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Healthy Men

Washboard Abs
Are they really all that healthy?


By Johnny Lucas

washboard stomach What's the big deal with "washboard abs?" All the surveys I've seen say that the biggest turn-on for women is the view they get of us while we're walking away. So exactly whom are we trying to please?

I think we're trying to please ourselves. Unlike a fat face or a fat backside, our own fat gut actually looks far worse from its owner's viewpoint than at the distance from which anyone else sees it.

"Nice front porch you got there, man." "I'm trying to build it bigger so I'll have a place to park my beer." If you're not buying that, what can you do to go from beer belly to washboard?

Work, work, work, diet, and work. Sit-ups can strain the lower back, and they usually exercise the hip flexor muscles more than any of the abdominals. The definitive ab exercise these days is "crunches." Lie on the floor, bend your knees, hands behind the head and, without pulling your head, crunch upwards so that your shoulder blades get off the mat. The "Perfect Stomach" posting has a nice description of how and why to crunch; there's also a few exercises you should not do).

TV infomercials have lots of devices for abs. They range from the reputable Nordic Track products to a range of devices, one of which has been "designed by a physician."

Abdominal exercisers have their own discussion groups, where the consensus is that machines and gadgets might be good for motivation, but you can get the same results from floor exercises. A posting from Jason who claims to be the possessor of a "washboard style stomach" confirms this.

There's a nice Australian site of Abdominal Training FAQs. The poetic Ozzie author thinks a good stomach looks like "giant ravioli," and if that image works for you, you can think about pasta while you crunch. The best on-line general overview and attitude I have found is a Martial Arts Instructor's Manual, which gives exercises for both upper and lower ab muscles.

USA Today's health pages are among the many that discourage the ambition of getting "washboard abs" by pointing out that the normal, healthy male will have 12 to 15 percent body fat, but those washboardy models keep theirs at about half that.

Greg Miller, Director of Member Programs at the Metro Central YMCA in Toronto, makes the point that if you only increase the size of your ab muscles, it could actually make your gut protrude even more unless your efforts are coupled with overall fitness improvement. "Modern training is cross-training," says Miller who reminds people to continue with aerobic and cardiovascular conditioning. It's no good having great abs if they're covered with three inches of fat, and there's no such thing as "spot reduction."

Good abs are helpful to breathing, to the very personal activities we do in the bathroom when we're alone, and to the things we do in bed when we're not alone. Good abs help you to stand up straight and can solve some back problems.

So it seems that for 99.9 percent of us, good abs, better abs, might be a goal that's within reach, but maybe not those "washboard abs." I'm reconciled to the fact that I shall never possess "washboard" abs. Who cares? I've got better places to do my laundry than on my stomach.

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Johnny Lucas is freelance writer based in Toronto.


illustration by Scot Ritchie

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