Strengthening the abdominal muscle is important for a runner. One function
of the abs is to counter the force exerted on the pelvic structure by back muscles in order to stabilize the pelvis structure
and maintain an erect posture. Running strengthens back muscles, but not abs. If a runner doesn't exercise his/her
abs to strengthen them, an imbalance can develop. Stronger back muscles can overpower the abs and result in a tilted
pelvis, or forward hunch, when running. Abs are strengthened by doing situps or ab crunches.
An excellent description of exercises for the abs was posted by another runner
on the Merv Competitive Forum in response to questions posed by another Mervite. I saved it for personal reference. The following
is that post.
I'll try to help you with some of your questions, since I'm certified in this area
and teach group abdominals as part of other workouts 3x/week (one is a 15:00 abs class).
Q1: Bending knees or keeping them straight? This depends on the region of the abdominal
muscle you wish to strengthen. The abdominal muscle is often thought of as more than one muscle, but there is only one, however,
it is possible to work different "regions" of it such as upper, lower, and oblique. If you wish to target the lower portion
(below the belly button), your legs can be extended without locked knees (knees should have a slight bend). So during one
abdominal session, it would be fine to have both the knees bent during a set and then the legs extended.
Q2: Feet on floor or lifted? This depends on the level of intensity you desire. Feet
on the floor give you more balance and support, feet lifted take away support and balance and add intensity. Again during
an abdominal session, you could do a set with feet on the floor, a set with feet lifted.
Q3: Hands behind your head, etc.? Hands can be placed in a number of positions that
give varying effects. For beginners, hand crossed across the chest provide the least amount of intensity, however, could possibly
compromise form and cause neck strain or tension. I'll explain the other variations, but let me give some simple form tips.
No matter what position your hands are in, your neck should be an extension of your spine and your chin should be lifted away
from your chest during both concentric (positive) and eccentric (negative) phases. You should be able to place a fist or apple
under your chin. As you begin the lift, the neck is relatively straight and as you lift the head is an extension of the spine,
so your head and back lift in unison. If you keep your chin lifted, you will not be doing "neck-ups" so to speak. And as you
lift, you'll exhale then inhale on the lowering phase. Hands can also be placed behind the head which would be sort of an
intermediate level position. The fitness industry frowns upon clasping the hands when their behind the head, mostly because
they fear this will encourage exercisers to pull on the head more and do "neck-ups" (chin into chest, neck bending). So, they
recommend the hands behind the head withOUT hands clasped. In my classes, I don't frown upon people clasping their hands as
long as their form isn't compromised and they're lifting properly. Whichever way, the hands behind the head give your neck
the most support. Another possibility which adds more intensity is with an extended arm(s). This is referred to as a "long
lever" movement. My favorite way to do this is to extend one arm straight over the head, then bend the other arm at the elbow,
bringing it behind the head and using the hand of the bent arm to hold at the elbow of the extended arm. You can cradle your
head right in this socket you've created, support the neck and have the advantage of long lever intensity all in one.
Q4: Incline or flat floor? Another variation that is based on preference and intensity. An incline
bench that is gravity-resisted with your head at the bottom of the board is obviously the most intense but possibly the one
that could have the most injury potential. You have to be sure your abs and back are strong enough to endure this and your
form is correct, otherwise this is good for potential back strain. I had a back strain about 2 1/2 years ago that was the
result of doing abs this way. Once I quit them, after months of wondering why my back was so stiff after every run, I finally
figured out why.
A good rule of thumb that applies to many other principles in life are the KISS rule--you
know, keep it simple. A lot of people try to get fancy with their workouts when keeping it simple provides the best results.
I see this one guy at our gym who likes to hang upside down from the pull up bar with his legs curled over it and lifting
(rather, swinging) his torso up and down. When I see him do this, even though he's using lots of momentum, all I can think
Anyway, for obliques, there are many different leg and arm changes you can make from
the "simple* position of lying on your back in the traditional crunch position. Here are some examples:
Lying in the supine position, with knees bent, feet on floor, hands behind head bringing
one elbow (or the whole extended arm) toward the opposite knee. The elbow or arm does not touch the knee, but rather should
be extending toward the *ceiling" in the direction of the knee. You can create position variations to this by bending this
same knee and placing the heel of that foot on the other leg. Other leg position variations might be to extend that opposing
leg straight up (knee slightly bent), or bend both knees with feet off the floor and doing your oblique twist this way. Here's
a way to add some light resistance that might help you feel more in this area. Let's say you are doing oblique twists taking
the right elbow towards the left knee. Your right hand is placed behind your head to support the neck, but what you can do
is place a light weight (say up to 5#) in the left hand and place the left hand with the weight near the anterior shoulder
of the right side. This would give you some added resistance to that right side as you do the twist up. As always, the lifting
movement should be slow and controlled. You can do variations of any type of lift such as three counts up, one count down,
or vice versa or two counts up, two counts down, etc. Slowing down always creates more resistance that you will feel after
a few reps. Lying on the side isn't really the best position as the back is unsupported and you're not really providing the
trunk rotation to work the obliques.
To accentuate the lower portion, you can extend the legs rather than bending the knees
and even add a long lever arm movement as I described in the first post. Another way, which if done correctly probably isolates
lower better is a reverse curl. With this move, you are lying on the back, knees bent, bring the knees and chest toward center
simultaneously. During this move, the hips lift off the ground, but the mistake many people make is lifting the hips too far.
The hips should only come off the ground 1" or 2" and when your knees are bent, keep the feet at or below knee level. This
should keep you from using momentum, you want to accentuate abdominal contraction. If this move is too difficult at first,
it can be done by only using the hips and not lifting the chest simultaneously until the abs are strong enough and form is
not compromised. Again, this is all done with the chin lifted, no neck ups! And, when you really get advanced, the reverse
curl can be done on an incline board with your head at the high end, butt at the low end..., small hip movements to bring
the hips toward the chest...again, a very *advanced* move.
Your basic crunch will work the upper
area of the abdominals, and again, you can add resistance to the basic crunch by placing one hand behind the head and a light
weight (up to 5#) in the opposite hand and place that hand in the center of the chest. You can do alternating sets with the
weight by doing count variations as described above and I think you'll be able to feel this.