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Wednesday August 15, 2018

The Truth about Abs

Written by Chip Conrad

How to have great absThe body part of the millennium, that sexy landscape of bumps and grooves which is a key factor to many folks being in the gym.  The six pack, the flat stomach, the tight belly, those chiseled abs.

By Chip Conrad of BodyTribe

"The body is a tool for greater purpose, not just the end result of your training" Chip Conrad

Give me a break, people!  Remember when working out was about your health?  Remember that?  Huh?  No?  Oh.

This is it.  This is the information no one wants to hear or read because it means responsibility and dedication, not magic potions or god-sent gizmos.  There is some good news though, which I'll start with, but first, we’d better do some explaining.

A modern vernacular for the midsection musculature has arisen that needs to be assessed.  Starting with the word ‘abs,’ let’s find common ground for definitions and anatomy so a decent dialog can exist.

Truth #1:  If we’re being literal, there is only one ‘Ab.’

Now this is simply anatomical pickiness.  ‘Abs’ seems to commonly refer to the anterior, or front, of the midsection.  Ya know, the belly button area, while the sides are called ‘love handles’ and the back is called…uh, the back. ‘Abs’ is slang for rectus abdominus, the fancy-pants word for the muscle running from the ribs to the pelvis.  Notice how it is singular, not plural.  It is only one muscle, not a collection of little muscles making up an upper, lower and middle section, geographically defined by the 6- or 8- pack that appears on the coveted midsection of underwear models.  So, literally, it would be an ‘ab,’ but let’s put pendantics aside for a moment, since it has become a blanket term for the collection of muscles making up the trunk of the body, often referred to as the ‘core.’

Truth # 2:  The ‘core’ isn’t always the core.

Now ‘core’ represents the center of something, and although the lower spine can be considered our center of gravity for a passive standing body, any movement will change that center and therefore the ‘core’ of the movement will change.  So ‘engaging the core’ for, say, a bicep curl could be considered contracting the muscle involved in flexion of the elbow and have little to do with the spinal or trunk muscles.  In other words, the pendantic police say ‘nay’ to the overuse of ‘core’ in common fitness-speak.

Also, ‘core’ training focuses too much on the ‘abs’ while most of the spinal muscles go largely ignored, often under the mistaken belief that training the ‘abs’ strengthens the spine.  So…

Truth #3:  Strengthening the ‘abs’ doesn’t necessarily strengthen the spine.

To justify the hundreds of crunches and twisty things folks do on the floor, instead of just admitting they’re trying to look pretty, the excuse is often related to strengthening the back.  In fact ask the average gym rat how to strengthen the back and they will show you a crunch or sit up, and tell you to strengthen the ‘core.’  Although the intentions are good, the truth is there are far more important muscles then the rectus abdominus when it comes to spine health, and the over emphasis on ‘abs’ may actually exaggerate a problem.  First of all, the rectus abdominus doesn’t even connect to the spine.  Although it is a stabilizer and flexor of the spine, there are a slew of other muscles that actually attach to the spine that will play a great role in its health.  If the spine isn’t involved in extension exercises, or exercises that require a large amount of stabilization and support (big lifts like squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, etc), then all the crunches in the world won’t help it

Truth #4  Abs do not need to be “worked” everyday, or even every other day.

That's the good news.  But this needs clarification. You're wasting precious time doing those various crunchy twisty thingies every single day.  Guess what?  If you hold that spine the way it should be held, proud and stable, for every exercise you do and learn what your mama told you about sitting up straight, plus learn to not fear picking up heavy objects once in a while, you're gaining a considerable amount of “core strength.”  But who the heck wants "core strength," whatever that is?  We want ABSSS!  Poppin' out everywhere like speed bumps to heaven.  Then work those trunk muscles like you would any other muscle group, very hard and through chains of motion, not wasting time with isolation and definitely not that sloppy, formless mess that seen writhing on the floors or twitching in some ab gizmo all the time.

You’ve got abs.  In fact, if you workout well and consistently, you probably have considerable ab strength.  You don't see them because they're hiding.  They're ducking behind your fat layer and can't be coerced out until the fat goes away.  NO AMOUNT OF AB WORK MAKES THAT FAT GO AWAY !!(1,2)

So doing those silly isolation exercises every day is precious time that could be spent doing much better things, and potentially dangerous in the long run.  No muscle needs to be beaten up on like that. (3)

Truth #5  If you are doing hundreds of repetitions, you're doin' somethun' wrong.

Back to that formless mess.  Aw, just see Truth #8

Truth #6  There is absolutely no need for a machine or device, especially the junk sold through infomercials (4).

A small group of people are making truckloads of money off the uneducated masses needing a quick fix.  Their product will not do any of the wonderful things they say.  They are lying, absolutely lying.  Don't pay them to lie further.  Imagine if you bought some magical machine for every body part.  You'd have a big room of junk.  A mini gym of dumbness.

Traditional  free-weight or bodyweight exercises are far superior in every way. Some folks swear by those giant inflated beach-ball-on-steroid things that offer several options for playing with the spine muscles.  There is no real need for any special piece of Ab Machinery.  With standing cable or free-weight exercises, or even with a ball, the movements require strong abdominal and spinal function as either movers or stabilizers, offering more effective ways of training the trunk then doing a bunch of crunches or investing in an AbTerminator.

Truth #7  Abs are just a small part of the overall picture and should be trained within an entire trunk training program.

When was the last time you crunched in day-to-day life?  It's not a motion we utilize daily (if it is, you have a unique occupation), so why train our abs that way when their #1 job is stabilization and balance, often during dynamic situations.  Don’t put your chiropractor’s kids through school by going for the burn that several thousand crunches may give you.   Just because you wanna be ripped doesn't mean you have to be stupid.

Truth #8 (this is a biggie) There isn't a single ab exercise, device or routine in the world that will reduce the fat directly from the waist line.


In other words, ab exercises alone won't make your waist smaller (1,2)!  Remember, those coveted midsection muscles might be hiding, but torturing them through some monster ab routine or on an infomercial gizmo does not affect the fat around them at all.  Fat and muscle are two different tissues without direct effect on each other.  In other words, fat is not immediately affected by the muscle that happens to be close by it.  Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Truth #9  Eating better is the number one way to reduce the stubborn fat around the midsection, not cardiovascular exercise, and definitely not abdominal exercise.

Who wants to hear this garbage, just give me a Torso Obliterator, a handful of pills and be done with it.  This is the bad news no one wants to hear.  That's right, the absolute best way to affect the fat around the midsection is changing your eating habits.  Yes, that takes real work, not just the toil and sweat of a workout.  Now don't get me wrong, cardiovascular exercise will help put the body in a calorie deficit and therefore promote fat loss from all over the body, but studies have shown that the stubborn belly jiggle responds best to diet changes (5,6,7,8). Sorry, but I did say this takes responsibility and dedication.

Truth #10  Most people perform ab exercises ineffectively, if not dangerously.

Hey, how cool am I?  I just did three hundred crunches!  Then you, my friend, are doing something wrong.  If the rest of your weight workout rep range is about 8 - 15 reps, why should your ab muscles follow different laws?  Would you do 300 leg presses or 300 bicep curls?  Somewhere, maybe around rep 250, why didn't you think "what the heck kinda waste of time is this?"  Heck, crunches may be the most overused, yet functionally useless exercise around.

Kerry Dulin

Truth #11  You cannot target the "lower abs."

Lower abs is a geographic location, not an anatomical description.  Ain't no special muscles down there that are separated from the rest.  You may have acquired an unwanted attachment that has become determined to set up camp on you lower midsection, but since we've discussed in great length earlier how you can't choose where that goo should melt from, "targeting" this area won't do a lick of good (12).

Dr. Mel Siff, in one of his famous Puzzles and Paradoxes (#92), writes:

"Some authorities state that, since the different regions of the abdominals are separately innervated, one should certainly be able to activate upper and lower regions of the abs separately.

"However, in saying that the lower abs are separately innervated we have to be cautious in misapplying this information. All of the rectus abdominis and the obliques are innervated by branches of the thoracic nerves T6 or T7 - T12, as is transversus (by the ventral rami and L1). This would tend to imply that the lower abs and lower obliques(?!) should be activated by stimulation of T6/7 - T8/9 and the upper abs and upper obliques (if these exist!) by the remaining thoracic nerves. In addition, an examination of their nervous innervation would also suggest that there should be separate activation of upper and lower transversus.

"This clearly confounds the entire issue of trunk action and situps for the supposedly different parts of the trunk muscles. We can only resolve the issue if we stop talking about upper and lower abs etc and analyze in terms of a graduated activation of all of the trunk muscles progressing from the extreme top to the extreme bottom (as defined by the appropriate nerves) - much in the way that a caterpillar moves.

"This would appear to offer a far more accurate and logical biomechanical approach, since the current view of upper vs lower abs would imply that there should be a somewhat jerky discontinuity somewhere during a full crunch. The entire action of trunk flexion is smooth, well-controlled and continuous, so this observation supports my view that there is a smooth continuum of activation of the entire abdominal (and erector spinae) group.

"If one wishes to simplify, then it would be crudely accurate to talk of upper, mid and lower abs, but this still tends to mask the fact that there is really a continuum of muscle activation involving all of the trunk muscles, each exhibiting a different level of involvement, depending on the type and pattern of movement.

"This means that it is highly unlikely that you will be able to totally isolate the 'lower abs', since there is always accompanying involvement of many other stabilizing and mobilizing muscles."(14)

There is reason to focus on movements that turn the pelvis and spine in different directions, but this is to train movement patterns, not muscles.  In other words, certain movements utilize the rectus abdomius differently, but it is still one muscle and, again, doesn’t directly affect the fat surrounding it.

Truth #12  Beware of High Repetition, Unloaded Trunk Twists.

Again, usually performed under the mistaken belief that this “exercise” will somehow reduce those poetically named "love handles."  The good ol’ broom twists are not very effective, in fact they could do a good degree of damage to the spine (9).  I don't want to get into depth about them, let's just say that this “exercise” doesn’t really work the muscles you want to work anyway (at least not in the fast, uncontrolled and unloaded fashion most folks perform it in, [10]) and even if they did, they still wouldn't burn the extra pudding around the sides.  Plus, bad forces against spine.  Spine no like.  So stop it!

TRUTH #13  Learn Technique Before Adding Weight.

When you feel the need to increase the intensity of your ab workouts, learn to do the exercises properly, which is an easily skipped step.  Your body weight will usually be sufficient for many floor-based exercises, but if it’s time to get up off the floor, then start light and master form.  Great, so you can bend your spine with added resistance.  Can you balance?  Are you in control of the movement?  This is an area that trainers need to greatly increase their knowledge in, because many gyms across the world have trainers torturing people's abs in silly and dangerous ways.

This article was written by Chip Conrad of

Chip is a trainer in Sacramento whose philosophy of fitness sets him apart from the mainstream.

"The body is a tool for greater purpose, not just the end result of your training"


1. Ross R, Janssen I. Physical activity, total and regional obesity: dose-response considerations. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001 Jun;339,

2. Ross R, Janssen I. Is abdominal fat preferentially reduced in response to exercise-induced weight loss? Med Sci Sports Exerc 1999 Nov;31

3. DeMichele PL, Pollock ML, Graves JE, Foster DN, et al. Isometric torso rotation strength: effect of training frequency on its development. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1997 Jan.

4. Demont RG, Lephart SM, Giraldo JL, Giannantonio FP, et al. Comparison of two abdominal training devices with an abdominal crunch using strength and EMG measurements. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 1999 Sep

5. Sweeney ME, Hill JO, Heller PA, Baney R, et al. Severe vs moderate energy restriction with and without exercise in the treatment of obesity: efficiency of weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr 1993 Feb

6. Ross R, Rissanen J, Pedwell H, Clifford J, et al. Influence of diet and exercise on skeletal muscle and visceral adipose tissue in men. J Appl Physiol 1996 Dec;81(6):2445-55.J Appl Physiol 1996 Dec

7. Saris WH. Exercise with or without dietary restriction and obesity treatment. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1995 Oct;19 Suppl 4:S113-6.Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1995 Oct

8. Gleim GW. Exercise is not an effective weight loss modality in women. J Am Coll Nutr 1993 Aug;12(4):363-7.J Am Coll Nutr 1993 Aug

9. Au G, Cook J, McGill SM. Spinal shrinkage during repetitive controlled torsional, flexion and lateral bend motion exertions. Ergonomics 2001 Mar

10. Ng JK, Parnianpour M, Richardson CA, Kippers V. Functional roles of abdominal and back muscles during isometric axial rotation of the trunk. J Orthop Res 2001 May

11. Rao S, Bellare B. Cardiovascular responses to abdominal exercises in females between 35 and 45 years of age. J Postgrad Med 1993 Apr-Jun;39(2):79-81.J Postgrad Med 1993 Apr-Jun;39(2):79-81.

12. Stokes IA, Moffroid M, Rush S, Haugh LD. EMG to torque relationship in rectus abdominis muscle. Results with repeated testing. Spine 1989 Aug;14(8):857-61.Spine 1989 Aug;14(8):857-61.

13.  Dr. Mel Siff, "Upper-Lower Abs",

You’ve got abs.  In fact, if you workout well and consistently, you probably have considerable ab strength.  You don't see them because they're hiding.  They're ducking behind your fat layer and can't be coerced out until the fat goes away.  NO AMOUNT OF AB WOR


0 #3 alok 2010-09-28 18:00
it was an very useful knowledge for me & this discription of abbs exercises has reduced my burden of heavy n painfull exercises.
0 #2 Admin 2010-07-30 02:59
Interesting comment Bob. I believe that ab priority has changed over the years but I still suspect that many people overtrain the abs.
0 #1 Bob Polaneczky 2010-07-29 19:34
Back in the dark ages (1954) I had finished the basic York bb db course so I went to one of the 2 commercial gyms in Phila and asked the trainer to design me a course

John Fritshe who had trained Jules Bacon--John Farbotnick and George Eifferman at one time in his gym was his name

He gave me 5 bulk building exercises 3 sets 3 times a week

He SPECIFICALLY said --" Don't train your abs --you want to keep your waist small and you will get ENOUGH ab work with your other exercises ?

That was over 55 years ago and he was right --my waist stayed small but you could see a Six Pack

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