. a barbell instead of dumbbells), or with the cable station.
  • Decline push-ups, to work the upper pecs. Since the lower and outer pecs are not particularly visible on women, it may be worthwhile to hit the part of the chest that shows.
For the lower body, nothing beats good ol' squats and deadlifts. However, you can modify your squats to emphasize the curvy outer "sweep" of the glutes and quads. Do your squats with a fairly narrow stance and toes pointed forward. Instead of bending forward at the waist, maintain a straight back. This also works to de-emphasize your waist. You may find that it helps your form to hold the barbell in front of your neck instead of resting it on your shoulders. If you can do them, hack squats emphasize the outer quads, but those are HARD!

So now I'm about to print out my routine and hawk it to Cosmo, Glamour, and all those other magazines promising Flat Abs Fast. But until then, have fun strutting past the line of women waiting for the crunch machine.!


kiwisagogo said...

Hey, your page is really interesting and helpful! I got over here from fitbody_fitmind, and I was wondering if it's a bad idea to do deadlifts with dumbbells instead of a barbell. I just don't own one at the moment, and as I'm going back to school in the fall I probably won't invest in one. Thanks!

floridagirl said...

Hi there, no, I don't think that there's anything wrong with it :) I recommend doing a variation such as Romanian deadlifts where you start at the top position and only go down to mid-calf. With your conventional deadlifts it's really imperative that you get your toes underneath the bar. But for the Romanian deadlifts linked in my beginner's routine, or straight-back straight-leg deads, you're fine :) If you want a challenge, do them on one leg.