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I am frequently hearing of new research finding how bad situps and crunches are (example). So what is a safe way to exercise the abdominal muscles? For example is doing the plank proven to be a safe exercise?

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I removed the part about the sixpack, it might distract people from the core of your question. Getting a sixpack is primarilly a result of your diet and low body fat. Check this answer for example. –  Baarn Sep 29 '13 at 13:29
    
You may want to enter the Rectus Abdominis exercises section in EXRX and look for alternative bodyweight exercises such as Leg Raises. There are many easier and harder variations there, as well as exercises with external resistance. I prefer leg raises, but I don't know if they are safer than crunches/situps. –  Mephisto Sep 29 '13 at 14:13
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2 Answers

Abs can be sufficiently trained via isometric exercise. I believe the safest way to exercise the abdominals is to use them for their intended function (stabilization) under a progressively increasing load or difficulty.

For example:

  • The co-contraction of the abdominals with the spinal erectors that is required during heavy squats and deadlifts in order to stabilize the torso (http://startingstrength.com/articles/abs_rippetoe.pdf). As your squat and deadlift get heavier, your abs are forced to get stronger.
  • Stabilization during pull-ups or chin-ups. These will leave your abs sore.
  • In a rehabilitation setting, when trying to correct posture-related back-pain, isometric co-contraction is suggested over concentric abdominal work, as well as emphasizing the stabilizing role of the abdominals (http://portalsaudebrasil.com/artigospsb/holist006.pdf):

    Exercise involving co-contraction of the abdominal and back muscles is also in line with stabilization.

    A simultaneous isometric co-contraction of transversus [abdominal] and multifidus [back], while maintaining the spine in a static neutral position, should help re-educate the stabilizing role of these muscles.

  • Another publication supports the use of isometric abdominal exercises in a therapeutic setting (http://www.pitt.edu/~neurolab/publications/1997/BeimGM_1997_JSportRehab_Abdominal%20strengthening%20exercise-a%20comparative%20EMG%20study.pdf)

    Isometric abdominal exercises [...] have also been found to improve low back pain.

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I'm afraid I'm not technical enough to understand your answer. So basically you're saying doing other exercises that affect your ab muscles is sufficient? I want exercises for designed for ab muscles. –  Celeritas Sep 29 '13 at 21:39
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Plank is an example of an isometric abdominal exercise that is designed for ab muscles and will not hurt your spine. –  Kate Sep 30 '13 at 1:54
    
@Kate Your last post is not true in general. If you're doing the plank in a wrong way you will definately feel your lower back hurting. This pain comes from the hyperlordosis and not sticking your butt in or better said: not activating your abdominals in a full manner. –  mchlfchr Oct 2 '13 at 6:25
    
@mchlfchr Correct. The quote doesn't say all isometric exercises. (Or, did you mean my last comment? Sure, if you do the plank incorrectly, you can hurt yourself. That's a good point.) –  Kate Oct 2 '13 at 6:44
    
@Kate I meant your last comment, sorry for being unprecise. Your comment "... will not hurt your spine" sounds to me that the plank is dummy-safe, which it isn't (unfortunately). –  mchlfchr Oct 2 '13 at 6:54
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Besides the exercises recommended in the article you cite (planks, bridges, leg-lifts, bird-dogs and "stirring the pot"), full-body exercises that rely on your core muscles are also great ways to improve abdominal fitness, and they often strengthen your back at the same time, thereby helping prevent injury instead of potentially causing it.

Some examples of those are swimming (especially dolphin, butterfly and other strokes that rely on the abdomen -- dolphin-kicking with fins on is one of my favorite ab workouts, possibly just because it's so fun), tai chi (choose a style appropriate to your fitness level), surfing (or skateboarding, or slacklining; anything where you have to balance your body) and rock-climbing (if done properly, focusing on balance and technique rather than just arm-strength). You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who's a regular at any of those who doesn't have a nice strong stomach.

If you're just looking for one exercise to add to a workout, I'd go with planks. The plank and exercises built on it are incredible stomach-strengtheners -- we use those on my swim-team as daily ab-exercises and they're intense. As with all exercises, form is crucial if you want to avoid injury, so double-check and make sure you're doing it correctly.

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