How to build … abominable abdominals

Six-pack. Roll of dimes. Washboard abs. You know the look–ripped, chiseled, defined. Women scream and brave men shiver.

But you’re a cyclist, you say, not a body builder or a boxer. You don’t need an industrial-strength gut. A cyclist’s stomach muscles just hang there, sagging loosely between hips and ribs, a flaccid bag to hold that energy bar you just ate.

Think again. Your midsection is the link between your legs turning the pedals and your upper body grasping the bars. If that link is weak, your cycling power gets frittered away.

Karin DeBenedetti, M.A., of Western Orthopaedic Sports Medicine in Denver, says strong abs help mountain bikers lift and pull on the handlebar for dynamic singletracking, and on the road they support you in a static position over long distances. But forget benefits. The fact is that without strong abs, cyclists risk injury.

Pedaling gets your glutes (butt muscles) and low-back muscles into shape but does little for the front of your midsection. Your pelvis can become tilted if your strong rear musculature pulls harder than your front, resulting in back pain.

Harvey Newton, editor-in-chief of Strength and Conditioning and long-time strength training adviser to the Olympic cycling team, remembers diagnosing such back pain in an Olympic medalist. “He could squat more than 400 pounds,” says Newton, “but when I tested his abdominal strength he did miserably. No wonder his back hurt–he had a major strength imbalance.”

Rippling abs also help prevent injury during accidents. The next time you fly over the bar on a root-infested trail or slide out on rain-slick paint stripes, spend a little air time thinking about the advantages of a strong gut. A girdle of muscles allows you to curl up and roll protectively and also protects your internal organs.

CRUNCH TIME

Knocking off a few crunchers after a ride is a good way to start improving your abs, but it’s not enough. Instead of concentrating only on the abs, strength experts talk about the “strength pillar” or “core strength.” These terms refer to a strong midsection–abs, low back, hip flexors, and glutes.

Pedaling takes care of the glutes. For the rest, try these 4 simple exercises. You don’t need fancy machines or a 4-figure club membership. You can do these at home anytime, although we prefer after a ride or in the evening while watching TV.

Now the bad news. These workouts are guaranteed to strengthen your stomach–not to give you a ripped bodybuilding look. “Muscle definition is hereditary,” says DeBenedetti. If your parents carried spare tires, then crunchers and cycling might help reduce yours, but you might not shed it completely.

Definition is also a function of total body fat. Lean people show more muscle. Even the most awesome set of abs can be hidden by excess body fat.

Pelvic Tilt LOW BACK AND ABS

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Contract your stomach muscles and slowly push your low back into the floor. Hold for 5 seconds, then relax slowly. This is harder than it sounds–expect quivering abs. Do 20-25, twice a day.

Single Knee to Chest HAMSTRINGS, GLUTES, AND LOW BACK

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Gently draw one knee to the chest, hold for a count of 3 and return. Alternate legs. Do 20 on each leg.

Crunchers THE BASIC AB EXERCISE

To do a basic cruncher, lie on your back with knees bent 90 degrees and lower legs supported on a couch. Fold arms across the chest. (Don’t lace your hands behind your head; doing this can strain your neck.) To start, pull your chin to your chest, then crunch up, hold 2-3 seconds, and go all the way down. Completely relax between each repetition. To work the oblique muscles at your sides, aim the left shoulder at the right knee for one rep and reverse it the next.

Start with 25 reps and work as high as 200. When that becomes easy, go back to 25 reps but do an advanced version. Hold your unsupported legs up in the air and build to 200. Do 3-7 times per week.

Back Extension LOW BACK

Use a back extension apparatus or have someone hold your legs as you lie on a strong table at home. With hands behind the neck or on your chest, rise slowly so the upper body is parallel to the floor–but don’t go higher. This is a back extension, not a hyperextension.

Begin with a few reps and increase to 3 sets of 25. As you get stronger, you can hold a barbell plate behind your neck for added resistance.

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