Q: Where should I place my hands when I’m doing crunches? I’ve always put them behind my head, but I’ve been experiencing neck pain recently and I think it might be from the crunches.
Based on what you’re saying, your pain very well may be from the crunches. Unfortunately, many fitness professionals continue to teach people to place their hands behind their heads while performing this exercise. It’s a strategy that can have detrimental consequences. Here’s why:
When the hands are clasped behind the head during spinal flexion (a crunch), there is a reflexive tendency to pull on the sternocleidomastoid muscles of the neck. This is especially true as a set becomes more difficult and you’re struggling to complete the last few reps. In addition to significantly increasing the potential for a neck strain, this also introduces momentum into the movement, thereby decreasing its effectiveness in developing your abs.
For best results, it’s advisable to keep your hands folded across your chest or, as an alternative, make fists and keep them at your ears. This will ensure that the action takes place totally at the point of interest – your abs, not your neck. If you have weak neck muscles, it’s best to use a device like an ab roller or one of the many ab machines available in your local gym. These units provide a cushioned support for your head. Regardless, supporting your neck with your hands will only serve to exacerbate neck problems and impede results.
Q: I hate my calves. They are like sticks and they make my thighs look bigger than they actually are. Help!
Your plight is understandable. For most people, the calves are very difficult to develop. There are two primary reasons for this. First, the calves are used more than any other muscles in the body. They are active every time you stand, not to mention walk, run, or do any mobile activity, and therefore tend to be more resistant to exercise. What’s more, the soleus muscle, one of the two primary muscles that make up the calves (the other is the gastrocnemius, or gastroc, for short) is made up almost exclusively of slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers are endurance-based fibers that have very little potential for growth (as opposed to fast-twitch fibers, which are strength-related and grow readily).
That said, you can improve the appearance of your calves if you’re willing to put in the effort and apply some good old exercise science. Here’s how: The calves can be selectively targeted by using two different types of movements. Because the gastroc crosses the knee joint, it’s placed in a fully stretched position during exercises where the legs are kept straight, thereby maximizing stimulation of the muscle. Thus, standing calf raises, donkey calf raises, and toe presses are excellent choices for targeting this muscle. Since the fiber composition of the gastroc is about half fast-twitch/half slow-twitch, a rep range of 8 to 10 per set is ideal for maximizing hypertrophy (muscle growth).
The soleus, on the other hand, doesn’t cross the knee joint. Therefore, it can be targeted by exercises in which the knees are bent. Any type of seated calf movement will do the trick here. Because of its endurance-based fiber composition, a higher rep range is generally necessary to really fatigue this muscle. Aim for a range of 15 to 20 reps per set.
Three to four sets of an exercise for each muscle will be just right. Perform this routine a couple of times per week, taking at least 48 hours of rest between sessions, and you should start seeing those sticks turn into diamonds before long.