In the never-ending quest for a beach-worthy six-pack, many trainees have fallen for some wildly stupid claims about developing the abdominals.
"Shake this weight that looks suspiciously phallic and you'll get abs!"
"Use this twisty chair in your living room and you'll get abs!"
"Take this class where we do nothing but abs in all directions for an hour and you'll get abs!"
Those who've been around the block a time or two know that the most important "training" for getting an enviable midsection is performed in the kitchen. The actual abdominal training, on the other hand, can be shockingly simple – and effective – if careful programming considerations are made.
Purpose of Abs
Apart from providing a scrub board to do your laundry, the abdominals serve three very important purposes.
First, they provide a dynamic level of stabilization to the lumbar region. The abdominals form a four-way net that helps to stabilize this region, much like the trellis design on a bridge works to disperse forces being applied to it without bending or warping.
The internal and external obliques run perpendicular to each other along diagonal planes, the transverse abdominis wraps around the abdominal wall with fibers running horizontally, and the rectus runs vertically in the front. For argument's sake, there are a dozen or so other muscles that help to create stability through the spine, but we'll focus on these moneymakers.
Second, the abdominals provide a type of spring recoil device that can absorb force, as well as accelerate force production from the lower body to the upper body. This spring mechanism can absorb force and expand into it much like the kinetic energy of a bouncy ball hitting the pavement.
Most people think about muscle function as contract and shorten, relax and lengthen. While the abdominal wall can definitely do this, producing some noticeable force along the way, their main function is in resisting the change in length of the muscles due to the forces being imparted on them by the arms and legs.
When any muscle of the core contracts, there will inevitably be contraction among all the core muscles as a method of bracing and distribution of force – a fancy way of saying anyone who says they can target the lower abs doesn't know jack about core function. This also means that any change in spinal position due to muscle force applied will result in some sort of force on the spine in an opposing direction.
This is Newton's Law in its purest form. When you flex your spine, your low back will have pressure posteriorly, which makes the discs get all pissed off and painful. Is it any wonder why those people who do rep after rep of god-awful full-range ab crunches wind up complaining of neck and low back pain?
Third, the spine can move in six directions through the three major planes of motion: flexion/extension, lateral flexion, anterior/posterior shear, lateral shear, distraction and compression. (Rotation is a combination of flexion/extension and lateral flexion, so it doesn't count.) Because of all this movement, and a lack of secondary support networks, the spine can easily be injured if it doesn't have the resistance to movement provided by the abs.
There's been an entire generation of personal trainers and strength coaches who've forgotten what stability means, because it certainly isn't standing on one foot on a Bosu while pulling an elastic. Stability means "resistant to change," or in this context, anti-flexion, anti-extension, and anti-rotation.
The McGill method builds spinal stability through limited movement patterns without allowing spinal segments to move into possibly problematic positions. What this means in English is training the abdominals to resist movement during the application of different directions of force, while still making the limbs manipulate their environment successfully; in other words, getting all stiff and stable through the core while still being able to produce force through your legs and arms.
How Does That Make Me a Set of Jacked-Up Abs?
Since the abs are designed to resist segmental spinal motion, we're going to have to train them accordingly. This can be done with a simple progression using arms, legs, base of support, and lever arm length.
Stage 1: Hands and feet on solid ground, short lever
Stage 2: Hands and feet on solid ground, long lever
Stage 3: Either hands or feet on labile surface, short lever
Stage 4: Either hands or feet on labile surface, long lever
Stage 5: Square stance on solid ground, external force, short lever
Stage 6: Square stance on solid ground, external force, long lever
Stage 7: Split stance on solid ground, external force, short lever
Stage 8: Split stance on solid ground, external force, long lever
Stage 9: Split stance with labile surface, external force, short lever
Stage 10: Split stance with labile surface, external force, long lever
Sure, 10 stages may be a lot, but it allows me to train spinal surgery recovery clients clear through to elite professional athletes with an easy to use progression system. The first four stages only use body weight resistance, which in most cases can be more than necessary to load the core properly.
The initial progression is useful for those with spinal issues, as well as those who've had some form of abdominal trauma, like hernias or pregnancy. This is commonly done through various types of planking moves.
Note: the majority of trainees do planks incorrectly – a polite way of saying most have no clue about spinal mechanics.
When performing a plank, the gravitational force is going through the body in a transverse plane of action, rather than loading through the spine in an axial direction, meaning that the spine should change position to handle that force appropriately.
Any structure that's used to cross a span like a bridge or an old stone arch-way tends to have an arch structure, which is favorable to bear weight and allow disbursement of the forces without buckling or collapsing.
This means that the spine should be held in a position of slight flexion in any plank type position, not neutral spine. Neutral spine will hold the rectus longer than usual and make it harder to hold a contraction versus holding a shorter flexed position. Since the direction of gravity is different, the spinal position should also be different to accommodate it.
This is a takeoff on the classic bird dog or quadruped exercise, but the addition of a stick to give feedback about body position becomes a critical feature.
The stick will tend to roll and move around depending on if the hips or shoulders are moving to maintain balance. The goal of the exercise should be to have zero movement of the stick, which would mean that your spine is holding stable through the movement of your arms and legs. Trust me, this is much harder than it appears.
This takes the stability component up a notch by using a labile surface like a stability ball or other unstable surface.
Performing this movement from the knees helps to keep the lever length short, and by using an elevated surface like a stability ball, reduces the lever arm length even more. To make this harder, you could perform it on your toes instead of your knees and use an ab wheel or a barbell instead of a ball.
This is a big challenge for the core, as the stability requirement for the spine is greater while on an unstable surface. As the lever length is longer, the chance of having the spine buckle increases, so progression to this stage should only be done if the spine can maintain a stable position at all times.
The body saw allows the arms to remain stationary while the legs and hips have to stabilize to perform the movement properly. Resist the urge to extend the arm range of motion as this one will rip you in half if not careful!
Now that you're on your feet, we can start doing some cool things that not everyone in the gym will immediately understand or think of as an ab workout. Beginning in a square stance will give you the best base of support to create stability, which is why it's an initial progression before working into a split stance featured later.
The landmine flexed arms is an anti-rotation exercise that focuses on arm movement with stabilization of the lower body and spine. It's a tough one, but one you'll grow to love.
A Pallof press like the one below can be used as a single exercise or as part of a 360-degree core training circuit, working anti-rotation, flexion, and extension within a minute.
Now that we're altering the base of support, the stability demands change, which means an exercise that was easy in a square stance can prove much more difficult. To do a perfect split stance, try to imagine walking a tight rope, lining up both feet directly in line with each other.
The press works amazingly well as the horizontal distance from the axis of rotation and the resistance is shorter than in a flye or a straight-arm twist, which makes the amount of force on the abs controlled and limited.
Here's where we can start working on more dynamic exercises that involve multiple moving joints while still focusing on maintaining a neutral spine and stable core.
The key to these movements is to make sure the rotation comes from the hips and shoulder joint, not from the lumbar or thoracic spine.
Working on the previous principles, we now introduce an unstable surface underneath one foot. This is probably one of the stages that most try to jump to too early, just because it looks so much more badass than some garden variety plank. However, just like any skill, you can't skip steps.
This is the party stage, because once you can go through all of these stages you can assume you have a bulletproof core that will be the envy of all your friends and the bane of all your enemies.
The base of support is affected, as is the direction of loading through the core, which makes this a devilishly difficult exercise for someone who can't control their core. Jumping into this stage too early can result in losing stability in the spine and using faulty compensation patterns to complete the exercise instead of training the movement and muscles involved.
...In a Nutshell
The majority of prevalent research shows that the best method of activating the abdominals is through stabilizing movements rather than shorten-extend movements such as crunches. Does that mean these exercises are useless or simply less effective?
Look at it this way. If you have 8 hours to spend in a gym, you can afford to use some less than efficient exercises, occasionally. However, if you're pressed for time, training with a system like this will give you the best bang for your buck, not to mention help ensure that you can tie your own shoes when you're 80 years old and hitting on all the pretty nurses in the nursing home.
Marshall, PWM and Desai, I. Electromyographic analysis of upper body, lower body, and abdominal muscles during advanced Swiss ball exercises. J Strength Cond Res 24(6): 1537-1545, 2010
Porterfield, JA and DeRosa, C. Mechanical Low Back Pain:Perspectives in Functional Anatomy. (1991) W.B. Saunders publishing
McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders, second edition (2007). Human Kinetics publishing