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Abs From Hell Workout

Abs.  Another way of saying "boredom".  You crunch and crunch.  Shoulder into knee.  Watch the hands -- if you can see your elbows, you're pulling on your head!  Pretend you have an egg under your chin!  Booooorrrring!   However, our clients want, almost to a woman or man, to do them after just about any kind of class, be it step, aerobics, interval, whatever.  And it seems, sometimes, that we simply run out of ideas for making them interesting, fun, and, above all, effective.

The Rectus Abdominis, like almost every other muscle in the body, is composed not only of STO (Slow Twitch Oxidative) fiber, but also of FTO (Fast Twitch Oxidative), and FTG (Fast Twitch Glycolytic), fibers -- the "Strength" fibers.  Why not approach working the RA in much the same way we approach working every other muscle -- that is, not just in endurance (STO) mode, but in strength (FTO/FTG) mode, as well?  Here's one way...

The Challenge:
To provide a back-safe, challenging workout for the Rectus Abdominis.  Most people in average health, with no chronic back problems, should be able to do the exercise without harm.  Fatigue should take place in fewer than 20 reps in any given mode, to properly "hit" the FT muscle fiber.

The Equipment:
This exercise is performed on a step bench with one or two sets of risers.  You will also need a pair of dumbbells of a weight which will cause fatigue when doing biceps curls, at about 20 reps.  For the leg-lift portion, you also need a medium-to-high weight ExerTube or other similar handled surgical tubing.  The handles should be large enough to  use as "stirrups" on the feet.  You may wish to use a mat of a size to fit the top of the step bench, or a towel.

The Protocol - Leg Lift Portion:

1. Pass the ExerTube under the step bench, toward one end of it.
2. Sit on the end of the bench and slip the handles of the ExerTube over your feet like "stirrups".
3. Lie supine on the bench, get comfortable, upper body is relaxed.
4. Extend the legs up, crossing them at the ankles, if you find that more comfortable.
5. Press your heels toward the ceiling (pelvic tilt).  2 counts up, 2 counts down, for 8 reps.
6. Increase to 1 count up, 1 count down for 8 reps.
7. Change to 3 counts up, 1 count down for 8 reps.
8. Repeat from 5 ..7 for 2 more sets.  Remove the tubes and get ready for it!

The Protocol - Abs From Hell! Portion:

Note:  This exercise protocol is not for beginners.  Be certain that your clients are adequately advanced, and understand how to modify all movements to suit their physical condition.  Show modifications using lighter, and no weight, and using only partial ROM instead of the full sit-up.  If you wish to use this protocol with a less-experienced class, you might wish to use resistance tubing passed under the bench as above, in place of the weight, and to only perform the crunch, without going to full-upright position.

1. Lying supine on the step bench, put the soles of your feet together and drop your knees wide apart.  This keeps the hip flexors pretty much out of the initial lift, and minimizes, to some extent, the stresses on the lower back.

2.  Using a weight which is significant for you (I suggest a dumbbell which would cause fatigue in biceps curls at about 20 reps), hold the weight in a modified "head-crusher" position, as shown.
3.  Begin the crunch by lifting shoulders off the bench.  Do not extend the arms until the shoulders clear.
4.  With the shoulders off the bench, extend the arms until they are straight.  This not only adds intensity to the crunch, it also works the triceps quite nicely.
5.  (Optional isometric hold of the abs, while the hip flexors do most of the lift) -- Continue rotating the weight forward out over your pelvic region.  The weight will act as a counterbalance, allowing you to perform a full sit-up, while minimizing strain on your back.  Be sure to maintain foot position, with the knees apart, as this will assist some clients in minimizing tendencies to twist the body during the lift.  If you do not wish to have the class do the isometric part, simply reverse to 3 - 2 - 1, and continue the crunches.
6.  (Optional part) -- Once you have reached full sit-up position, reverse the process:  Lower the upper body, keeping arms extended and the weight over the pelvic region.  Then, with the shoulders held off the bench, retract the weight to the modified "head-crusher" position.  Lastly, lower the shoulders to the bench.

Intensity Is The Key:
If the correct level of weight has been chosen, fatigue will set in within 10 to 20 reps, to the point that the shoulders can no longer be lifted off the bench.  When that point is reached, put the weights down and perform normal, un-weighted crunches for the remainder of the session.  Don't let the "die-hards" continue with lighter weight -- excessive crunches like this can cause sore lower backs - remind them that you want them back in your class, uninjured!

The most intense form of this is to simply perform positions 1 and 2.  The triceps extensions and full sits are things you can do to add some variety.

Options for Less-Experienced Classes
You may replace the heavier weights with a single, lighter dumbbell, perhaps held in one hand while the other hand supports the neck and cervical spine.  An ExerTube or Dynaband may be passed under the bench, over the shoulders, and held just above the collarbone with one hand, in place of the weights.  Adjust the exercise appropriately to the fitness level of your class, and to explain and demonstrate modifications!

Get 'Em While They're Hot!
The muscles, that is.  Before you let your clients continue on to the next step, have them stretch.  I use the words, "Stretch it out, long legs, long arms.  Draw your abs in tight.  Now, relax and take a deep breath!  Reach out a little further, now let it out and stretch one more time..."  Have them hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, for best effect.

Soreness?  You Bet!
The "Abs From Hell" protocol will cause DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) in the regions of the Rectus Abdominis, near both the upper and lower attachments, particularly the upper, just under the sternum and ribs.  Be sure to tell your class to expect it, because the first time it happens, it can be quite disconcerting!

Opposing Muscle Groups:
Since we're working the abs through full ROM, and using resistance at a high percentage of 1RM to ensure hitting the FT fiber, it's a good idea to also work the Erector Spinae.  I suggest bent-over deadlifts, using the same weight you used for the crunches.  Don't overdo it -- 5 or 6 reps are probably quite enough.  Be absolutely certain that your clients use proper form for this one, and that none of them have any type of chronic back disability.  If you're not certain, lose the weights and use resistance tubing, or nothing at all.

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