I'm a little old school when it comes to training terminology. Cute little made-up catch phrases do little for me. I know there are smarty-pants terms like pillar strength, core conditioning, and spinal stabilization, but instead of trying to sound smart, I still like to call it all abs.
Granted, it doesn't necessarily describe exactly what we're doing, but old-school expressions like "let's get some abs done" just work for me.
Your abs, hips, groin, and low back work together to move and control the spine and pelvis. Let's take a look at the different functions your core performs.
Spinal flexion/pelvic rotation. When the rectus abdominis contracts in isolation (which it never really does), it flexes the spine and posteriorly tilts the pelvis. It essentially does a crunch or hanging leg raise. While we don't perform these exact motions very often in sports or in everyday life, they're very easy to load, allowing for a tremendous amount of potential strength development. However, they certainly shouldn't be the only things you do.
Some experts believe that spinal flexion is dangerous and should be avoided. Relax, I'm not even going to get into that debate. We just need to understand that it's a movement the abs control and it can be loaded as a strength exercise. Whether one should actually do this is another matter entirely.
Also, keep in mind that there's no such thing as upper and lower ab exercises. When the rectus abdominis contracts, the whole thing contracts, not just part of it. You may feel it more in one area, but the whole thing is working. You just feel it more in the moving end rather than the anchor end.
For example, you feel your upper abs more in a sit-up because the upper abs pull the ribs to create the movement. You feel your "lower abs" more in a hanging leg raise because that's the part of the muscle moving your pelvis.
Spinal rotation. While many muscles work synergistically to produce rotation, your obliques, quadratus lumborum, and multifidus are the prime movers. The rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, psoas, intertransverserii, and rotatores also contribute. It should be noted that controlling rotation is just as important as creating it, and stabilization will be discussed below.
Rotary movements can be resisted, but you have to be careful. Adding too much load often leads to excessive shear forces, and the movements can be dangerous when they're not controlled. Because the hips and legs are often involved in real-life rotational movement, it's also difficult to isolate the muscles responsible for this motion.
Spinal extension. The erector spinae, multifidus, iliocostalis, interspinales and semispinalis are responsible for extending the spine. In real-life movement, it's almost impossible to take the glutes and hamstrings out of the picture because they usually kick in to help move the pelvis as the lumbar spine extends.
Some experts don't like extension exercises while others argue they're very important. Again, rather than debate, we just need to understand that it's a movement that can be loaded to increase strength.
Lateral bending. While standing, bending occurs mainly due to gravity. When you're on your side, several muscles kick in, including the obliques, erector spinae, iliocostalis, intertransversarii, and semispinalis. It's typically a motion that needs to be controlled more than created, so it's mainly addressed through stabilization exercises.
Stabilization. Every muscle that articulates the spine and pelvis is somewhat responsible for overall stabilization. Stabilizing the spine and hips gives the arms and legs a base from which they can push and pull.
Stabilization includes posture and the ability to hold positions. It often includes an anti-rotation component as well. Because so many movements need to be resisted or controlled, this is where everything has to work together synergistically for maximum function.
Obviously, discussions surrounding the "core" or "abs" can get complicated, but no matter how you look at it – or what you call it – if you want to perform well, you must have strong abs!
Typically, I create programs that address multiple planes of motion and functions – stabilization, rotation, flexion, and extension – but sometimes I like to just train the abs hard with difficult exercises. So if you like training hard, try this routine:
Hanging leg raises. Hang from a bar and pull your feet to your hands. If you can't get your feet all the way up, try bringing your knees to your elbows. If you can't do that, well, you're probably not going to like the rest of the workout either.
Plank rows. Attach a band or tube to something low to the ground. Get in a plank position with your feet wider than normal. Take one arm off the ground and grab the band with your arm fully extended in front of you (over your head in this case). Pull the band to your shoulder and slowly return to the starting position. Keep your hips parallel to the ground without rotating. That's the hardest part. This one looks easy, but don't bet on it. (Don't worry, there's a video later on in the article that shows this and all the other movments.)
One-arm decline KB sit-ups. You may not like sit-ups or flexion exercises. I don't really care – just give this a try. On a decline sit-up bench, hold a kettlebell in one hand with your arm locked out in front of you. Sit up and raise the kettlebell as high as possible. Do an even number of reps on each side.
Ball rollout & pike. Get in a push-up position with your hands on the ground and feet on a stability ball. Leave your hands in place, keep your body in a straight line, and push your feet backwards as far as you can. Next, pull your feet back and raise your hips in the air as high as possible while keeping your legs straight. Return to the start position and repeat.
Back extension with anti-rotation. Do a back extension while holding a band at arms length that's attached to something at your side (or have a partner hold it). Keep your legs straight and only rise up to parallel to the ground. Control your speed and do an equal number of reps on each side.
Rockers. You need a partner for this one, so you dudes who prefer to fly solo may think you can just skip this one. Big mistake. I often hear folks say that this exercise produces the strongest ab contraction they've ever felt. It's worth finding a partner.
Lie on your back with your knees up and your hands behind your head. Pull your elbows to your knees and hold them against one another. This is the start position.
Hold that position while a partner pulls your feet away from you. Keep your elbows against your knees and your shoulders/upper back will "rock" off the ground. Hold the top position, and then slowly lower back to the start position. Always keep your elbows against your knees to maintain the contraction throughout the set.
Check out the following video for a demonstration of all these movements:
Obviously, if any of the exercises causes you pain, don't do them. If you're not strong enough to do them all, don't tell anybody; just work your way up to performing each one correctly.
Push hard to do as many reps as you can of each exercise, and only rest about 30 seconds between exercises. You should shoot for at least ten reps of each exercise, but you may not be able to do that for every exercise.
The good thing is, you'll fry your abs in 6-10 minutes. If you're a beast, or took too much Spike® Energy Drink, feel free to try to go through the routine twice, but once is more than enough for most people. Get too overzealous with this bad boy and you may find yourself with a stitch so painful you'll swear you just got shanked by that mean looking SOB in the corner.
Enjoy this difficult "ab" workout. I look forward to hearing how it felt.