Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Want to Have 6-Pack Abs? Abdominal Bracing Strengthens Deep Ab Muscles and May Push Those Packs Out. Plus: It Will Add More to Your Core Stability Than 1000 Crunches

Embrace,... ah pardon, I meant brace your abs! Brace your abs and make the six packs shine through.
It's summertime and thus the time of the year, when men all over the world suddenly realize that there is something missing right between their well-shaven chest and the elastic waist of their shorts. In fact, for the majority of these "poor wretches" (aka perfectly normal men), there is rather "something too much" than something missing and I should point out in advance that the following blogpost is not going to help you to solve that problem, in order not to raise false hopes: Bracing yourself is not going to help you lose body fat. What "bracing yourself" or rather your abs can do for you, though is to help you strengthen your core, wherever you go, stand or train.

"How's that and what exactly is abdominal bracing?"

Now that I have gotten your full attention, it is probably about time to explain what exactly abdominal bracing is. Actually it is nothing else than a static contraction of the musculature. The same thing you would do, when I told you that I was about to punch you right into the stomach. You tighten your abdominal muscles as much as possible and wait for the impact (video). If you do have abs, you will probably be doing something similar while you are doing crunches or any other ab-exercise lying on your back to make sure that your lower back is pressed into the ground all the time (in case you are not ding that it is no wonder you don't see your abs, despite having a low body fat %, by the way).
Figure 1: % EMGmax values in each muscle during abdominal bracing (Maeo. 2013; image on the left Wikipedia)
Now, while the usefulness of this "exercise" for core-stability is something scientists have been aware of for years, the latter cannot be said of the actual activation pattern of the trunk muscle activities during abdominal bracing. Accordingly, a group of Japanese researchers set out to test and compare the intensity of the muscular contraction during abdominal bracint to 5 static exercises, which are often prescribed in rehabilitation programs, and 5 dynamic exercises, which are usually conducted for strength-training purposes. In that, the scientists used an EMG device in order to quantify the muscular activation durin
  • Trunk extension
  • V-Sits
  • Curl-Ups
  • Sit-Ups
  • Back extensions on the floor
  • Back extensions on the back
  • Abdominal hollowing (video)
  • Prone Planks
  • Lateral Planks 
  • Supine Planks
  • Trunk flexion
  • Trunk lateral flexion
and observed the following activation patterns for the rectus abdominis, the internal and external obliques and the erectors spinae (learn more about the anatomy of the abs; check out exrx.net to learn about the exercises): 
Figure 1: EMG-max values for rectus abd., external oblique, internal oblique, erectors spinae (Maeo. 2013)
If you scrutinize the data, there is no debating the "bracing yourself" works - much better than the notorious "hollowing", when it comes to training the rectus abdominis (RA), external oblique (EO) and erector spinae (ES) muscles the maximal activation during the "braces" is alway inferior to at least one of the other exercises. However,
"[...] the % EMGmax value for IO during the abdominal bracing was significantly higher than those in most of the other exercises including dynamic ones such as curl-ups and sit-ups."
Consequently, abdominal bracing (but also hollowing) is one of the "most effective techniques for inducing  a higher activation in deep abdominal muscles, such as IO muscle" (Maeo. 2013) and an underdeveloped "deep" abdominal musculature is much more likely to be the underlying reason that you are lean and still don't see abs, than a generally underdeveloped midsection.

Suggested read: "Shoulder Presses Ain't for Delts, Only!" (read more)
Bottom line: I you are one of the guys or girls who are constantly complaining about seeing nothing but the upper two abs despite being already hilariously lean, abdominal bracing could help push the "upper layer" of muscle out enough to make the horizontal stripes shine through the skin.

And don't forget, even if you don't do it as a standalone movement, you better "brace yourself", when you are doing your sit-ups, crunches and all the rest of the exercises people are wasting their time on, because they don't brace, or rather press their back firmly into the ground, when they are fidgeting around for hours. That being said, you may remember the post about the "ab-building effects" of shoulder presses, take a look at Flex Wheeler over there to the right. If he did not brace his abs he would break his back (the position he is in is still 100% suboptimal).

References: 
  • Maeo S, Takahashi T, Takai T, Kanehisa H. Trunk Muscle Activities during Abdominal Bracing: Comparison among Muscles and Exercises. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2013 [ahead of print]