Rectus Abdominal Muscles, A.K.A. "Abs"


A recent article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research raised some interesting questions in regards to training abdominal muscles.  The rectus abdominal muscles, A.K.A “Abs” or the “six-pack”, have traditionally been worked using primarily body weight movements such as crunches, sit-ups, leg lifts, etc.  The researchers set out to see if these traditional movements had any significant impact on abdominal strength and power.   The findings were not terribly surprising but non-the-less significant.


The researchers found that traditional body weight exercises had no significant impact on abdominal strength.  So, crunches and leg lifts when done short of maximal effort, are only effective at achieving some degree of muscular endurance.


So, what does this mean for you? Well, if your only goal is to promote good posture and prevent low back issues, then building muscular endurance through traditional exercises like the crunch, is sufficient.  However, we are often required to make short, rapid movements during our everyday lives and for that, abdominal strength is paramount. So, while this study did not address how much resistance is necessary to elicit strength gains, it seems that adding some additional resistance is warranted provided you are already capable of effectively performing un-weighted abdominal exercises .  As always, the addition of resistance should be done gradually and with emphasis on proper form.  An example would be adding 2lbs, held at the chest, during a standard crunch and gradually increasing resistance and decreases repetitions from there. 

 

Using Interval Training Safely and Effectively

One of the main advantages of interval training (the use of alternating bouts of high intensity activity with active rest periods within a single workout) is its ability to achieve increases in both anaerobic and aerobic fitness simultaneously. Interval training also decreases the amount of time needed for training, especially if weight training is included along with the standard running, biking, swimming etc.

As a result of this efficiency and effectiveness, interval training, in various forms and under various names, has earned some well-deserved popularity over the past few years. In fact, nearly every popular fitness magazines now include some sort of interval type workout. One thing that is often missing from the message, however, is a word of caution. While interval training is no doubt effective, if not approached carefully, the high intensity nature of interval training can make you wish that you had never tried it at all or worse cause over training and injury. Interval training, more than any other form of training, begs for a cautionary approach and for gradual progression.

In other words, START SLOWLY. For example, if a workout calls for 1 minute of all out activity with 15 seconds of rest for 20 minutes, start with 15 seconds of activity and 1 minute of rest instead. This will help you gage your fitness level and better equip you to make appropriate adjustments. Interval training is great. It saves time and is effective at building multiple aspects of fitness simultaneously, but it must be used wisely and that means take it slow.

 

A Quick Effective Body Weight Workout

Short on time and equipment?  Body weight exercises are a simple way to get a very effective workout with no equipment.  By using intervals and upping the intensity, your workout can be relatively short.

Try this work out for building endurance, strength, and cardiovascular fitness:

First, you’ll need a timer, stopwatch, or just a clock with a second hand.  Then, pick 4 body-weight exercises such as squats, pushups, crunches and standing lunges.  Start with squats and do as many as you can, with good form, in 20 seconds.  Rest for 10 seconds, and then do another set of 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off until you have done a total of four minutes.  Now, move on to the next exercise and do the same.  Continue this pattern until you have done all 4 exercises.  Your whole workout will last 16 minutes!  And believe me, it will be a challenge! 

Remember to stay within yourself, listen to your body, and focus on good form.  In fact, if you’re a beginner, start with 1 or 2 minute sets and work your way up to the full 4 minutes.  Swap out exercises regularly.  You can even throw in some agility moves like line hops or speed work like line touches instead of doing all strength moves.  Or, see how far you can go in four minutes by alternating running/jogging and walking.  Same rules apply, 4 different exercises, 20 seconds on and 10 seconds rest, 4 minutes per exercise, for a total of 16 minutes of work.  Have fun!

 

The “Plane” Truth About Exercise

The body is designed to move in three planes, the sagittal, frontal and transverse.  Our bodies respond specifically to training, so it is important that we train in all three planes if we hope to promote body balance, increase performance and prevent injuries.

The sagittal plane divides the body into halves vertically and deals with movement that is primarily front to back. Most of the exercises commonly performed in the gym happen in the sagittal plane or in a straight ahead or straight back motion. Exercises such as the bench press, bicep curl, triceps kick back, row, chin-ups, and lunge all happen in the sagittal plane.  The fontal plane divides the body into front and back halves and includes movements that are primarily side-to-side. Frontal plane exercises are the next most common group movements.  Side lunges, wide grip pull-ups, lateral raises, and the shoulder press are all examples of movements in the frontal plane. Finally, the transverse plane divides the body into upper and lower halves and describes rotational movements. We tend to forget that our bodies rotate. Something as simple and mundane as doing dishes and as complex as a proper golf swing both require rotation.  Crunches with a twist, cable rotations, and woodchoppers are all examples of rotational exercises. 

The next time you workout, try designing your routine around these three planes.  Be sure to pick at least one or two exercises in each plane.  If your are not use to doing movements in one or more of the planes, the transverse in particular, take it slow and build up gradually in both resistance and total repetitions. 

You can also consider movement planes during your cardiovascular workouts.  For example instead of only walking, jogging, or running straight ahead, also include backward movements, and lateral movements like side-to-side shuffles or lateral line hops.  You can even include rotational movements like the grapevine.  Considering the three movement planes will help to ensure that your workouts are varied and effective. 


The Importance of the “non-routine” Routine.

A recent study out of Brazil indicates that the more often you change up your strength training routine the better, especially when it comes to repetitions. According to the study, people who alternated upper and lower body training days gained more strength when they rotated among 4, 10, and 15 repetitions each workout. They out performed those who did the same number of reps every session or even shifted rep counts weekly. The theory is that by recruiting different muscle fibers every workout one trains his or her muscle more completely. The study looked at both experienced and inexperienced exercisers.(1)

Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research seems to confer with the Brazilian study. In the study, participants increased their bench press strength by 28% after only 12 weeks of alternating rep ranges every training day. (1)

1.) Men's Health Magazine October, 2009 issue.


The Importance of Rest and Recovery and the Risk of Overtraining.

One commonly held myth regarding exercise, fitness, and health is that the more one trains, the better. It is true that the greater the overload placed on the body the greater development one can expect. However, this overload principle is only effective up to a point. Of equal importance to training, is rest and recovery. Growth and development happen only during times of rest and recovery. Without R&R, one reaches a point of diminishing returns and ultimately enters a state of overtraining (OT).  OT can lead to both nagging and serious injuries, depressed immune function, insomnia, depression, detriments in performance and an inability to adapt normally and positively to the training stimulus. OT is often thought of as a problem faced by athletes, however; it can affect anyone who lacks an understanding of the importance of rest and recovery, from adolescent athletes, to older adults, to college students.  

 There are no hard and fast rules dictating the exact ratio of exercise to rest required for optimum performance, health, or wellbeing.  The fact is, everyone is different in his or her requirements.  Factors such as current fitness levels, goals, exercise intensity, the type of exercises being performed, genetics, age, and even state of mind, all influence the optimum ratio of exercise to rest. 

One of the great things about exercise is the opportunity it gives individuals to explore their own personal requirements—to get to know themselves a bit better.  So, you are encouraged to take the following information as general guidelines and experiment with them.  See what works best for you.  To accomplish this, pay close attention to how you feel before, during, and post exercise.  Experiment with different exercise intensities and rest periods.  You may be surprised at what you find out about yourself. Again, the most important information to take away is the fact that adequate rest is absolutely imperative to fitness, health, and wellbeing. 

Guide to Intensity

The intensity with which you exercise will in large part determine how much rest and recovery you require.  One of the easiest and most effective ways to gauge exercise intensity, regardless of fitness level, is with and RPE scale.  RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion, and by using this scale one is able to determine individual intensity levels with surprising accuracy. 

 RPE Scale

0  NOTHING AT ALL (Sitting on the sofa watching a movie)

0.5  VERY, VERY LIGHT

1 VERY LIGHT

2  FAIRLY LIGHT

3  MODERATE( Being able to maintain a conversation, or at least string together complete sentences, indicates a moderate intensity.  Your workout can be a bit longer in duration when working in this range.  20-60+ minutes)

4  SOMEWHAT HARD

5  HARD

6

7  VERY HARD(Workouts that include high intensity training like interval training etc. are, by necessity, going to be shorter in duration because the body simply isn’t able to maintain high intensity work levels for as long. <20 minutes)

8

9

10  VERY VERY HARD (MAXIMAL) (only able to maintain intensity for 10-45 seconds before needing to stop.

Cardiovascular Training

- Cardiovascular exercise can be done on a daily, or nearly daily, basis if intensities are varied throughout the week, or intensity levels are kept low to moderate at all times, such as when one is exercising for general health and wellbeing.  So, an example cardiovascular workout schedule may look something like:

Monday- High intensity   (RPE 5 -10)

Tuesday- Mid-intensity   (RPE 3 - 5)

Wednesday- Low intensity   (RPE 2-3)

Thursday- High intensity

Friday- Mid intensity

Saturday – Low intensity

Sunday -- Rest. 

Remember, high, low and mid- intensities are relative to the individual, which is why the RPE scale is important. This undulation of intensity will allow for proper recovery.  Cross training is also an important tool in avoiding overtraining and over use injuries.  If you’re a runner, try rowing or biking a couple of times per week to supplement your workouts and vary your training stimulus. 

Strength Training

-The greater the intensity of the workout the more rest is needed. 

-Minimum of 48 hours rest between total body strength training workouts.

-Strength training consecutive days is acceptable if different muscle groups are worked on each day.  For example, working upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday, and then resting on Wednesday before starting the cycle over.

Use the RPE Scale to evaluate your strength training session not necessarily individual exercises or sets, though it is effective at assessing either. 

Combining Strength Training and Cardiovascular Exercise

You may want to do lighter resistance workouts on your higher intensity cardio days and vice versa.  The important thing, again, is to pay attention to how you are feeling pre-, post-, and during your workouts

Extended rest

There is sometimes a fear amongst regular exercisers that if they “miss” a workout they will lose some of what they have worked so hard to achieve.  The reality is that it is often advisable to take extended periods of rest, and missing a single workout or even two or three workouts is not going to adversely effect your health or fitness levels.  It can, in fact, be beneficial. For example, after training consistently for 6 to 8 weeks, taking 1week of active rest (going for occasional walks, playing low key sports etc.) can recharge the body and mind allowing for complete recovery both physically and mentally.  Individuals will often enter into their next block of training feeling and performing better than ever.  There will be no detriments in fitness levels as a result of a week long extended rest period. 

To reiterate, these are basic guidelines.  If you are new to exercise, error on the side of more rest and gradually increase your workloads.  Remember that more is not necessarily better, and that without proper rest you may end up doing more harm than good. You should never feel completely exhausted after your workout.  The exception to this would be individuals training for exceptional fitness or training for a specific event requiring exceptional fitness, such as running a marathon.  Even then, exhausting training or overreaching should always be approached with caution.  It can quickly lead to OT.  Your workouts should leave you feeling energized not completely depleted. 


Resources:

Quantitation of Resistance Training Using the Session Rating of Perceived Exertion Method. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 18(4):796-802, November 2004.

SWEET, TRAVIS W.; FOSTER, CARL; MCGUIGAN, MICHAEL R.; BRICE, GLENN

Standardized Scaling Procedures for Rating Perceived Exertion During Resistance Exercise. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 15(3):320-325, August 2001.

GEARHART, RANDALL F. JR.; GOSS, FREDRIC L.; LAGALLY, KRISTEN M.; JAKICIC, JOHN M.; GALLAGHER, JERE; ROBERTSON, ROBERT J.