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The Ignored Mid-Section

By Jeff Nachtigal - August 2nd, 2000

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Think back to Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" programs and the African savannah. Silently, the cheetah stalks the antelope before leaping up for the chase. As the cat sprints in slow motion, its ribcage and torso accordion in perfect harmony with its pumping legs.

Guess what would happen if that cheetah didn't have strong abs? He'd be a loose Slinky, with legs all over the place. And hungry.

Where are we going here? Yep, sorry. Stomach crunches and back extensions - a cyclist's least favorite exercises - will make you a stronger cyclist. You can ride as swift as a cheetah, but you've gotta do abdominal crunches to get there.

Which brings us to infomercials.

If you've ever surfed late-night TV, you might have blinked through a Swedish Ball infomercial. You know the one: A leotard-clad (it should be cheetah print, if it isn't) woman does crunches on a big, brightly colored rubber ball to the sound of cheesy '80s dance music. The ads are horrible, but - surprise, surprise - the ball really can work to strengthen your abs.

You won't feel your abs working as much as, say, your calves or quads when you pedal, but they're still there, doing a very important job. Abdominal muscles - your body's core - are the support system for the legs.

"But I ride my bike so I don't have to do the hard stuff, like run or get down on the floor and grunt," you say. "How is a six-pack of rippled abdominal muscles going to get me up the hill, or sprint through a yellow light?" Although legs are the main pistons in the cyclist's engine, the abdomen provides the foundation for balance. A strong body core supports your body weight, so your hamstrings and quadriceps are free to deliver more power to the pedals, instead of holding up a flabby mid-section.

You've undoubtedly seen the guy at the rest stop, gut outlined like a life preserver under his tight jersey. Enough said. But don't take my word for it: As little as two weeks of regular crunches, for about 10 minutes a day, should make a noticeable difference. Do them while you surf those late-night channels!

A Swedish Ball is a great tool for crunches because it isolates your abdominal muscles (a floor sit-up allows you to cheat using arms or legs), and doesn't allow you to accidentally strain your back. Lying on the floor with your legs resting over a low table also works.

The ball also makes a convenient fulcrum for back extensions, the other half of a strong torso. Back extensions, like abdominal crunches, provide support for the big leg muscles. Lance Armstrong's winter workout regime included lots of weight lifting - and back extensions. Lay stomach down on the ball with feet planted at the base of a wall and extend back upwards.

Tips for crunches:

  • Crunch slowly; going fast doesn't work the muscles as well.
  • Start with sets of 10 and recover for a minute in-between; you'll find that your muscles warm up and you feel stronger after doing a couple sets.
  • Cross over: the abdomen has several big muscles, two of which run along your sides, so do cross crunches for a full workout.
Tips for back extensions:
  • Don't overextend! Lift torso to a flat-back position, but not higher.
  • If you don't have a ball, do the "Superman": Lay stomach down on the floor and raise your arms and legs; start with 15-second intervals and gradually increase time.

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