Wayne L. Westcott, PHD, CSCS
Recently there has been a lot of attention on the abdominal muscles,
with the assumption that everyone can develop a ripped and ridged
midsection. Unfortunately, this is not the case, anymore than the
misconception that anyone can build broad shoulders and bulging
biceps. Genetics has a lot to do with our physical structure and
muscular potential. Consequently, most of us are unlikely to produce
washboard abdominals, regardless of how many sit-ups we perform.
Consider the three basic physiques, called
somatotypes, that largely determine how we look. People who are born
with a relatively small number of muscle cells tend to have a linear
appearance (ectomorphic physique), and encounter more difficulty in
developing large muscles. People who inherit a relatively large number
of fat cells generally have a round appearance (endomorphic physique),
and experience more difficulty in developing defined muscles.
Individuals who are gifted with a relatively
large number of muscle cells and a relatively small number of fat
cells typically have a triangular appearance (mesomorphic physique),
and are more likely to develop large and defined muscles. These are
the same people who characteristically have wide shoulders, and narrow
hips, as well as large torsos and small midsections. With appropriate
training, mesomorphic men and women have the best chance to achieve
chiseled abdominal muscles.
The same training program will enable all of
us to improve our midsection strength and appearance, even if we don't
develop the so-called six-pack set of abdominal muscles prominently
displayed by bodybuilders. For most of us, a reasonably lean and tight
midsection is an attainable goal that can be realized through proper
nutrition and exercise.
The role of appropriate nutrition should not
be underestimated with respect to reducing fat and slimming your waist
area. In fact, a small decrease in your daily calorie consumption
results in the use of stored fat to meet your daily energy
requirements. For example, if you eat just 350 fewer calories on a
daily basis, you will lose about a pound of fat every 10 days.
Generally speaking, shifting from a typical American diet to a lower
fat menu that emphasizes grains, vegetables, and fruit will cut at
least that many calories from your daily food intake.
Endurance exercise such as running, cycling,
or stepping, is an excellent means for burning extra calories, as well
as for improving cardiovascular fitness. Depending upon your training
intensity, 30 minutes of these aerobic activities can burn between 250
and 450 calories. Assuming an average of 350 calories per half hour
training session, every five hours of endurance exercise should result
in a one-pound fat loss.
Strength training also uses a lot of energy
during the exercise session, burning about 250 calories in a 30-minute
circuit workout. A typical circuit workout involves 10 to 15 different
strength exercises performed with brief rests between stations.
However, unlike endurance exercise, strength training builds muscle
that requires additional calories all day long for tissue maintenance.
Every pound of new muscle resulting from the strength training program
increases your resting metabolic rate by 35 to 50 calories per day.
Of course, strength training is the best
activity for developing your abdominal muscles, so that you have
something to show in your leaner midsection. Although some people have
more muscle building potential than others, the following strength
exercises best address the major midsection muscles.
Machine Abdominal Curl: Performed properly, this exercise
effectively isolates the front abdominal muscle (rectus abdominis),
and permits a progressive increase in resistance to maximize
Machine Rotary Torso: This exercise targets the oblique muscles on
both sides of the midsection. Rotating your torso to the right uses
the right internal and left external oblique muscles, and rotating
your torso to the left uses the left internal and right external
oblique muscles. The rectus abdominis muscle is also involved in
both movements, making this an excellent exercise for overall
If you do not have access to resistance
machines, I recommend a combination of bodyweight exercises performed
with as little rest as possible between segments.
Basic Trunk Curl: This is the standard abdominal exercise, and it
works very well when performed in a slow and controlled manner.
Place your hands loosely behind your head to maintain a neutral neck
position, and slowly curl your upper back off the floor until your
abdominal muscles are fully contracted. Each repetition should be
completed in about six seconds (three seconds up and three seconds
down), so that 10 reps require about one minute of continuous
Reverse Trunk Curl: This more difficult movement is performed by
keeping your upper back on the floor, bending your knees with your
feet in the air, and slowly pressing your lower back into the floor.
Like the basic trunk curl, 10 properly performed repetitions should
take about 60 seconds for completion.
Push-Pull: This is the most demanding exercise in the sequence, and
involves the rectus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques,
and hip flexor muscles. Begin by doing a basic trunk curl and
remaining in the top position. Lift both knees so that both feet are
off the floor. Bring your left knee backwards and try to touch it
with your right elbow as you extend your right leg forward. Reverse
this procedure by bringing your right knee backward and trying to
touch it with your left elbow as you extend your left leg forward.
Alternate this push-pull, trunk twisting action at a slow movement
speed for about one minute.
your midsection muscles become better conditioned, you may increase
the exercise difficulty by moving more slowly, adding repetitions, or
both. I recommend performing high-effort abdominal exercises on an
every-other-day basis, as the muscle building process takes place
during the recovery period between training sessions.
For best results, consider a combination of
sensible diet, regular aerobic activity, major muscle group strength
training, and specific abdominal exercises. While there is no
guarantee that you will sculpt a spectacular six-pack, you should
develop a slimmer and stronger midsection, as well as a high level of
overall fitness and improved physical appearance.