We all know by now’or at least we should know’that crunches are superior to situps performed with the legs held down. When you hold the legs down, the iliopsoas (hip flexor) group does most of the work. It’s not a bad idea to have strong hip flexors, but they shouldn’t be stronger than the rectus abdominis. Why? If the hip flexors are so dominant that they do most of the work on your abdominal exercises, the very problem you’re trying to correct gets worse.
The rectus abdominis muscles have to be strong enough to hold the pelvis in the ‘posterior pelvic tilt position.’ Otherwise, whenever you do an exercise that puts stress on the trunk’squats, for example’you get pain in your lower back because of improper lordic curve.
A potbelly and lower-back pain often come from the same weak muscle, the rectus abdominis. I always thought crunches were the key to working the rectus abdominis. The problem is, crunches build only the upper part of the muscle, not the lower abs.
So how do you build the lower rectus abdominis? The usual answer is leg raises, but they can aggravate lower-back weakness and add to the potbelly.
Anytime you do leg raises, you work the hip flexors isotonically and the lower rectus abdominis isometrically. Isotonically means moving the muscle through its full range of motion, and isometrically means holding it flexed in a static condition.
We all know you can build biceps a whole lot better by doing full reps than by just holding the bar in a flexed position. Yet when it comes to working lower abs, we completely ignore that fact. We work our hip flexors through their full range of motion and just hold our rectus abdominis in a flexed condition. Why? Ignorance.
I didn’t always know how to work lower abs. I was doing all kinds of clever twisting hanging leg raises, but my lower abs never got any better, and I was continually injuring my lower back when I did squats or any kind of bent-over exercises. It bugged the heck out of me, but I figured it was one of those congenital problems I’d have to live with. Sometimes my wife would say, ‘How come you have that pooch down there when you work out all the time?’ I wanted to kill her.
Lower abs are the abdominal wall that supports the weight of the intestines when you stand erect. You have to keep the area toned enough to hold the intestines flat when the abdominals aren’t flexed, but each time you do leg raises you strengthen the muscle that may aggravate your pot gut. The hip flexors keep your pelvis at an anterior tilt so it makes your lower gut stick out. That tilt puts your lower back in a prime position for injury. All it takes is just a few hours of standing on your feet, and the pressure of your spine sitting on top of the improper anterior pelvic tilt makes your lower back start burning.
You need to get your pelvis back into correct position by strengthening the lower abdominal wall without strengthening those hip flexors. I’ve found a way to add strength to my pelvic floor, which means when I do squats, there’s power way down deep in my lower back and pelvis. The only thing stopping me from using a heavier weight is leg power, not a potential lower-back injury. Thanks to this technique, my waist size has dropped to less than 32 inches for the first time since high school.
Here’s how to do the exercise: Lie on a situp board that’s set as flat as possible, reach over your head, grasp the edge of the board. Raise your legs, with knees bent, so your thighs are perpendicular to the floor. Press your lower back hard to the bench’the only muscles that can press your lower back to the bench are the lower abs.
Next, let your pelvis roll forward so your back arches. Keep your legs in the same position. Continue rocking your pelvis back and forth. You don’t need to move your legs at all.
As you get stronger, extend your legs out a little while you’re doing this ‘pelvic rock.’ That will add resistance to the exercise. Eventually, you’ll be able to place a dumbbell between your feet.
Your lower abs will get stronger, your potbelly will flatten, and your lower back will refuse to be pulled out of position by strong hip flexors because your lower abs will be superpowerful’so powerful that even when you do squats and no matter how much weight you use, they’ll hold your pelvis exactly where it should be.
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