The body is hardwired to find the easiest way to accomplish a physical task. People with no education in exercise techniques will immediately “cheat.” Elbows go out like wings from a bird during triceps exercises; butts go up to the ceiling when performing a push-up; and feet are anchored when doing a sit-up.
Without understanding proper biomechanics and mental focus, the body will immediately go to the strongest muscles to accomplish the task, often bypassing the muscle people think they’re exercising.
Exercise has its roots in sports training and bodybuilding, leading some people to think of it as a purely physical task. Lift the weight; build the muscle. In reality, exercise requires mental concentration to be effective. The reason for mirrors in gyms has nothing to do with vanity. Watching a muscle contract increases the mental focus.
When the feet are anchored anyone can do an impressive number of sit-ups. Most of the time, more is better, so the early fitness trainers encouraged anchoring the feet as the most efficient way to exercise the abdominal muscles. That burn at the end of a 50-rep set had people screaming and gave way to catch phrases like “no pain, no gain.”
Flexing your Mental Muscle
Try this simple exercise of mind over muscle. Place your right hand over your heart as in a pledge and extend your left arm out to the side forming a right angle to the floor. Make a fist and imagine you are holding a handle attached to a two-ton weight behind you. Now, try to pull that weight forward. With your right hand you will feel the muscles of the chest contracting, when indeed you have barely moved your arm an inch and it is attached to thin air. All exercise is best performed using this same mental focus.
The abdominals are composed of two sections of muscle. The upper portion is responsible for bringing the shoulders to the knees, the lower portion for bringing the knees to the shoulders. A combination of sit-ups and leg raises are best to slim, shape and define the waist. Every person has a six-pack; however, it is often hidden under fat. Slimming the waist often also requires a reduction in calories and loss of fat in addition to properly performed exercise.
Common Mistakes in Abdominal Exercise
The “secret” to effective abdominal exercise is proper form and mental focus. While there are many exercises for the waist, the cornerstone of all ab exercises is the sit-up. Many people still anchor their feet. When the feet are anchored the first movement comes from the momentum of the head moving with the hands and arms, this also pushes the pelvis down and back, shortening the abdominals and starting the movement with momentum, not muscle contraction.
This forces abs into an isometric contraction that never fully employs the muscle. After the shoulders leave the floor, the powerful hip-flexors do the work of pulling the shoulders toward the knees. In shaping a body few people want to have hip flexors to die for.
People commonly lace their fingers behind their heads when doing sit-ups. This encourages you to pull your head forward and risk possible injury to the neck. Placing your hands alongside your head, or outstretched in front of you is preferred. Never lead with your head and do not let your chin fall to your chest. Concentrate instead on raising your chin toward the ceiling thereby allowing the abs to lift your shoulders.
For maximum efficiency, any skeletal muscle exercise should start from maximum extension to minimum extension—the full range of motion. To fully extend the abdominals you need some lift under your lower back. A couple of folded towels will do the trick.
With knees bent, place your palms together and extend your arms toward your knees. This will encourage proper form. Concentrate on the origin of the abs at the bottom of the rib cage and stretching all the way to the pelvis. Pull from low in the core, drawing the navel in toward the spin and then up.
Hold that position then start curling the spine to lift the shoulders off the ground. Practice this minimal range for a few weeks before moving toward a full sit-up with shoulders and back coming off the floor. Keep the movement low in the abs. Feel the pelvic area and internal obliques helping you finish the movement. Don’t expect to do 50 reps; when performed correctly the sit-up is effective in sets of 10-15.
All muscles work in teams, so spend extra time on the corresponding low back muscles. Remember that any isolation exercise like the sit-up is best performed as part of a total body routine.
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