I found a great article online about the quest for flatter abs. The author does a great job exploding the myth that crunches or sit-ups are the answer and even explains that repetitive back flexing exercises like that can have the unwanted side effect of causing back problems. She explains that the real secret to flatter abs is through strengthening the core muscles. I would like to add my own opinion that Pilates, which is focused on strengthening your core muscles is a great exercise program to get the flat abs you want and reduce back pain at the same time. Here is a recap of the article:
Stop Doing Sit-Ups: Why Crunches Don’t Work
by Kate Dailey
Everyone knows that the road to flat, tight abs is paved with crunches. Lots and lots and lots of excruciating crunches. Or is it?
As it turns out, the exercises synonymous with strong, attractive abs may not be the best way to train your core—and may be doing damage to your back.
“We stopped teaching people to do crunches a long, long time ago,” says Dr. Richard Guyer, president of the Texas Back Institute. That’s because the “full flex” movement—the actual “crunch” part of crunches – puts an unhealthy strain on your back at its weakest point. The section with the most nerves (and most potential for nerve damage) is in the back of the spine, which is the very part that bends and strains during a sit-up.
“There are only so many bends or a ‘fatigue life’,” in your spinal disks,” says Stuart M. McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. Inside each disk is a mucus-like nucleus, he says, and “if you keep flexing your spine and bending the disk over and over again, that nucleus slowly breaches the layers and causes a disk bulge, or a disk herniation.” A herniated disk won’t show through your swimsuit, but it’s no fun, and can cause persistent back and leg pain, weakness, and tingling.
But who cares about back health as bathing suit season approaches? Turns out, crunches might not be the best solution for a flat stomach, either. That’s because doing too many sit-ups at the expense of other, more comprehensive movements can lead to the dreaded “aerobic abs.” That’s the term celebrity trainer Steve Maresca coined to describe the distended stomachs of those who focus only on the rectus abdominus muscles targeted by sit-ups and crunches. “They look great from the front, but when they turn to the side, their stomachs are extended,” he says. To get the long, lean look, one needs to work transverse abdominius, a large muscle that holds in those rectus abs, and is mainly unchallenged by traditional ab work (aka, the sit-up and crunches).
Doing a sit-up doesn’t train your ab muscles to do the job for which they were designed – keeping your spine straight and secure and providing power for your movements. In everyday life, “the abdominals are braces,” says McGill, author of “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance” (Stuart McGill, 2004). When doing any athletic movement—even opening a door—“the spine is in a neutral posture, not flexed, and the abdominal muscles are contracted to brace the spine.”
The best way—for both your back and your beach body—to work your midsection is to do movements that challenge the muscles to perform the way they’re designed and expected to work in real life, and not to train muscles in isolation. “It’s important to have strong abs, but strong abdominals are not the only thing,” says Dr. Guyer. “You have your back extenders, your flexors, which are belly muscles, you have your oblique muscles.” Working all of these muscle groups—the anatomical association known as “the core”—is essential to both back health and general athleticism.
There was a great article in Fitness Magazine: Insider’s Guide to Pilates by Jessica Cassity which gives a quick rundown of some of the benefits of Pilates and explains some of the exercise moves. Here are the key points from that article.
The Pilates promise: You’ll work your abs up to 70 percent more than with a crunch and look 5 pounds slimmer after one session.
Try It Now
Try it now because: It’s a confidence booster. Women of all shapes, sizes, and athletic ability love the grace and power they feel after just a single Pilates session.
Try it now because: It’s a great boredom buster. “Almost every exercise requires a laser-like focus, so you don’t have a chance to get distracted,” says Alycea Ungaro, a FITNESS advisory board member, author of The Pilates Promise, and owner of Real Pilates in New York City.
Try it now because: It’ll help your aching back. One recent study found that Pilates is just as effective at reducing lower-back pain in chronic sufferers as traditional physical-therapy strengthening exercises.
The Workout: These seven mat exercises, compiled by Ungaro, make up the foundation of a Pilates program. They’ll strengthen your core while also working your upper and lower body.
What you’ll need: A mat or piece of plush carpeting
1. The Hundred
Works abs, inner thighs
Lie on floor with knees bent above hips (not shown), arms by sides, palms down. Exhale and raise head and shoulders off mat, curling chin toward chest while extending arms and legs; keep lower back pressed into floor and pull abs toward your spine (keep them engaged throughout the workout). Vigorously pump arms about 6 inches up and down, reaching through your fingertips. Inhale for 5 pumps, then exhale for 5. Do 100 pumps, or 10 full breaths.
Sit tall with knees bent and feet on the mat, legs hip-width apart. Place hands behind thighs, keeping elbows wide. Inhale and begin to roll back toward the mat, curling your pelvis under and pressing your lower back into the floor. Stop halfway down, when your arms are almost straight. Hold this position for 3 breaths (deepen your abs with each exhale), then roll back up to sitting position. Do 3 times.
3. Single-Leg Circle
Works abs, hips, inner and outer thighs, hamstrings
Lie with right leg on the mat and left leg extended toward ceiling; keep arms at sides with palms pressing down into mat. Point left foot, reaching out with toes, and rotate the leg slightly outward.
Inhale and trace a circle on the ceiling with your left leg, moving the entire leg but keeping hips still (don’t lift left hip off floor).
Circle 5 times clockwise, then repeat in a counter-clockwise direction. Switch legs and repeat.
4. Rolling Like a Ball
Sit toward the front of your mat with your legs hip-width apart and hands holding tops of ankles. Round your back, looking toward your navel, and tilt back slightly, balancing with your weight centered just behind your pelvic bones.
Inhale and rock back until the bottoms of your shoulder blades touch the mat, then exhale and come up to balance. Repeat 6 to 10 times, staying in a tight ball as you roll.
5. Single-Leg Stretch
Works abs, obliques
Lie on center of mat with knees bent toward chest. Lift head, neck and shoulders, curling chin toward chest. Inhale as you draw left knee toward chest, placing left hand on left ankle and right hand on left knee. Extend right leg about 45 degrees to floor. Continuing to inhale, switch legs and arms, extending left leg while hugging right leg toward chest. Repeat, exhaling for 2 counts. Do 5 to 10 reps per side.
6. Spine Stretch Forward
Sit tall on the mat with legs extended, feet flexed and hip-width apart, and knees as straight as possible. Extend arms in front of shoulders, fingertips reaching forward. Without moving your hips or lower back, exhale and lower your head as if diving through your arms; round forward from upper back and curl chin toward chest. Pull your navel toward your spine and aim the top of your head toward the mat, reaching forward. Inhale and slowly return to starting position. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
7. Side Kicks Front
Works abs, butt
Lie on your left side at the back edge of the mat, cradling your head in your left hand with elbow bent. Keep right hand on the mat just in front of your waist. Bring your legs 45 degrees in front of your body. Lift right leg to hip height; inhale while kicking right foot forward, keeping foot flexed and hips stacked. Exhale as you bring right leg back, reaching through your toes and bringing it just slightly behind your body, as far as your hips will allow without rocking. Do 5 to 10 sets; switch sides and repeat.
Get It Right
To get results, you need to do each move using the correct alignment and breathing, says Ungaro. Keep these head-to-toe tips in mind during your next workout.
- Scoop your abs as if trying on a pair of tight jeans, and keep them engaged through most of the exercises.
- Exhale on the exertion — or the toughest part — of the exercise, then inhale when you’re in the recovery phase.
- Press your shoulders down and away from your ears, keeping your chest lifted.
- Reach out through your hands and feet.
- Keep a fist-distance space between your chin and chest when rounding your head forward.
One thousand crunches a day? Don’t waste your time. Instead, the best way to get a flatter stomach involves a few clever changes to your diet and workout…and about 970 fewer sit-ups.
Consider this: Stomach flab is easier to lose than the padding on your butt and thighs; commit to shedding a few pounds, and the ones around your waist disappear first. Once they’re gone, a judicious mix of ab moves can carve out smooth, visible muscles over time—and not just for the genetically preprogrammed. Here, five ways to create your own (genuine) ab masterpiece.
Problem: You have too much fat all over.
You could have Jessica Alba’s muscle structure and nothing to show for it if you’re carrying around extra pounds. “No one’s ever going to see those strong muscles as long as a layer of fat sits on top of them,” says personal trainer Gunnar Peterson, who works with Jennifer Lopez and Gisele Bundchen. Interval training is the most effective way to exercise. A study in the International Journal of Obesity found that women who put in 20 minutes on a stationary bike three times a week—but alternated 8-second bursts of speedy pedaling with 12-second rest periods— trimmed more from their midsections over 15 weeks than those who cycled at a slower, but steady, pace for 40 minutes. Researchers believe that interval training triggers the body to release adrenaline, a hormone that tells the body to burn stored fat—which is often found in the stomach area.
Problem: You’re eating the wrong food
Without the right diet, even the most rigorous cardio regimen is useless. “That means cutting calories,” says Susan B. Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston and author of The Instinct Diet (Workman Publishing Company). And there are tricks that help, too. Drinking coffee—when part of a weight-loss diet—may also trim the stomach slightly, and the caffeine may speed up the metabolism. Roberts suggests one to three cups of coffee a day.
Dairy’s role in weight loss is controversial (some studies have shown a strong connection; others haven’t). On the pro side: In a University of Tennessee study, overweight adults on a low-calorie diet who had 1,100 milligrams of calcium daily lost 81 percent more stomach fat than those who got only 400 to 500 milligrams of calcium per day. Getting three daily servings of dairy is a reasonable goal, says Michael B. Zemel, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee.
What to avoid? White, starchy carbohydrates top the list. People who chose white bread over whole grains gained about half an inch around the middle every year, according to a study from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
Problem: You’re doing the wrong moves
“Crunches only work the superficial muscles at the front of your torso,” says Shawn McCormack, director of and head instructor at the Body, a Manhattan fitness studio. “They don’t do anything for the muscles that run around the entire core of your body like a corset, or the oblique muscles along your sides.” These are the muscles that act like your body’s own Spanx, drawing your midsection up and in. One of the best ways to strengthen them is by holding a simple plank position. For an extra challenge, lift your hips up an inch or two and then move them back.
Pilates moves are powerful ab sculptors, says Michele Olson, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama. In a study pitting mat-based Pilates moves against crunches, the Pilates exercises were all more effective on the abs than crunches were. Crunches can still be one part of your routine, but doing them ad nauseam is an exercise in futility. Two to five sets of 15 to 20 reps are plenty.
Problem: You only use your abdominal muscles rarely
Whether you’re on the treadmill or doing push-ups, your navel should feel like it’s being pulled toward your spine as your ribs drop slightly toward your pelvis. “Breathing deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth, is the best way to keep your core muscles contracted and engaged in any workout,” says Laurie Cole, an instructor at SoulCycle, a cycling studio in New York City. And it should extend beyond the gym. “My abs are always activated,” says personal trainer Kacy Duke. This not only strengthens the torso over time but also improves posture, which instantly minimizes bulges.
Problem: Your genes aren’t solely to blame.
Fat distribution is at least 30 percent—maybe as much as 60 percent—determined by genetics. But biology isn’t necessarily destiny. Though scientists have identified specific genes that affect the propensity to store fat around the middle or in the hips and thighs, any gene pool can be overcome. “You’ll probably have to do more work to maintain a flat stomach, but biology doesn’t rule how you exercise or what you eat,” says Olson.
Extracted from an Allure Magazine article: 5 Things Keeping You From a Flatter Stomach