Conditioning Exercises for the Abdominals

Illustration of the abdominal muscles.

by Robert Wolfe / Illustration by Rosanne Wolfe

“The serpent in the stomach.” For centuries, martial arts instructors have used this colorful metaphor to describe the source of muscle power for most traditional techniques.

Working in concert, the muscles of the hips and abdominal region produce the torque that drives cuts, strikes, and throws. Most people today train their midsections for cosmetic reasons, hoping to achieve a washboard stomach. Martial artists, on the other hand, know the important role abdominal muscles play in body mechanics and they train their abs for the same reason they train everything else—to achieve higher levels of martial performance and skill. If you are a martial artist seeking to optimize your physical abilities, the exercises described in this article will help lay a foundation upon which to build graceful form and powerful technique.

The importance of strong abdominal muscles becomes obvious when you consider the physical structure of the midsection of the human body. There are no skeletal supports within the abdominal cavity: it is entirely dependent on the abdominal muscles for support.

If you refer to the accompanying illustration, you will notice that three layers of muscles form the sides of the abdominal wall. The outermost layer on each side is the external oblique muscle. Underneath, and running perpendicular to the external oblique, is the internal oblique muscle. Both the external and internal oblique muscles serve to compress the abdominal cavity and assist in flexing and rotating the trunk of the body. Beneath the external and internal obliques lies the transversus abdominis muscle. Its fibers run horizontally, encircling the abdomen, and serve to compress the abdominal cavity. The front surface of the abdominal wall is formed by the rectus abdominis, a narrow, flat muscle running vertically from the pubic bone to the rib cage. The rectus abdominis both compresses the abdominal cavity and flexes the trunk. Fibrous bands cross the rectus abdominis both horizontally and vertically. These bands, the tendinous inscriptions and the
linea alba, outline the ridges that produce the sought after washboard stomach.

Proper conditioning of the abdominal muscles depends on using the most efficient and effective exercises, with good form, and with due consideration to safety. In recent years, most people have come to recognize that when exercising the abdominals, crunch is the name of the game. According to the late Dr. Jason J. Litton, a prominent east coast orthopedic surgeon and specialist in sports medicine who put several dojo members back together over the years, “Crunch type exercises are done with the knees flexed and the body brought up from the supine (lying) position about 30 degrees. It's been found that doing sit-ups beyond 30 degrees does not help the rectus abdominis.” Beyond 30 degrees, most work in a sit-up is done by the psoas muscles in the thighs.

Dr. Litton recommended the following guidelines on form: “When exercising the abdominals, you should always flex your knees. That does two things. First, it takes the stretch off the sciatic nerve and, second, it helps prevent the psoas muscles from participating in the exercise. You should also breathe out during each repetition of an exercise, so that you're not doing a valsalva maneuver, which is probably not good for cardiovascular function and can be injurious if you have some disk disease in your lower back.” (A valsalva maneuver is trying to blow out with the mouth and nose closed. Scuba divers and airline passengers use the technique to inflate their inner ears to adjust to pressure changes, but it is a dangerous thing to do while exercising.)

To insure safe training, a few warnings are in order. Always warm up prior to exercising. Never do any abdominal exercises with legs straight. Avoid abdominal exercises done while hanging inverted—you can induce hypertension (high blood pressure) while hanging inverted and may, depending on the type of equipment being used, be exercising with the legs straight. Dr. Litton offered a final caution: “If you have any lower extremity pain, you should not do abdominal exercises until you've checked with your doctor.”

The exercises in this article are arranged according to the abdominal muscle(s) they work hardest. Most of the exercises require no equipment, although two described require a sturdy bench and one requires an overhead bar. Many of the exercises described as using a partner can also be performed singly. During any individual workout, choose at least one exercise for both the rectus abdominis and the obliques. Work up to sets of twenty-five repetitions, with as many as three sets per exercise. Bodybuilders prefer to work their abs daily, while other athletes doing abdominal work for conditioning tend to train abs every other day, three times per week. Experiment, and determine what works best for you.

When doing the exercises described below, two basic hand positions are used. For straight crunches, the forearms are crossed behind the head with the fingertips touching the shoulder blades. The forearms support the head and prevent placing pressure on the cervical vertebrae of the neck. For twisting crunches, place the fingertips lightly against the ears. Again preventing pressure on the neck, this position will also allow a more complete range of motion in the twist.

Standard Crunch
The most basic of the abdominal exercises, standard crunches are performed by lying on your back, with your feet flat on the floor about shoulder width apart, and with your knees flexed. With your forearms crossed behind you head, start the exercise with your head and shoulders slightly off the floor.

Breathing out, curl your midsection to push your chin toward your knees. Your shoulders will rise only a few more inches from the floor. Breathing in, slowly relax to the starting position. To intensify a standard crunch, hold the crunched position, while exhaling, for three to five seconds.

Bench Crunch
Another way to intensify the basic crunch is to perform the exercise with the feet up on a chair or bench, rather than on the floor. Bench crunches are more intense because most people can achieve a slightly greater range of motion with their feet raised. In martial arts classes, substitute a partner for the bench and take turns performing the exercise.

Whether using a bench or a partner, it is important to think of pushing the chin toward the knees. Because the hips are stationary while the upper body is free to flex, both standard and bench crunches produce somewhat more contraction in the upper than in the lower portion of the rectus abdominis muscle.

Reverse Crunch
To balance the work done by the upper rectus abdominis, exercises should also be included in your routine which fix the upper body and allow the trunk to flex from the hips. Done correctly, reverse crunches are the best way to target the lower rectus abdominis. On first glance, reverse crunches look like leg-lifts, but nothing could be further from the truth. Leg lifts involve hip flexion. The feet are raised from the floor, mostly through the action of the psoas muscles.

Remembering that crunch exercises require curling the trunk, perform reverse crunches in the following manner: lie on your back, with your head and shoulders slightly off the floor, and with your arms along side your body. Start with your feet about two inches above the floor. Keeping your knees flexed, and without lifting your feet, roll your hips to pull your knees toward your chin. The range of motion of your knees will only be about six inches. Exhale on the crunch and inhale as you return to the starting position.

Throughout the set, do not allow your feet to touch the floor or to rise higher than your knees. Think of maintaining the alignment of your knees and feet. Reverse crunches require the most exact attention to form of any abdominal exercise.

Reverse Bench Crunch
A bench can also be used to add intensity to reverse crunches. Sit near the end of a stable bench, with your feet pointing toward the floor. Grasp the bench with your hands to hold your body at an angle. Keeping the knees flexed, roll your hips to pull your knees toward your chin.

If you allow your knees to bend a little more as you do the crunch, it will help keep your feet down and the psoas muscles out of the exercise. For a real burn in your lower rectus abdominis, keep breathing out while you hold the crunch position for three to five seconds. Reverse bench crunches are more intense than reverse crunches done on the floor because the angle of the body allows you to pull more uphill, against gravity.

Hanging Crunch
No way around it; this exercise requires some kind of overhead bar that is strong enough to bear your weight. Hanging crunches are really the next logical step beyond reverse bench crunches—by increasing the angle of the body to vertical, you are pulling directly against gravity.

Taking a comfortable grip on an overhead bar, hang so that your feet are not touching the floor. Be sure to keep your knees slightly bent. Breathing out, curl your trunk to lift your knees. The range of motion in this exercise is also limited. Avoid lifting the knees so high that you involve the psoas muscles. Should hanging crunches and reverse bench crunches become easy, you can wear ankle weights to increase the difficulty.

Once you've mastered the principles of exercising the rectus abdominis, you can create your own specialized drills to augment the basic exercises we've discussed. For the moment, though, let's stay with the basics and turn our attention to exercising the oblique muscles.

Side Leg Lift
The main function of the obliques is to twist the trunk of the body. Because no twisting motion is involved, side leg lifts are actually a rather inefficient way to exercise the obliques. They are useful as a warm-up, or as a way to add variety to your abdominal routine.

The basic version of the exercise is performed by lying on your side and simply raising your uppermost leg through its full range of motion. Exhale on the lift and inhale as you lower your leg. After completing one side, reverse position and repeat. It's more challenging to do the exercise while standing. On top of having to keep your balance, slowly raising your leg as high as you can is more work from this position. Ankle weights can be used with either version of side leg lifts.

Side Crunch
What side crunches lack in efficiency, they make up for in intensity. No twisting motion is involved, so the obliques are not worked through their entire range of motion. Regardless, this exercise puts the obliques in a mechanically disadvantageous position and then demands that they still

To find out for yourself, lie on you side with your knees slightly flexed. Have a partner brace your position by placing one hand on your uppermost ankle and the other on your uppermost knee. Use the same hand position as for standard crunches: forearms crossed behind your head. Breathing out, and without bending forward, lift your head and shoulders as far as you can. In hale as you return to the starting position. Do not rest on the floor between repetitions-- this is one exercise you'll want to be over as soon as possible.

Twist Crunch
The basic position for twist crunches is the same as for standard crunches, with the exception of the hands.

To facilitate the twisting action required, place your hands beside your ears, with fingers just lightly touching. Throughout the exercise, keep your head and shoulders off the floor. Curl your midsection slightly, as though you were going to do a standard crunch, and then twist to push one elbow toward the opposite knee. Help the twist by simultaneously pushing your trailing elbow toward the floor. Exhale as you twist. Inhale as you return to the starting position and then repeat to the other side.

Really try to feel the crunch in your obliques. Many people make the mistake of just pointing their elbows toward their knees without actually crunching. If this exercise doesn't feel like work, you're probably not doing it correctly.

Boxer's Twist Crunch
This is a fun exercise for use in class—it requires the use of a partner—but it's also very effective for conditioning the obliques.

Lie in the position for standard crunches. Have your partner kneel across your feet. The partner should hold his hands above your knees, with open palms facing you. The hands are your targets. Raise your head and shoulders off the floor, and hold your arms in front of you, after the fashion of a boxer's guard. Keep your fists closed and your elbows together. Exhale as you rise in a crunch and punch toward the opposite side hand of your partner. Twist hard as you punch, maintaining the guard with your other hand, then immediately twist and punch the opposite direction before inhaling as you lower yourself to the starting position. If you're punching into your partner's bare hands, use restraint to avoid injury. Focus pads are a good idea if you want to unleash and still keep your partner.

Up to this point, we've not discussed any exercises for the transversus abdominis muscle. You'll recall its function is to compress the abdominal cavity. As it turns out, that's also the only way to exercise it. Sitting or standing, just pull in your stomach, breathe out, and hold each contraction for three to five seconds. Inhale as you release the contraction. You can exercise your transversus abdominis muscle virtually anytime or anyplace.

The basic crunches and twists are all the exercises you'll ever need to work every inch of your abdominal muscles, and the basic exercises are appropriate for use even if you're just starting physical conditioning. If you're already a well-conditioned athlete, however, you may want to include some specialty exercises in your routine that will push you to your limit. The following exercises are excellent for use in advanced martial arts classes or in the personal routines of experienced athletes.

Partner Roman-chair Crunch
This exercise targets the rectus abdominis. Have your partner go to hands and knees on the mat, and be sure that he or she is stable and strong. Straddle your partner and sit above his hips. Hook your feet under your partner's arms, keep your knees flexed, and place your hands in the standard crunch position. Carefully lean back until you are at a 30 degree angle above the horizontal. This is your starting position. Inhale, then breathe out evenly as you lower yourself to the horizontal and crunch back to the starting position. Inhale between each repetition.

This exercise is extremely difficult for both partners. The partner in the base position must also crunch hard to prevent having his or her hands pulled off the mat as the top partner lowers from the starting position. There is an element of risk in partner Roman-chair crunches. If the base partner collapses, or is pulled up, the top partner may strike his or her head on the mat. It is a good idea to ask a third person to act as a spotter.

Boxer's Leg Lift
Without question the most intense exercise for the abdominals, boxer's leg lifts are killers. Even though the psoas muscles are strongly involved in this exercise, it doesn't matter—there's more than enough work to go around. Boxer's leg lifts will slam your abdominals from every angle, assault your determination, and drive your heart rate right through the aerobic ceiling. Not intimidated? Good. Let's go.

With your partner standing, lie down so that your head is between his or her feet. Grasp your partner's ankles and hold your head and shoulders slightly off the floor. Your partner must keep his or her hands in a ready position, at chest level. With your knees flexed and your toes pointed, curl your body as hard as you can to swing your insteps toward your partner's chest. Your partner catches your feet and throws them back the way they came. Without letting your feet hit the mat, recover and swing in again. Do not use your arms to help, pulling on your partner’s ankles—you might pull him right off his feet, and if his ukemi isn't sufficiently skilled you’ll be out one training partner.

You will be astonished at how quickly your strength begins to drain away. If you still haven't had enough, mix things up so that you're bringing your legs up from the left and right sides, as well as up the middle. For the truly masochistic, allow no consecutive leg swing and partner throw to cover the same angle. After a full out set of this exercise, your partner may have to help you stand.

Within a few months of serious abdominal training, you will be enjoying measurably greater power in your techniques, and obviously improved form, as your stronger abdominal muscles contribute directly to the tai chikara component of your art.