I see this happening all around the world – in training videos and of course, in every gym. Athletes all over the world trying to build their “Abs” – but are they really?

I recently saw another video of our star athlete Virat Kohli – just the first 12 seconds is enough where the intent clearly, is to work on the Rectus Abdominis – more popularly called the “Abs workout”. Now, let’s look at the science behind this particular workout and let’s break this down as per my understanding of what is exactly happening to the athlete’s body in this particular exercise form.

To explain this, I dug into my own data bank of pictures and selected this one that very closely depicts what is happening all around muscularly. It may not be the exact position of Virat’s back, however, it clearly depicts the usage of muscles – which would be pretty identical. First, let us look at the position of the back and see what muscles are at play here:

erector spinae

1) The Scapular stabilizers or what we commonly refer to as the upper back muscles.

2) The erector spinae muscles group – the muscles that run essentially vertically on either side of the spine

This particular form is brilliant to work the above two group of muscles as you can see in the picture and therefore, one also consumes lot of energy while holding in this posture.

Now let’s look at what this exercise form is doing for the Abs – the Rectus Abdominis muscle. To demonstrate this, I am just going to show a picture of me upside down – we have a clear view of the abs muscle while the erector spinae muscles are contracting. Same

InShot_20191119_092911989 (1).jpg

form that Virat is doing, just upside down.

In the picture on the left, you can see the erector spinae (back) muscles group is engaged in extending the spine to keep our back straight. But look at the picture on the right – the abs muscle is elongated – rested. This is exactly what will happen when you extend the spine. How is that “working” your Abs? What does it do for that muscle group? Pretty much nothing.

Virat

Suppose I take a screenshot of Virat’s video and just turn it upside down. Same straight back. Same elongated abs muscles.

Here’s the key thing…that little movement you see in the abs in the video is majorly the PSOAS muscle – the one responsible for pulling the legs up. And guess where that muscle is placed – it is right under our Abs muscle and connected to your leg! And so, when you do this kind of back extension and lift your legs, it lulls you into thinking that it’s your abs getting a workout. Not really, your Abs muscles are not the primary mover here – the major muscle involved in that movement is the PSOAS muscle. We take use of multiple muscles in any movement but we only consider any movement an exercise for a muscle when it is the primary mover for the action.

Here’s a simple test. Get down on the floor and do your ab crunches. Focus (make someone touch your abs) on your abs muscle. Feel how much it is going through or contracting. Next, find a pole and hang and lift your legs, like in the video. Now pay attention to the same and get someone to feel the abs muscle. You will realize that you are actually not using your abs muscle at all! Go ahead. Try it.

Muscle rule: muscles only work on the joint they cross.

Look at the two figures aside. See how these two muscles – PSOAS & Rectus Abdominis, InShot_20191119_093808681
are placed? In layman terms, you can see clearly see one muscle (the PSOAS) is attached to the leg whereas the other (Rectus Abdominis) is not. So how would the latter have any role to play if your focus is on the leg movement? And even if it was working your Abs just a little, by the sheer placement of the PSOAS muscle being behind the Abs, is it really worth the effort after observing what it is doing to your upper back?

InShot_20191119_093808681
are placed? In layman terms, you can see clearly see one muscle (the PSOAS) is attached to the leg whereas the other (Rectus Abdominis) is not. So how would the latter have any role to play if your focus is on the leg movement? And even if it was working your Abs just a little, by the sheer placement of the PSOAS muscle being behind the Abs, is it really worth the effort after observing what it is doing to your upper back?

In addition to tiring your scapular stabilisers (upper back), you may be killing your PSOAS especially if you are in a field sport. Because in a field sport – be it cricket, hockey or even baseball, the PSOAS is always at work, i.e., it is contracted all through the play day. It contracts even when you sleep (legs folded) – it really does not need any more contraction.

Running pic

For our abs to work, we need to flex them (muscle is attached to ribs and pelvis as you can see above). Even if it is as little a flexion as in the running picture shown here on the left. Of course, the rectus abdominis muscle plays many other roles while running. The idea here is to show how this muscle comes into action.

So, if you were to take this route, then you are better off with your arms resting on the sides on a regular gym machine. Even then you have to make an effort to flex/bend little forward from the top and rotate the pelvis – pulling the ribs and pelvis towards each other. Having said that, again, it’s your legs – PSOAS doing the major work, not your abs muscle.

With reference to the ab exercises in the above video here are two questions that I am seeking answers to from the strength & conditioning world:

  1. How are you flexing your back in this exercise? If not, then how does it become the work for abs/rectus abdominus?
  2. How about calling it work for Scapular stabilisers, erector spinae group, PSOAS and for structural muscle like Transverse Abdominus or even QL for that matter?

I would love to learn more from anyone reading this should you have any other explanation to this.

Simplifying training.

Umesh Chhikara

Movement Specialist I S&C trainer I Relaxation therapist