There are dozens of exercises that tone and build abdominal muscles, from standard situps to exotic machine- and weight-assisted programs that address not just abs but adjacent and supporting muscle groups. Debate continues about the benefits and dangers of situps and situp-based exercises, whether weight-assisted or not, yet most experts agree that healthy adults with no history of back problems or pain can safely incorporate crunches or situps in their workout regimens. Even if you eschew situps, there are many alternatives to enhance abdominal strength, appearance and endurance.
One of the biggest mistakes many people make when seeking beach-worthy abs is ignoring their core muscle group -- the “corset” of muscles and connective tissues that surround and support the spine. By strengthening your core muscles, your spine remains straight while your torso swivels. Your lower back muscles are vital to providing stability when performing typical abdominal exercises such as sit-ups, crunches or variations of those exercises. Dead lifts, squats and clean-and-jerk routines all work your core muscle groups as well as your abdomen, which works as a stabilizer in most weight-lifting routines.
If you suffer from lower-back pain or otherwise have back problems, you may want to avoid traditional situps, or at least see a physician to determine if your specific condition will exacerbate a problem. Otherwise, use a flat, sturdy and cushioned surface -- not a bed. Lay flat on your back, bring your knees to a 45-degree angle, about 12 to 18 inches from your butt, and grasp a weight in your hands or arms over your chest. Sit up until your elbows or forearms touch your knees. Lie back slowly but steadily. If performing situps for a speed test, allow gravity to perform the backward movement. Anchoring your feet during situps causes undue stress on the lower back and hips, and negates much of the abdominal benefit.
Similar to situps, crunches eliminate most of the hip and flexor muscle strain associated with situps. After attaching ankle weights, lie flat on your back, cross your arms over your chest, raise your feet until your thighs are perpendicular to the ground, and sit up until your chest touches your knees. Make sure that you feel the strain in your stomach and not your back. Lower your legs back to the ground. Add weight to your chest by holding a plate or dumbbell to increase resistance. If you can’t perform a complete crunch, or if the abdominal pain won’t allow it, reduce the weight or go as far as you can. Pushing yourself to the highest possible point in the crunch is the key. Begin with simple leg lifts if you need to work up to a crunch position.
Suspend yourself on parallel bars or by hanging from a chinup bar. Attach ankle weights or simply grasp a dumbbell between your feet and raise your knees to your chest, or as high as you’re able. Alternate between sets of slow, steady lifts and fast, explosive lifts. Use a lighter weight for explosive lifts and do more reps.
Any abdominal exercise can be enhanced with the addition of weights. Medicine balls, ankle weights and inclined surfaces all add resistance and promote muscle strength. Standing exercises, such as windmills, bends and oblique stretching also can be enhanced through weight use. Remember that no amount of abdominal exercise will provide you with “six-pack abs” if you’re overweight. Although you may build your abdominal muscles to a great extent, they won’t be readily visible if you have excess stomach fat.