So, you want to have washboard, six-pack abs? Never again do you want to shy away from taking your shirt off (men) while jogging on a hot Summer day, or wearing a midriff-baring halter top (women)? Then it's time to get to work on those abdominal muscles. This writeup assumes that we're all a bunch of writers who do a lot of sitting, and know relatively little about toning a muscle group. Hey, I'm there with you.

Before we begin, let's take a look at what you'll be exercising. That will help you determine whether or not you are doing the exercises properly.

The Abdominal Muscle Groups

Internal abdominal oblique muscles: These muscles, on either side of of the abdomen, work chiefly to support the abdominal wall, aid with respiration, and are the muscles in action when the trunk of the body is twisted one way or the other. They work inversely with the external obliques when it comes to twisting. That is to say that when turning left, the right external and the left internal obliques are contracted together.

External abdominal oblique muscles: Much like the internal obliques, these are used for support of the abdominal wall, aiding in respiration, and work inversely with the internal obliques for twisting of the trunk of the body.

Rectus abdominus muscles: These are the ones that pucker in the center to create the six pack image that we're all shooting for. They extend up from the top of the pelvis up through the bottom of the rib cage, inserting just below the breastbone. They are used for all motion between the rib cage and the pelvis.

Transversus abdominis muscles: These are potentially the most important of the muscle groups in the abdominal region. They are not only the deepest layer of muscles, but also are the ones that take the bulk of weight strain off of the lumbar vertebrae of the spine. As this group becomes stronger, back pain (if present) will become less and less an issue.

The Diet & Some Myth-busting

I'm sure you don't really want to hear this, but chances are that you're not eating right. You grab whatever is handy, toss it in the microwave, and chow down whenever you're hungry. Hey, me, too. But the first step in getting your abs into show-off standing is to recognize that more often than not, the reason you don't have definition down there is because those muscles are encased in a modest layer of fat, and your first step in this enterprise is to thin that out.

However, you might have some unpleasant news in store for you. Working your abs through these easy exercises will not remove the fat deposits above those muscles. You cannot choose from where you lose weight, and working on particular area will not do it. To thin the fat in one area is to thin the fat from all areas. Prolonged, extended exercise is the only way to do that, in conjunction with a low-calorie, healthy diet.

For me, the "healthy diet" involves color theory. I've learned that fruits, meats and vegetables that have a rich color are generally rich in stuff that the body really needs. I know people who swear by the deep pink color of wild Alaskan salmon and encourage 5 servings a week of it. Others forswear meats altogether and get all those extra proteins from supplements. Me, I go to the store and pick out fresh items that have a robust color, and prepare those foods in a way that doesn't remove any possible health benefits (I don't deep-fry everything, for example). Once or twice a week I'll splurge and eat something delicious and sinful--the rest of the time, it's protein bars, salads with oil and lemon, fresh strawberries (in moderation--fructose is, after all, a sugar) and melons, oatmeal (sure, not a rich color, but we all know how good oatmeal is for your cholesterol) and roasted, unsalted nuts (almonds, walnuts, &c). For more information about eating colorful foods, see Taste the rainbow.

I also ride my bike 30 miles a day, and keeping the heart muscle strong helps the whole body. If you can accelerate your heart rate for 30 minutes a day, you'll watch the nasty fat bits melt away. Jumping jacks, sit-ups (in moderation--sit-ups are not the key to sleek abdominals), push-ups--even walking is a fine exercise.

The most unpleasant news I have for you is that those tight, rippled abs may not be physiologically possible for you. A flat stomach may not be in your genetics. If you don't know anyone in your family with a flat stomach (or had one in the past), chances are high that you're also in that group of people. Don't worry--the muscles are important not because they look great and are romanticized by Hollywood, but for good posture and proper support of the spine. If you have lower back pain, this could very well solve that.

Note: For the best results in exercising, before breakfast is an excellent time to get started. Afterwards, shower, have a good breakfast, and start your day. After day one, you'll notice the difference in energy.

Fortunately, you don't need expensive equipment to get your abdominals into good shape. And that brings us to what you're probably really interested in.

The Exercises

The abs are just like any other muscle group in your body. You work them, they will tighten and tone. Just as a bicyclist develops toned calves and thighs from repetition, and a swimmer develops rippled shoulders and upper back, the practice of exercising one area will have an effect, and it won't be that long in the coming, if you stick to the routine. And that's the first decision you must make: What is your goal? Be reasonable with yourself. Try out each of these exercises, find the ones that are most comfortable for you, and stick to a regimen you can live with. If after a week you don't like the progress you've made, step it up a bit. Do 15 instead of 10 repetitions. Add a new exercise. But stick with it. You don't have to work your abs every day. The choice is entirely yours.

The Bicycle Exercise. Difficulty: Easy. This particular exercise is rated as the most effective abdominal exercise you can do. And it's effective because it works all of the groups of muscles equally, if it is done right and smoothly. A reminder: Just because you can do one repetition every 2 seconds, it is likely more effective if you stretch it out to 5 or 6 seconds, as it will more fluidly work each of the muscles.

  1. Lie down on your back (on an exercise mat if possible, on a rug if not). Lace your fingers behind your head.
  2. Lift your legs off the ground, keeping them straight, to a 45 degree angle.
  3. Keeping your right leg in place, pull your left knee in to meet your right elbow halfway. Flatten your left elbow to the ground with the natural left twist of the trunk of the body. The motion should be fluid. Try counting 1-2-3, hitting the center mark on 3. Make sure your breathing remains constant.
  4. Straighten the left leg back to the starting point at 45 degrees, and do the same motion with the right leg and left elbow. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for 10 repetitions on each side.

After ten repetitions, put your legs down and take a break. If you are unfamiliar with abdominal exercise, you should be feeling the "burn" in your abs just after that minute or so of exercise. Cherish that burning. That's your muscles waking up. For a beginner, this exercise alone, once a day (or twice, if you're eager) is a fantastic way to start down the path. Imagine, 5 minutes of working out a day will lead to a slimmer belly.

A helpful noder has pointed out to me that even raising your legs to 45 degrees while lying down can put undue stress on your back if you have a weak back. If you are unsure, raise them slowly before beginning the exercise.

Vertical Crunch. Difficulty: Moderate. This exercise focuses on the rectus abdominus and obliques, and is my personal recommendation for a second exercise to add to your workout. It takes some getting used to.

  1. Lie down on your back (exercise mat recommended, again), hands on the ground or cupped behind your head..
  2. Bring your legs up to a 90 degree angle, and cross them at the knees.
  3. While keeping your legs as straight and steady as possible, raise your shoulder blades off the ground and bring your chest towards your feet.
  4. At the top of the movement, flex your abdominals to push your rectus abdominus towards the ground. Repeat 10 times.

This is a tough one, and I do not recommend trying it on your first go at this. After, since this exercise targets only two groups of muscles, you'll know if you're doing it right if those groups are the ones that burn and feel a bit more tight.

Reverse Crunch. Difficulty: Moderate. This exercise targets the rectus abdominus, and is slightly low-impact as it requires no twisting of the body.

  1. Lie down on your back, hands on the ground or cupped behind your head.
  2. Bring your knees in towards your chest, so that your lower legs are parallel to the ground, and your thighs are at a 90 degree angle. Keep feet together or crossed.
  3. Contract your abs to curl your hips off the ground and reach your legs towards the ceiling. It's a subtle movement, so do it slowly, and don't use the legs to "swing" into position. The work should be done solely by the abs. Repeat 10 times.

Balancing Act. Difficulty: Hard. Please don't work this exercise until you've mastered the other three. You can easily cause some harm in the form of pulled muscles if your abs are not strong enough to do this exercise properly.

  1. Lie down on your back, hands flat on the ground beside you.
  2. With your legs, straight, raise them to a 90 degree angle, feet as flat as possible.
  3. Imagine that you have a plate of expensive Watercrest wine glasses filled with red wine and you're on your parents' favorite white carpet. With that in mind, contract your abs to curl your hips, raising them off the ground, and push your feet up. Hold the position for 10 seconds, and slowly return to the starting point. Repeat 10 times.

As mentioned, this one is hard, and focuses primarily on the Transversus abdominis muscle, that deep, strong muscle underneath the flat stomach you've begun to develop. It should be a very fluid motion.

So there you have it, fine noder, an introduction to four of the best abdominal exercises you can do, and none of them required any monetary investment from you. Always follow your exercising with a healthy meal to replenish the energy you just spent on the floor. Protein is best, but any good meal will do fine.

The single most important thing you can ever learn when it comes to exercise, however, is that if the exercises are uncomfortable, then don't do them. You're doing these for you, and if you're not enjoying the benefits with regard to the effort, then it is not worth your time. If you're continually hurting your back with one routine, don't do it again until you're more confident in your muscles in that area. Keep things in perspective.

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