Don't let the title throw you off. This isn't your average fluffer article, full of tidbits on doing proper crunches, sucking in your gut, or anything of the sort. This is a bare bones, return-to-your-roots article guaranteed to give you the knowledge necessary to develop a strong, powerful core.
Starting with the Ab Roller several years ago, the "core" training cult has taken over many aspects of the fitness and strength training industries. This started a new wave of so-called core stabilization products, videos, classes, and books all designed to help greedy trainers and gurus make a quick buck off the newest fad in the industry. This article is designed to not only educate the reader, but also to make quick work of the myths regarding core training.
Let's first take a brief look at the anatomy of the misection.
Anatomy of the Core
Before we lay out any core training programs, we must first have an adequate understanding of the core musculature. Throughout the body, there's a deep muscle system and a superficial muscle system. The main purposes of the deep system are 1) motor control, 2) segmental stabilization, and 3) fine-tuning movements. Below are the basic deep muscles and fascia as related to core movement:
Transverse abdominus. The deepest muscle of the abdominal wall. The transverse abdominus basically "wraps" around the front and side portion of the abdominal wall and attaches to the thoracolumbar fascia in the back. The transverse abdominus reduces the diameter of the abdomen or "flattens" the belly.
Internal obliques. Lie between the transverse abdominus and the external obliques. The main role of the internal obliques is side-bending or ipsilateral (same side) rotation of the spine and ribcage. Bilaterally, they aid in flexion of the trunk.
Multifidus. Run along the spine and connect the transverse process to the spinous process located three vertebrae above. The multifidus muscles are responsible for extension, side-bending, rotation, and stabilization of the spine at a segmental level.
Quadratus lumborum. Sit on the back portion of the iliac crests and insert on the twelfth rib. The quadratus lumborum can produce side-bending of the spine and ribcage, or it can raise the pelvis on one side.
Thoracolumbar fascia. Contrast this with the superficial system, whose main purpose is to produce movement, power, and torque. The main players in the superficial system with respect to the core include the following:
Rectus abdominus. The rectus abdominus is the large muscle that runs along the front of your abdomen. The rectus abdominus is responsible for trunk flexion.
External obliques. The external obliques are the outermost muscles on the sides of your abdomen. They're responsible for side-bending and contralateral (opposite side) rotation of the spine and ribcage. Bilaterally, they aid in flexion of the trunk.
Iliopsoas. The psoas muscles originate on the lumbar spine, while the iliacus muscles originate on the hip. The muscles meet on the femur and work synergistically to produce hip flexion.
Erector spinae. Also known as the sacrospinalis muscles, these are made up of the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscle groups. They run along the back side of the trunk, from the base of your skull all the way down to the thoracolumbar fascia. Their primary movement is extension of the head and trunk, but they can also produce side-bending and rotation movements.
Needless to say, both systems are important and must be trained. Oftentimes in strength athletes, the superficial muscles are so strong they tend to dominate the movements and actions of the deeper musculature. These imbalances are easily corrected in healthy strength athletes, but can also be the root of the problem in injured ones.
These are not the only muscles involved in core exercises. The body is meant to function as a seamless, integrated unit; therefore, "isolation" exercises have never caught on for the athlete in need of functional strength in all planes of movement. For example, trunk extension is often coupled with hip extension, meaning the erectors are working, but so are the muscles of the hamstrings and glutes. However, the muscles listed above are the key players when defining most core exercises.
Movements of the Core
The core functions in many different planes and movement patterns. The basic movements are trunk flexion, rotation, lateral flexion, stabilization/compression, and extension.
Trunk flexion is any movement where the upper part of the trunk moves toward the waistline. The prime mover in flexion exercises is the rectus abdominus (RA). The external and internal obliques are also active, contracting bilaterally to synergistically aid and guide the movement.
Linear exercises can also be subdivided into two categories: upper RA dominant and lower RA/hip flexor dominant. I'm not trying to rehash the old "upper abs, lower abs" debate, but it's easier and more functional to break the movements into two separate groups. The upper RA dominant exercise menu includes the following:
- Weighted crunches
- Weighted crunches on physioball or Swiss ball (with dumbbell, plate loaded machine, etc.)
- Linear medicine-ball throws
- Standing cable crunches
- Ab wheel (with hands on wheel)
Lower RA/hip flexor dominant exercises include the following:
- Hanging leg raises
- Leg raises off a decline bench
- Partner leg throws
- Ab wheel (with feet in wheel)
In most gyms, you'll see people performing movements that emphasize the upper RA. There's a tendency to neglect the lower RA, or at least to perform the exercises out of order (more on this later).
Another point that should be noted is the abs need to be stretched approximately 15 degrees past neutral to perform optimally. To get a better idea of this, try performing your biceps curls with your arm already flexed 15 degrees, and then perform the exercise with the arm fully stretched out. The amount of force produced with the arm stretched should be evident, and this is due to the length-tension relationship. The closer a muscle is to its fully contracted position, the less force it's capable of producing.
For this reason, I'm a big believer in using physioballs or stability balls for your linear core work. By allowing your abdominal musculature that extra 15 degrees of movement, you significantly increase the amount of force they can produce.
In a study by Vera-Garica et al., the researchers found that performing curl-ups on a labile (unstable) surface doubled RA activity and increased external oblique activity four-fold. They also found that lower RA activity was actually greater than upper RA activity! So if you aren't performing your linear core work on a physioball, now's the time to start!
The prime movers during rotation-based movements are the external obliques. The internal obliques and rectus abdominus also help to produce torque and fine-tune the movement. The rotation exercises include:
- Hitting a tire with a sledgehammer (popularized by Dr. Mike Hartle)
- Russian twists (on floor, Roman chair or physioball)
- Tornado Ball (the device Paul Chek has written about here at T-mag)
- Full contact twists
- Medicine ball rotation throws
All of these movements are excellent for training the rotation muscles of the core. Hitting a tire with a sledgehammer is awesome because it gives the athlete a 3-D feel since the movement is a mixture of trunk rotation and flexion. This movement is great for athletes like baseball pitchers, attackers in volleyball, and boxers. The pure rotation movements such as medicine ball throws and Tornado Ball drills are an excellent choice for hitters in baseball, discus or hammer throwers, etc.
The quadratus lumborum and the internal/external obliques are all active in lateral flexion movements. These exercises are probably the most neglected ab movements by non-strength athletes. As some fluffers would say, these are the exercises that "make your abs bulky" or "make your love handles stick out."
First of all, the only reason your love handles stick out is because you ate that double Whopper and drank the 44 ounce Mountain Dew before you hit the gym. Second, I've yet to see an athlete whose obliques and lateral flexors dominate the rest of his physique. A well-developed and strong set of obliques can really enhance the development of any athlete.
Needless to say, lateral flexion exercises like the ones below are some of the best when it comes to functional strength training:
- Side presses
- Side bends
- Lateral flexion with a partner off a bench
- Lateral flexion off a Roman chair
- Saxon side bends
While this isn't an article about how to flatten your tummy, this is an area many trainees often don't address. To make matters worse, many that do address it do so improperly. You read it here first: the abdominal "hollowing" trend is dead! The key word in abdominal training now is "bracing," where you tighten the abs as if about to absorb the impact of a punch in the gut.
One way to see this in action was explained to me by Dr. Craig Libenson. Stand in place and have a friend push you sporadically in the low back and notice how much horizontal displacement there is. Now "brace" by getting your entire core tight and have your friend push you again. The displacement should be significantly reduced because you've stabilized the area to a much greater extent and required all the core muscles to function and fire in harmony. This is the primary role of the core during exercises like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses.
Many trainers have advised athletes to either "push out" or "suck in" the abs during training. "Sucking in" is supposed to fully activate the transverse abdominus (TVA). What they fail to mention is that in healthy, uninjured subjects, the TVA functions properly in all movements of the leg and actually fires before you move your leg. Therefore, whenever you move your legs, the body actually "braces" itself by activating the TVA without you even knowing it!
The "pushing out" theory is often employed by trainees in powerlifting circles, especially those who use belts in training or competition. They're still "bracing," only now they're using an external means to increase intra-abdominal pressure and spinal rigidity. Actively "pushing out" probably isn't necessary because when a big breath is taken before maximal lifts, the belly has a natural tendency to protrude and "push out" against the belt.
Here are some exercises you can do to enhance this function of your core:
- Any movement such as squats, deadlifts, overhead lifts, arched back good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, or any other exercise where you have to "brace" or stabilize your spine against a load.
- Static back extensions
- Pillar bridges or side bridges
- Dead bug twists (I'll explain later!)
Remember, the key here is bracing! We want to develop a natural weight belt by getting our entire abdominal and low back region tight.
Now, on the other side of the coin we have compression. The key muscle group here is the transverse abdominus. This is the motion of "sucking in" your navel or drawing it to your spine. While this movement shouldn't be done when you're lifting, performing these movements as part of a well-rounded core training program will help you cover your bases. Below are some examples:
- Navel draws from quadruped position (on all fours)
The prime mover in extension-based movements is the erector spinae working bilaterally, with the multifidus providing segmental stabilization of the vertebrae. Notice I said the erector spinae produce extension when they work bilaterally. When the erectors work unilaterally, they produce rotation movements much like the external obliques. Options to work on trunk extension include the following:
- Back extensions
- Reverse hypers
- Conventional deadlifts
To further clarify, you can also divide these groups into "pure" trunk extension movements, and those that include or are created through hip extension. As an example, the back extension exercise "isolates" the trunk extensors because they're the sole muscle group working to produce the movement.
On the other hand, reverse hypers hit the low back through hip extension, and conventional deadlifts hit the trunk extensors by a mixture of trunk and hip extension. Confused yet? I hope not! The moral of the story is there are many ways to develop your trunk extensors, so you need to experiment and see what works best for you.
Common Mistakes and How to Develop a Program
Now let's map out some of the common mistakes seen when performing ab work and look at ways to avoid these pitfalls and design a specific program which fits your individual needs.
Mistake #1 – Lack of Balance and/or Lack of Priority
When developing an ab program, balance is absolutely necessary. Many avid weight trainers have a tendency to stick to one or two movements and totally neglect the other movements and muscle groups. For instance, most people I see are only performing exercises which focus on the upper RA (e.g. crunches) and rotators (e.g. twisting movements). This totally neglects four of the other functions of our abs and core musculature.
With that being said, it's also necessary to know what muscle groups are most dominant in your particular athletic arena and to prioritize those areas in your training. For example, baseball players need a great deal of rotation-based work, while someone who's simply training to improve their physique may be looking for a more well-rounded program. Prioritizing your core work can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals!
Mistake #2 – Too Many Reps
Another mistake many novice weight trainers make is performing too many repetitions for the abs. In his book The Poliquin Principles, Charles Poliquin states that the abs are actually fast-twitch muscles. Therefore, these 50 and 100 rep sets of crunches aren't doing a whole lot for our core development. Stick to heavy, low rep sets (under 15 repetitions) and watch your core strength and development improve like never before!
Mistake #3 – Not Periodizing Your Program
Continually performing the same ab exercises, over and over, without changing your sets and reps is a surefire way to short-circuit your progress. I know strength and power athletes who, the week before a competition, are performing only crunches for their entire ab program!
Train the abs like you would any other muscle group. In the off-season, experiment with non-specific exercises, as well as different set and rep schemes. This will not only give you a solid base going into the competitive period, but it'll help to keep you fresh mentally. Finally, when the competitive period rolls around, go back to the basics and the exercises you know will produce results.
A Final Thought and Some Sample Programs
Before I throw out some sample programs, I want to say this: I'm in firm agreement with Christian Thibaudeau with the idea that if you perform a lot of heavy, basic lifts, very little direct core work is necessary. This is because basic movements force your core to work in harmony with the rest of your body.
Remember this: Isolation is an inferior training method when you can integrate the entire body to produce movement! When you couple a program with lots of basic lifts and a clean diet you can see huge improvements in not only your core strength, but appearance as well. However, if your core is weak or you've neglected it for a long period of time, a specific program geared towards developing it could help you achieve new strength or physique goals.
Now, with that said, let's throw out a sample two day program that emphasizes all the major functions of the core:
Two Day Program
Tuesday – Linear and Compression Work
Hanging Leg Raises (trunk flexion, lower RA) 3 x 6
Dumbbell Crunches on Physioball (trunk flexion, upper RA) 3 x 8
Back Extensions with Weight (trunk extension) 3 x 10
Vacuums (compression) 3 x 10 second holds
Friday – Rotation and Bracing Work
Windmills (lateral flexion) 3 x 6 each
Rotation Medicine Ball Throws 2 x 8 each
Dead Bug Twist (stabilization) 2 x 30 seconds
Never heard of the dead bug twist? Lie on the floor with your legs up at a 90-degree angle and your arms outstretched above your torso. Now, bear down on your abs like someone is about to punch you in the stomach. With this tight feeling, move your arms and legs in opposite directions, maintaining the tension throughout the course of the movement. If you start to feel this in your low back, reset by getting tight again and then resume the movement. These really hits the TVA and teach you to brace with movement. Perform these for sets of up to one minute at a time.
This program is great for someone who's already doing a lot of heavy, basic lifts, but also wants to increase his core strength. If you're training your core two times per week, I'd suggest breaking your workouts into a linear day and a rotation day as shown above.
Notice the exercise order for Tuesday. We've placed the lower RA movement first, and most importantly before we do our upper RA movement. This is because the upper RA has a tendency to "take over" movements, and therefore if it's activated first we lose some of the benefits of the lower RA exercise.
For the more serious trainee who goes to the gym four times per week, you can follow the above routine (with reduced volume) two times per week. You might perform the linear workouts on Monday and Thursday, then the rotation workouts on Tuesday and Friday. Another option is to further split the routine into four separate workouts, with each one emphasizing a different movement pattern. Here's an example:
Four Day Split Program
Monday – Rotation
Full Contact Twists 3 x 6
Russian Twists on Ball 3 x 8
Tuesday – Stabilization/Compression
Pillar Bridges 2 x 40 seconds
Quadruped Navel Draws 3 x 8 (with 5 second holds)
Thursday – Lateral Flexion
Bent Presses 3 x 6
Side Bends 3 x 8
Friday - Linear
Decline Bench Reverse Crunches 3 x 10
Standing Cable Crunches 3 x 8
By decreasing the number of exercises we perform per day, we not only increase the quality of our workouts, but we also make them more manageable and less time consuming.
Finally, here's a sample program for someone who only wants to train his core one time per week. This would be a good program for someone who only trains three days per week, but still wants to develop his core musculature.
Hanging Leg Raises 2 x 6
Rotation Medicine Ball Throws 2 x 6 each
Dumbbell Crunches on Physioball 2 x 8
Windmills 2 x 6 each
Back Extensions 2 x 10
Dead Bug Twist 30 seconds
Vacuums 2 x 10 second holds
You'll see right away that since we've reduced our number of training days, we must increase the number of exercises per day, while simultaneously decreasing the volume per exercise. We want to ensure balanced development of our core, but we don't want to spend an hour in the gym doing it!
In this example, the exercises are the same as the two day program, but we've changed the order again. The lower RA exercise is still first, but before we do our upper RA exercise we'll perform our rotation work. This is because, again, the upper RA has a tendency to dominate any movement which heavily utilizes the RA.
By performing our lower RA and rotation work first, not only have we targeted those muscles, but we've also pre-fatigued the upper RA, which tends to be the strongest of our core muscles. Finish out the program as is and you have a well-rounded training program which emphasizes all the various movements of the core.
The title of this article is "21st Century Abdominal Training," but this is a true oxymoron because with the exception of the physioball, all the exercises I've written about have been around for decades. The beautiful thing is that while the program may not be cutting edge or high-tech, the results you can reap from it are astounding.
So if you're interested in taking your core strength and development to a new level, start adding in some of these "low tech" exercises and see just what they can do for you!