When it comes to training your abs, most people only work the muscle at the front of the abdomen – rectus abdominus. Rectus abdominus, when well-developed and lean, is the muscle that gives you that highly desirable six-pack look.
For this reason, many exercisers spend a disproportionate amount of time doing spinal flexion exercises (crunches, sit-ups, leg lifts and planks) and all-but ignore the other muscles and functions of the midsection. To get abs that really pop you need to train them in the 5x different movement types, and of course have a low enough body fat percentage to display them.
Your spine and the muscles that control it are capable of several different movements. To develop a truly three-dimensional midsection which works as good as it looks, you need to include these functions and movements in your core training program:
- Flexion – the one we all do too much off e.g. crunches
- Extension – arching your back against resistance e.g. dorsal raises
- Lateral flexion – bending to the side e.g. side bends
- Rotation – twisting in the vertical axis e.g. Russian twists
- Bracing – anti-rotation exercises that involve no movement at all e.g. planks, weighted carries and Pallof presses
Let’s examine each one of these in more depth.
Flexion exercises ARE important but that doesn’t mean you need to go crunch-crazy; the other movements are equally important. Spinal flexion is limited to around 30-degrees of movement and any exercise that exceeds this must involve significant hip or neck flexion.
When performing any flexion exercise, the majority of the movement should come from flexing your shoulders toward your hips OR your hips toward your shoulders. In fact, your program should involve both of these types of movement.
That’s not because you have upper abs and lower abs but because you can innervate (switch on) your abs from either end and should do so in training.
Arching your back against resistance is called extension. Good exercises that achieve this include variations of the deadlift, 45-degree back extensions, dorsal raises and glute bridges. Inevitably, your lower back will also be working since it works with your hamstrings and glutes - these are collectively called your posterior chain. Avoid hyperextension where you arch your back too much – 20 to 30 degrees of extension is sufficient.
3. Lateral flexion
Many people steer clear of lateral flexion exercises such as dumbbell side bends because they are scared of developing a thicker waist. The obliques, the main muscle involved in this exercise, do not have much capacity for hypertrophy so this fear is unfounded.
When performing lateral flexion exercises, it is essential to keep the hips and shoulders square and only bend sideways – no twisting. This makes any lateral flexion exercises more effective and safer for your spine. Imagine you are standing between two panes of glass and can lean neither forward or backward but only sideways.
When doing lateral flexion only have the weights applied on one side, for example don’t do side bends with a dumbbell in each hand; the weights pretty much cancel each other out like an equally-weighted seesaw. Load one side at a time.
Most rotation exercises are completely ineffective because there is insufficient resistance. Take the very traditional broomstick twist for example. Any loading, and there isn’t much, is being delivered vertically downward BUT the muscles actually responsible for rotation need to be loaded horizontally. Adding more weight will not help either. Compression combined with rotation is not advisable as this is a great way to damage your intervertebral discs.
Rotation exercises need to be performed against meaningful resistance to be effective. Cable Russian twists, low to high and high to low cable wood chops being good examples.
5. Bracing or ‘Anti-Rotation’
In many instances, your core muscles must generate tension to PREVENT rather than cause movement, so these can be called anti-rotations. This helps keep your spine properly aligned as you move and permits efficient transference of force generated by your lower body into your upper body or vice versa. Without this ability to generate force without moving, your spine would collapse whenever you did overhead presses, squats, or deadlifts.
When it comes to bracing, most people focus on the plank but, really, you should brace in all of the movement patterns described above. Good “anti-movement” exercises include:
- Flexion – all variations of front planks and body saws
- Extension – isometric back extension holds
- Lateral flexion – side planks, suitcase deadlifts, single arm carries, single arm overhead presses
- Rotation – Pallof presses, single arm bench press
How to create your core training program
Now you know there is more to core training than crunches, you may be wondering how to integrate this information into your workouts. You have several options, but here’s 3x simple methods to get you started:
1) Choose one exercise per movement pattern and do 1-2 sets of each 2-3 times a week.
2) Choose one movement pattern per workout and do a different movement pattern each time you exercise – a good option if you train five-times per week.
3) Split your core training into two or three parts and work 1-2 movement patterns per workout so all are trained equally over the course of a week. E.g. flexion/extension on Monday, Rotation/lateral flexion on Wednesday and bracing on Friday.
Whichever option you choose, resist the temptation to do
a) a high volume of sets or
b) high reps/low weights in an effort to “spot reduce” fat from your core as this just doesn’t work. Instead, lower your reps to 6-15, pump up the intensity, and work on strength as opposed to endurance. The ability to hold a plank for three minutes is not especially useful. However, the ability to keep your spine properly aligned while holding a 40kg dumbbell above your head for 30-seconds is.
Whether you want to improve spinal health, create a six-pack, or just develop a tight, strong midsection, working your core from multiple directions is the best way to achieve success.