It’s that time of year again. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, and I am lathering on the SPF 5 million sunscreen. Yes, it’s summertime in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means that everyone’s gearing up to hit the beach. And after that tough winter (you know, the one where us Massachusetts folks didn’t get any snow) where you probably gained a few (or at least think you look like you gained a few), guys and girls alike are trying to do whatever they can to get those washboard abs.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: NEWSFLASH–as I’ve said before, doing a million crunches will not get you chiseled like a Michelangelo statue. I know this might come as a shock to some of you, so I’ll let you sit down and catch your breath. Ready to continue? It’s okay, you don’t have to answer; I wasn’t going to give you a choice anyway. Moving on…
The (misguided) assumption made by many a gym-goer over the years has been that if you want to lose fat in a certain area of your body, you need to work out that area. If sculpted abs is what you want, so the line of thinking goes, then train your core like there’s no tomorrow! This concept is called spot reduction, and the problem is that it has been proven to be ineffective over and over again, according to renowned strength and conditioning gurus such as Mike Boyle. You can’t lose fat this way; in fact the best way to lose fat is to follow a proper diet (see my previous articles on the subject) and to do total-body workouts, perhaps with some hard interval training thrown in at the end. For those of you who are unfamiliar with HIIT (high-intensity interval training), you can read more about it in this article/forum thing as well as a previous article I did on the topic.
So if core training can’t get you sweet abs, then is there a reason to do core training at all? The answer is absolutely, yes. A strong core is conducive to lower injury rates (especially in the back), better posture (which has been shown to translate to better athletic performance), a better physique, and better recruitment of the glutes (which many people are woefully and unknowingly bad at), among other things.
So while our reasoning may have been misguided, why pen (type?) this article if the ab training we’ve fallen in love with is
useful after all? The answer is because you’re doing it wrong. Let’s start by getting a good understanding of the anatomy of the abs–here’s a good article by Mike Robertson on the topic. Basically, the way your abs are constructed, they are meant to stabilize, prevent movement, and transmit forces. What they are NOT designed to do is flex. And what are you doing when you do a crunch? That’s right, you’re flexing your abs. As Mike Boyle says, “When does anyone do anything in real life that looks like a crunch?”
Not only is this not the right way to use our abs, it is potentially dangerous. Doing a crunch motion puts the lumbar spine in a flexing position. Anyone familiar with Mike Boyle’s joint-by-joint approach will know that the lumbar spine is designed for stability, not mobility. In fact, world-renowned low back researcher Dr. Stuart McGill has found that we have a finite number of flexion/extension cycles in our back until injury is caused, as Eric Cressey intern Conor Nordgren lays out in his article on core training. He also goes on to point out that crunches lead to a kyphotic (rounded-back) posture. Not good.
Now the question that remains is how should we train our core? Based on all the literature, the answer is progressions that involve resistance exercises (ie planks). However, the repertoire of exercises at a coach’s disposal is not limited to planks. Here are a bunch of exercises from Mike Boyle, Mike Robertson, and Bret Contreras.
Also of note is the notion that, as Mike Boyle and strength coach Charles Poliquin assert, multi-joint, total-body exercises are also effective. This would include, for example, Olympic lifts like the squat, clean, and snatch. Lastly, I’ll leave you with this quote from Mike Robertson:
“Just focus on ‘bracing’ hard on every movement you perform–it doesn’t have to be an ‘ab dominant’ exercise to train your musculature core. Focus on staying tight no matter what exercise you’re performing.”
That’s all for today, ladies and gents. Enjoy the nice weather. Responsibly, of course.