It's incredible how wrong traditional training "wisdom" can be. Did you know, for example, that the Straight–Legged Sit–Up is not an efficient ab exercise—and that it´s actually dangerous? Or that for serious training, Roman Chairs are about as useful as rocking chairs?


Optimum muscle conditioning depends on the application of certain key principles of biomechanics. Using these, one can distinguish effective, safe exercises

from ineffective, potentially injurious ones, and determine how best to structure a routine. This biomechanical basis is what separates Abs from traditional methods of conditioning abdominal muscle.

But great–looking abs are not just the result of the muscle you have—they're also the result of the fat you don't have.

Below, we'll run over the distinction between fat reduction and muscle conditioning, and then explore how to-and how not to-train the abs.


Muscle tissue has a very special characteristic: the ability to contract. When stimulated by the central nervous system, muscle fibers shorten to about two–thirds of their original length. Thanks to the clever ways those fibers are positioned, humans can do amazing things, like run 4–minute miles, scale mountains, and perform delicate surgical procedures.

The abdominals in particular, besides enabling movements of the torso, help protect the body. Running from the bottom of the ribs to the top

of the pubic bone, they shield the internal organs of the abdomen.

The abs are also essential to good posture.

They act with the spinal erectors to hold you and your spine upright, much the way opposing guy-wires support a tent pole.

At least, that's what they're designed to do.

Soft, out–of–shape abdominals do little supporting or protecting-nor do they add much to your appearance. Still, it's important to understand that poorly-conditioned abdominals are not the culprit behind the midsection "spare tire". The culprit is excess fat.


Fat and muscle are two distinct types of tissue. In the abdominal region, as in all areas of the body, a fat layer covers the muscles. The thicker the fat layer, the harder it is to see your abs no matter how well developed they are.

Getting rid of unwanted fat, if that is your goal, is simply a matter of adjusting diet and activity level so you use more calories than you consume (creating a calorie deficit).

(diet) (aerobic exercise)

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Fig. 1 Fat and muscle are separate layers

This is advice most people know and few follow. Still, it's the simple truth. Doing muscular work requires energy; your body draws that energy from the food you eat and from your fat stores. If you decrease food intake and/ or increase energy output, you'll lose fat.

Spot Reducing

Many people mistakenly believe that they can burn fat from around their middle by doing ab exercises-sit-ups, side bends, etc. The fact is, spot reducing doesn't work. Doing exercises for any single muscle group doesn't burn enough calories to noticeably reduce fat. Furthermore, when fat does come off, it comes off from all over the body-not just from the area being worked.

To get rid of excess fat, regardless of where it is, you must do exercises involving as many major muscle groups as possible—exercises like running, swimming, cycling, aerobic dance, or jumping rope—and you must do them consistently over a period of time.

For more detailed weight loss recommendations, see Tom Venuto's Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: A Scientific Weight Loss Guide


To condition abdominal muscle most effectively, it's necessary to do exercises that…

  • target the abs —involve movements directly caused by the abs, not simply movements in which the abs play a supporting role (many traditional "ab" exercises don't meet this criterion)

  • overload the abs —force them to do more work than they're accustomed to

  • work the abs from a variety of angles -to ensure maximum fiber involvement

The Good Word On Sit–Ups:
Don't Do Them!

At first thought, Straight–Legged Sit–Ups and Roman Chair Sit–Ups seem to satisfy the requirements above. Both movements center around

the midsection and both cause an abdominal ''burn.''

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Fig. 2 Roman Chair Sit–Ups

Actually, though, the abdominals have a much narrower range of motion than either of these types of sit–ups require. Two—thirds of the Straight–Legged Sit–Up is the work of muscles other than the abdominals. And although the abs play a stabilizing role during Roman Chair Sit–Ups, they are in no way responsible for the Roman Chain situp movement

The Psoas muscles and Abdominal Muscles

Here's the rule to know: If you lie on your back with your legs extended, your abs have the capacity to raise your shoulders about 30 degrees" off the floor. No further. Any exercise that involves movement beyond that 30� range involves muscles other than the abs.

Is it necessarily bad to involve other muscles? In this case, yes. These other muscles, the psoas magnus and psoas parvus, run from the front of the legs, up through the pelvis, and attach to

the lowest six spinal vertebrae. They pull your trunk toward your legs, as do your abs. But unlike the abs, their range of motion is huge: they can flex you forward all the way from a full backbend until your chest touches your knees.

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Fig. 3 The psoas muscles

The psoas work most efficiently when your legs are extended and/ or your feet are held–as in Straight–Legged and Roman Chair Sit–Ups.

In this position, the psoas compete with your abs for the first third of the movement, and then take over entirely for the remainder.

Psoas-dominated movements yield very little in terms of ab results—for all energy you put into them. This is the reason you see some athletes rocking through several hundred Roman Chair Sit–Ups, trying for a burn. Any movement you can do that many of is not an efficient muscle conditioning exercise.

Worse, though, is the risk of injury from psoas dominated movements. With each Straight Legged or Roman Chair Sit-Up, the psoas tug at the lower spine. That tug doesn't do much harm as long as the abs remain strong enough to prevent the back from arching. But unfortunately, even if you're in great shape, the abs tire fairly quickly, allowing your back to arch. This causes the vertebrae around the psoas' attachment to grind together. And in a decade or so you may be stuck with permanent lower back pain as a result of disk degeneration.

Kinesiologist have long warned against any supposed "abdominal" exercise where both:

  • the psoas come into play

  • the position allows—or worse, encourages your back to arch

Based on these criteria, traditional sit-ups (both Straight–Legged and Roman Chair) must be discarded. Fortunately, there are safer and more effective exercises; these will be explained in the Program Section coming up. Some may be familiar to you, but remember, there's much more to creating the optimum routine than the exercises themselves.


At this point we have the three rules needed to begin putting together a synergistic abdominal conditioning routine:

  • Rule 1. Avoid exercises that activate the psoas muscles and require a body position that allows the back to arch.

    Effect of Rule 1: We eliminate many "standard" ab exercises-Straight-Legged Sit-Ups, Roman Chair Sit-Ups, Incline Board Sit-Ups, Bent-Legged, And Feet-Under-Couch SitUps.
  • Rule 2. Work lower abs before upper abs.
  • Rule 3. Do twisting (oblique) upper ab exercises before straight upper ab exercises.

Effect of Rules 2 and 3: We sort the remaining suitable exercises into general categories reflecting the order in which they should be performed-first: exercises mainly involving lower abs; second: exercises involving twisting movements; and third, exercises mainly involving upper abs.

Remember, synergism means finding a way to exercise so that each aspect of your workout reinforces all other aspects. We've explained the logic behind the general order of exercises. Arriving at the most effective specific order within these categories has required years of careful experimentation.

The Abs routines will take as close as you wish to the Greek sculptor's idea of a well-defined midsection. The total amount of time you'll spend on one workout will never exceed ten minutes.

The time it will take to reach your goal depends on your present physical condition and the consistency with which you train. It won't be long, though. If you don't have much excess fat, you should see results within a couple of weeks. Mild soreness, however, should come after the first or second workout--a definite indication that something good is happening!


Before going on to the Program Section, let's take a minute to review the important points we've covered so far.

  • Fat reduction and muscle conditioning are two different processes.

  • Fat reduction involves creating a calorie deficit (fewer calories consumed than burned). This is accomplished by modifying the diet and doing aerobic exercise. "Spot reduction" doesn't work.

  • Conditioning muscle requires doing exercises that target and overload a specific muscle, and that work it from a variety of angles.

  • If you lie on your back with legs extended, your abs have the capacity to raise your shoulders about 30° off the floor. Any movement beyond that is not the work of the abs.

  • Most traditional ab exercises are motivated by the psoas muscles, not the abs. Psoas-dominated movements are inefficient for conditioning the abs. Performed consistently over time, some may cause permanent lower back injury.

  • There are three general rules to follow in creating a synergistic abdominal conditioning routine:
  • Avoid exercises that both activate the psoas muscles and require a body position that allows the back to arch.

  • Work lower abs before upper abs.

  • Do twisting (oblique) upper ab exercises before straight upper ab exercises.

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