FUNCTIONALLY FIT ABS
Steve Politis, PT, DPT, FAFS, CSCS
So, you want to get nice abs, strong abs, the six-pack abs? Most often when talking about abdominal exercises, crunches, sit-ups, stability ball exercises, planks, and a variety of exercises on the floor are what come to mind. All of these have been used successfully for years, and many people will swear by these abs workouts as the key to perfect abs. But if you take a closer look at the anatomy of the abdominal muscles, the biomechanics, and the way they actually function in our world, it opens up a whole different way, a more effective way, and a more functional way to train your abs. Open your mind to train your abs functionally, prepare them for the way they actually work, prevent injuries, and develop strong, six-pack abs.
Let’s begin by understanding the anatomy and true function of the abdominal muscles related to the world in which we live. Our world is three-dimensional; we move forward and back in the sagittal plane, we move side to side in the frontal plane, and we rotate in the transverse plane. In order to train effectively, we need to consider movement in these three planes of motion to make sure all parts are getting stimulated. These functional abdominal exercises will be grouped in three directions or planes of motion for each exercise.
Abdominal muscles are a group of muscles with four layers of muscle spanning from the pelvis to the thorax (upper body). These muscles connect the lower body and upper body by linking the pelvis to the ribs, back, spine, and connective tissue. Our pelvis is a sturdy bony structure which moves in three-dimensional space as our legs walk, run, jump, and balance. Our thorax is the upper body consisting of the ribs and chest, which control the shoulders and arms moving in three-dimensional space as our arms reach, lift, punch, spike, swing, catch, and throw. Therefore, the abdominal muscles are the link connecting the pelvis moving in three-dimensional space to the upper body moving in three-dimensional space – both in different directions.
The function of the abdominal muscles is to coordinate motion between the pelvis and thorax. Decelerating motion in one direction and then accelerating motion in another direction, the abdominal muscles stretch, twist, bend, and contract. Most sports and activities we do as humans are in an upright standing position. We are on our feet while our arms are reaching, lifting, grabbing, throwing, catching, and swinging, which all stretch our abdominal muscles in three dimensions. Many times the shoulders and arms are moving in directions different from the pelvis, both in three-dimensional space. Think of catching/throwing a high pass, spiking a volleyball, making a tackle, swinging a golf club, or punching – these are all great examples of how our abdominal muscles work functionally.
In order to train for stronger, more functional abdominal muscles, staying on your feet will provide much more effective training. Functional training your abdominal muscles will utilize the body’s neural systems for turning muscles on to allow them to contract stronger. We also need to understand the way muscles get turned on to become stronger.
Muscles react to stretching to get turned on. Receptors called proprioceptors are embedded in the muscles and tendons which get stimulated by stretching. A muscle needs to load before it can explode or unload. Loading a muscle means lengthening it to prepare for it for shortening and contraction. Eccentric contraction is the lengthening of a muscle when it is decelerating a motion and preparing the muscle to contract concentrically, or shorten, in the opposite direction. When muscles are eccentrically lengthened, proprioceptors get stimulated by the stretch and prime the muscle to concentrically contract. Functional training the abdominal muscles means eccentric lengthening, or stretching the muscles, to turn them on in order for them to get stronger.
Putting it all together to functionally train the abdominal muscles, remember:
- Train the abdominal muscles in three dimensions (or planes of motion)
- Both pelvis and upper body move three dimensionally
- Sometimes they move in the same direction
- Sometimes they move in different directions
- Train upright, on your feet, similar to activities in the real world
- Eccentrically lengthen the abdominal muscles to turn them on
To visualize, please refer to technique section of the newsletter.