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Fit to fight: engage your abs

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- As the new physical training test challenges Air Force members to better develop and maintain a fitness lifestyle, the Bellamy Fitness Center staff encourage Airmen to develop their core muscles to help earn maximum points on the sit-up portion of the test.
"A lot of people don't have the right form when they do a sit-up," said Senior Airman Adrian Mitchell, 28th Force Support Squadron fitness specialist. "They may use their leg muscles to lift themselves up, not keep their backs flat on the floor or their abs engaged."
A proper sit-up is done by keeping the arms in contact with the shoulders or the upper chest at all times, raising off the floor to touch the elbows to the knees or thighs and returning to the start position by touching the shoulder blades to the floor.
 
"If an Airman is struggling on their sit-ups then they may have a weak core," said Airman Mitchell. "After I determine someone's fitness level, I develop exercises to strengthen the core muscles." 

The body's core is the area around the trunk and pelvis where a person's center of gravity is located. According to Airman Mitchell, a strong core increases protection and support for the back, gives people a more stable center of gravity and a strong foundation for athletic movement. 

A strong core can provide spinal support for any activity, said Airman Mitchell. A weak core can cause lower back pain, poor posture and muscle injuries. 

Core strengthening exercises include crunches, sit-ups, planks and bridges. 

Strengthening the core 

To ensure proper crunch and sit-up form, Airman Mitchell encourages Airmen to push the abdominal muscles in while keeping the core tight during the exercise. This engages the abdominal muscles properly and doesn't force Airmen to rely on their legs or momentum to force themselves up. 

"If people feel their legs being worked during a sit-up it's a good indication that their core is weak," said Airman Mitchell. 

Stability ball exercises focus on using body weight and balance to improve the core and overall coordination. The ball targets traditional abdominal muscles as well as non-traditional, hard-to-reach muscles, said Airman Mitchell. 

"Staying balanced on the stability ball forces a person to focus on their core muscles for support." 

The plank is another exercise that focuses on using core muscles to support a person's body weight, said Airman Mitchell. 

A plank is done by a person lying face down on a mat, resting on their forearms, with their palms flat on the floor. The next step is to push off the floor, raising up onto the toes and resting on the elbows. Proper form is achieved by keeping the back flat and in a straight line from the head to the heels. By tilting the pelvis and contracting the abdominal muscles the rear end is kept flat. A person should hold the plank for 20 to 60 seconds before lowering their body and repeating the exercise. 

Planks are only one type of yoga exercise which focus on core strength. Another exercise that improves strength and stability is called the bridge. 

The bridge exercise is derived from a yoga exercise called Setu Bandhasana, which literally means "construction of a bridge." The proper form of a bridge is done by a person lying on their back with their knees bent, feet together and flat on the floor, according to Airman Mitchell. With their arms at their sides and palms flat on the floor, a person should raise their hips toward the ceiling. As a person holds this position they should move their arms over their head. 

Staff Sgt. Patricia TrejoSanchez, 28th Bomb Wing executive assistant to the command chief, said she uses wingman workouts, which can include anything from doing yoga or Pilates to tossing a medicine ball back and forth, to develop her core muscles. 

One of her favorite exercises is the partner sit-up. Sergeant TrejoSanchez and her wingman sit facing one another with their legs interlocked. They will pass a medicine ball back and forth with each sit-up repetition. The additional motivation provided by the wingman helps Sergeant TrejoSanchez focus on proper form, which boosts the effectiveness of her workout. 

As with any exercise, proper form is extremely important, said Airman Mitchell. If an Airman isn't doing an exercise correctly then they are causing more harm than good to their body. 

A full-body workout 

In addition to crunches, sit-ups, planks and bridges, full-body workouts are beneficial to developing a strong core, according to Airman Mitchell. The stability ball exercises the fitness center offers during classes like Awesome Abs, held Tuesday and Thursday at 11 a.m., and Wednesday at 5 p.m., can use a person's body weight to strengthen the core muscles. 

Along with developing a strong core, Airman Mitchell advises people to do as many full-body workouts as they can. 

"Full-body workouts target many of the muscles used on a daily basis, as well as several muscles that aren't traditionally worked," said Airman Mitchell. 

Those muscle groups can include the chest, back, legs and abdominals. Full-body workouts focus on those muscle groups, and more. 

A full-body exercise that Airman Mitchell encourages people to do is called a "wood-chop." It can be used with a kettle bell. A person starts in the squat position, holding the kettle bell to one side of their body. They twist their trunk and raise their arms across their chest until the kettle bell is extended above the opposite shoulder. 

A reverse of this exercise can be done with a cable weight machine. Instead of starting in the squat position, a person will begin standing up and pull the cable down, across their chest and past the opposite thigh. 

Both variations of the exercise help Airmen achieve a full body workout that is beneficial to developing the muscles that can earn them full points on the sit-up portion of the PT test, said Airman Mitchell. 

Another exercise that is beneficial to earning points for crunches is a solid cardiovascular workout. Good cardio improves heart-health and lung capacity, allowing for Airmen to increase the speed at which they can do crunches, according to Airman Mitchell. 

Cardio also helps people burn fat and tone muscle, said Airman Mitchell. Once enough fat is burned, a person's abdominal muscles will start to reveal themselves. 

Revealing the abs 

Another way for people to reveal their abdominal muscles is to create a balanced diet plan, according to Airman Mitchell. 

"A diet that focuses on lean protein, good carbohydrates and dietary fibers will help promote good health and weight management," said Airman Mitchell. "It also fuels the body with a good source of energy that can sustain it throughout an intense workout."
Airman Mitchell advises people to look to green vegetables as a good source of the dietary fibers essential in creating a balanced diet. 

The Air Force fitness lifestyle 

With the increased frequency and updated scoring of the new PT test, Airman Mitchell encourages people to take full advantage of the various programs offered by the staff at the Bellamy Fitness Center. 

We offer several classes at a variety of levels all meant to improve the fitness of participants, he said. Airman Mitchell emphasized it is the fitness center's job to help people reach the fitness goals they set for themselves. 

Along with reaching fitness goals, it's important to find the motivation to maintain the lifestyle once it's adopted, said Sergeant TrejoSanchez. People are all motivated differently, it's important to discover what works for you the best. 

"I'm more inclined to have a better workout if I have a wingman with me, pushing me to improve myself," said Sergeant TrejoSanchez. "I prefer to be innovative during my workout; it keeps me from falling into a pattern that I'll get tired of." 

That innovation is the driving force behind and Airman's success with the new PT test, said Airman Mitchell. It allows Airmen to make fitness a way of life and not just an exam. 

"We are an expeditionary Air Force, with the ability to take the mission anywhere in the world on a moment's notice," said Chief Master Sergeant Clifton G. Cole, 28th Bomb Wing command chief. "Airmen can't simply be focused on working out to pass a PT test; they have to incorporate good fitness habits into their everyday lives." 

For more information about the Bellamy Fitness Center and the services they offer, contact them at (605) 385-2266.

Editor's note: This story is part of a series.