A slender midsection is not only desirable for aesthetic reasons, but also for health, lower back protection and to improve physical performance in sports. Which muscles should we exercise to trim the waist? Are the "six pack" muscles of the abdomen the key to a flat stomach? How can we train in the most efficient and enjoyable way? The answers may surprise you.
Does exercising the abdominal "six pack" help reduce waist size?
When we think of a trim midsection, strong abdominal muscles (in scientific terms the rectus abdominis) naturally come to mind. Let's check this proposition. Lie down on the floor with your calves elevated on a chair and put your hands on your stomach. In this position, your stomach should be very flat. Yet, your abdominals seem relaxed and even stretched. Now, contract your abs by lifting your shoulders from the floor without moving your lower back. As your abs flex, your formerly flat stomach tends to protrude. In other words, your abs tend to push your stomach out rather than in.
Now, position yourself on your hands and knees. Pull in your stomach in as much as possible. You will feel that your abs are not involved in this maneuver. Conclusion: the abs have little to do with the size of your waist. Other muscles must be responsible. This is an opportunity, as these often- neglected muscles are easier to strengthen than the abs. Training them can quickly pull inches off your waist without the need of any diet, while enhancing your physical capabilities and health.
Improve performance and protect your back
Three sets of muscles work in concert to flatten your stomach. They are: the transverse abdominis, the internal and the external obliques. The first two muscles are not visible. All three are located to the right and to the left side of your rectus abdominis (ab muscles). They are covered by less fat, so it is easier to make them visible. As they become stronger, they will flatten your stomach much more than before. Both properties will give the impression that you carry a lean and thin mid-section. These three muscle groups do not only possess aesthetic properties, they provide a very strong protection for the lower back. They are also involved in lateral flexion and body rotation. This last function is very important for physiological reasons. In every day life, we often rotate our torso. This maneuver is a frequent cause of back injuries whenever the rotating muscles are underdeveloped and weak. In many sports such as football, running, baseball, basket ball, and so on, the rotational power can make the difference between an average and a good athlete. Yet, rotational exercises are neglected, explaining poor performances and the high incidence of back injuries.
Classical exercises for the stomach
Classically, body rotation can be trained in two different ways. Either the torso rotates while the legs are fixed or the legs rotate while the torso is fixed. The first classical exercise consists of a trunk twist: Lie on the floor, your hands behind your head with legs bent at the knee, feet on the floor. Bring your right elbow toward the left knee. Lower yourself and repeat by bringing the left elbow toward the right knee. Repeat the movement.
The second exercise is the reverse trunk twist. Lie on your back with your arms straight to the side. Your legs are up, straight and forming a right angle with your torso. Slowly lower your legs to the right while keeping the leg/torso angle constant. Once you have reached the floor use your rotational power to return to the starting position. Repeat by lowering your legs to the left. If you find this exercise too hard to perform, bend your knees slightly.
You will quickly realize that those exercises contain many flaws which render them inefficient.
- Range of motion is limited.
- They rapidly become too easy to perform and it is hard to add resistance to them.
- Exercise on the floor prevents muscle stretching and the type of rotation used in everyday life.
- In sports, the torso and the legs can simultaneously rotate in opposite direction, a movement which cannot be trained with the classical exercises.
- Because the floor is very stable, real life unstable environments cannot be duplicated. Our stability cannot not enhanced.
- They are not very comfortable, especially for the reverse trunk twist.
Improved exercises for a flat, functional and strong stomach
It is possible to solve all these problems and to greatly improve the effectiveness of the rotational exercises with the help of an exercise ball. By lying on a small (16 inch / 40 cm) ball with your feet on the floor, the trunk twist takes a new meaning. The exercise ball should be placed under your lower back. Your feet should be spread apart on the floor. In this position, place your arms straight in front of your eyes. Twist your torso and your arms to the right and toward the rear in order to get maximal stretch. This stretching is very important as it will improve your flexibility, more closely duplicate range of rotation needed in sports and trigger a stretch reflex which will force more muscle fibers to contract.
Using your rotational strength, rotate to the left and forward. Try to go up as far as possible. Keep your eyes on your hands during the whole exercises. Don't bounce or jerk -- movement should be smooth and slow. The greater range of motion allowed by the exercise ball will make this exercise much more productive. Compared floor exercise, a workout on the exercise ball will permit you to go much farther forward and downward for greater stimulating effects. You can increase difficulty by rotating your legs in the opposite direction to that of your arms during the stretching phase. For even greater resistance try holding an elastic band, attached to a low fixed point behind you.
The reverse trunk twist can also be significantly improved with the help of a big (32 inch / 80 cm) exercise ball. Place your torso on the ball while your hands hold two fixed points. Raise your legs at a right angle. Lower them to one side as much as your rotational strength allows. Return to the starting point and repeat. As your strength develops, your range of motion can be progressively increased for an added stimulus. This exercise is safer than it looks because your hands take care of your balance. Once you are more comfortable with your stability, you can loosen your grip a little to create a more unstable environment. The ball makes this exercise fun and very comfortable. For added resistance, ankle weights can be added progressively.
You can either work both sides of your body simultaneously or only one side only at a time. In the latter case, rest a little before training the other side. For purely aesthetic training, we suggest exercising one side at a time. For sports training, work both sides simultaneously. However do not hesitate to alter your working pattern from time to time for variety.
Beginners should try two to three sets of trunk twists to gain muscle strength. As your rotational muscles strengthen, add one and then two sets of reverse trunk twists.
To strengthen for sports, three sets of each exercise should be performed at least twice a week. For aesthetic and back protection training, three sessions a week are recommended. Once you can easily perform more than 20 repetitions, add resistance by increasing your range of motion, by using elastic tubes or ankle weights. Don't rest more than 1 minute between sets.
As a starting rotational exercise for your training, alternate the reverse and the normal trunk twists. You can either perform all your sets of one exercise by itself or alternate one with the other after each sets. Keep changing your training pattern frequently for best results.