FACT: Contrary to popular belief, peer-reviewed research has shown that consumption of neither beer nor wine cause the dreaded “beer belly”. Well, sort of. Here we explore the contributing factors to abdominal fat storage. Continue readingby
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Here is a thought experiment: Imagine spending less time working out and getting more fit. How would that make you feel? Of course this would be great, right? Unless, you’re one of those rare humans who enjoy spending hours toiling away in the gym reading gossip magazines as you go through your daily calisthenics. I, on the other hand, want more bang for my buck wasting no time in the gym. In two well done scientific studies published in the 2013 February issue of The Journal of Physiology, the researchers describe their recent discoveries “that three sessions of sprint interval training (SIT), taking just 90 min per week, are as effective as five sessions of traditional endurance exercise, taking five hours per week, in increasing whole body insulin sensitivity via two independent mechanisms”. Sprint interval training has also been shown to produce superior cardiovascular and weight loss effects when compared to long steady state cardio training (SST). The really amazing thing is SIT provokes these advantages in less half the time. Additionally, sprinting, not jogging, has shown to decrease belly fat faster and utilizes glucose more efficiently preventing it from being stored as fat. Continue readingby
Skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, snowball fights, ice skating, shoveling, ice climbing, mountaineering and whatever those fools are doing in the picture above are all dangerous and yet fun activities for winter. Too many people don’t satisfactorily prepare for these activities and consequently sustain injury. A properly working and stable core is vital for success in these endeavors. In fact, anti-rotational and anti-flexion sports specific exercises will inoculate you against injury and help you excel.
Before we talk about what works, let’s take a look at what doesn’t: the crunch and its many variants. It is the most popular exercise in the gym but does little to improve winter sporting activities (or rid fat around your waist!). Crunches don’t address the primary function of our core musculature, spinal stability. Yes, our abs work to flex (round) the lower back but more importantly they serve to protect our backs. If all you do for your abs are crunches you may be setting yourself up for injury (if you don’t already have one). Solely working the anterior ab muscles (called the rectus abdominous) will create imbalance and probably dysfunction. Singling out one ab muscle is like just exercising the left side of your body. Can you say “lopsided”? The 29 muscles that make up the core go in all directions and need to be taxed with speed, strength, reaction forces and endurance. The crunch doesn’t do that. The challenge is to create a well-rounded core routine that strengthens the superficial “six pack” muscles and the deeper and often neglected stabilizing muscles of the core. The only time you use your core while lying down is to get up from a fall or during sex. Granted, we all fall during winter, but a well rounded stable midsection will prevent some spills.
Side Note: The 100 crunches you may perform, do little to burn the fat around your waist. In addition to creating an imbalance, it may hypertrophy (make larger) the muscles in your ab region. Which will “push” out the subcutaneous fat and give the appearance of a larger belly. You can’t spot reduce fat but you can spot increase muscle!
The most neglected and yet important ab exercises are isometric, anti-flexion and anti-rotational patterns. If your winter sport includes standing, and most do, then you need to integrate these exercises into your routine. Anti-ab training is fantastic for your core because not only do they work to “flatten” your stomach, they pre-habilitate and protect your spine during virtually all movement.
Anti-rotational, anti-flexion exercises are the ignored step child of all core exercises yet some of the most important. During sporting activities, our spine is under a lot of constant forces and needs muscular help to ameliorate them. Let’s take snowshoeing and ice skating as an example; they are a series of torso flexions, rotations, and extensions. During these activities, the core must decelerate, accelerate and isometrically stabilize the torso or we would fall and cause injury. I have found standing anti-ab training works wonderfully to improve all sporting activities and protect against injury. Training isometric core movements re-teach the body how to protect itself during all gross motor motions. It also gives you a stronger base of support from which to excel. Here are some winter sports anti-rotational, anti-flexion exercises
If I was to guess, the abdominal crunch (partial sit-up) is the most popular exercise in the gym. Too many people are under the impression doing crunches will melt the fat away from their midsection. This is as wrong as a nun wearing garters. It just doesn’t work that way. Exercising a certain body part does not cause a direct decrease of body-fat in that area. You can not spot reduce adipose tissue. Unlike muscle cells, fat cells do not change after repeated bouts of mechanical stress. Many factors will combine to decrease or increase the adiposity in your abdominal region. Performing ab exercises will not directly affect the fat in your love handles, pouch and/or beer belly and may in fact cause you harm.
Crunches may actually increase the muscle bulk around your midsection and add to your girth. This is especially true for neophyte gym-goers. When you first start doing crunches the abdominal muscles will increase in size, pushing the fat farther out giving you the appearance of a larger waist. But as your body adapts and you begin to lose weight (due to diet, increased metabolism, cardio and weight training) you might start to see the beginnings of ‘boxes’ as your stomach muscles reach a threshold. The majority of crunchers don’t do 1 rep maximal sets (come to think about it, I’ve never seen it done) or progressively increase the load – plus the rectus abdominus has a limited capacity for hypertrophy. So don’t get your knickers in a twist, crunches won’t make you fat.
Like drugs, all exercises are dangerous and have the potential to cause great harm or good. Depending on your goals and limitations you should weigh the pros and cons of all the exercises you select.
There are many professional athletes and gym-goers who have been doing 10’s of thousands of crunches in their lifetime and never been hurt. So should you stop doing crunches? That depends. If you have or are prone to lower back pain/injuries I would recommend doing a limited amount of spinal flexion (crunch) if any. If strong trunk flexion is part of your fitness goals because it will help you with martial arts, boxing, throwing, gymnastics etc. then I would certainly keep crunches in your program.
The “core” musculature is in charge of stabilizing the spine, decelerating the body, preventing and creating middle and lower back rotation, flexion and extension. It takes many muscles to perform these feats and they need to work in specific patterns to pull it off. If your core training is limited to crunches you are likely building an asymmetrical house of cards. It is important to have a well rounded core training program that properly engages movement patterns and builds better performance.
If you desire a flat stomach there are some better exercises to achieve this goal. Namely the plank and all of its variations (some listed below). This is such a great exercise because it engages your inner core musculature including your transverse abdominals (TVA). These muscles do more to flatten you stomach then any crunch will ever do. Your TVA (the stomach’s corset) is in charge of holding in your internal organs, protecting your spine, and stabilizing your trunk during all movement.
If you’d like to feel it work, put your hand on your stomach and cough. The tightness you felt is the TVA contracting . It is a common mistake to neglect the inner core muscles and work solely on the obliques and rectus abs. I’ve seen many people with six packs that still have weak inner cores. I call it a “fat six-pack”. This is due to one or two things: enervation of the inner core musculature specifically the TVA and/or hypertrophy of the internal organs due to steroids and human growth hormone.
If a flat stomach is your goal, the exercises listed below will engage your inner core (TVA, erector spinae, multifidus, longissimus, diaphragm and pelvic muscles) and help build a strong and stable unit.
This is just a sprinkling of core exercises that don’t involve a crunch, there are many many more. Play around with your exercise program, hire a trainer and find what works best for you. The thing is, if we didn’t spend most of our days sitting we’d wouldn’t have to work so hard for a flat stomach to begin with. I guess this is another one of our first world problems.