Do you want to look good or perform good?
Some of the world's top athletes have six-pack abs. Some of them don't. Despite what the common perceptions may be, having six-pack abs is not a prerequisite for high performance.
I work primarily with college athletes, powerlifters and older adults, and I hope to expand to the tactical population soon, as well. What do all of these have in common? They need to perform. Of course their descriptions of performing are vastly different; older adults need to be able to perform activities of daily living such as checking the mail and getting in and out of the shower; Powerlifters need to lift as much weight as possible; college athletes must perform well in their given sport; and tactical athletes must be able to move well enough to save lives and protect their own.
While just about everybody would like a six-pack, it's never a big goal I set for my trainees. Six-pack abs aren't a sign that someone is especially strong, fast, athletic or a great mover. Is a person with a six-pack more likely to be those things than a person with a spare tire? Yes. But six-pack abs are often a question of body composition and genetics. They may come very easy to some while being very difficult for others to attain, and the pursuit of them should not be prioritized by athletes above enhancing performance or reducing risk of injury.
We know that Sit-Ups and Crunches aren't great movements for athletes, however, performing endless Sit-Ups will potentially help you achieve six-pack abs. Your programming needs to fit your goals. For example, would I ever program a Kipping Pull-Up? Most likely, no, unless my client specifically wanted to compete in Crossfit competitions. Do I program Sit-Ups, Leg Raises and other flexion based training? Usually, no, However, if I were to train a bikini model or physique competitor, I would. At the end of the day, the major goal with the populations I currently work with is an increase in performance, not how they look at the beach.
A perfect recent example of this is the Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua fight. If you put these two side by side and asked someone with no boxing knowledge to pick who would win, close to 100% would pick Joshua. Why? Because he looks like an athlete. That's not to say he isn't a gifted athlete, he certainly is, but so is Ruiz Jr. However, on first glance, he doesn't look it. Could he improve his body composition? Certainly. But Ruiz Jr. proved you don't need a six-pack to throw powerful, accurate punches, and Joshua proved being more ripped than your opponent doesn't necessarily mean you'll win.
Part of this issue stems from the fact the traditional view of "core training" is really just ab training. While my idea of core training certainly encompasses and often focuses on these muscles, they're far from the only component. There has been a lot of debate on social media recently of what constitutes good core training. There is even a movement that is anti anti-rotation (anti-rotation exercises include moves like Pallof Presses). The traditional approach involves a lot of Leg Raises and Crunches. I can count on one hand the times I have programmed that type of exercise for any athlete or client I have worked with over the last three years. I have gone away from this type of training largely due to the work by Dr. Stuart McGill.
In my opinion, the core ranges from the neck to the knees, and in keeping with my definition, I program the majority of my "core" exercises to integrate as many muscles as possible within that range. Dr. McGill describes the core muscles similarly, as consisting of all the muscles that attach to the pelvis, spine, and ribcage, as well as those that cross the hip.
This is not to say I will never come back to Leg Raises or Crunches, but I work primarily with collegiate track athletes, and we have a limited amount of time to train. I find more bang for my buck utilizing rotational and anti-rotational exercises instead of the traditional flexion-type training. Another thing we don't do are "core finishers" after a training session. Again, these often end up being a bunch of flexion type exercises or very sloppy long-duration Planks, neither of which are very beneficial.
Two other experts who have heavily influenced my philosophy on the matter are Mike Boyle and Vern Gambetta. In Boyle's books Advances in Functional Training and New Functional Training for Sports, he references both McGill and Dr. Shirley Sharmann regarding the true function and nature of the core. The real function of the core is not so much to move, but to prevent movement. However, athletes do benefit from rotational work, as well, and Boyle shows several examples utilizing cable chop variations. Gambetta's book is also full of great rotational drills, primarily done with medicine balls, of which I am a huge fan. Another great resource on rotational work is Craig Edwards (@CraigMEdwards on Twitter), a current assistant strength coach at the University of New Hampshire.
Traditional core training is focused in the sagittal plane, while sport is performed in multiple planes of motion at any given time. This is why I love implementing various chop variations from different heights, as well as medicine ball throws from different positions and stances. Like Gambetta says, in order to get a six pack, it takes a significant reduction in body fat as well as a ridiculous amount of work in the sagittal plane. Both of these may not always be conducive to increases in performance.
For anti-rotation work, some of my go-to movements include:
- Single-Arm Farmer's Carries (Also called Suitcase Carries)
- Pallof Press Iso Holds (with a band or cable machine)
- Short-Duration Planks (Focus on contracting the abs and glutes, not exceeding 30-45 seconds in length per rep)
For rotation work, some my go-to movements include:
- Medicine Ball Throws (facing sideways, straight on, double leg, single leg, 1/2 kneeling, full kneeling, etc.). The possibilities with these are nearly endless. I like to keep this on the lighter side and use a 6-12 pound ball, with stronger athletes being closer to the heavier end of that range
- Cable Chop Variations (See Boyle's books for great ideas on these).
- Cable Rotational Pallof Presses: You can use these from multiple angles and focus on different speeds, as well.
These are far from the only core exercises I utilize, but they are some of my favorites. Even if you aren't an athlete, get out of the mindset of only doing Sit-Up and Crunch variations or Leg Raises. Get on your feet and explore what the core is really designed to do!
Photo Credit: pcess609/iStock
1. Boyle, M. (2010). Advances in functional training: Training techniques for coaches, personal trainers and athletes. Santa Cruz, CA: On Target Publications.
2. Boyle, M. (2016). New functional training for sports, 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
3. Gambetta, V. (2007). Athletic development: The art & science of functional sports conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
4. McGill, S. (2015). The back mechanic: The secrets to a healthy spine your doctor isn't telling you. Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada: Backfitpro Inc.
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