The Core. Everyone wants to work their core. The aesthetically concerned want it to look good, while the performance conscious strive to perform better. Now, if we can agree that everyone, regardless of their reasoning wants to improve some aspect about their ‘core’ can we agree that there are multiple ways of doing this? Sure. Somebody who only cares about looks may very well be doing exercises completely different than somebody who only cares about performance. Are they both right? No, they’re both wrong. Let’s look at two examples.
Six Pack Abs! Mr. Let’s-Get-Ripped wants to get ripped up like Rambo. How does he go about doing it? He goes about using different exercises, in a high volume scheme, to get abs of steel. He’ll do his crunches, hanging leg raises, side bends, decline bench medicine ball throws, back extensions, bicycle kicks, and god knows what else so that his stomach looks like skiing moguls. Mr. Feel-the-Burn knows that by doing 1,000 reps of ab work will burn the fat around his midsection and really tone up his love handles. When he crunches till he can’t walk anymore, he’ll have a six-pack in no time. With this high volume work done 3 times a week for 25 minutes, after he benches, works his bi’s, and uses the leg extension, he’s clearly going to have awesome abs. *
Now, Mr. Athlete on the other hand does a different set of core exercises. He does 5 minute planks, as well as doing ‘traditional’ ab exercises with much heavier loads. He’ll do his crunches holding weight plates and dumbbells over his chest, perhaps even a small child. If lifting heavy weights make the rest of your body stronger, than doing your ab work with heavy weights will make your abs stronger. Using heavy weights, he’s clearly going to have awesome abs. *
Both of these determined and hardworking genres of the fitness population are doing it wrong; the worst part is that they just don’t know it. Sure, maybe the celebrity trainer getting your favorite starlet in shape for her next big movie uses hundreds of repetitions each day to get her in shape. Maybe the 45 year old mom at your gym with the six pack does a 30 minute ab circuit when she finishes her spin class. Or the strongest guy in your gym does crunches while balancing a Harley over his face. What we forget is that maybe it’s the person, not the program. The odds are that people who have had great abs since 8th grade will always have great abs, and the strongest lifters have been that way their whole life. The program that they use works for them. The program that they use might SUCK for you. Instead of working harder, work smarter. Once you’re working smarter, then you can work harder!
Mr. Aesthetics and Mr. Performance have two drastically different goals; should we surmise that they should exercise in two different manners? I don’t believe so. As far as their core training exercises, well they should be doing the same things. The aesthetically interested person is going to make the extra effort to reduce their body fat, so that you can actually see the muscles they’re developing. Outside of the necessity for reduced body fat, core training is core training. While there are a vast array of exercises and methods out there, my basic philosophy doesn’t change; Efficiency is key. We can take keys from both methods: Yes, the multiple exercise guys are right; you need to train your core to work in a wide variety of ways, therefore you should have a larger exercise pool. The strength guys are right too; training your core to deal with heavier loads is important. However, both are wrong with what they’re doing. They’re training movement.
Movement builds muscle, right? For motion to occur at a joint, a muscle must contract. However, for a joint to not move, a muscle must contract. This is how the ‘core’ musculature functions. The muscles of the abdomen aren’t designed to move the spine. They’re designed to protect the spine. If you consider your spinal cord the absolute center of your body, you evolved to protect it as much as possible. From the meninges, vertebral column, and deep muscles to the most superficial core muscles, we’ve evolved from the inside out to protect our body.
To be optimistic, there are aspects of each stereotype that are good. Yes, Mr. Six Pack is correct, you need to work your abs from different angles. Yes, Mr. Athletic is correct about using heavier loading schemes to build strength. Unfortunately though, they’re not right for the correct reasons.
You don’t need to ‘hit your abs from different angles’. What you do need to do, however, is train your core musculature in a variety of movements, as your body moves in a variety of ways. It’s also important to accommodate your body to higher loads, seeing as the active frequently find themselves in situations that create high loads on the body. So, you may ask, what should you do? Well, because you know that I’m a huge fan of efficiency, I think that ‘core’ movements should be considered as those promoting motion and those preventing motion.
Preventing movement. Contrary to what the inventor of the Bender Ball and 8 minute abs will tell you, your abs aren’t designed to do endless amounts of reps through a massive range of motion. If they were built to just do crunches, they would look like a hamstring. (I stole borrowed that line from Tony Gentilcore.) Instead, you have multiple muscles running in different directions; in anatomy and physiology class we learn that their actions are to move the body in the directions parallel to their fibers, but we now know that they function to prevent movement. Now with all of this what you should and shouldn’t do, we ask: WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!
I’m a fan of dynamic stabilization exercises; exercises during which there is movement of the extremities during a stabilization of the core musculature. So any anti-movement exercises would be prime! Some great examples of these include Swiss Ball Roll Outs, Paloff Press (or anti-rotation press), Landmines (another anti-rotation movement), Half Kneeling Cable Lift, or plank variations that require movement, such as THIS.
These are a few of many great exercises that you can do. When you consider the variations that people think of on their own, then the possibilities are endless. Exercises that focus on stabilizing the core will both build rock solid abs while teaching your body to resist force and protect the spine. Win, win, win.
And if you still think that doing sets of 50 crunches will help you get a six-pack, then you should probably lose some body fat so your abs can start to show through. And stop drinking Venti Mocha Chip with Whip’s.
* Please note sarcasm before you do any exercise in this paragraph.