December 17, 2011

Top Three Abdominal Exercises

Research lists the bicycle, captain’s chair and the stability ball crunch as the top three exercises that work the rectus abdominus.  I want to be clear that these are not necessarily the best exercises for your body.  Despite all our emphasis on working the abs, there is no real evidence that strong abdominals can prevent back pain.  In addition, most of the exercises that were tested involve some degree of the controversial spinal flexion (see post from Nov. 7, 2010).  However, if you choose to do them, there are some ways to make them safer.
The bicycle is performed on your back, the legs bend and straighten close to the ground, and the torso rotates, bringing opposite elbow to knee.  The main problem with this exercise (in addition to the spinal flexion) is the momentum most people use.  They pump their legs wildly and let their hips roll from side to side.  You can make it safer several ways:  First, slow it down (this is true for almost all exercises), you will rely less on momentum and target the abs more. Keep your hips on the ground.  You can also eliminate the flexion by leaving your torso on the floor; keep your spine in neutral (do not let your back press down or come up), and SLOWLY, alternate straightening the legs.

The Captain’s chair uses piece of gym equipment.  You support yourself with your arms, dangle the legs and pull the knees up into your chest.  This can be a great exercise; the major danger comes from performing it with momentum.  It can also be problematic for those who do not have enough upper body strength to maintain the position.   You can make it harder by slowing it down, and by performing it with straight legs.

The stability ball crunch is just what it sounds like.  You lie on a stability ball and perform an abdominal crunch.  It does involve some spinal flexion, but the ball helps keep it to a minimum.  Make it safer by supporting your head without pulling on your neck.  You can make it harder by moving out, so more of your upper back is off the ball, and of course, by slowing it down.

December 11, 2011

Best Abdominal Exercises


In a recent post I mentioned a study listing the 13 best abdominal exercises.  Several of you have asked about it.  This research determined which exercises actually target the abdominal muscles the best.  It did not discuss controversial moves such as forward flexion (see post from Nov. 7, 2010), nor did it mention that the key to washboard abs is low body fat, which can only be obtained with a combination of a healthy diet, aerobic exercise and strength training.
The researchers used EMG data to measure muscle activity.  They measured the rectus abdominus (long muscle that goes down the front of your stomach), internal and external obliques (waist muscles), and the hip flexors (muscles in the front of your thighs).  Below are the rankings for the top 13 in each category:

Rectus abdominus:
2. Captain’s Chair
3. Crunch on Stability Ball
4. Vertical Leg Crunch
5. Torso Track
6. Long Arm Crunch
7. Reverse Crunch
8. Crunch with Heel Push
9. Ab Roller
10. Hover or Plank
11. Traditional Crunch
12. Exercise Tubing Pull
13. Ab Rocker

1. Captain’s Chair
2. Bicycle
3. Reverse Crunch
4. Hover or Plank
5. Vertical Leg Crunch
6. Crunch on Stability Ball
7. Torso Track
8. Crunch with Heel Push
9. Long Arm Crunch
10. Ab Roller
11. Traditional Crunch
12. Exercise Tubing Pull
13. Ab Rocker

Over the next few posts I will describe each exercise, and enumerate the benefits and potential drawbacks.

December 4, 2011

More Spinning Mistakes

Rocking and swaying on the bike:  If you are moving your torso all over the place there is no way you can ride in good form. 
Pushups on the handlebars: There is not enough resistance for this to be an effective move.  All this does is increase the amount of forward flexion.
Riding with one or no hands:  This can be dangerous, especially while standing or jumping as your foot could slip out of the pedal.
Dropping the seat in the middle of class:  If your seat is set up correctly why would you want to do this?
Very high resistance:  This may be ok for very brief intervals, but pedaling at a super slow level will cause you to squeeze the handlebars and can lead to strain in the upper body.
Very low resistance:  Not only will you get little benefit, but pedaling at a very high speed can cause your foot to slip.
Pedaling backwards: Most Spin bikes will be damaged by this move, and it really makes little difference to your muscles.
Jumps:  These are controversial.  Most fitness experts believe jumps can be safely done in an indoor cycling class, but there are some who believe the risk of injury outweighs the benefits.  Know your fitness level and avoid jumps if you are new to Spinning or have any joint problems.
Exclusively Spinning: Indoor cycling is a great workout, but it is not enough by itself for a balanced fitness program.