It’s doesn’t matter what fitness program you decide to try, when someone walks into your facility the first thing most people want are 6-pack abs. Most, if not all, people want the “beach body” and nothing says “beach body” like sculpted abs. Walk through a shopping mall or food market and as you approach the register you will find a Men’s Fitness magazine or a Cosmo magazine stating some trainer has found the secret to gaining 6-pack abs in four to six weeks. Anyone worth their weight in strength and conditioning knows the value of training the core, but for what purpose are you training? What is core training? What is the best way to train the core? Training the core is one of the most elusive and misunderstood methods of all training.
What if I told you that judging 6-pack abs is probably the worst way to tell if someone has a strong core? 6-pack abs mean you have a good diet or good genes. Training your core is much more than training just the abdominals. There are many muscles that comprise your core (psoas, iliacus, quadratus lumborum, and your rectus abdominis) when training these muscles, we are training the core as an entire system, rather than a simple muscle. When it comes to strengthening the core, lying in the supine (on your back) is one of the worst ways to train. Let’s dive into this. For years we have been taught that sit-ups or crunches are great for strengthening your muscles. Hell, when I was in the army we would do sit ups and leg raises in hopes to get good abdominal strength for a physical training (PT) test. Here is the problem: when we want to increase leg strength we do squats with weight, or when we want to increase arm strength we do curls with weights but when we want abdominal strength we don’t use weights. When you do body weight exercises we are working on local muscular endurance but not strength. In order to build strength we must use weights. Another factor is the abdominals are only concentrically contracting for about 30 degrees above parallel when doing a sit-up, above that 30 degrees they are isometrically contracting and the hip flexors are doing the rest of the work. So, if we are doing sit-ups and going to 90 degrees, the hip flexors are actually doing majority of the work. The best way to strengthen your core is to do standing work. Power cleans, power snatches, weighted squats, and land mines are all better ways to strengthen your core, especially since the majority of strength sports require you to do your work in the standing position. If you are on your back, you are usually losing. In a Russian study during EMG analysis scientists learned that doing bent knee sit ups, which is the way most do sit ups, can have serious consequences on athletes needing dynamic range of motion of the hip flexors. Anyone who has ever done 2 minutes of max sit ups and then go into a 2-mile run can attest to this. The first 400-800 meters are usually spent loosening up your hip flexors that were beat up during the sit ups event. When we do sit-ups we are doing local muscular endurance, not working on muscular strength. Another common misconception in the military is leg raises or flutter kicks increase abdominal strength. Again, the focus is on local muscular endurance and if that’s what you are after then great, but they don’t work on strength since the abdominals do not cross the pelvis- they are only held isometrically. The psoas muscle does cross the pelvis and you can strengthen that muscle with leg raises but word of caution: since the psoas does attach to the lower back, it puts a great amount of stress on the lower back. There are better ways to attack that muscle, as described above. In the CrossFit world we love our GHD sit ups and they are great for powerful hip flexion but just like in sit ups the abdominals are mostly held isometrically and it’s more of an exercise on the hip flexors and the glutes and hamstrings. When training the core always know what you are training whether it be strength or muscle endurance and don’t fall into the trap thinking that exercises on your back will be better than the standing exercises.
Speaking of the training of abdominals, let’s talk about weight belts. This seems to be the first thing people want to buy. Weight belts were not designed to support your lower back. They are a proprioceptive tool designed so you can properly brace your core. Am I saying that weight belts are bad? Absolutely not. But know how to use it. When you wear a belt you want to take a deep breath in through your diaphragm and push your belly into the belt. This intra-abdominal pressure is used to brace your lumbar. The physical belt itself does not support your back. My problem with belts is it gives people a false sense of security that their back will be protected just because they are wearing a belt.
Abdominal training is obviously very important and should be an integral part in any fitness program. The commercial gym industry has come up with everything under the sun to sell many myths to the general public, putting people with great abs on their packaging to show how great their new great program is. Remember 6-pack abs generally mean you have either good genes or a great diet as abdominal strength is not always synonymous with aesthetics. Don’t just train your “abdominals” but address the core as an entire system!