Ab Training vs. Core Training
Believe it or not, there's a difference between core-focused and ab-focused training.
Your core basically entails any muscle and connective structure that helps stabilize your spine and pelvis. It spans from your lats to your glutes and everywhere in between. It covers a long list of muscles, including the abs. And for most people, only two of these abs will be truly visible if all you do is traditional core training.
When you train your core, what you're really trying to develop is your ability to resist spinal and pelvic motion. You're engaging as much of that core "unit" as possible. This makes complete sense since more structures working together are better than just a few limited-function muscles.
The ability of your spine and pelvis to resist movement with the help of your core is why many coaches, myself included, are a fan of referring to exercises that train these functions as anti-movements: anti-extension, anti-rotation, and so on.
But if you're wanting to build abs for aesthetic reasons, for athletic reasons, or for injury prevention, then you're going to want to do more than traditional core work... and certainly more than just planks. Here's what to do instead.
What to Do For Sexy Abs
To look good naked, you probably care most about your rectus abdominis (six-pack muscle) and your external obliques (the area that helps form the top of the "V" that points towards your junk).
Although working your entire core can be part of a well-rounded program, you'll need to place extra focus on exercises that activate your abdominals to their full capacity. Traditional core exercises, like planks, don't come close. If you're currently doing planks – even some of the more challenging variations – you're going to be waiting a long time to see any ab growth. If ever.
And while having low body fat is an important part of it, you need to subject your abs to hypertrophy training to get more dense and deeply etched lines.
Exercises that activate them the most, and through greater ranges of motion, are best:
These exercises would score an A if you were to grade them on their efficacy for helping you build a six-pack. Traditional front planks would score a D... maybe a B if we're talking long-lever planks with a posteriorly-tilted pelvis.
Here's a nasty version of the crunch using an ab mat to take your abs through a greater range of motion:
How to Do It
- Pick a weight that you can get about 10-15 weighted crunches with, then get yourself in position.
- Create an internal focus. Think about pulling your ribs toward your pelvis and contracting that space in the middle as hard as you can throughout.
- When you get a few reps shy of failure, get rid of the weight.
- Continue with hands overhead until you reach near failure again. Stay focused on what you're trying to work.
- Continue to do the same with hands on your head, then move them to your sides.
- Finish with an iso-hold at the top.
- That's one set. Now do two to three.
What to Do For A High-Performance Core
The term "functional" gets thrown around when performance is the goal. What it doesn't refer to is your ability to plank for an hour or do a balancing act on a Swiss ball. These don't make you better at the things you routinely do.
An exercise is functional if it transfers over to your daily life or your sport. The exercise must improve your ability to function at a specific task to be truly functional.
Now, you could argue that any exercise can be "functional" since anything that builds muscle, strength, endurance, and balance functions to keep you out of a nursing home and living longer. But when referring to an exercise as functional you must always have the task in mind that it's transferring to.
In most daily and sporting scenarios, there's an element of resisting spinal extension, but you're resisting forces that also rotate. Especially in sport, you're not just resisting them, you're often trying to control that rotational force and fire it back in the opposite direction.
Traditional planks (loaded or unloaded) aren't completely useless, but when you have plenty of other options to choose from why would you pick them? If your ability to hold a front plank is stopping you from doing something like a push-up, then sure, planks can be functional for that purpose. Otherwise, dig a little deeper into your toolbox and pick something that'll do a better job.
Since a plank is like a non-moving push-up anyway, why not try the eccentric one-arm push-up? Not only will it pack some meat on your shoulders and triceps (they can be loaded as much as you like), it challenges your rotary stability too.
How to Do It
- Set up in your regular push-up position but with feet slightly wider apart.
- Brace your abs hard and engage your glutes.
- Pick one hand up off the floor and begin to lower with control.
- Keep your hips level throughout. If you're twisting and dropping one side at a time, go back and master some regressions of these first.
- You can use a pad on the floor to gauge a consistent depth, or just eyeball it.
- Catch with the free hand and come up pushing with both arms. You can either alternate arms or stick with one at a time.
- Aim for 4-5 reps on each side to start out. Lower for a 4-second count and that'll be close to 30 seconds of high-level core engagement on each side.
Ab Work For Injury Prevention
You might think planks would reign supreme here. And while they CAN help develop spinal and pelvic stability and endurance, doing so with a plank is like trying to cut your rare steak with one of those plastic knives they give you on an airplane.
Sure, it'll do something. Studies would show you achieved your goal of eating a steak. But we all know there are faster and more efficient ways to do it.
Fortunately, you have the choice to use any tool you want. And as far as preventing injury in the gym is concerned, you'll have far better results by addressing crappy form than you will throwing a few half-assed planks in at the end. Learn how to get organized properly in a lift and you'll be fine. Do some additional core work at the end for extra measures.
Exercises like bird-dogs and dead-bugs are excellent choices. Both can help offset excessive anterior pelvic tilt, challenge both extension and rotary stability, and give you great feedback on how to get your midsection properly organized.
Here's an advanced bird-dog row variation I learned from Eric Cressey just in case you ever thought they were too easy:
How to Do It
- You'll be limited by your core strength rather than your ability to row. Pick a weight a little lighter than your regular dumbbell or kettlebell row.
- Set up on a bench with your body positioned at a slight angle. This should allow your hand to set directly below your shoulder and knee under your hip. Using a bench allows for the extra range of motion as the weight drops below.
- Your opposite leg to your rowing arm should be lifted and long. Glutes should be engaged.
- Resist going into an excessive anterior tilt of your pelvis and lumbar extension. Don't be Donald Duck.
- Brace hard, row, and breathe! Nothing should move apart from your rowing arm.
- You can do these for timed or slow tempo sets, or just row as heavy as you can while trying not to pass out.