Lewis Bowling: Ab curls an effective way to build muscle

Feb. 13, 2013 @ 10:40 PM

“The lengthened life with peerless joys replete.” – Walt Whitman on having good health.

“Everything was possible to the will that would make it so.” – Charles Dickens

The abdominals seem to be one of the favorite parts of the body to exercise. I probably receive more questions related to the abs than any other body part from readers of this column. Following is the abdominal exercise I prescribe most often to individuals:
My favorite abdominal exercise is the ab curl. Lie on your back, pull your feet up to your butt as close as possible while keeping them flat on the floor, and cross your arms on your chest. The emphasis when doing ab curls should be to shorten the distance between the middle of your hips and the top of your ribcage as much as possible. The two ends of your rectus abdominis, which are the ab muscles in the front of your stomach, attach to the hips and ribcage, so their function when contracted is to pull these two body parts together. Here is a good way to see what I mean as you do an ab curl. Place one hand edge-wise between the top of your ribs and the other below your stomach in the middle of your hips. Keep your hands completely still as you do your curls. You will see your hands move toward each other as you lift your upper body off the floor. Your aim should be to bring your hands as close to each other as possible; by doing this you will really stress the rectus abdominis.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when doing your ab curls. Don’t let your shoulders and head touch the floor when doing your repetitions, as this will lessen the stress you put on your abs. Another way to intensify the effect on the abs is to angle your knees and hips out to the sides; this will lessen the use of the hip flexor muscles and make the abs do most of the work.
To add even more intensity when doing the ab curl, place your arms straight out to the sides of your body and do a set or two this way. Also, holding your arms straight behind your head as you do this exercise will force your abs to work even harder. Eventually, as your ab muscles grow stronger, you might need to add some resistance. An easy way to do this is to place a weight plate on your chest as you do curls, or possibly a dumbbell would work better. Or hold a medicine ball above you as you do your ab curls. Just as your biceps will adjust to a certain weight if you do barbell curls using the same weight every workout, your abs can get used to the stress when you do your ab curls week in and week out just using your body as the resistance. So at some point in your ab development process, a little extra resistance might help you to continue to make good progress.
In comparison to an ab curl, which I have just described in some detail here, a sit-up or leg raise exercise is not nearly as effective for the purpose of isolating the abs. Both a sit-up and a leg raise put some stress on the abs, but they also place a lot of stress on the hip flexor muscles. So in effect, when doing these exercises, the hip flexors help the abs do the movement, which is not ideal. In fact, the abs have almost nothing to do with raising your legs, so a leg raise is a poor way to work the abs.
If you have questions about ab exercise, or about working different parts of your body, get in touch.
Lewis Bowling teaches at N.C. Central University and Duke University. He is the author of several books on fitness and sports. His website is www.lewisbowling.com. He can be reached at 919-530-6224 and at Lewis_Bowling@yahoo.com.