UNDERSTANDING THE ‘CORE’ FOR PROPER AB TRAINING
Everybody wants great looking abs and needs strong, functional abs. They are not just there for looks. They actually serve many important functions. Abs are just one part of the ‘core’, yes, just one part. ‘Core’ muscles are often confused as just abs and lower back. The core includes the muscles that control the head, neck, ribs, spine, and pelvis. That being said, core
muscles include: abdominals, lower back, mid back, shoulders, glutes, chest, and lats. So now that we know what the ‘core’ actually includes, we can begin to understand the confusion surrounding ab training.
There are many coaches who say isolating the rectus abdominals is a waste of time, and that deadlifts, squats, chins up, etc. activate the core to a greater extent. Well, they are right about squats and deadlifts activating more core; however, as discussed earlier, abs are only part of the core and are not activated as much as the other core muscles. In fact, some studies have shown that the abdominal muscles are activated more in the common push-up! If all of this is untrue, then why can someone have great numbers on squat and deadlift yet suffer from weak abs? And why in the power lifting community is it common knowledge that in order to put up better numbers you must focus on ab training?
There’s no doubt that squats and deadlifts work the abs. However, if the individual doesn’t understand how to activate the abs in the movements, then not much good will come from it. The abs must activate first in the movements to really be of benefit. One must be able to flex the abs downward strongly, which will make for the most rigid mid-section and protect the back during these large movements. Let’s use the deadlift as an example. An individual must breathe only into the stomach in order to prevent an elongated spine, leading to a stronger deadlift. With all the air in the abdomen, the abs then need to be flexed downward strongly, which will lead to a better supported lower back.
Now with all that being said, I hope we can agree that direct ab work is absolutely necessary, and we should not rely solely on other big lifts. Direct ab work will teach an individual how to activate the ab muscles and that ‘feeling’ can be carried over to other lifts. For example, flexing the abs downward is best taught and strengthened through standing ab work, such as assistance machine pushdowns and cable pull down variations.
Here are the best ways to get the most out of your ab training:
- Variety – Use a variety of ab movements. Roll outs, pushdowns, pull-ins, leg raises, side bends etc. Pick a movement you are weak at and work on it until it improves, then switch to the next weak movement.
- Utilize low reps – The abdominals are made predominantly of fast twitch muscle fibers, meaning low reps and high intensity will bring great results. Let’s not always use 20, 30, or 50 reps. Try going heavy and do 5 reps. Change it up. Do heavy ab work one day, then the next ab day work with higher reps.
- Breathing – Understanding how to breath during abdominal work is huge, and will give you a wow factor when you try it. First, just stand up and blow all the air you can out. Right away you will notice your abs tighten up, as it is part of their job to assist in exhaling. So, use this knowledge during an ab movement, say high pulley crunches. When you crunch down exhale all the air you can as you flex the abs. Do this for every rep and enjoy the new level of ab activation you will receive.
- Big Lifts – Keep doing your squats, front squats, deadlifts, chin-ups etc. These will make your abs stronger, especially now that you know how to properly activate them during the lifts.
- Placement – Don’t always put abs at the end of your workout when you are most tired. You may find yourself just going through the motions. Put them in the middle of your workout after the big lifts. They can even be used as active rest during other movements.
Ok, now to the real question. How do you get abs to show? Well, you may have great abs, but if there is a layer of fat over them no one will know. Here are a few tips:
- Sprints – If you have the time, do sprints! Bike sprints, prowler sprints, or just plain sprints. Add these in to reveal those abs you have worked hard for. Tons of studies have shown the benefits of sprints when it comes to revealing the ab muscles.
- Stress – Reduce it! We all live in a high pressure world and need to find ways to reduce stress. Physical and mental stress release cortisol. If cortisol is chronically elevated, the body will start storing fat in the abdominal area. Consider mediation, yoga, deep breathing, or even a relaxing walk every now and then.
- Diet – Of course your diet has to be clean. Eat a high protein diet and get adequate fiber. Studies show that people who eat more fiber have less visceral belly fat and intestinal inflammation. Shoot for 25 grams of fiber a day, primarily from veggies and resistant starch.
Hopefully with these tips, and a new understanding of what the core actually includes, we can all take a better approach to
training the abdominal muscles.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” – Fred Devito