Abdominals : Stop the crunches
You know crunches, that abdominal exercise that we all have done after hearing the P.E. teacher yell, “Come on, time for abs!” It is the classic of classics, known for being the sure fire way to get a six pack . . .
So, surprised by the title ? Well, if there is a tradition that needs to see change, this is the one! And for very important reasons too!
A little bit of anatomy
What we commonly refer to as “abs” are in reality 3 layers of muscles that make up the largest area in circumference of the abdominal area. These muscles have certain directions and therefore different actions. They can work together or separately and have complex relationships between each other, sometimes this is synergetic and sometimes it is antagonistic. The deepest layer consists of the transverse abdominis and spreads over the entire base of the abdomen. It’s lateral sections that are muscular, join together in front in a fibrous area of deep fascia the helps the oblique muscles to stay connected. To feel how they work is easy : Draw your stomach in !
The obliques (large and small) form the second layer and have, well, an oblique direction! They allow twisting, the ability to bend the torso and the turning of the shoulders and pelvis. Last, we have the Rectus Abdominis, the outermost layer (and therefore visible!). The Rectus are stretched vertically between the sternum and pelvis. Their contraction provides the equilibrium needed for the back muscles to function. They are the anterior connections (that give tension) to the spine.
Abs, so what do they do ?
The abdominals are not just there to look nice. Their purpose is much greater.
- Firstly, they serve to preserve the viscera.
- They help us to breathe and for blood to circulate (by reinforcing the pumping effect of the diaphragm).
- They aid digestion by massaging the the contents within.
- They come into play during the “pushing” effect of childbirth as well as defecation.
During Physical Activity:
- They function both directly and indirectly in movement.
- They make up the muscular link between the lower and upper parts of the body therefore they are essential in the transfer of forces produced by one or both parts as is the case in a dyno.
- They also function as a dynamic reinforcement that maintains the back and protects the spinal column during movement.
It’s about pressure
As we breath, the diaphragm which is the main breathing muscle, moves up and down.
- When inhaling it contracts and moves downward which allows air to enter the lungs and then exerts pressure on the viscera. The abdominals, now relaxing, will allow the stomach to inflate slightly giving a little more room for the diaphragm and in consequence limits the amount of pressure on the pelvic floor.
- It then relaxes during exhalation and rises back up while pushing the air out of the lungs. During a forced exhale or heavy breathing (for example, when we run) the transverse abdominis will also contract in participation.
The elastic abdominal cavity is therefore subjected to many forms of pressure because its form is perpetually changed by virtue of the movements of the diaphragm. If we are not careful, pressure upon the front can actually stretch the abdominal muscles and the abdominal wall. Downward pressure can weaken the perineum as well as the pelvic floor.
This is where we talk about crunches again
What happens when we do crunches the regular way ? Well, during the ascent of the torso, bringing the shoulders and hips closer together, we reduce the amount of space for the viscera especially if we are holding our breath. We are also producing a pressure toward the front of the abdomen as well as downward toward the pelvic floor.
- The stomach is pushed outward
- Downward pressure on organs and the pain in the perineum
- Increased risk of an abdominal and/or inguinal hernia
- Intervertebral discs are subject to compression
All that for this !
The proper method
So, it’s safe to say that we do not believe that abdominal training should be overlooked. On the contrary, we think that special attention should be given to this subject and particularly in the context of climbing. Therefore is up to us to develop good habits. Generally, we will practice hypopressive exercises while respecting the following rules: maintain the distance between the shoulders and hips, therefore practicing while stretched out and beginning a movement whilst exhaling. This can be done no matter what the exercise, whether working the abdominals on the floor or with the Swiss Ball or a more comprehensive exercise on each specific ab muscle. Examples:
Working the Rectus Abdominis without bending
- In the start position, tilt the pelvis upward (by holding your back flat against the floor)
- Contract the perineum (like holding your bladder)
- Contract the Transverse Abdominis whilst exhaling
Finally, raise the head and shoulders blades slightly off of the ground.
All of this requires control : calculate the frequency of movements to your own rhythm of breath and perform smaller sets of 1015 repetitions without any hurry while remaining mindful
Being aware of the combined effort between the Tranverse and Obliques :
Lying down, flex the thigh while brining as close to the stomach as possible, without letting the knee drift out of line. The back and neck should be flat against the ground. With your arms, try to push your knee while resisting. You will realize that your stomach is expanding which indicates the simultaneous contraction of the Transverse and Oblique muscles. Perform the same exercise with one of your arms at your side.
Dynamic toning training
Another extremely effective exercise for the obliques and transverse can be practiced with the Swiss Ball. This is done by balancing on the ball with your hands and knees at first, then try to let go and straighten your posture as you maintain equilibrium.