By Stephenie Karony

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Dig your heels into
the bench to maximize
abdominal curls

QUESTION: Why do so many trainers have their clients place their heels on a bench when doing abdominal exercises?

ANSWER: When people do abdominal curls they usually draw their knees toward their chest. This position activates the hip flexors, muscles responsible for lifting your legs up to the front. By placing your heels on a bench and digging them in as you curl up, you stabilize the hips and deactivate the hip flexors. Both place a greater workload on the abdominal muscles. To maximize this effort, have both the hips and knees form right angles.

If it's results you're after, think of starting the abdominal curl from the middle of your body, rather like closing a bellows or an accordion. Do this by drawing your rib cage toward your hip bones. Most people curl from the neck and shoulders and never even flex the abdominal muscles.

Curls done in this fashion place excessive stress on the neck and tighten the muscles of the upper back. To get the feel of the correct way, hold a tennis ball under your chin. The tennis ball prevents the neck from curling. Stop the movement as soon as your shoulders (for the very strong, shoulder blades) are off the floor. If you raise your torso up any higher than this, you stop using the abdominal muscles and engage the lower back.

Also, don't lift and lower your arms as you curl up and down. Lifting the arms helps lift the body, which means the curl up is a lot easier to perform. Notice how much harder a curl up is when your arms remain still.

: I was recently at a seminar where I was told that one set to maximum on four compound exercises, once per week, is enough to increase strength and stimulate muscle growth in the whole body. Is this half-hour workout effective, for people who don't have more time to exercise?

: Let's first clarify what a compound exercise is for readers who aren't familiar with this term. A compound exercise involves moving more than one joint, and targeting more than one muscle group.

An example of a compound exercise for the lower body would be a leg press. The hip and knee joints are moving, the quadriceps, hamstrings and glute muscles are working.

An example for the upper body would be a bench press. The shoulder and elbow joints are both moving, and three muscle groups -- the pectoralis (chest) muscles, anterior shoulder and triceps -- are the prime movers.

Working one set to maximum would mean performing one set to failure, i.e. you wouldn't be able to do even one more repetition without losing form. This workload may be too intense for the beginning exerciser.

So, is doing four compound exercises to failure, once a week, enough to increase strength and stimulate muscle growth?

That depends on your level of fitness and your goals. Most weightlifting programs use at least three sets of each exercise, even exercises involving compound movements. However, one set training -- performing just one set of each weightlifting exercise -- can be used beneficially by beginners, elderly persons, those exercising for health reasons only, people with very little time or inclination to exercise, and those who hate to exercise and want it over with fast.

Please note that even with one-set training, you can and should do two or three exercises for each different muscle group. Otherwise, your workouts will be awfully short, and not very effective.

For untrained exercisers, performing one set of an exercise builds muscle and increases strength just as effectively as multi-set training, but only for awhile. Gradually, the benefits will diminish and you'll need to challenge your muscles more in order to progress.

Stephenie Karony is a certified health
and fitness instructor, a personal trainer and the author of
"Body Shaping with Free Weights." Send questions to her at
P.O. Box 262, Wailuku Hi. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

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