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(A Feedback Loop Development Program)
By Wesley James
This program is in part based on the work of P. Chek, J. Ekholm, U. Arborelius, A. Fahlerantz and A. Larsson. Principally, Paul Chek's informative article, Hitting Below the Belt in the September 1996 issue of Muscle and Fitness. While I have some minor dispute with Mr. Chek, his article is one of the most scientifically informed and therefore useful I've seen on the subject, in a bodybuilding publication. It takes a reasoned, real-world view of the task of developing the lower abs effectively. Besides, the title of his article is clever.
Chek is persuaded, as am I, that, in spite of some opinions to the contrary, the electromyographic and MRI evidence supports the theory of individuated functions for the upper and lower abs. This is of more than academic interest. It strongly suggests that the two regions must be worked by different, separate movements. Some of the distinction is irrelevant to purely aesthetic considerations as not all the muscles are visible externally. The upper abdominals (rectus abdominus and obliques) and at least one of the lower abdominal muscles (the pyramidalis) are directly visible and, therefore, important to bodybuilders. Moreover, the other muscles of the lower region, while largely internal, are critical to the form, function and development of these and other visible muscles. Crunches can stimulate the rectus abdominus and external obliques but not the pyramidalis which is closer to the surface than the rectus abdominus below the waist from about half way between the navel and the pubic bone. The pyramidalis defines the lower edge of the visible abdominal plate. It, as well as the iliacus and both layers of psoas muscles, requires separate stimulation for full tonus and development.
While Chek exploits only two, there are actually three functions served by the abdomino-pelvic complex of muscles. Each should be separately exploited. The grossest function is articulation of the trunk. The most subtle is stabilization of the trunk. The third is assistance of the diaphragmatic/respiratory function. Two of these functions engage the muscles of the lower back as antagonists. The only function in which the abdominal muscles are antagonist to themselves (sometimes assisted by gravity) are respiratory support. My efforts, while incorporating an efficacious approach to balancing and coordinating the articulation and stabilization functions of the lower abdomino-pelvic muscles, goes further. The techniques I described in my article, Protruding Gut Syndrome (PGS), offers effective means for exploiting the respiratory approach as well. It also details and discusses the additional muscles this approach targets.
Below the Belt (A distillation)
The reason Paul Chek's article is important is that he suggests a series of tests to assess the strength, coordination and, to some degree, flexibility of the lower abdominal muscle complex. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been done before. His tests provide guidance. Among other reasons, they help prevent the trainee from an improper and potentially detrimental, if not dangerous, choice of exercises. Unfortunately, the process he proposes for using the test as feedback is badly organized. Moreover, while the coordination and "flexibility" [my term] tests maybe useful in an investigative context, they are of little use to the development process. They merely test elements that improve as a natural outgrowth of properly performed exercise. Nevertheless, initially, either may be limiting factors. My distillation will largely ignore these issues and apply the remaining test technique in as utilitarian a manner as possible.
The Strength and Development Loop
To evaluate the strength level of your muscles and thus determine which exercise your current strength level recommends, proceed as follows:
Begin by lying on your back. Lift your legs till they are at a 90 degree angle to your body. Your legs should be straight without locking your knees. Rotate your pelvis till your lower spine contacts the floor. Now lower your legs slowly as one should in the traditional leg raise. It should take about three seconds. The lower back should not, though it may, break contact with the floor as the legs lower. If it does, you're either not strong enough, coordinated enough or flexible enough to use Leg Raises as your lower ab exercise. In such case, continue the test by bending your knees as little as possible and raising your feet slightly off the ground. If your back leaves the ground, bend your knees a bit more and try again. Hopefully, during some phase of the test you'll find a degree of bend at which you can raise and lower your legs without your back losing contact with the ground. If so, you've found your starting point. You'll begin doing your leg raises with your knees bent to the degree you require and work toward full extension. If no amount of bending of your knees allows successful completion of a rep, Chek suggests you use the same pattern of test with only one leg at a time. This may, in fact, reveal your starting point but I suggest you start your training with Pelvic Tilts. These are fairly easy exercises that is more isometric than isokinetic or isotonic. Nevertheless, no less a star than former Mr Olympia, Larry Scott, was fond of a slightly more advanced version of this movement for his lower ab work. By the way, you may find it of interest, though of no impact, to understand that if you can't lift your legs without your spine leaving the ground, your problem is probably lack of strength. If your back loses contact during the lifting process, your problem is probably coordination. Loss of contact during the lowering phase probably indicates a flexibility problem. Regardless of your limiting factor, following the outlined program should improve it.
The Pelvic Tilts
Place your feet on the floor with your knees bent. Your lower spine will be off the ground. Roll your pelvis, flattening your lower spine to the floor. Exhale your breath as you do so. Hold this lower abdominal contraction for 10 seconds but continue breathing, then release. Your spine will again rise. (If you have difficulty doing this, skip to the section on Stretching.) Relax for five seconds, taking a breath or two, and repeat the movement. Attempt to perform 20 reps. When you can perform 20 reps easily, try the test again. When you pass, continue with your training from your newly established start point. Should you still fail, return to performing Pelvic Tilts till you can perform 3 sets of 20 reps, then try the test yet again. If you still fail, instead of using the one-legged, bent-knee leg raise, as Chek suggests, use Larry Scott's preferred exercise. They are particularly helpful to individuals whose limitation is coordination.
With your knees pointing straight up, lift your feet till they're perpendicular to your thighs, parallel to the ground. Perform your Pelvic Tilts in this position. If you can't, move your knees toward your head, shortening the lever, till you can. Work on your Pelvic Tilts in this form till you can do 20 reps then re-test. You can work up to 3 sets of 20, add ankle weights, bend you knees less and eventually, through progress, pass the test. You can then work your way up to 3 sets of 20 Leg Raises. These should be performed taking three seconds on the way up and three on the way down. Remember, if your back breaks contact with the floor, you've reached failure.
I should point out that some individuals have extreme pelvic coordination problems. (See Moshe Feldenkrais' Body and Mature Behavior, International Universities Press, for an interesting exploration of this problem.) These individuals can try Pelvic Tilts with their feet resting on a bench. If Feldenkrais is correct, these exercises may have profound impact on these individuals.
Paul Chek advises that every exercise session end with a stretch. He is quite correct, not only for the reason he cites, spinal repositioning, but because doing so causes the muscles to continue to contract for hours afterward, helping to tone them. This results from stimulation of the myotatic reflex. The following two stretches which come from the practice of Hatha Yoga are the best I've found for the purpose. If you are performing upper and lower ab work in the same session, these stretches should be the last thing you do. Abdominal exercises should always be the last exercises you perform. Fatigued abdominals can not perform their stabilization and respiratory functions properly during other exercises.
I should also point out that many traditional Yoga teachers advocate forward stretches as the final movement of a stretching session. Their rationale is that the spine is compacted by the act of walking, while forward stretches leaves the spine open, allowing it to better absorb repeated jolts. Others, including myself, feel that in a culture that walks on concrete as much as we do, leaving the spine open constitutes an unjustified risk of injury. I, nevertheless, leave it to the trainee to determine which feels best for their body and life situation. Give it a fair try both ways, perhaps two weeks each way, then decide.
The first technique is called Anjaneyasana. "Asana" means roughly the same as position or pose. "Anjaney" means split leg. This accurately describes the position. Standing with both feet together, move the right foot back as far as possible. Keep the left foot flat on the floor but bend the knee. Keep the left knee in alignment with the toes. Don't allow it to twist to the outside or inside of the foot. Doing so can damage the knee ligaments. The position is similar to a lunge thus far, except that the right toes should be pointed. It is a common runner's stretch.
Now raise your hands above your head. Traditionally, the thumbs are locked together but it is only critical that the hands meet directly over the center of your body. Move your hands and head backward, pulling the spine into an arch. Move back as far as you comfortably can. At its most extreme the hands, spine and legs will form a semi-circle. Hold the stretch for thirty seconds, breathing deeply. Do not bounce, pulse or rock. Yogic stretching is essentially static which makes it safer. Repeat the same stretch on the opposite side of your body, moving your left foot back.
There is a balance factor in this stretch. Traditional, yoga teaches one to close the eyes and derive ones balance internally. This is intended to improve ones balance. In my experience, over time it does. Western exercise and dance teachers recommend that one fix ones gaze on an external reference point to aid balance. This unquestionably helps but does not improve ones balance in the long term. The choice is yours. I recommend that you learn the movement with your eyes open and a fixed reference point but work toward doing the stretch with your eyes closed.
Bhujangasan is commonly referred to as "The Cobra", with good reason. Both the movement and ultimate position resemble the snake.
Lie face down on a cushioned surface. Relax all your muscles completely. Place the palms of your hands on the floor below their corresponding shoulders. Raise your head and the upper portion of your body very slowly, like a Cobra. Arch the spine gently but surely backward. Do not jerk. Roll back the spine so you can feel the bending of the vertebrae one by one, the pressure travelling from the cervical to the dorsal, to the lumbar and finally to the sacral region. Body contact, from the navel to the toes, should be maintained and held for ten seconds. Slowly straighten your arms and disburse the spinal arch through its entire length. This requires that the lower abdomen leave contact with the ground. The thighs should remain in contact with the ground. You should feel a pleasant stretch through both the upper and lower ab regions. You will find it helpful to try to extend the stretch through your sternum. Hold the stretch for thirty seconds at its most extreme position.
Men with Inguinal Hernia or women with adhesions related to Fibroids, Polyps or Endometriosis should not perform either of these stretches without specific approval from a physician. They may aggravate these conditions. None of these conditions preclude performance of lower ab exercises. However, only those with readily reducible hernia should employ them.
By the time you can perform 3 sets of 20 reps of the Leg Raise, your lower abs should be in great shape. Nevertheless, ankle weights or a dumbbell held between your feet can be used to make them more challenging. Unless you have some compelling reason to do so, you need not ever use more than ten pounds. Leverage being what it is, a ten pound weight adds about a fifty pounds load for an average length leg. This would require a contractile strength, including the weight of your legs, of about 1250 pounds. I don't know many people who ever hope to handle that kind of weight. No one needs to. It is often recognized that the lower back muscles being too weak in comparison to the abdominals can be problematic. It is equally true, though less common, to have abdominals that are too strong in comparison to the lower back muscles. This can produce a flattening of the lower spinal arch, a different but equally problematic condition.
In sum, distilling the useful concept from Paul Chek's article and structuring it into a useful feedback loop with exercise will allow trainees at almost any level to gauge their strength and thus develop toned, strong and attractive lower abdominals in record time. The rest is just hard work.Copyright © 1996 Physique Tools and Wesley James
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