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Abs Fab

by StephenKelly

Few things are hotter than the appearance of abs you could grate cheese on. So getting killer abs, the kind that might be seen in ancient artwork, is high on the workout priority list. But despite all their work, some guys are still sporting midsections that are more Michael Moore than Michelangelo's David. Let's look deeper into the mystery of the abs and how to exploit them.

The abdominals are actually a collection of four muscles that are involved in almost every major midsection motion, including flexion of the hip and torso as well as lateral flexion and rotation of the torso. They keep the abdominal organs compressed and assist in forced exhalation, as in during exercise. Strong abs help relieve the type of lower back stress common in people with desk jobs.

So strong abs not only come in handy if you're the type of person who rips his shirt off at every street fair, festival and party, but are also essential for any type of athletics and activities such as yoga and Pilates. Nothing suggests athleticism more than a lean midsection.

Ab exercises are some of the simplest in the fitness lexicon. So why is a rock-hard midsection so difficult to achieve? Because a lot of guys believe they can decrease the amount of fat in a specific area. In reality, spot reduction doesn't work. While exercising will get you partly there, the secret to busting your gut is to burn midsection fat, a goal best achieved through extended aerobic exercise at least three times a week and through a healthy diet.

It's also important to focus on technique, as attention to form can keep your boom from going bust. With abs, the temptation is to race through the set, making the number of reps performed more important than the actual execution. Slow it down with focused, controlled movements. Don't let momentum do the work. A little goes a long way when performed correctly.

Once beginners get over the inherent soreness factor, it's best to work the abs three times a week, aiming for three or four sets of 15 to 20 reps per set. You can up these numbers as your abs get stronger, which is, of course, the purpose of this basic, yet essential, four-step abs routine.

Crunches
This classic exercise is as basic as it gets, yet remains the foundation of any good abs routine. Beginners will find that most floor exercises for the abs are merely variations of the crunch. Master the crunch and the rest will follow.

Lie on your back on an exercise mat, your legs resting on a bench and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, feet hip-distance apart. Place your hands behind your ears, not with fingers locked behind your head. This positioning will keep you from pulling your head forward with your hands, which can lead to neck strain. Hold your elbows out to the sides and keep your chin pointed upward, keeping a fist-size distance between your chin and your chest.

Roll your shoulder blades off the floor, exhaling as you curl up and forward, elevating your head, neck and shoulders about four inches. Push down hard on the small of your back to further isolate the ab muscles. Pause for a second at the top of the movement, then inhale while lowering your upper body to the starting position. Keep your abs tight and flexed throughout the exercise.

Crunch with Twist
The oft-neglected obliques are the focus of this versatile exercise that offers more bang for the buck by also working the upper abs. As the name suggests, this is a variation of the simple crunch with a side-bend action in the middle that makes all the difference.

The form techniques here are the same as in the crunch, but as you reach the midpoint, try to touch the left knee with your right elbow, keeping the elbow back. Pause and return to the starting position. Continue, this time pointing the left elbow to the right knee. Alternate for the remainder of the set. If done correctly, you should really feel the obliques burn.

Some guys overwork the obliques in a well-intentioned yet misguided attempt to melt away those love handles. And the most common exercise they use is the standing side bend using dumbbells for resistance. Remember, the obliques are muscles like any other. They will grow if subjected to weight training, giving the appearance of an expanding waistline. So unless that's a look you're going for, avoid any torso-twisting or side-bending with weights.

Bench Leg Lift
These are all about the lower abs. While leg lifts can be done on the floor, performing them on a bench gives a better range of motion. These can also be performed to great effectiveness on an incline board.

The execution is simple: Lie flat on your back with your legs straight. Place your hands under your butt to help add leverage. Lift your legs six to 12 inches off the ground, focusing on using the muscles of the lower abs and not the hip flexors of the upper legs. Pause, and return to just before starting position, avoiding touching the floor with your feet.

Incline Board Crunch
Another variation of the crunch, but performing them on an incline board makes them much more challenging. So as the going gets tough, beginners will want to focus on form and technique.

Lie back, head toward the floor, on an incline board set at an angle of your choice (the steeper the incline, the harder the exercise). Secure your feet under the pad to stabilize your body. A slight form variation from the crunch allows you to keep your hands on your hips or crossed in front of your body as you perform these. Your knees can be slightly bent.

Slowly curl your body upward using the same technique as the crunch, keeping your movements slow and controlled. Pause at the top and slowly return to just before the starting position, maintaining constant tension in your abs.