Last time we ran over the abdominal musculature and outlined the function of each muscle including which movements they control. Hopefully that information alone should have helped you start to understand how each muscle can be targeted and what I really hope is that you saw some areas of your training that you feel are lacking attention. This week we'll be discussing how to effectively build a strong core, where to position the workout in your programme and different types of muscular contraction.
First, let's briefly summarize what we learnt last week about what makes up the abdominal wall and the movements that occur there.
Rectus Abdominis - superficial - flexion (bending in forward)
Internal oblique - deep - rotation (twisting)
External oblique - superficial - rotation (twisting)
Transversus abdominis - deep - bracing (increasing pressure)
Lumbar Multifidus - deep - stabilises the spine
Quadratus Lumborum - deep - depresses rib cage, side bends
Serratus anterior - superficial - rotates scapular, holds scapular against thorax.
Erector spinae - superficial - extend the back
Ok, so let's move onto how to train each muscle properly. Quick disclaimer, the abdominal wall is such an intimately organised area that you will never isolate one muscle and have zero activity in another, for this reason it's best to think movement rather than muscle.
Flexion - if there is one movement most people are already getting in their programme it’s flexion, usually done using ab crunches in one form or another. Whether or not you do them on the floor, a Swiss ball, whether you do reverse crunches, crunches on a cable machine - as long as you are doing it then that is the main thing. What I will say is do not be there crunching all day every day. The abdominal musculature is no different to a bicep or a hamstring and we don't sit there all day doing 100 body weight reps of bicep curls do we? Load it! Ideal rep range is no more than 20 reps really but 15 is enough, use this rep range as a guide and find the appropriate weight until you can hit that. I’ll discuss this more later on when we talk about acute variables.
Extension - using exercises like back extension, hyper extensions, dead lifts and Bulgarian dead lifts are great for the lower back but doing additional exercises that require more extension through your thoracic spine is also important. Not only for a balanced programme but also to combat the hyper kyphosis (exaggerated mid back curve) that seems to present in gyms where people work too much on their chest and arms and not enough on their upper back musculature.
Rotation - often lacking in many gym programmes, rotation is so important for us to build a balanced core. Rotation is also significant during the gait cycle, this is simply human locomotion, when we walk, jog or sprint - this is gait. Gait functions properly using both the anterior and posterior oblique slings, the nitty gritty of these systems is advanced biomechanics so to summarise them for you they are chains of muscular, ligamentous and tendonous tissues that the body uses to transfer energy in a sequence. Therefore, big movements that require rotation through the torso to link movement from the upper to lower extremities is great for becoming stronger during the gait cycle. Examples of this are wood chops, medicine ball throws, landmines and so of and so forth. But isolation is also important to consider because if you have neglected your rotation for a long time, using bigger movements is likely only to enhance the strength of your upper and lower body through compensation. So ground based exercises using Swiss balls, medicine balls and wobble boards are also useful; my favorite exercises for rotation are Russian twists - both upper and lower body variations.
Side bending/lateral flexion - this is a movement that we use in almost all movements to some degree (particularly with rotation), whether it is because we favor one side or perhaps we have an imbalance somewhere that means we carry ourselves somewhat differently. As with any of these movements I prefer people to try bigger movements linking upper and lower extremity movement but again, isolation is appropriate if you have never used this movement before. For isolation start with something simple like standing side bends holding a dumbbell or weight plate, then progress to exercises that challenge your stability like side bends on a Swiss ball. For the bigger movements I really like Kettlebell windmills and Turkish Get Ups though these are not multi-muscle, multi-joint and multi-movement exercises they have a strong side-bending component.
So we have discussed what criteria your ab workout needs to meet in terms of variety and movement, so let's move on to when to train the abs. If you're someone who generally neglects your abs then you're going to have to accept that you need to prioritize training them to get up to speed so it might be that for 3-4 weeks you dedicate 40% of your time to training your trunk musculature. Generally speaking 25% training focus on these muscles is enough because they also get a good workout when training the heavy lifts such as the dead lift and squats. The second thing you need to consider in terms of placement is where in the workout you put them. Let me make it quite clear that if you are having a day when you are lifting heavy weights that under no uncertain terms do you train abs BEFORE you lift heavy - when we lift heavy we place a lot of stress on the axial skeleton and for this reason the muscles that protect us need to be fresh and primed to do so, this also means that training your abs as hard as you can the day before a heavy session also requires caution. Ground based ab work sits best at the end of your workout because they require less energy over the more complex standing cable exercises and kettle bell exercises. The latter exercises are better suited early on in your workout but AFTER the heavy lifting.
Next let's discuss how to plan sets, reps, rest and tempo when training the abdominal wall. In terms of anatomy and physiology the abdominal wall musculature is identical to the biceps, lats, glutes and so on and so forth - sure it may respond better to different movements but in terms of what load it can take they are no different. So why do I see so many people doing 100, 200, 300 crunches? Would you stand there doing 100 bicep curls with a low weight? Of course not, so when you train your abs it's absolutely imperative that you load them appropriately - if you love the way you feel after a really high rep range of a certain exercise but can't work out how to load it properly then ask your fitness coach or trainer at the gym to help you.
Here is a very general guideline when planning your variables when you have achieved the correct way of loading the exercise.
2 minutes rest
Controlled, smooth tempo
1 minute rest
Controlled, smooth tempo
More experienced individuals will need to change their variables in other ways using techniques such as drop sets and super sets but we will come onto the more specific methods of training in future blog posts. These guidelines are a good starting point - take a look particularly at the rest periods and make sure they are in line with what you do, it's tough with a training partner not to get talking but save that for in between exercises not sets!
- Make sure your abdominal workout includes rotation, flexion, extension and side bending – this will ensure no muscle is spared.
- Consider where you position your ab work in your programme, this will help you avoid injury which can cause you long set backs in the gym.
- Learn to load abdominal exercises. The Abdominal musculature needs to be stressed just as with all the other muscles in the body – ask for help at your gym if you need guidance.
- Be specific. Different sets, reps, rest and tempo’s can yield different responses from the muscle you’re targeting – have a strategy and stick to it.