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Science of Ab Workout Routines

Distinguishing exercise myths from exercise facts can make all the difference in your ab workout routines.

You're not greedy. You're not asking for a six-pack. You'd settle for a slightly flatter look and a bit more muscle tone. But no matter how many crunches you add to your ab workout routines, it seems impossible to firm and define those elusive middle muscles.

Given America's obsession with abs, you'd think we'd have figured it out by now. But many of us are still frustrated by a lack of results and give in to exercise myths. What are we doing wrong? Should we be doing different exercises? What else can we do to transform our soft abs?

To clear the air, Shape consulted Bill Whiting, Ph.D., director of the biomechanics laboratory in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, to help us test 36 different ab moves and determine which ones best target your core muscles: your abs and lower back.

Using an electromyograph (EMG) instrument, we measured the effectiveness of ab exercises on surface muscles:

  • the rectus abdominis,
  • external obliques,
  • erector spinae (lower back) and
  • rectus femoris (a hip flexor and primary quadriceps muscle).

(Because EMG cannot accurately measure activity of muscles deep within the body, we were not able to test the other main abdominal muscles, the internal obliques and the transversus.) After we saw how the moves rated, we put together a free ab workout routine to best strengthen your core muscles.

Targeting these muscles is essential for a complete ab program. They function as movers whenever you bend down to pick up something, and they play a role in posture and stabilization in all of your daily activities, from lifting weights to holding the Triangle pose. "Could you develop your abs by just doing crunches? Sure," Whiting says. "But a broad, balanced program is better."

Remember: The best workout routines in the world won't do diddly if you do them incorrectly. "You can't lie on the ground and expect your ab muscles to respond just because you're crunching," Whiting says. "You need to think about setting up each exercise correctly, then contracting your muscles and breathing properly as you're doing the moves." Here in our free ab workout routine you'll find everything you need to know to perfect your technique.

[header = Free ab workout routine dispels common exercise myths and boosts results.]

Free Ab Workout Routine

The basics: Do this workout 3 times a week, with a day off between sessions. Begin all workout routines with Moves 1 and 2; then choose 2 of the remaining 4 moves. Vary the moves throughout the week to keep your abs challenged.

The warm-up: Begin every workout with cat stretches: On all fours, inhale and pull your shoulders down away from your ears, lengthening your spine and lifting your tailbone. Exhale as you round your spine toward the ceiling. Repeat 3-4 times.

The free ab workout routine: Whatever your fitness level, begin with 1 set of each move, resting 45-60 seconds after each set. For best results, pay special attention to your form so that you fatigue your target muscles by the end of each workout. When this is no longer challenging, add a second set of each move. Or don't rest between exercises.

The cool-down: Do 3-4 cat stretches.

4 Exercise Myths About Abs -- Debunked!

Exercise Myths: #1 You should work your abs every day.

Truth Your abs are just like any other muscle group - if you're working them to exhaustion (which is the best way to develop strength and muscle tone), they'll need about 48 hours of recovery time between workouts. (Note: If you're a novice, you'll want to increase the intensity of your workouts gradually - overdoing it in the beginning will only make you sore.)

Exercise Myths: #2 The more crunches you do, the better.

Truth Unless you're a beginner, doing hundreds of reps will do little to produce actual strength. In other words, you're just wasting your time. You're better off focusing on using proper technique and increasing the tension on your target muscles so you can fatigue your abs in fewer reps.

Exercise Myths: #3 You need different workout routines to target your upper and lower abdominals.

Truth The upper and lower abs aren't two separate muscles, but rather one long sheath of muscle (called the rectus abdominis) that runs from just beneath your chest down to your pelvis. Any exercise that works the lower part of the muscle will affect the upper portion, too. Our study found the EMG responses almost the same for the upper and lower portions of the muscle regardless of the area we were trying to target.

Exercise Myths: #4 Ab workout routines are the key to getting ripped.

Truth Most of us are aware of the layer of body fat that resides in our abdominal regions. While ab exercises can help make your midsection look more firm and toned, you'll need to shed more body fat if you want to see more definition.

The best way to de-flab? Eat a healthy, low-fat diet and do regular cardio exercise plus total-body strength training to burn calories and build metabolism-boosting muscle.

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