Exercise scientist Wayne Westcott does 1,000 crunches a day but says not to follow his example.
“It's probably the biggest waste of time in my day,” said Westcott, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass. “I just do it out of habit.”
For most of us, crunches are far from habit-forming. They are something we dread but do anyway. Or at least we intend to do them because we believe it's the way to get what we call “six-pack abs” — though if we ever succeeded we would see that it's actually an eight-pack.
Let's clear up some other misunderstandings about our midsections. Westcott is right. Doing hundreds of crunches is not only inefficient but also might cause spinal disc injuries. We do it, though, because of conventional wisdom about toning. The goal is to flatten and define our abdominal area, not make it stick out. Usually, doing more reps with less weight is the key to not bulking up. However, abs are not likely to have a “massive growth response” to fewer reps and more resistance, said Washington, D.C.-based fitness trainer Jonathan Ross.
In fact, spending more time strengthening other parts of the body could bring us closer to sporting a six-pack. That's because our bodies burn more calories, even at rest, to meet the energy needs of muscles. That keeps us lean.
“You can have the best abs possible, but if they're blanketed by a layer of body fat, no one will ever see them,” said Ross, who stresses the importance of full-body training in his book, “Abs Revealed: Exercises and Programs for Six-Pack Success” (Human Kinetics, 2010).
Virtually all exercises require us to use our abdominal muscles for stability or mobility, so the abs get a synergistic workout when we do squats, for example.
Abs still need some special attention and exercises for them specifically, though.
Noting that the researchers did not look at isometric, abdominal “plank” exercises, Westcott cited a San Diego State University study that found abs respond best to exercises that work three sets of muscles at once: the rectus abdominis, which makes up the eight-pack; the muscles to the sides of it, called the obliques; and the hip flexors, which enable us to pull up our knees.
The classic bicycle crunch uses all three and ranked the highest of the ab exercises the researchers studied for effectiveness.
Start on your back with your knees bent and hands behind your head. Bring your left knee toward your chest while curling up and crossing the right elbow to meet it. At the same time, straighten and extend your right leg, about six inches off the floor, and then repeat on the other side. Remain in a “crunched up” position, twisting your torso, and don't let either foot touch the floor until you complete the set.
Don't do hundreds of bicycle crunches or anything else. Change up your routine and don't neglect the rest of your body.
Though chiseled abs depend on judicious eating, optimizing your diet and exercise regimen won't guarantee a six-pack.
The guys on the cover of Men's Fitness are “genetically gifted,” Westcott said. Most bodies, including his own, are predisposed to store fat in the abdominal area, making six-pack abs all but impossible.
The best that most of us can hope for, he said, are “little ridges.”