What is the best way to get my abdominal muscles to show? Every fitness enthusiast has asked or been asked this very question. If we listen to the infomercials this problem has already been solved. Just send three payments of $19.95 and you too can get a new piece of furniture to plop down in front of the TV that doubles as a crunch machine. As ridiculous as it sounds, the advice dispensed at your local gym is usually not too far from the infomercials. The fact is the crunch, whether it is done in the “Super Turbo Lounger” or flat on your back with your trainer barking out reps, is widely regarded by many as the best way to develop the abdominal muscles. So, is it true? Are crunches and their variations the best way to develop the abs?
In our opinion, sprints NOT crunches are the king of abdominal exercises by a long shot. But before we explain, let’s think about it for a second. If you compare athletes to the average gym goer, which group has better abdominal development? We put our money on the athletes, and we are betting you would too. The interesting thing is that athletes spend almost all of their time training for their sports and crunches are not the top priority in their training. As a matter of fact, ask any good strength and conditioning coach what they do to work on their athlete’s midsection and I doubt they will tell you crunches. Sprinting, on the other hand, is a required component of 90% of all sports and therefore the major component of any athletes training.
Advantage of sprints
Consider the following argument against crunches and other abdominal exercises, and you will see why they do not measure up to the sprint. First, crunches focus almost exclusively on the rectus abdominis muscle (the long muscle stretching from your rib cage to your pubic bone). What about the rest of the midsection? Most people see a “six-pack” as the defining characteristic of abdominal muscles, but just like an expensive piece of art, if the framing is not correct something is lost. The abdominal “frame” is formed by the external and internal oblique muscles (these muscles wrap around the waist from rib cage to hip bone toning and strengthening the side of the body). If you look closely at the most beautifully sculpted abs you will see two ridges running vertically up the torso separating the rectus abdominus (middle abdominals) from the obliques (side abdominals) providing the “frame” that is the hallmark of a strong toned midsection.
In addition to the narrow range of development that is acquired with standard ab exercises, there is another issue to consider. Total degree of muscle activation and length of time that muscle is under tension are major determinants of muscle function and growth. There is no exercise that generates more force in the abdominal musculature than sprinting, and therefore no exercise can mimic the developmental stimulus it provides.
Imagine a sprinter blasting down a track. The arms and legs are pumping and exploding like pistons. This immense force being generated on either side of the body pulls and twists the spine and body back and forth, and side to side. The only reason the body stays ridged and upright is because of the tremendous degree of force and pressure elicited by the contraction of the abdominal wall. The entire abdominal cavity is forced to engage in one monumental effort to stabilize the trunk and internal organs. This force is so powerful that even 1 ten second run can induce massive muscular stimulus on the midsection.
To reproduce the above scenario through the standard fare ab exercises, you would need to rep out crunches fast enough and long enough to generate the same kind of force. This is unlikely to happen flat on your back or bouncing up and down on a Swiss ball. Through electromyographical (EMG) studies (studies that hook up electrodes to the muscle to measure the degree of neuromuscular contraction in a muscle), it was shown that Swiss ball crunches engage more abdominal muscle than regular crunches. The element of balance required on a Swiss ball forces the obliques and other muscles of the midsection to help out in stabilization. Sprinting induces extremely strong forces around the spine and midsection. The stabilization required by the abdominal wall in this situation far surpasses that brought on by Swiss ball crunches.
You got to burn fat
Debating why athletes have defined abs and discussing how sprints engage a huge amount of abdominal work may have you somewhat convinced, but development of great abs involves the ability to get lean enough to see them. You can have the best abs in the world, but if you are carrying too much body fat good luck noticing them. An exercise that holds the title of “best abdominal exercise” has to be effective at developing the abdominal muscles, but to really excel it must also accelerate fat loss. Almost all traditional ab exercises, including crunches, fail miserably in their ability to burn fat. You can do ab exercises until you are literally blue in the face, but if they do not aid in fat loss you are fighting a losing battle.
Sprints are one of the most effective exercises to develop strong and muscular abs, and they literally teach your body how to be an effective fat burner. The last twenty years in exercise science has provided great insight into how the body uses fuel during and after exercise. Unlike steady state aerobics, sprint training produces a metabolic ripple that leads to enhanced fat burning for days after the workout is over.
More fat used during and after exercise
Dr. Christopher Scott of the University of Southern Maine is a pioneer in attempting to understand the full contribution of energy from sprint training. Many people believe sprint training works due to a phenomenon called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) which is an acute elevation in energy use after exercise has stopped. But Dr. Scott points out that EPOC does not fully explain energy use elevations that occur with sprinting. He believes, and has shown, these energy contributions to exercise may be even greater than anyone thinks. Dr. Scott emphasizes that to fully account for calories burned from exercise, three components must be measured: calories burned aerobically during exercise, calories burned aerobically after exercise (EPOC), and anaerobic calories burned from exercise (1-5). EPOC and the anaerobic lactic acid measurements for exercise are considered separate by Dr Scott.
In 2005, Dr. Scott published a paper entitled Misconceptions about Aerobic and Anaerobic Energy Expenditure where he explains his argument and highlights one of his studies comparing 3.5-minutes of jogging with three 15-second sprints (1). When he compared the aerobic calorie use during the exercise bouts he found the jogging used 29 calories, while sprinting used only 4 calories. But, when he added on the measure for EPOC, the calorie comparison went to 36 calories for the jog and 39 calories for the sprints. When he finally added on the anaerobic contribution (blood lactate measure), the numbers for the sprint spiked dramatically. The final tally was 39 calories for the jog compared with 65 calories for the sprints. And this says nothing of the recovery, repair and adaptation that accelerate fat use for several days after the exercise session which has been demonstrated with high intensity exercise.
By adding both EPOC and the anaerobic contribution to the original calorie total, the sprints far surpassed the jogging in calories burned. Now, consider the implications. The aerobic exercise session took 4 X longer to complete (210 seconds vs. 45 seconds). What is most interesting, is that if you neglect to count calorie use from EPOC and anaerobic expenditure, a full 94% of the calories used during sprinting would go uncounted. And this is exactly what most calorie counting machines and experts do, they only measure the calories burned aerobically during exercise!
After-burn = fat loss
The sprint is so powerful for fat loss because it sets into motion biochemical reactions that turn on your fat burning machinery. This concept is popularly known as the metabolic afterburn effect. It represents the body’s attempt to recover, repair and regenerate after intense exercise. Anyone who has ever run a 100-yard dash or walked up a large flight of steps knows what the beginning stages of the afterburn feels like (breathless, burning, etc.). It is that period of time just after stopping intense movement where you have to stop and gasp for air that lets you know you have achieved it. This increased respiration is just the tip of the iceberg. Deep in the body, biochemistry is manipulated and changed to liberate the used fuel (fat) to help in recovery. This intense exercise releases a “chemical soup”, including adrenaline, testosterone, and human growth hormone (HGH), that may be the one of the key benefits leading to fat burning for hours and even days after the workout has ended.
Sprinting also trains the body to be a more efficient fat burner at rest and lower intensity exercise. Fat usage in the body is regulated by fat burning enzymes. You can think of enzymes as little machines inside your cells that carry out certain functions. Sprint training turns on fat burning enzymes and keeps them on. An article in February of 2005, printed in the Journal of Applied Physiology, showed that six weeks of daily sprint training elevated a fat burning enzyme called citrate synthase by more than a third. Another article in the same journal in 1998 (vol. 84) showed that this same enzyme stayed significantly elevated for 6 to 8 weeks after the sprint training had ended.
How is it done?
If you are still not convinced that sprinting is the most effective form of abdominal exercise, try it. Go find a track and run as fast as you can for 50 to 100 meters. Slowly walk back to start, and do it again. Do it one more time and call it a day. If you are beginner to this type of exercise and skeptical of our assertion, you won’t be tomorrow when you wake up. You will feel the effects of your sprint “ab exercise” throughout your entire midsection.
When most people hear the word sprint they picture super human athletes hurling down a track. You don’t have to generate this type of intensity to reap the beneficial ab building effects of this style of training. The important thing to remember is that intensity is an individual thing. To get started with sprint training you will need to warm up. Watch the video below to see how.
For the sprint, keep good form; knees up, arms driving straight up and down in a powerful exaggerated arcing motion. Keep the chest forward with a slight lean. Move down the track with intent and purpose using the arms and legs to propel you forward. The intensity you deliver on your sprints is relative. If you are de-conditioned and doing this for the first time, make your sprint a fast walk or jog with an exaggerated arm and leg movement like a sprinter. If you are a seasoned fitness enthusiasts, then a real sprint is more realistic. Complete three real sprints and then repeat again in three to seven days adding a sprint each time until you are able to do ten in a row.
Abdominal exercises that develop the midsection and truly burn fat at the same time are virtually impossible to find. There is no exercise machine, gyrating vibration device, or number of crunches that will deliver the tight toned abdomen you seek. The sprint is the closest thing to the perfect abdominal exercise that exists. It works the midsection from all angles developing the obliques and the rectus abdominus together. It also has the added benefit of being one of the most potent stimulants for fat burning in all of exercise. While others continue straining their necks and spinning their wheels in a futile attempt to develop the elusive six pack, all you need is a good pair of running shoes and 50 to 100 meters of flat ground. We will see you at the track.
- Scott, et. al. Misconceptions about aerobic and anaerobic energy expenditure. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2005;2:32-37.
- Scott et. al. Estimating total energy expenditure for brief bouts of exercise with acute recovery. Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism. 2006;31:144-149.
- Scott, et. al. Contribution of blood lactate to the interpretation of total energy expenditure for weight lifting. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2006;20:21-28.
- Scott et. al. Contributions of Anaerobic Energy Expenditure to Whole-body Thermogenesis. Nutrition and Metabolism. 2005;2:14.
- Scott, et. al. Direct and indirect calorimetry of lactate oxidation: implications for whole-body energy expenditure. Journal of Sports Science. 2005;23:15-19.