The keyword used to be “flat abs” and then “six pack” and more recently, “core stability.” Everyone wants that carved-out, washboard-flat, super-toned tummy – and about 1% of us want to do the actual work that looking like that entails (this article, about the high cost of getting super-lean, is worth your time).
Such is life, eh?
A recent few clients have been asking me about core training – what it actually means, how important it is to do it, and what is the best way to train the core most effectively (without doing a million crunches per day) – so as always, I am here to help!
First off, your core is made up of several muscle groups that cover both the front and the back of your torso. Much like the “big chest, poor posture” syndrome (see below) I see in a lot of weight-training men, the quest for flat abs has left a lot of folks with puffed-out rectus abdominus (the muscles on top of the stomach) and a weak lower back, which is pretty much a recipe for back pain (and frustration).
The major muscle groups that make up what most of us call the “core” are the abdominals (rectus, external/internal obliques, transversus), the erector spinae, and the quadratus lumbar. In shorthand – your abs and your mid-to-lower back.
It is crucial to make sure you are doing work that targets all of these groups, both dynamically (with movement) and isometrically (with a deep, held contraction). Crunches are fine, sure – as long as they’re done with proper form, within reason (in terms of number), and as part of a larger core program that uses other methods as well.
There are two core stability programs I love to use with clients – one is called Stop & Go, and the second is called Plank & Crunch. Both focus on using all parts of the core muscle groups in different ways, and all improve functional health for the relief of back pain and overall weak middles. Check them out below:
STOP & GO
Perform the paired exercises listed, back to back, for 20 seconds each without rest. Between pairs, rest for 20 seconds, then move on to the next exercise. Once the set becomes easy, start to increase the time in each exercise (30 seconds, 40 seconds, etc.)
STOP / full plank / GO / mountain climbers
STOP / boat pose / GO / in-out crunches
STOP / side plank / GO / side plank leg lifts
STOP / table top / GO / reverse plank leg lifts
STOP / forearm plank / GO / plank knees-to-elbows
STOP / Superman hold / GO / swimmers
PLANK & CRUNCH
Complete 20X (10 per side, if single sides are used) of each of the exercises below, aiming for minimal rest between movements. Alternate the plank and crunch movements to ensure adequate recovery from each position and rest the neck accordingly. Once one round is easy, aim to complete all the exercises twice.
PLANK / plank hold / CRUNCH / bicycle crunch (shown)
PLANK / knees-to-elbows (see above) / CRUNCH / reverse crunch
PLANK / twisting hip plank / CRUNCH / leg drops
PLANK / up-down plank / CRUNCH / butterfly crunch
PLANK / side plank twists (each side) / CRUNCH / lumbar extensions
I recommend that my clients incorporate some form of core training every time they work out (whether it’s a dedicated set, like those above, or incorporated into an overall strength program using apparatuses like TRX, Bosu, or a balance board for instability).
And finally, guys – I wouldn’t be a good trainer if I didn’t tell you for the hundredth time that lean abs are made in the kitchen. You will never – EVER! – have a six pack if you eat tons of carbohydrates, intake a grip of sodium, suck down the soda and alcohol, and don’t watch your saturated fat intake. The real, hard talk is this – most of us already have abs, they’re just hidden underneath the layer of android (central) fat made up of what we eat.
So, in summary, here’s the cold hard facts on core strength: get up, plank down, crunch out, and keep the white stuff (sugar/salt/flour) out of your system. Easy, right? 😉
What are your favorite ways to work your core? Share!