Some legends die hard. Just when I think that everyone and his cousin has gotten the memo that you can’t get rid of your gut by doing sit-ups, I see someone at the gym doing endless sit-ups, crunches and leg throws (where a partner throws the legs to the floor and the person raises them back up, usually with the person arching his back dangerously). Sometimes I venture to ask them what their goal is. The common response: “Get rid of my gut so you can see my abs.” Sadly, their chosen method is not only ineffective, in many cases it’s actually unsafe as well. Bottom line: sit-ups will not get rid of your gut, will not give you ripped abs and may well get you hurt.
Why Won’t Crunches and Sit-ups Work?
There are a couple of things you need in order to have decent six-pack abs: low body fat and well-developed abs (specifically, the rectus abdominis). If you don’t have low body fat (under about 10% for men and under about 14% for women), you simply won’t have a six pack. The problem is, you drop body fat by working the BIG muscles in your body: glutes, quads, back. If your heart rate isn’t climbing, the exercise you’re doing is having a minimal impact on body fat.
A lot of different types of exercise will help get you leaner, but modern research shows that high-intensity, full-body interval training has the biggest effect for the amount of time spent working. Let’s take those terms in turn:
- high-intensity – this means cranking up the dial. There is a myth of the so-called “fat burning zone” where the heart rate is kept at a moderate level for a very long time, burning fat as you exercise. Unfortunately, this type of exercise is fairly low intensity and has little “afterburn” effect or EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption). The afterburn really kicks in when you work hard during your workout and that keeps your furnace running hotter for hours after the workout. Obviously, if you have any concerns about your cardiovascular health or you are new to exercise, you should ask your doctor for a stress test before engaging in high-intensity exercise, but once cleared by your medical professional, it is the most effective way to burn calories.
- full-body – this means working your big muscles (and working them hard – see #1). So this means lifting weights, not just running (I got really into running a few years ago and watched my arms and legs wither and my belly grow, even though I was running up to 25 miles on a Saturday). It also means big-muscle exercises, preferably ones that get you to move your torso. So rather than curls and bench press, you need to do deadlifts, squats, lunges, pull-ups, push-ups, rows. You need not do squats with a lot of weight – one-legged squats with 50 pounds in your hand will challenge even serious athletes and yet they are very safe.
- interval training. This is kind of a corollary to #1 as well. Interval training, that is alternating between hard and easy, is really effective for ramping up your metabolism. It also goes better with more forms of exercise than “steady state” training. In other words, I can do interval training lifting weights as well as running, but a steady state workout with weights is pretty hard.
But Can’t I Still do Sit-ups and Crunches?
Sit-ups are fairly evil. In modern society, most of spend a lot of time sitting. As such, a muscle called the psoas tends to shorten. This muscle starts on the front of our legs and wraps around to the small of our back. It helps us raise our legs to step up onto things. That’s good. What’s not good is that as it shortens, it torques our low back and a shortened psoas and stretched and weakened antagonistic muscles get out of balance and – OUCH! – back pain. Most of us need to stretch our psoas and strengthen the muscles that oppose it. Unfortunately, sit-ups strengthen the psoas and, to make matters worse, as we get tired doing sit-ups, we tend to arch our backs and this puts the low back under even more stress. All of this does not add up to a healthy back (I was plagued by back problems in my early 20s. Trust me, it’s not fun and when I switched to smarter core exercises, my back problems went away).
But crunches are fine, right? I mean, we were all told in the 1980s to quit doing sit-ups and start doing crunches as the healthier alternative, right? Well, yes, we were, but research has progressed since then. Dr Stuart McGill, perhaps the leading back expert in the world, has done lab experiments with pig spines and had decades of clinical experience and he has found that flexing the spine under load is a recipe for spinal damage over the long run. And that’s what crunches do.
Of course, we flex our spines all the time in sports, but in training we want to keep our risks as low as possible. Consider this: every decent skier falls, often hard and at high speed, when pushing himself. But that does mean he practices for skiing by running into walls. We want to train safe to prepare our bodies for danger.
So If I’m Not Going To Do Crunches, How Do I Get Decent Abs?
There are some interesting studies that divided soldiers into two groups. One trained for their sit-up test by doing sit-ups (logical). The other group did static core strengthening exercises instead. When it came time to take the test, there was no performance difference between the two groups. So you don’t need to do sit-ups to get strong for sit-ups. Personally, I never had decent abs when doing sit-ups, but when I started doing full-body, high-intensity workouts that combined Turkish Getups and static core training, my abs suddenly popped. Within a month, my wife took notice that something was different!
So what exercises work? In addition to the basic full-body routines, for core training, try these:
- Front planks: lying face down, raise up on your toes and your elbows, keeping your body as straight as a… plank! For a great challenge, put your feet up on a bench or a stability ball.
- Side planks: as above, but start lying on your side and raise up on one elbow and the side of your foot. In this case, you are facing the wall, not the floor, but from head to foot you are as straight as a plank.
- Palov presses: Set the cable machine so the pulley is about the height of the middle of your torso. Grab the handle and hold it close to your chest. Step away from the machine so the weight comes into the air, then extend your arms straight out in front of you (increasing the lever arm) and avoid twisting. Hold for 10 seconds and change sides. If 10 seconds is easy, add weight.
- Turkish getup: Probably best to get on YouTube and find a video of this one. But in brief, lie on the floor, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell straight up and simply stand up without dropping the weight. This is an amazing ab and shoulder exercise
- TVA leg lowers: these are great for back health. Lie on your back. Bring your knees to your chest (or as close as you can). Now press the small of your back into the floor and, without letting up on the pressure between the floor and the small of your back, lower your feet. If you are really, really strong, you can do this with your legs straight, but most people who try this find they can’t maintain the pressure, which changes this from a great exercise for back health to one of the worst ones, just like the awful leg throw that we started with.
These exercises will give you a safe workout for your core, will improve back health rather than jeopardize it, and when combined with smart eating and high-intensity workouts, will get you on the path to six pack abs and better health.