Rule #1 of abs: Don’t ride your pants so low that you have to hold a dumbbell for modesty purposes. Okay, that’s actually the #1 rule of life. (Anyone remember when Carrot Top wasn’t scary? Yeah, me neither.)
The “Wicked Wiper” is supposedly the ab move to end all ab moves. According to Women’s Health magazine, they couldn’t find a single fitness model who could do it (for the photoshoot they had a guy hold up the model’s butt and then they photoshopped him out!). It has since become my personal quest to find a person who could demonstrate Wsquared under their own power. Just as I was beginning to think only Sasquatch, the Loch Ness monster and the second gunman were honing their abs with this doozy, it happened. I saw someone do it at my gym. And he made it look easy. I jumped up off my weight bench and screamed and clapped, pointing until all the Gym Buddies joined me in rapt wonder. “Is that the…?” “It IS!” “And there’s nobody holding up his butt!” (Of course it was a “he”). The poor man almost had a heart attack and quickly left the area. I have that effect on people sometimes.
We debated chasing him down and apologizing but decided that might make things worse. Instead we left a trail of protein bar chunks and returned quietly to our weight lifting (and by “quietly” I mean quietly for us which is… not very quiet) waiting for him to come back. Eventually he did and we mobbed him again begging him to show us how to do it. We all tried it. We all failed. But! The moral of the story: it is possible! I haven’t given up on the Wicked Wiper yet. I don’t think it’s a matter of strength – I recently held a plank for 10:30 minutes (you like how I throw that in there? totally bragging!) – but rather I lack the coordination.
I share this with you not to give your abs an inferiority complex but rather to point out how complex our abs – and our relationship with our abs – are. Many of the most frequent questions I get asked have to do with the stomach region. So, because I am not an expert of anything (except the art of public humiliation) I am going to answer all your ab questions… by giving you links to people smarter than myself. You’re welcome.
Q: How many times per week should I work my abs – every day or every other day?
A: The answers are mixed. Conventional wisdom for a long time said to work your abs a little every day. Most experts now say to work them every other day to give them time to recover and repair. But a growing faction advocate avoiding ab work – especially conventional ab exercises – all together, seeing it as pointless. For myself, I do them however often the Experiment I’m doing calls for them which has been everything from never to 5 times a day (see Tupler Technique, below).
Q: What about sit-ups/crunches? Good or bad?
A: These gym-class staples have fallen sharply out of favor over the past decade or so. Not only do experts say that conventional sit-ups/crunches set you up for serious injuries but if you do them to exclusion of other movements, you can actually make your stomach look less flat by building up just the rectus abdomoni making your stomach get the dreaded “pooch.” According to this Newsweek article (that’s where I go for all my cutting-edge fitness research, don’t you?) “Doing a sit-up doesn’t train your ab muscles to do the job for which they were designed – keeping your spine straight and secure and providing power for your movements.” Michael Boyle of Strengthcoach.com adds, “In fact, when scientists want to damage the spine of a cadaver for research purposes they put it in a device that’s virtually identical to the crunch machine. Everyone has a finite capacity to perform any given movement. Want to use yours up doing crunches? Wouldn’t be my choice.” [Emphasis mine because… egads]
Q: Should I train my obliques (the muscles down your sides)?
A: Jillian Michaels doesn’t. Isn’t that enough for you people?? JMich (wow, that is not catchy at all!) and many others point out that building up your obliques can make your waist wider. Saith she in her book Making The Cut, “the trick [to a v-taper shape] is to build the muscles in your upper back and shoulders and shrink your internal and external obliques (the ab muscles on the sides of your upper and lower waist).” First, how does one “shrink” a particular area? Second, having an unbalanced core doesn’t sound like a great plan either. Your obliques are responsible for supporting your core when you twist and bend and they help keep everything else in line. Even Jillian has oblique exercises in her Shred DVDs. So I suppose the answer to this question depends on whether you are looking for form or function.
Q: How do I get really defined/visible/flat abs?
A: A combination of great genes and good eating. It is an oft-repeated axiom in the workout world that “abs are made in the kitchen” meaning that you can have the strongest abs in the world but you’ll never see them unless you lose the fat covering them up. To get really ripped, you have to be very dedicated to your diet. For myself, I’ve found that my abs don’t show pretty much ever. Those of you that have read my book got to see pics but even at my lowest (and unhealthiest) body fat percentage, I still didn’t have visible abs. Other women have a six pack without even trying. Ah genetics, you strike again! The upshot is that how good your abs look pretty much has nothing to do with how you work them. (True story: A couple of days ago in the gym, I pointed to two little bulges at the top of my ab area, just visible through my t-shirt. “Look!” I yelled to Allison. “I have upper ab definition!!” Raising an eyebrow she replied, “I dunno, are you sure it isn’t the band of your sports bra squishing stuff out?” I’ll be darned if she wasn’t right. Moral of the story: I totally have upper ab definition… as long as I wear a too-tight sports bra!)
Q: What kind of ab work should I do?
A: The big hoopla these days is around doing “functional moves” – exercises that recreate movements you use in daily life – to work the whole core as a unit. People also like to talk about your transverse abdominals – the ones targeted when your Pilates teacher tells you to “pull your bellybutton into your spine” every five seconds – as they are supposed to be the muscles that hold everything in and I know a lot of women that swear by Pilates to get that flat lean look. But, according to Andrew Heffernen in Experience Life magazine, the top 5 best core exercises ever are the Birdog, the log roll plank, anti-rotation arc, stability ball roll-out and the farmer’s walk. (Click through to see pictures and instructions.) Other current industry favorites include push-ups and planks. (Oh yes, push-ups are a killer ab workout! Want to really burnout your abs? Do a plank as long as you can hold it and then bust out push-ups to failure. I promise your stomach will fail before your arms do! And, um, thanks to Turbo Jennie for helping me discover that painful trick.)
Q: Can I just slice off the extra skin off my abs with a pizza cutter?
A: Um, ew! Did you really just ask me that?! (Yes someone really asked me that. And, NO.)
Q: This is super embarrassing but I get, like, an open sore on my butt every time I do situps. It hurts SO BAD. What am I doing wrong?
A: First, your butt boo-boo is called a posterior ulcer and it’s not than uncommon. It’s basically a friction burn that comes from rubbing all the skin off your pokey-outie tailbone by doing the sit up motion. One of the Gym Buddies has a chronic problem with this! Her solution is to make a little donut out of her sweat towel and stick it under her rear when we do abs. Or you can do what I tell my son whenever he says, “Mom, walking like this really makes my foot hurt!” I reply, “Then stop walking like that.” I think if sit ups make your butt bleed then you have the best reason ever to skip them!
Q: Will I ever get my pre-pregnancy stomach back?
A: Nothing is ever the same after having kids – not your wallet, not your house and especially not your stomach. That said, some women snap back like a rubber band and have nary a stretch mark for a souvenir. I feel bad for them; my stomach is like the best-stamped passport in baby land. Seriously though, you can get your stomach in good shape after having kids – the Tupler Technique is a great tool for healing any diastisis (the separation between your ab muscles during pregnancy) you may still have. And I totally recommend belly wrapping. As for the little things like lose skin or stretch marks or that weird hood over your bellybutton that you can’t get rid of? Wear them with pride. You grew an entire human being – fingernails and everything! – and your body is amazing.
Q: Why should I bother with doing abs when I never see a difference?
A: I feel your pain, sister as I really don’t see changes in my abs either regardless of what I do. But our abs are about so much more than just looking good in a swimsuit. First, a strong core can help prevent back injuries and help heal existing back pain. Second, your core supports you in all of your other fitness endeavors – everything from running to weight lifting benefits from having a tight core.
Q: What is your favorite ab move?
A: It changes pretty frequently! It would be the Wicked Wiper, if I could it… but these days I really like pike ups on the TRX! To do: Get in a plank position with your feet in the “stirrups” of a TRX (you can also put your feet on an exercise ball if you don’t have a TRX). Then contract your abs and pull your feet toward while shooting your rear up in the air (stay, classy now!). You should be in a piked position with straight legs and your hips almost over your shoulders. Lower back down to a plank. Repeat. Hurts SO BAD. I mean good. Do it. Now.
Q: Coregasms: Are they real?
A: Yes. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.
Q: (From a man): I think chicks with six-packs look like dudes and most guys I know agree – why do girls want this look if it isn’t sexy?
A: Well I think dudes without six packs look like chicks. Kidding! For serious: Whether or not really cut abs are hot on a woman is a very personal question and I imagine we’ll find some very vehement men (and women) on both sides of the issue. But to answer your question, girls do a lot of things that guys don’t think are sexy because it’s not always about “looking sexy”. There’s something very powerful about feeling and looking really strong. The second factor is that a flat non-muscular stomach is only achieved by starving (or the aforementioned awesome genes) but a flat muscular stomach is something you can get and still eat (albeit, eat really cleanly) – when they both look the same under clothes wouldn’t you take the one that lets you eat? I’ll admit that when I first started working out, I aspired to the flat-yet-undefined stomach look that pre-pubescents pull off so well but as I’ve gotten older and more into fitness my perception of what is beautiful has changed quite a bit. These days I’d be thrilled if my stomach had some definition to it. And it’s not always about you, guys:)
Your turn! What is your favorite ab move? Do you have an “abs philosophy”? Got an abs question I didn’t answer? (Or want to correct one of my answers??) And… what is up with the low-riding pants trend for men?? I mean, this has got. to. stop.: