Twist

This chapter is the trickiest of all, since it's going to include almost everything that you would describe as "ab" training. And yet, very little abdominal training—in this book or elsewhere—requires actual twisting.

So my logic here mandates a few hops, steps, and jumps, and by the time I'm finished I'll be out of breath and you still may not agree with my thesis. I'll accept that risk.

Here's the central problem for me: Traditional abdominal exercises, those based on crunches and sit-ups, don't involve an essential human movement. In fact, for lack of a better phrase, they represent the absence of essential human movement. And yet, we all do them, and some of them are included in this program.

When we talk about crunches, what we're really talking about is a forward bend, the opposite of the deadlift movement. But in sports and real life, a forward bend isn't performed against gravity. There's never a moment in which that movement, in isolation, is necessarily to transport your body, to transport an object, to attack an enemy, or to fend off an attack. You don't need it to build shelter or tear down someone else's shelter. It won't help you kill an animal or escape from one.

And yet the ability to brace your abdominals is crucial to performing all six of the human movements safely and effectively:

Squat and deadlift: This is simple: If your middle body isn't braced, if those muscles surrounding your spine aren't in a high state of tension, your back loses its shape and something ruptures. You're screwed.

Lunge and twist: If you can't hold your torso in place, or move it in a controlled twisting motion while your legs are splayed apart, you'll be unable to maintain your balance, and you'll fall or tear something. And you're screwed.

Push and pull: You can't execute either of these movements without a stable platform. Your feet form a base for your legs, which are the pillars that hold up the platform. But your middle body—hips, pelvis, spine—is the platform. If that platform is moving randomly, you can't execute a pull without risk of hurting yourself. You can't execute a push at all. And, of course, you're screwed.

Further complicating all this:

The middle body isn't merely a platform, like a slab of concrete that can be made more or less stable. It's the nerve center, the part that allows communication between the parts that need a platform—the arms and the shoulder complex—and the parts that support the platform.

So, with that established (or the issue thoroughly confused; I'll let you decide), let's talk about the twist itself.

In the gym, we tend to think of twisting motions as specific exercises. There are the more sophisticated ones, like the Russian twist and its variations that Alwyn has included in these programs. Then there are the really, really stupid things like the old "twist with a broomstick" exercise that dumbbots used to do back in the age of buttfloss and leg warmers. The broomstick twist did one of two things: You either wasted your time by doing an exercise in which your muscles were unchallenged by either gravity or any kind of external resistance, or you applied external resistance—I can remember seeing guys twist with loaded barbells—and did one of the most dangerous things you could possibly do to your spine.

Then there are the real-life and sports uses of twisting motions. If you sat down in the morning and recorded all the times you twisted at the hips, waist, or shoulders throughout a day, you wouldn't get much else done. You'd start with whatever twist it took to reach into your desk drawer and pull out a pad and pencil. And once you started, like I said, it would be hard to know when to stop. Every time the phone rings, every time you reach for a pencil or Post-it, every time you turn to check out the new intern walking past.. .

In sports, the twists are more dramatic. In basketball, you could drive the lane and end up with your legs going one direction while your upper body twists in the opposite direction to dish off to a teammate. In football, you could jump to catch a pass, only to see the ball get tipped, forcing you to reach back behind you to attempt a reception. And all this could happen while you're bracing for a collision with a defensive back.

Your body instinctively knows how to do two or three things at once; you can walk and chew gum at the same time. But that doesn't mean you can do those things at full speed, with your body contorted to the limits of its reach and flexibility, while simultaneously bracing for impact, without a high risk of injury.

That's where conditioning comes in. That's why you work to make sure your abdominal muscles are not just strong in isolation but also strong during various kinds of motion. And that's why we train the midsection two ways: with exercises like crunches and leg raises, the goal of which is to make your middle strong enough to resist movements you don't want; and in twisting-type motions, in which the goal is to train it to execute safely the movements you do want.

None of this means that the only result you'll get from these exercises is a functional benefit. You'll be able to see the difference, too. Applying direct resistance to muscles makes them grow. So while Alwyn has lofty, function-friendly reasons for prescribing exercises like Swiss-ball crunches and hanging leg raises, both of us know that those exercises will create bigger, more visible abdominal muscles. If you're lean enough to see them, they'll look cool. If not, they'll still work better than they did before.

THE MUSCLES

The body-partists tend to see midsection muscles—as they see all muscles—as distinct entities, to be trained in isolation. So they talk about "upper" abs (trained with crunches), "lower abs" (worked with reverse crunches and hanging leg raises), "obliques" (trained with side bends and twisting crunches), and "lower back" (trained with back extensions).

Trainers who emphasize function fall prey to some isolationism, too. They just talk about different muscles in isolation.

One of their favorites is the transverse abdominis (TA). Until recently, I, too, thought this strap of muscle, the innermost layer of your abdominal wall, had an important function that required it to be trained with transverse-specific exercises. But then I read Dr. Stuart McGill's Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, and I changed my mind. McGill says that the interest in the TA started with research showing that people with back injuries have problems activating their TA when they most need it. This is true, McGill says, but it's also true that people with back injuries have problems activating all muscles in proper sequences and with sufficient force. That's the biggest challenge with back injuries: They set off a chain reaction that uncoordi-nates muscles seemingly unrelated to the original injury.

McGill is adamant about this: "[T]ask and motion must be trained—not a specific muscle."

Your abdominal wall is really three walls: You have an outer layer (external obliques), middle layer (internal obliques), and inner layer (transverse abdominis). They're anchored at the back by your spine, which itself is supported on either side by

Some midsection myths have been debunked over and over. Does anybody, for example, still believe that doing hundreds of crunches a day will somehow, magically, give you a thinner waist?

But one mythic notion still holds some currency: Pulling your abs in toward your belly button provides a sturdier abdominal wall, and thus more protection for your spine.

I call this the "taffy hypothesis." If you press down on a section of a piece of taffy, thus compressing it and making it thinner, is it stronger at the point of compression? No, of course not. You can hold it by the top, by the bottom, or anywhere in between, and the taffy will always be weakest at the place where it's thinnest.

Dr. McGill and others have argued this point for years. In 2004, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha demonstrated it in a study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. They had exercisers try to do crunches with their abs either sucked in toward their spine, or "braced," as I describe under "Technique," page 167. Those with braced abs actually had stronger contractions in their rectus abdominis muscles. The ones who sucked them in did work their obliques harder, so it's conceivable that the suck-up maneuver could be construed as a decent way to train those muscles.

But the obliques get involved in all abdominal movements whether you want them to or not. If you're going to do a crunch-type exercise at all, you may want to keep your abs braced and use the exercise to build and strengthen the six-pack.

your spinal erectors, a series of muscles that run up your back in parallel columns. On the front, you have your rectus abdominis, the six-pack muscle.

While each has its own duties, the key is that all work together to protect your spine and internal organs.

A better question, I think, is why we have that strong, visible, and unique rectus abdominis in the front of our midsection.

We all know the rectus bends your torso forward. The fibers run vertically, which means it's perfectly designed for that function. But I've already established (or tried my damnedest to establish) that forward bending against gravity or some other kind of resistance isn't a particularly important task—certainly nothing more than a subcategory of the big six movements.

But surely our bodies wouldn't evolve to include a muscle like that, and then give it nothing of consequence to do.

Think back to what I wrote earlier in this chapter, about how your middle body is both a "platform" and a "nerve center." In its role as a platform, it has to be ready for a challenge from any direction—from above, below, or anything in between. It's even designed to absorb forces coming from inside.

Let's say you're doing a squat with a maximum load on your shoulders. For me, that would be about 300 pounds; for you, it could be anything from 50 to 500. Doesn't matter. Your body copes with that load by compressing everything inside your abdomen to help shore up your spine. So while we typically think of the TA and obliques as the belt that shores up this visceral mass, your rectus has to play a part.

In other words, your rectus can take pressure from the inside, as well as from the outside, as it would if you were tightening up to absorb a punch.

The other way your rectus absorbs pressure is from the sides. That is, when you twist with your powerful oblique muscles—and believe me, your obliques are very strong—your rectus abdominis is tasked with keeping your torso together. That, according to McGill, is why it has a beaded shape, broken up by extraordinarily tough bands of connective tissue. Without something there in the middle, your obliques are strong enough to twist your body apart like taffy.

Thus, when you do twisting exercises in your workouts, you're not only training your obliques to get stronger, you're also training your rectus to get stronger at resisting that twist.

Get On the Ball

Some guys just hate Swiss balls. I'm not sure, exactly, what causes the animus. Maybe it's the color of the balls, or the fact women are more likely to use them. But a more likely explanation, I think, is a cultural divide. If you're comfortable with weight rooms the way they are now, with the barbells and dumbbells and benches and machines used just so, the Swiss ball is a foreign intruder, like the annoying person at the office who starts talking about politics on Monday morning when everyone else is analyzing the weekend's football games.

Among experts, there's lots of skepticism about the value of doing everything on a Swiss ball, from chest presses to squats. (Yes, some people do get up on the balls and do squats. No, I'm not sure how they do it, either.) But at least one Swiss-ball exercise deserves its inflated reputation.

In a 2000 study in the journal Physical Therapy, Spanish researchers compared four types of abdominal crunches. The Swiss-ball crunch, by a long shot, made the abdominal muscles work the hardest. The six-pack muscle, the rectus abdominis, worked twice as hard on the Swiss ball as it did in the traditional floor crunch. Even better, the external obliques got more than four times as much work on the ball.

So even if you stick to standards for every other exercise in the lexicon, the Swiss-ball crunch makes it worth your while to cross over to the other side.

FUNCTIONAL IMPORTANCE

Every human movement involves communication between your upper and lower body, and the midsection is the router that makes sure the communications are received and acted upon.

Still, there are some specific tasks that are highly twist-dependent. In baseball, throwing and hitting both require powerful trunk twists. Same for racquet sports. And a round of golf is twist after twist after twist—the worse you are, the more you twist, which I can report from personal experience.

TECHNIQUE

The wild card in all this is your spine. It's entirely possible to weaken the connective tissues holding it together while strengthening the muscles surrounding it. And that's why abdominal training is trickier than simple acts of crunching and uncrunching.

The key to a successful crunch is to elevate your torso without rounding your lower back excessively. It helps to try it first when standing:

Stand in an athletic posture—your feet shoulder-width apart, your knees bent slightly—and place one hand on your midsection and one on your lower back. Now crunch your abs down a bit. As you feel your abdominal muscles contracting with one hand, you'll feel your back rounding with the other—that is, you'll feel your spine shifting out of its natural arch.

Try to find a crunching motion that creates the most intense pressure on your abdominal muscles with the least movement in your lower back. That's the sweet spot of abdominal training.

As you get better at this, you should find that you feel the contraction lower in your abdominal wall than you do when you crunch the conventional way, on the floor.

Once you have the sweet spot, try holding it for five breaths. Breathe as deeply as you can without losing the contraction. It won't be easy, but it is useful to teach your midsection muscles to hold this position. You're creating a belt of support to protect your spine under all conditions. If you have to release a contraction every time you breathe, you're putting your spine in jeopardy between breaths.

THE EXERCISES

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