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By Michael Berg | Tuesday, July 13, 2010 8:12:35 AM America/New_York
Here we are, smack dab in the middle of beach season, and you're still conflicted when you step out into the sand as to whether you really want to strip off your shirt. For all the good intentions, your diet isn't exactly what you envisioned, and your core workouts are still just a little too half-hearted, leaving your body looking more sloppy than shredded.
If that describes you, there's good news - starting today, you can reignite your midsection meltdown, starting with these 9 training tips. By reengineering your ab routines around this advice, you can be sure no rep goes to waste in your quest for ... well, a lot less fat and a bit more muscle around your waist.
1 Train your abs more often - but not every day
While some people mercilessly pound their abs in every workout, that approach is likely overkill. Although the abs are designed to handle longer-term activity, they still contain both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, just like other bodyparts. Thus, like other bodyparts, you need to give them some time to recover and respond to the beating they take in the gym. However, you don't need to lay off of them as long as you would your back, chest or thighs, for instance, instead just making sure you take at least one day or two between dedicated abdominal sessions.
2 Don't mistake quantity for quality
It's a fact: 25 crunches done slowly and with perfect form, where you contract your abs powerfully on every rep, are better than 100 crunches done rapid-fire and poorly. During your sets, don't just pick a large number and strive to reach it any way possible. Instead, take the time to teach yourself to perform each repetition deliberately. Squeeze every contraction, build the burn to intense levels, and then, when you've thoroughly taxed your middle, walk away and let the recovery process begin. Don't work out for 40 to 60 minutes when 15 to 30 will do the job.
3 Learn how to burn
The hip flexors are powerful muscles alongside your hips, and in many exercises like to exert their influence to the detriment of your rectus abdominis and obliques. You really can't totally eliminate the hip flexors, but you can minimize them by employing good form in each exercise. First, err on the side of choosing moves where your legs aren't anchored down, such as decline-bench crunches, since that engages the flexors. And when you do a non-anchored move such as a crunch, make sure you are always shortening the distance between your pelvis and ribcage - your spine should curl, which is the result of your rectus abdominis shortening.
4 Keep your head in the game
In many ab moves, you'll want your head to align with your spine - in other words, in a neutral position - throughout the range of motion. Don't press your chin into your chest or bend your neck backward. (To help, never interlock your fingers behind your head and pull, a common mistake during any sort of crunch.) A mental trick used by trainers is to imagine an apple pressed under your chin, and keep your head in that position. 5 Stay tense
Don't unnecessarily elongate your sets by resting between reps. The quickest way to muscle fatigue is to keep the pressure on; don't pause between reps, and stop just short of the resting point in the eccentric phase of a move. For example, don't let your shoulders and head touch down to the floor during a crunch, and don't let your legs reach vertical and hang free at the bottom of a hanging leg raise.
6 Breathe deep
Some people hold their breath when they do ab work, but it's better to keep the oxygen flowing. Breathe in through your nose during the eccentric/negative portion of the exercise, and forcefully exhale during the work phase, i.e. the contraction.
7 Don't do abs first
With other bodyparts, you may hear the advice to prioritize anything you feel is lagging by putting it first, when you're freshest. Even if your abs are an issue for you, however, you don't want to train them before working out other bodyparts. That's because your core is so key for balance; you don't want to be squatting, rowing or military pressing with a fatigued midsection, as it will negatively impact your exercise form and the quality of your subsequent workout. If you really feel you need to prioritize your abdominals, give them their own day once or twice a week, perhaps pairing them with a cardio session afterward.
8 Variety is king
Don't just settle in to two or three favorite abdominal moves. Like with any muscle group, the body will adjust to a consistent pattern, and improvements will tail off. Also keep in mind, the core is a dynamic area capable of motion in many directions and planes. You'll want to work every possible angle you can over time, so constantly increase your repertoire of movements, making sure to do exercises that focus on the upper abs (like crunches and cable curls, for instance), lower abs (like hanging knee ups and reverse crunches), and obliques (like twisting crunches and side bridges).
9 Go further every time
To force your body to respond, you have to provide it a challenge to overcome. Consistently push yourself a little further, whether it be a couple more reps, a slower rep speed, a more difficult angle or exercise, or even an intensity technique such as rest/pause (where you go until failure, rest a couple seconds, then continue the set until you reach failure again).
As with any workout, one of the best things you can do is make sure you're totally in the moment when you train your abs. Don't think about what you're going to do after you leave the gym, or let your mind wander to your "to-do" list or that project you're finishing up at work. Concentrate on each and every contraction, knowing that the tough work you're persevering through brings you closer to the goal: A washboard middle that won't make you even think twice about dropping that tee next to your towel.