Ever gone to the gym with your friends and after a brutal workout someone in your crew exclaims, “Let’s finish with abs!” Or been on a lacrosse or soccer team and your coach goes, “Alright, finish with your abs!” Wait, after a two hour practice? What the HELL? Ughhh, so you all gather in a circle with your exercise mats at the gym or on the playing field. You start off the sesh with some serious fervor, then eventually, you begin to struggle through some of the most conventional exercises – 100 Russian twists, 50 bicycles, 50 leg raises, 100 scissor kicks, 25 toe touches, 25 supermans, and perhaps you wonder why your low back is in some serious pain. I’m no math expert, but YOU JUST DID OVER 300 REPS OF ABS. Does this volume of training align with how your body is supposed to function?
By now, you guys should know I love puns, so I’m going to get to the core of this post. Now I’m not going to berate those with a weak core, but I’m a sucker for a nice, strong mid section. We all are. I want a man with abs as picturesque as Channing Tatum. Don’t you?
Just so you all know, it is VERY hard to go into an in-depth talk about the core anatomy after gawking over that gorgeous picture. Channing presents a perfect anterior core, but hopefully it is a well-rounded functioning core. So let me explain.
When we look at what muscles should serve as prime movers for core exercises (or any exercise for that matter), it’s a bit more complex than the muscles 1-2-3-4-5-6 in the six pack. I’m hoping we are all at the point where we can term the core musculature beyond just “abs.”
Now I’m not a doctor and anatomy wasn’t my area of expertise, but I recognize that the core is a structure of the entire torso – wrapping around our hips (including all muscles in the hip flexor group), our lumbar and thoracic spine, and up to the base of our shoulders. Pretty much, your core is the base to the pyramid. It is the trunk to your tree. Without it, our limbs wouldn’t have a solid foundation of support. Without it, we would look something like this:
And I know for a fact none of us have aspirations to be an air doll at a car dealership. We just don’t.
Unlike the supple air doll, as a human being, our core is meant to be a solid structure that can be sturdy enough to support us when we perform movements in exercise, sport, and daily life. And make us badass as hell. Ever wonder why Ray Lewis was able to break down a door on this episode of Sport Science?
No, it’s not because he’s the incredible Hulk. Although, quite possibly. Ray was able to generate some major power production through his entire torso and body. Would an air doll be able to do this? Nope. Would Napoleon Dynamite be able to do this? No, freaking idiot!
Given the importance of the amount of muscle we are packing in the whole shabang of our core, I’m about to hit ya’ll with something bold: it is time to stop doing conventional ab crunches. No bicycles. No lemon squeezers. No Russian twists. NO SPINAL FLEXION (Stuart McGill, phD). It is dangerous. For the aesthetic-six-pack-spring-break-bikini-bod-abs-of-steel seekers, surely this is devastating news. But you guys know me better than that, and I’m not here to screw you over. I’m here to empower you and provide some knowledge to a healthier, stronger you. To move your body the way it is supposed to move. To prevent you from chronic low back pain. And elevate you to total badass status.
So below I have compiled a list of ways to challenge your core, to increase strength while also keeping your abs and yourself pain free. And gladly, I’ve added in some extra vids with some new exercise progressions to try 🙂
1.) Increase the lever length.
The further you are from the fulcrum, the more challenge you add to the exercise. So try a long-arm plank, TRX rollouts, ab wheel rollouts, and really challenge yourself to go further with each rep. You will feel your anterior core firing hard, but you are also incorporating that anti-extension aspect for your lumbar spine.
2.) Make the move more dynamic.
There comes a point when we need to stop trying to break the record for longest held plank. 30 seconds has now turned into 1 minute. 1 minute has now turned into 90 seconds. 90 seconds has now turned into ETERNITY. Instead of increasing the time and aiming to beat the dude who held his plank for four hours (someone grab him a beer, quick!), we can make the plank more dynamic by adding in something extra. Example:
Plank with Band Row
* You can also do this while holding a front plank and rowing the band in, elbow in tight against the rib cage while maintaing stability in the core/hips.
Hip Flexor Activation
^ I like to actually use this one as a warmup for myself and soccer players. Core stability is the main focus of the movement, yet the iliopsoas and iliacus muscles are also being recruited without movement from the lumbar spine. The exercise should be performed so there is separation between the hips and lumbar spine (no excessive rounding of the back), thus moving the body into correct anatomical position.
3.) Do BIGGER Lifts.
Doing compound exercises still fires our core muscles. Heavy squats, dead lifts, pull ups, push ups. Your core is turning on like a furnace when you believe you are JUST doing a leg day. I believe core day is every day and we do not need to devote a section of our workout to “abs.” Your compound lift menu naturally has core work embedded in it anyway. But to add an extra challenge, add in some unilateral work (one-sided). Contralateral split squats, unilateral chest presses/military presses, unilateral kettlebell swings, it all will force your core to stabilize a bit more, especially when the loads are heavy. I tell my clients unilateral work is tantamount to carrying a heavy ass Coach purse.
4.) Add external resistance
Increase the weight. Add a weight vest, chains, or have your dog sit on your back. If you have a Bernese mountain dog like me, hold off on the dog progression. If you’re a strength coach, manually apply resistance to the athlete during conventional planks so they have to work to resist the force. With my soccer players, I will give some added resistance by trying to push them over while they hold a front or side plank so they are forced to maintain rigidity in their anterior and posterior core. They hate me but love me for it as it translates to resisting force from a defender in an actual game situation.
5.) Be open to the Original Strength guys.
Tim Anderson is a genius. I have been following his journey for a little over a year and his story with the Original Strength system is inspiring. It’s easy, effective, and simply, makes sense. I tell my clients and athletes that I have been “crawling” for two years now and have never been stronger and more connected through my core. Try baby crawling first, then leopard crawling, then sideways, then when you feel ready….
Backward Leopard Crawl:
I tell my clients to “crawl like a baby” at the beginning of every session. Some think it’s demeaning and will not buy into it. But then once they trust their crazy coach, they realize how challenging the exercise actually is. There’s shoulder stability, core stability, and reflexive strength all interluding together to form one total body strength building exercise. It’s an absolute BITCH!
So before you have an ab sesh with your girlfriends and follow the Tone It Up girls manual, where there is absolutely no science behind the exercises, try to push your body beyond just those three pound neon dumbbell side bends. You’re really working that muffin top, aren’t you? GIRLLLLLL. No. Effing. Way.
So I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t sugarcoat your ab exercises with a cherry on top. Grind that shit out and get a little unconventional and weird. You will be shocked with the results in your physique but also your newly found superhuman strength. And hopefully one day you can impress your friends by knocking over a door harder than a battering ram like Ray Lewis.