ENERGY EXPRESS

The three scientifically best ways to work your abs

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OK, let's face it, we're an ab-obsessed country. We all want to bounce quarters off abdominal muscles that are tight, toned and deliciously rippled, so we do our crunches; we roll up and back on our Ab Rockers; we use weights and balls; and now, by the millions, we're buying into yet another ab machine heavily advertised on TV, the Torso Track "For Trimmer, Tougher Abs Beyond Your Wildest Dreams!"

Well, quit dreaming and tune into the reality of an interesting study done by the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University, commissioned by the American Council on Exercise.

Researchers looked at 13 of the most common abdominal exercises, ranking them from best to worst. It turns out that the best way to get your abs stronger, your posture better and reduce your risk of low-back injuries is to choose from among a list of excellent ab exercises and do them for about five minutes a day, day after day, slowly and mindfully, with control and focus.

Dr. Peter Francis. who ran the study, and his colleagues do recommend a variety of traditional ab exercises. Here are the three most effective ones, along with instructions on how to do them correctly:

1. Bicycle maneuver. Lie flat on the floor with your lower back pressed to the ground. Allow your hands to relax behind both sides of your head. Bring your knees to about a 45-degree angle and slowly go through the motion of pedaling a bicycle. Touch your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee. Keep even, relaxed breathing throughout.

2. Captain's chair: This is done on a piece of gear found in most health clubs: a weight station with handholds and places to rest your forearms as you lift your legs off the ground.

Stabilize your upper body by gripping the hand holds and lightly pressing your lower back against the back pad. The starting position begins with your holding your body up with legs dangling below. Now slowly lift your knees in toward your chest. The motion should be controlled and deliberate as you bring the knees up and slowly return them back to the starting position.

3. Crunch on exercise ball. Sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor. Let the ball roll back slowly. Now lie back on the ball until your thighs and torso are parallel with the floor. Cross your arms over your chest and slightly tuck your chin in toward your chest. Contract your abdominals, raising your torso to no more than 45 degrees.

For better balance, spread your feet wider apart. To challenge the obliques, make the exercise less stable by moving your feet closer together. Exhale as you contract; inhale as you return to the starting position.

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