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(Abs)olutely Impossible

All the crunches in the world won't get you a 'six-pack'

WEDNESDAY, June 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Want a flat, chiseled stomach, one that will look sleek even when you sit down in your Speedo?

Good luck. A six-pack stomach is largely the result of genetics, physiologists say.

But because that doesn't stop many of us from trying, researchers at San Diego State University's biomechanics lab compared 13 common abdominal exercises, with and without machines and equipment, and ranked how well they worked.

The most effective exercise to strengthen the rectus abdominis, the long, flat muscle extending the length of the front of the abdomen, is the bicycle maneuver. To do it, lie on the floor with your lower back pressed to the ground; raise your knees, put your feet in the air and move your legs as if you are cycling.

The most effective exercise to strengthen the obliques, the muscles on either side of the abdomen, is the "captain's chair." To do this, you need a set of parallel bars. Rest your forearms on the bars while letting your feet dangle. Then, lift your knees repeatedly to your chest.

The research was conducted for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a San Diego-based organization that promotes fitness and debunks hype in exercise trends. The findings were published in a May-June supplement to the ACE publication FitnessMatters.

Peter Francis, director of the biomechanics laboratory at San Diego State University, connected 31 healthy men and women, aged 20 to 45, to electromyography equipment, which measures electrical activity in muscles. Francis then had the men and women do 13 abdominal exercises, some with equipment, some without.

The electrical activity generated by the traditional crunch sit-up, in which you lie on your back, clasp your hands behind your head and lift your shoulders off the ground, was used as the benchmark.

The study found the top-rated bicycle maneuver generated almost 250 percent more electrical activity in the rectus abdominis muscles than the crunch. The second most difficult exercise, the captain's chair, was 212 percent more intense than a crunch. Doing crunches on an exercise ball, a soft, overgrown beach ball, came in third, with a rating of 39 percent more intense.

Researchers also tested three pieces of exercise equipment, the Torso Track, the Ab Rocker and the Ab Roller. The Torso Track and the Ab Roller did slightly better than the traditional crunch, while the Ab Rocker fared worse.

The results show it's not necessary to spend money on equipment to exercise your abdominal muscles, says Richard Cotton, an ACE spokesman and chief physiologist at First Fitness, Inc. in Salt Lake City.

Besides, Cotton says flat stomachs are due primarily to genetics and secondarily to age and body fat.

In fact, he says a flat stomach isn't a good measure of overall physical fitness; you can have a doughy stomach and be quite fit.

"It's the muscle du jour, and a flat stomach is really not that important. It's really purely aesthetic. No amount of exercise is going to be the answer to a flat stomach," Cotton says.

However, Francis says some abdominal workouts are good for you. Strengthening the abs can maintain good posture, alleviate lower back pain and improve performance in other athletic pursuits, he says.

"We have a major problem with weak abdominal muscles," Francis says.

Roger Dahle, president of TerraStar International, a North Logan, Utah, company that distributes the Ab Roller, says the equipment has other benefits beside workout intensity.

The idea behind the Ab Roller is to help you keep the proper form throughout the ab workout, so you get the most from every crunch and avoid neck and back strains, he says. The company has sold more than 15 million of the devices since 1996.

"It's like having a personal trainer with you in the room, putting you in the correct position. The machine itself doesn't do the work. Your stomach and your muscles have to do the work," Dahle says.

What To Do

Francis suggests you do five minutes of some combination of the more effective abdominal exercises daily. Here are the rankings:

  1. Bicycle maneuver
  2. Captain's chair
  3. Crunches on exercise ball
  4. Vertical leg crunch. (A crunch done while on your back, with your legs raised and your soles pointing to the ceiling.)
  5. Torso Track
  6. Long arm crunch (A crunch done with your arms extended over your head)
  7. Reverse crunch (While lying on your back, bend your knees and raise them towards your chest. Then, contract your abdominal muscles to repeatedly lift your tailbone off the floor).
  8. Crunch with heel push (Crunch while pushing your heels into the floor).
  9. Ab Roller
  10. Hover (On your stomach, raise your body up while keeping your toes and forearms pressed to the floor and hold the position.)
  11. Traditional crunch
  12. Exercise tubing pull (A workout with elastic bands)
  13. Ab rocker.

For more information on abdominal exercises, check Shape Up America! or the Nicolas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Training.

Or, read previous HealthDay stories on exercise.

SOURCES: Interviews with Peter Francis, Ph.D., professor of exercise and nutritional science, San Diego State University; Richard Cotton, M.A., ACE spokesman; Roger Dahle, president, TerraStar International, North Logan, Utah; May-June 2001 FitnessMatters
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