Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS
Q: When working out, what is the difference between bulking up (mostly males) and creating lean muscles (mostly women)?
A: It’s a rather vague question, but let me first dispel the myth that women can gain massive amounts of muscle in short periods of time compared to their male counterparts. Women produce a comparatively scant amount of testosterone that males produce and they do not carry as much muscle either, which makes bulking up more challenging for them. Sure, women can bulk up, but they’re going to have to work harder than most men to do it. As far as creating lean muscles goes, well you’re going to have to strip away body fat to reveal definition, which requires a combination of an appropriate diet, cardiovascular exercise, and resistance training.
Q: So what IS the best ab workout?
A: Best is somewhat of a subjective term, however, I’ll try my “best” to answer this question. When most people are talking about their abs, they are typically referring to their rectus abdominis, or RA, a longitudinal muscle that originates along the pubic crest and inserts into the Xiphoid process, which is the bony stem of the sternum. When lower body fat percentages are achieved by athletes and bodybuilders, it is the most distinguished looking muscle of the midsection, earning the term “6 pack”. The RA is a synergist, or primary mover, in lumbar flexion – a topic that has stirred a huge debate amongst fitness professionals. Why is lumbar flexion bad? Well, it’s not necessarily bad, unless you are performing exercises that place compressive forces on a flexed spine or if you’re doing way too many sit-ups or crunches, which create more intradiscal pressure along the lumbar spine compared to anti-flexion abdominal exercises. We can say that abdominal flexion is a bit overdone in most peoples’ training programs and more people need anti-flexion, you can achieve this by adding in plank variations or even isometric pushups, which can be added at the end of your workout.
You see a ton of people tossing in some kind of standing twisting exercise to hit their obliques, which consist of the internal and external obliques, finger-like muscles that run along the bottom of the ribcage. Forcefully twisting your torso, with a load or without, may just place unnecessary shearing forces upon your spine, instead of hitting your obliques. You should consider anti-rotation (stabilization) exercises before rotation (force generation) exercises.
A good anti-rotation exercise is the Paloff Press, an exercise created by renowned New England-based physical therapist, John Paloff. During the exercise, you will assume a half-kneeling position and will grasp a handle from an adjacent cable tower or a resistance band and draw it towards your chest, exactly at your body’s midline. You’ll extend your elbows, keeping your torso stable and your one knee and back foot on the ground. You can eventually progress to performing these from a high-kneeling, standing, or squat position.
A lot of these people are neglecting are neglecting transverse abdominis, or TVA, which stabilizes the pelvis, and if too weak, may cause lower back pain. You can activate the TVA, by performing the “Drawing In” technique, where instead of flexing your abs, you’re now sucking them in. You’re going to draw your navel to the floor and will hold it for a couple of seconds, repeat this 5-10 times and perform a couple of sequences. To ensure that you’re performing the exercise correctly, place a tennis ball or light medicine ball atop your belly button. If the ball goes down, you’re successfully activating your TVA.
Q: I have been inactive for a while – what is the best routine for beginners?
A: The best routine is one that won’t set a beginner up for failure. Would you want to compromise your long-term goals by hammering it hard in the gym five or six days a week, after spending all your spare time loafing on a couch watching TV? No way! When someone is just starting out or getting back into the swing of things they should take it easy, maybe too easy, as many experts suggest. You’ll also want to adopt the concept of progressive overload. Perhaps you jogged one mile today, you may want to shoot for 1.25 miles you’re next time out. Analogously, if you squatted 135 pounds for 10 repetitions on your last set, you may want to go for 12 reps during your next workout. Loading parameters, such as: frequency, volume, intensity, and the length of the workouts vary and depend on the person’s age, training history, goals, and their medical / injury history.
Q: What should my diet look like?
A: Diet, much like an exercise program, must be individualized and based on a person’s age, activity level, goals, and any medical conditions. If you have any specific questions regarding your diet, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com, however, I’d recommend that you consult your physician or seek out the services of a dietician first.
Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, is a Philadelphia-area healthcare support professional and personal trainer, he holds an M.S. in Exercise Science and has nearly a decade of personal training experience. Presently, he is employed as a Fitness Specialist with the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Recreation and also trains clients Broad Street Fitness in Philadelphia, PA. He is also pursuing a MBA with a concentration in Healthcare Administration, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. More of his articles can be found on elitefts.com, joshstrength.com, beyondstrengthperformance.com, frequency555.com, and personaltrainersunited.com.