If you’re like most people, you rank the belly as a top trouble spot. And it isn’t just the 20-something college crowd that wants a trimmer tummy. In my professional experience, people of all ages – from 15 to 95 years old – want to know the most effective exercises for sculpting that elusive, flat belly.
The abdomen is the most challenging area of the body to keep in shape. We all know that clothing doesn’t fit right if the belly is too big and that belly fat can create a health risk. If you’re doing abdominal exercises faithfully not seeing results, you may be a victim of simple mistakes in technique.
Are you still doing sit-ups? Most of us are familiar with the classic sit-up, in which you come to a full sitting position. For many years, however, the fitness industry has favored crunches over sit-ups for the general population. In a crunch you do not perform more than 30 degrees of spinal flexion (which refers to how high you lift your torso off the floor), even if you can lift higher. This range of motion isolates the proper muscle, the rectus abdominis, best known as the coveted “six pack” muscle (which describes the sections that develop with toning). If you lift higher, as in a full sit-up, you recruit the hip flexors in addition to the rectus, and risk stress to the lower back.
3 Tips to Master the Perfect Crunch: Assume the starting position, lying on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Make a cradle for your head by spreading your fingertips and supporting the base of your skull. Let the weight of your head rest in your hands. Keep your chin lifted as if you were holding an orange under it.
1) Learn to “scoop.” Having worked with hundreds of clients, I’ve found that only a few get this right from the start. As you lift up your head and shoulders, draw the belly button towards the spine without changing the natural curve in the low back. When you button a tight pair of jeans, this is the muscle right under the zipper that you automatically contract. “Scooping” describes this action.
2) Keep tension in the abdominals. With your lower back relaxed in neutral alignment, engage the rectus by tightening the connection between the ribs and the hips. Focus on keeping your abdomen taut: Imagine you have a wide belt around your middle connecting your ribs to your hips. Set your abs before you move by tightening this belt and keep tension in the abdominals as you lift and lower your shoulders, never letting your shoulders relax to the floor.
3) Take your time and breathe. Quality is more important than quantity. Perform each repetition with concentration, exhaling as you crunch up, inhaling as you release. You can learn to breathe normally while holding the scoop. Slower is harder when doing crunches and if you make each one count, you can do fewer with better results. You don’t need to do hundreds of crunches, you just need to do them right. Three sets of 15-20 crunches is sufficient for toning.
Do your abdominal routine every other day to allow the muscles to rest, recover and rebuild.
For even better results, supplement your abs workout with regular cardio activity. Cardio exercise will enhance your body’s sculpting effect by reducing the layer of fat that covers your muscles to reveal a more defined shape underneath. Do at least 30 minutes of cardio – like walking, jogging, stair climbing, cycling or swimming – five days a week.
Joan Pagano, former trainer to Jacqueline Onassis and Caroline Kennedy, is the author of five exercise books, including 15-Minute Abs Workout + DVD, and the owner of Joan Pagano Fitness in New York City. For more about Joan and her services, please visit www.joanpaganofitness.com
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