Understanding Your Abs, Part II

Core Training

Stay up late some evening, and I have no doubt you’ll be bombarded for core training products like the Bender Ball, Ab Dolly, or an assortment of other ridiculous contraptions promising to help sexify your abs.

In Part 1 of Understanding Your Abs, I did my best to explain the true role of your core (HINT: it’s not just crunching!), and why it’s important to train your core in a more real-world, functional manner.

In case you don’t want to go back and read all that, here’s a quick synopsis:

Can your core crunch and move around in a bunch of different directions?

Sure.

But is this the most efficacious use of our time?  Is this what our core was designed to do in sports, and in life?

Probably not.

Instead, we need to examine crunches and sit-ups in more depth, along with why core stability is something that we should all be striving to achieve.

Who needs crunches anyway?

Everybody and their mother can tell you that crunches train your “core.”  What they may or may not be able to tell you is that you’re training spinal flexion.

First, it’s important to note where you’re getting your movement; a true crunch where your lumbar spine doesn’t move focuses on spinal flexion through the thoracic spine, or upper back.

People will obviously tell you that crunches spare the spine and isolate the abs.  To an extent, they’re correct – when compared to a full range of motion sit-up, they probably are a superior option.

What people fail to discuss are the broader implications of performing a ton of crunches in their programming.  Just because they aren’t hurting your back doesn’t mean they’re a great exercise.

From a global perspective, I can’t tell you how many people I see with jacked up shoulders and necks.  Their postures often look the same – their head is carried in front of their body, their shoulders are slouched forward, etc.

Try this quick and dirty test:  Walk through a door, any door.  What passes through the door first, your chest and torso, or your head and neck?

If it’s your head and neck, Houston, we could have a problem.

Crunches shorten your rectus abdominus (RA), or six-pack muscles. Your RA runs from the bottom of your rib cage to your pelvis.  When you constantly shorten this muscle from the top down, you pull your rib cage down and contribute to this slouched shoulder and head-forward position.

Those crunches may spare the spine when compared to sit-ups, or isolate the core, but they also play a role in creating dysfunction up the kinetic chain.

They may make you’re A-B-Z look sick, but it doesn’t do anything for your upper extremity alignment and function.

And before we take this idea too far, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that crunches are the only factor contributing to poor posture.  The fact of the matter is a lot of things lead to poor posture: Poor training programs that are focused on the chest versus the upper back, horrible posture while sitting at a desk/in a car, and poor core training all play roles.

But poor core training exercises do play a role.

In contrast, a sit-up where you go through a full range of motion trains flexion not only through the thoracic spine but also the lumbar spine, or lower back.

People originally moved away from sit-ups because they thought they were bad for their back.

And in this case, they were probably right.

Stuart McGill has done extensive research and found that when it comes to lumbar flexion and extension, your spine only has a certain number of flexion/extension cycles in it.  The question becomes, how many cycles does YOUR low back have in it?

Obviously, there isn’t a hard and fast rule.  Some people may go through hundreds of thousands of cycles with no ill effects.  Others might go through 25 or 50% of that number and end up with low back issues.

Everyone is individual, and it’s hard to make a blanket statement on the topic.  I can tell you this, though: It’s rare, if ever, that I find a need to include crunches or sit-ups into a program.

Let’s take this thought process a step further. Crunches and sit-ups ONLY train spinal flexion.

What if I could give you exercise options that not only give you great looking abs, but ones that are functional and promote good posture and alignment as well?

In this case, we need to differentiate between two different types of core development:  Core strength versus core stability.

The Need for Core Stability Training

The core has been defined as a box with the diaphragm on the top, the muscles of the pelvic floor and hips on the bottom, the abdominals in the front and the spinal erectors  and gluteals on the back.

Core stability, however, is a very open ended term.  Pundits will argue until the cows come home that you can’t define core stability, or that it’s not something tangible that you can measure.

In this case, I would have to disagree.  Perhaps core stability isn’t the best term, maybe we can and should get more specific.  We could say “pelvic” stability, “lumbar” stability, or even something more all encompassing like “trunk” stability.

I choose to use the term core stability in my writing because it’s the most universally understood term.

For a basic definition, core stability is the ability to lock the core/torso/pelvis in a specific, preferably neutral position and maintain that alignment while resisting movement/motion imposed by the extremities.


When it comes to stability training, it’s hard to argue against its importance.  Even a cursory look at the research shows that a lack of stability can lead to a host of lower back and lower extremity issues.

While many are quick to blame hamstring strains or “pulled hammies” on muscle imbalances between the quads and hamstrings, improving core stability may play a role in decreasing the likelihood of further injury and expedite the road to recovery.

In a study by Sherry [1], injured athletes who completed a rehabilitation protocol that included core stability exercises not only got back on the field faster than controls, but only 7% reported another injury in the next year.  In comparison, 70% of the controls suffered a recurrence of their hamstring injury in the following year.

With regards to low back pain, Stuart McGill has repeatedly espoused the benefits of incorporating his “Big 3” (side plank, birddog, and curl-up) in rehabilitating injured lower backs. As you can imagine, we don’t use the curl-up; instead, we opt for a front plank/pillar hold instead.

So hopefully we can see that there’s a definite need for core stability training in our programming if we want a healthy lower back, hips and legs.  But what about the upper extremity?

Can core training positively or negatively affect our upper extremity function?

I think so.  Read on….

Core Training for the Upper Body?

As we discussed before, exercises like crunches reinforce poor upper body alignment and movement.  Here’s another quick and dirty test you can try out:

1) Sit up as tall as you can in your chair, or better yet, stand up nice and tall.  Take your arms in front of your body and reach up as high as you can.  Get a feeling for how high you can reach, along with how easy it is to get there.

2) Now, I want you to perform a crunch, or at the very least, slouch your shoulders. Now, try and do the same thing – reach up as high overhead as you can.

What happened?

If you’re like every other human being our there, you couldn’t reach as high, and you might’ve even had pain when you slouched forward.

Now imagine performing thousands and thousands of crunches – what do you think that’s going to do to your upper body alignment, posture and mobility?

It’s going to make it worse.

When your shoulders are slouched forward, your thoracic spine is in a position of increased kyphosis.  When your upper back is in a poor alignment, it sets of a cascade of events – now, your scapulae (shoulder blades) are in an improper alignment, which puts your shoulders in a poor alignment.

Is it any wonder why we see so many neck and shoulder injuries? It all starts with thoracic spine alignment.

At the end of the day, chances are you sit in a shoulders slouched posture for hours throughout the day.  Why on Earth would you want to reinforce this pattern when you get in the gym?

It makes no sense.

Instead, we should focus on exercises that allow us to get tall and open up the chest.  We’ll not only have less pain in the shoulders, neck and elbows, but we’ll breathe easier and feel better in general.

Let’s look at how I outline my core training programs to maximize your training time and quality.

A Superior Way to Outline Core Training

Let me rant for one moment before I outline the exercises.  There are two things that really bug me about people who write on the Internet:

1.     When they write blogs and articles where they tear down an idea, yet never propose an alternative or superior method.

2.     When people rant and rave about training methods, yet train very few people themselves.

In this case, I want to show you exactly how I plan my core training programs so you can start incorporating these exercises into your workouts immediately.  These are tried and true tools that I use on a daily basis with my clients and athletes.

If someone were training four days per week, the core training split would look something like this:

–       Anti-lateral flexion

–       Anti-extension

–       Anti-rotation

–       Hip flexion w/neutral spine

Each day you would train a different quality/movement pattern.  And if you only train three days per week, you can simply throw in the anti-lateral flexion work into your warm-up using some offset waiters walks or famers carries.

It really doesn’t have to be that hard.

I’m sure you want some examples, so lets’ take a quick look at each “branch” of my core stability training.

Anti-Lateral Flexion

Anti-lateral flexion is the ability to resist a side-bending motion.  Exercise examples from this class of exercises include Waiter’s walks (pictured above), as well as kettlebell windmills.

Anti-Extension

Anti-extension exercises may give you the most bang for your training buck.  In this case, the goal is to resist lumbar extension; instead, focus on squeezing the gluteals/obliques so you get hip extension instead.

Half-kneeling exercises are fantastic if you have side-to-side discrepancies, and tall kneeling is fantastic if you’re a bit more symmetrical.  These also lead into bigger-bang exercises such as ball and ab wheel rollouts, TRX/blast strap variations, etc.

Anti-Rotation

Anti-rotation exercises may be the easiest to understand.  In this case, all you’re doing is trying to resist rotation around your lumbar spine.

Hopefully, you’re also noticting a theme here as well.  Start with more isolative variations for the core initially to improve basic stability and recruitment.  Once you’ve begun to optimize your stabilization patterns, you can move into more challenging and integrated variations.

Hip Flexion w/Neutral Spine

Hip flexion with a neutral spine may be the most challenging branch of core exercises.  Many are quick to dismiss this option, but I feel this is integral if your goal is to go through full range of motion exercises such as squats, without losing your lumbar spine alignment.

As you can see, I need some work on this movement pattern myself. I feel like a bigger physioball would help a bit, but I still have a subtle “tuck” at the midpoint of the motion.  I need to either keep my core tighter, or at the very least, reduce my range of motion a bit to make sure the core is stable throughout.

Hey, everyone’s got things to work on – myself included. 🙂

What are YOU hoping to achieve?

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself:

What am I hoping to achieve with my training? What is the end goal?

As you can obviously tell, I’m a huge proponent of core stability work.  But what if your goal is to get those shredded abs like “The Situation?”

Many will tell you that they simply incorporate crunches into their workout because they want six-pack abs.  And I get that goal, I really do.

But the question becomes, do you need crunches to get really lean?

The answer is no.

In fact, I’ve had numerous figure competitors that I’ve trained who have performed exactly ZERO crunches leading up to a contest, and still developed some sick abs.

They used the exercises I outlined above, but most importantly, they dialed in their training and nutrition.

That’s not the sexy answer, but that’s the truth.  If you want abs a serious set of abs, get your butt in the gym and train hard.  Then go home and eat a clean diet. Rinse and repeat.

It’s amazing what happens when you put these two things together.

Summary

I hope that this post has given you a firm idea of how important core stability training is, and how to effectively integrate it into your current exercise routine.

At the end of the day, you’re free to train however you’d like.  But with my clients and athletes, my goal is always to help them achieve their goals in the safest and most effective fashion.

And for me, core stability work is where it’s at.

Stay strong

MR

P.S. – It takes me quite a while to pull these “article” style posts together, so if you learned something from it, please help spread the word by e-mailing it to a friend, re-tweeting, or simply sharing with your friends on Facebook.  Thanks!

1.            Sherry, M.A. and T.M. Best, A comparison of 2 rehabilitation programs in the treatment of acute hamstring strains. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 2004. 34(3): p. 116-25.

  • JPRStrengthandCondit

    Mike, I am guessing alot of the concepts discussed here are in relation to the work of Dr Stuart McGill, it's great that you have put this out there, as I feel after reading some of Dr McGill's work that there is still a common misconception of the role of the abdominal muscles and back muscles by the general fitness population. All in all a great piece of literature, I was thinking of writing something similar for my wordpress blog, but it seems you got there faster!
    Kind Regards
    JPRStrengthandConditoning

  • shane

    What do you recommend for an athlete will a severe anterior pelvic tilt or someone who has been diagnosed with lower cross syndrome?

  • Scott

    Mike:

    Would the subsitutes for the cable chop and Pallof press be a weighted bar and dumbell respectively through the same planes or a resistance band pulled along the same planes?

    Scott

    • Mike

      Scott – Yes, that would definitely work!

      MR

  • david

    great read and i really like the fact that you gave examples of exercises and progressions for core training. I recently standing doing single arm DB bench presses ( neutral grip) and it works really well as an anti-rotation exercise. I really do not like to do planks, or any isometrics, and I seem to respond better to ab rollouts. I can only hold a plank in a pushup position for about 1 minute 30 sec. but I can perform 10 ab rollouts without a problem. What is your opinion on this?

  • Tom

    Mike:

    I just watched your videos of “low back pain” and in video #2 you mention that the KB windmill is an exercise where “it depends” as you said if its good or bad. It is supposed to be a good exercise for the advanced athlete but not for the normal gym rat. How do I know if I can include it in my workout safely?
    I would also like to ask what exercises you would recommend against an anterior pelvic tilt!
    Thanks!
    Tom

  • Found your site today. Excellent information throughout. This article was particularly helpful. Thanks

  • Angie Weiner, Grafton IL

    Thanks for the details in parts one and two.

    If the goal is simply to strengthen through stabilizing, why can’t we just focus on our breathing to maintain stability during exercises such as squats, lunges, wood-choppers and flys and bench press and mil press and shrugs and DLs and…?

    I don’t know if I’d be giving my ideas to Facebook, Google and Zuckerberg for free.

  • Ya, the Situation’s abs are ok at best. I mean seriously. Cmon… haha. Anyway, good site and articles, Mike. Lookin forward to gettin your newsletter.

  • Sam

    Hi Mike, great articles, thanks so much for posting.
    I noticed in your core training splits, you had anti-lateral flexion, but no straight up anti-flexion – is there a reason for this?
    I’m currently rehabbing L4/5 and L5S1 prolapses and after years of cycling am in posterior tilt. As well as working on my ankle, hip and T-spine mobility, would you recommend any ‘traditional’ exercises to strengthen and shorten the lumbar erectors – like hip and back extensions?
    Thanks for all the knowledge you’re putting out there!
    Sam.

    • Mike

      Sam –

      Yep, this is actually something I discuss in “Complete Core Fitness.” If you have specific weakness of the lower back, then strict anti-flexion work would definitely help. As a cyclist, you’re in that population that could benefit from that type of work.

      Good luck!
      MR

  • Great post Mike, have to say as a Pilates instructor you see so many people in the gym that don’t actually work their core correctly and it’s good to read a article that point in the right direction. I now only do Pilates exercises for my core and have to say since the switch my core is 10 times strong and my lower back has improved too. Can’t wait to read your next post

    Darren

  • msb1991

    I am currently on a bodyweight training program. I’m using it to try to rehab an injury in the lower right side of my back that I’ve had for two years. The program uses 3×15 ab-curls supersetted with 3×15 band pulls. Do you recommend replacing the ab-curls with something else?

    • Mike

      Try wall press abs, dead bugs, etc. You can find them on my YouTube page.

      MR

  • Great article Mike. I’m currently rehabbing from an injury which is affecting my lower back (L5 disc compression). I’ll be looking forward to adding these to my training as soon as I get well enough. Any advice on how to speed up the healing? I’m seeing the chiropractor for adjustments and working on stretching to improve ROM while the inflammation goes down.

  • Basya

    I’ve heard a lot about not using crunches as an abdominal exercise. In the past (going back like 20 years) physical therapists used to have me do them. In my latest round of PT for back problems, I was given a lot of exercises stretching backwards (the McKenzie method) and told to avoid bending forward as much as possible.

    She also suggested to take an exercise class. The one which both appeals to me and is near to home is a Pilates class. But the Pilates exercises seem to use a lot of back flexion/forward bending (and one of its most basic exercises seems to be the hundred, which has a position similar to the upper part of the crunch.

    Yet Pilates is touted as being very helpful to the back. Is it really safe for the back, or does it have the same problems as cruches?

    Thank you.
    Basya

  • Mark McDonnell

    Hi Mike,

    Very informative. What are your thoughts on spinal and core stability with regards to the use of inversion tables (ankle suspension) and yoga postures (active and passive).

    Thank you!
    Regards,
    Mark

    • Mike

      I think inversion tables may provide some acute/transient relief in pain, but the long-term effects are probably negligible at best.

      MR


Back to All Posts