People claim they are training their core for noble reasons such as improving performance or injury prevention. In reality, they dream of a rippling six pack. Or, at the very least, a tiny bit of definition whilst breathing in, slightly dehydrated, in the right light and first thing in the morning. 

The painful truth is that if you want to see your abs, you’re going to have to get lean. Direct ab work cannot spot reduce body fat – the exercises will be working the abdominis rectus, not the muffin-top-ularis.

The abdominals

The abdominis rectus are a pair of polygastric (several bellied) muscles separated down the middle by the linea alba. Connective fibres run through the muscles which give them their unique shape. The muscle has several heads which have different motor fibres innervated by different nerves, as well as common ones.

This allows us to perform a variety of actions and selectively target different portions of the rectus abdominis through different body positions or exercise intensities. For example, slightly tilting the pelvis back can help target the lower portion of the abdominals and drawing the ribs downwards will emphasise the upper region.

To focus purely on the (potentially) visible abdominals, we need the various flexion based exercises – which we are so often and enthusiastically warned against nowadays. I think we can peel off the ‘Do not bend’ label off our spine; it is after all quite a natural movement. However, the concerns are not entirely unwarranted – as is often the case, it is the dose makes the poison. Spinal flexion under excessive volume or load is going to end in tears. I’m sure you can find an example of someone who does thousands of sit ups everyday with no problems, but all I can say is for that person, it is not yet an excess. 

What counts as excessive will vary between individuals and their tolerances. Some people’s spine cannot handle much load but will merrily bend countless times without a grumble. Another person’s spine may not like much bending or twisting, but is the right shape (or has adapted) to handle huge loads with little ill effect. There are some poor souls out there who cannot handle much of either. Conversely, the lucky ones seem to get away with everything, but this is only the case until it’s not.

Whether the abs are observable or not, making your abs stronger doesn’t guarantee a reduced chance of injury, a flattering posture or prevent a distended belly that is so often seen in modern bodybuilding. 

Your abs may have to work when you are lifting, but they can’t contribute to how much you lift. In other words, strengthening the abs won’t even translate into bigger gym lifts.

This has left some people feeling direct abdominal work is a waste of time. Others would argue if you aren’t getting results, you are doing it wrong. I think there is truth to both these statements. 

If you are not performing the exercises correctly or you already have the required strength, then you’ll get little out of it. The abdominis rectus are both ornamental and well positioned for spinal flexion but they make poor spinal stabilisers. This is where the rest of your core comes in.

The core

The core describes your entire midsection (including the aforementioned abdominals). This is the linkage that allows force to be transmitted from different body parts. It is the reason why you cannot really isolate the core, because to challenge it effectively you will need to work your whole body.

The deepest muscle in the abdominal wall is the TVA (transverse abdominis). This muscle acts like a corset and is what will give you that flat stomach if it isn’t buried in lard. 

Even though the TVA produces little joint movement, it has a key role in pelvic-lumbar stability. For it to do this it must contract prior to the superficial muscles. A delay in this contraction order has been linked to back pain and reduced transfer of force and can be caused by an insult to the area, usually as a result of excessive load or volume. Thankfully, this can be corrected with lasting effect if you train it properly. 

For core stability we need to marry adequate strength with sufficient control – not every exercise needs to leave you sore or exhausted.

How to train your core effectively

To ensure the TVA is the first muscle activated, execute a slightly forced exhalation as you gently draw in the abs. This is meant to be a low level anticipatory contraction. 

We can’t build strength effectively with low loads. To train abdominal strength, your muscles should be challenged with efforts of 60% and above. Conversely, ‘core stability’ is best built up over time when the muscles contract under 25% of maximal effort. We want a good mix of both.

Spinal flexion exercises such as sit ups are often performed poorly with people squashing their abs as they crunch, causing their midsections to bulge. Instead, keep your stomach flat and lengthen the muscle as you flex to maintain optimal muscle length-tension relationship. Some people cannot tolerate much spinal flexion and are unimaginatively labeled ‘flexion intolerant’. With such clients, the first thing to look at is their sport of choice. If this already has lots of bending or twisting, I would definitely recommend them static, isometric exercises instead of the additional spine flexion of ab work (or in extreme cases maybe even a different pass time altogether).

This may not seem specific enough to a person who wants to transfer this skill into a more dynamic sport. That’s because it’s not meant to be – If it needs to be done at all (and often it won’t be necessary) it is should be complementary, not just additional work. 

The best preparation is not always an exact rehearsal; these people have their actual sport for that. Finding ways to replicate a sport that already involves a lot of spine bending or rotation, i.e. doing more, might not be doing anyone any favours. We cannot simply add weight to an action and assume it will make you stronger or faster. Boxers have tried this by punching with hand weights, and in baseball it is not uncommon for players to warm up with heavier bats. In both cases, often to no avail.

Whilst this can make an athlete ‘feel’ more powerful, but feel and real are worlds apart. At best, these practices provide little or no benefit. At worse they cause a decline in performance when it subtly alters movement patterns and age your spine in dog years.

Core work should not be restricted to just a few limited or specific tasks. The best way to train this area is with variety. This means the best exercise you could do for your midsection is the one you aren’t doing. There is no benefit in devising yet more convoluted or elaborate sit up variations as fundamentally they aren’t sufficiently different. 

Instead of dressing up the same exercise, you’ll need to look at the essence of each exercise to challenge your midsection from multiple directions, positions and angles with a range of intensities but always with the TVA engaged just prior to the exercise or stress. 

It is important that you are not only selecting a wide array of exercises, but critically that you can execute them correctly. Some should be placing demands on your control and others on your strength. As you become more aware of the subtleties involved, you can move to exercises that require both. I do not like training the abs with high reps, holding positions for too long or with much additional load. Instead I like to move from one exercise to the next and if you transition correctly, you will be able to keep a good flow and increase the difficulty of the exercises without excessive repetition.

Variety of exercise for training your core helps with injury prevention and has a positive effect on your posture. Your posture may influence which exercises are easier or more difficult, but this will not be achieved just by strengthening a particular muscle or performing a specific exercise. Only a wide range of exercises that move and challenge you in multiple planes will alter your posture for the better.

Let’s stop settling for a few crunches, a bit of planking and a quick go on the ab roller. If you feel training your core is worthwhile, then do it right.

In Part 2 we will look at some of my favourites.

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