A closer look at conventional training

To design the perfect abdominal training workout, you need a basic understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the abdominals. This lack of basic information is why so many bodybuilders do not know which exercises are best for developing their abdominals or how to use them in a workout. Because studying anatomy is about as exciting as watching commercials for feminine hygiene products with your mom, I'll keep my references to this subject brief and practical.

The primary abdominal muscle located on the front of the torso is called the rectus abdominus, and it extends from the sternum to the top of the pelvis. When properly developed this muscle gives you that "six pack" appearance. As you lie on your back during sit-ups, this muscle can flex the trunk forward approximately 30 degrees, the angle at which the shoulder blades just begin to lift off the floor. At this point any additional movement is primarily caused by the muscles that flex your hips.

Most "ab roller" devices do a good job of working the first 30 degrees of motion of the rectus abdominus, and many of these devices enable you to increase the resistance with weights. But the anatomy of the rectus abdominus is such that your torso needs to bend backwards approximately 15 degrees to develop maximum tension in the abdominal muscles, although a further stretch may be better for spinal health. This requirement isn't possible with ab roller devices or, for that matter, most conventional exercises.

As for the idea that ab roller devices are the ideal way to prevent neck strain, exercise scientist Mel Siff says that raising the arms to support the head causes a "reflex contraction" of the muscles behind the head to stabilize the shoulders. Siff says if you leave the arms alongside the body and simply slide them up the sides of the legs during sit-ups or abdominal curls, much of the problem with neck strain can be avoided.

When you train on a flat surface like the floor, you begin in a neutral position; and this restriction makes it impossible for you to get a full stretch of the rectus abdominus. For an athlete, if the rectus abdominus is not trained throughout its full range of motion, it will not be able to contribute maximum power in activities like throwing and kicking.

Another problem with starting from the neutral position is that the abdominals will not learn how to properly contract when you bend backwards— in effect, your abdominals become stupid! One reason many bodybuilders develop back pain from performing military presses or cheat curls is that their stupid abdominal muscles simply do not know how to protect the back.

Finally, training on a flat surface may increase the curvature in your lower back, placing many of the weaker structures of the lower back at a high risk of injury. Excessive lumbar curvature may cause your head and shoulders to move forward. This "forward head posture" can cause neck pain and tension headaches and make you look like a geek. Although osteoporosis is attributed to a loss of calcium and is most commonly associated with women, anyone can develop the posture of an osteoporosis sufferer from a poorly designed exercise program. In the long term, poor posture from improperly trained abdominals causes muscular back and neck pain and accelerates degenerative disk disease throughout the entire spine.

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