Three Dynamic Plans for Core Training
by Dr. Emily Splichal
Plan 1: The Science Behind the Six-Pack
Ah, the ever-sought after six pack. For men and women alike, a sexy midsection is probably the most desired area of the body. With hundreds of machines and gadgets promising a flat stomach it’s no wonder the average gym-goer, and even some fitness professionals, are confused with how to effectively train the core.
So what’s the secret behind defined abdominals? And is there really a science to sexy abs?
Surprisingly, the secret to rock-hard abs has little to do with aesthetics and more to do with function and nutrition. According to Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, the function of the core is stabilization.
With the core consisting of the rectus abdominis, abdominal wall and lumbar erectors, when contracted it creates a “corset-type” stabilization. This corset-type contraction increases intra-abdominal pressure which resists compressive forces on the spine.
If trained properly, the deep muscles of the core are designed to co-contract synergistically before any upper or lower body movement. If not trained for function, we may be putting ourselves at risk for spine injury and low back pain.
Interestingly, as much as we understand the function of the core, people still continue to subject themselves to endless crunches, thinking that they will get better and faster results.
If we consider the concept of evidence-based core training, we not only want to incorporate the most effective abdominal exercises, but we also want to avoid exercises that could increase injury risk.
Take the crunch, for example. Sure, it’s a great exercise for strengthening the rectus abdominis; however, due to the demands of repeated trunk flexion, there is also a high level of psoas major activation.
The psoas major is one of the hip flexors, which originates on the frontal aspect of teh lumbar vertebrae. Activation of this muscle during a crunch or any abdomninal exercise causes shearing forces on the lumbar vertebrae and leads to low back pain.
McGill has provided evidence of how damaging incorrect core training can be to the lower back and spine. Through EMG studies, McGill has demonstrated which abdominal muscles are activated during different abdominal exercises, and which exercises, such as the crunch, should be avoided, as they put the greatest amount of shear force on lumbar vertebrae.
With 60-80 percent of adults experiencing low back pain, avoiding psoas activation and focusing on trunk stabilization through the co-contraction of all core muscles will provide a safer, more effective and still very challenging abdominal workout.
Still not convinced a trainee can get definition without ever doing a crunch? If we look at a cross-sectional view of the core, we can appreciate the “corset-type” arrangements of the abdominal muscles. To the front we have the rectus abdominis or six-pack muscles. On either side we have the abdominal wall.
The abdominal wall consists of the external obliques, internal obliques and transverse abdominals. The criss-crossing architecture of the abdominal wall makes isolated contraction of one of these muscles very difficult, and supports the evidence-based approach of training for co-contraction of all abdominal muscles.
Finally, in the back are the lumbar erectors, surrounded by the thoracolumbar fascia and attachment of the latissimus dorsi.
Encircling all muscles of the core is fascial tissue, which assists in abdominal muscle co-contraction and creation of what is referred to as “super-stiffness.”
By training this super-stiffness and trunk stabilization during any exercise, whether it be a squat or military press, we make the entire workout a core workout. The more we maintain proper core engagement, the stronger the core will become and the more defined the midsection will be.
In summary, when we understand the function of the core and the concept of evidence-based core training, abdominal workouts will become more effective.
As much as media pushes trunk flexion abdominal exercises, it is important to remember that these exercises require high levels of psoas activation, which puts a trainee’s low back at risk for high shearing forces. Safer alternatives exist that still target the muscles of the core, offer a challenging workout, and yes, will lead to six-pack abs.
Evidence-Based Core Workout
Requiring high levels of trunk stability, the pushup is a great exercise for targeting the rectus abdominis and core. This is also a great exercise demonstrating the connection between a strong core and power production, as the tighter the core, the more pushups you can do.
Place hands or feet on an unstable surface, such as a medicine ball or stability ball. The more unstable the surface, the higher the rectus abdominis activation.
Exercise example Place one hand on a medicine ball, other hand on floor. Proceed with pushups, remembering to maintain proper body alignment. As you become stronger, increase instability, e.g., place each hand on a medicine ball; increase again by adding instability: Place one foot on a stability ball.
This requires total core engagement. It’s a great way to teach a proper abdominal brace and for activating core muscles at the beginning or a workout.
Place forearms on floor and push yourself up onto toes. Keep head in line with spine, with the neck long and shoulder blades down your back. Slightly tuck pelvis under, engaging he deep core muscles and buttocks. Hold. Decrease intensity by dropping down to knees.
Forearm Plank Progression
To increase the intensity of a forearm plank, begin to incorporate movement such as pushing up into a pushup plank. The goal is to transition between the two planks while maintaining proper core engagement. Maintaining a stable core during the plank transitions will build dynamic trunk stability.
Begin in a forearm plank either on the toes or knees. Shift feet or knees to a wider position; this will help control the pelvis during plank transitions. As you engage core, push up with the right hand followed by the left hand to achieve a pushup position. Hold pushup for 10 seconds before bringing it back down to the forearm plank. Lead with the right arm for 5 repetitions, followed by leading with the left arm for 5 repetitions.
This is probably one of the most effective ways to target the obliques and abdominal wall, without activating the psoas major and putting the lower back at risk. Again building stabilization, this exercise is a great transitional plank which can be alternated with the forearm planks.
Start on the right side, placing shoulder directly over elbow, and left leg over right leg. Push up into the side plank while keeping core engaged. If you feel pressure in your shoulder, drop it down to knees or place left hand on floor in front. Hold for 30 seconds before repeating on the left side.
Side Plank Progression
EMG studies have shown by adding a dynamic side crunch, there is an increase in oblique and rectus abdominis activation.
Begin in a side plank with both legs straight or bent. The top arm can either be placed on floor or kept straight up; each variation will challenge the core in a different way. Slowly drop the hips towards floor before exhaling and lifting back up into a side plank. Maintain proper core engagement with each repetition. Build up to 10 repetitions, and repeat on the other side.
Plan 2: Sexy Abs Without Crunches
by Natasha Linton
When it comes to transforming the abdominals, there is a much better way to do this than the most commonly practiced routines. Gym-goers still insist on warming up on the treadmill for 30 minutes, then performing a strength routine broken up by bodypart, and then performing endless floor or machine crunches.
This is all done before 10 minutes of stretching or a cool-down on a cardio machine. However, if your goals are to create abs that you can see, then stop wasting time with crunches.
The best way to sculpt great looking abs is by performing dynamic total-body exercises. A well-designed total body program is guaranteed to burn fat as the metabolic demand goes up. Along with being a time saver, there are a number of benefits to training this way. They include:
You’ll “kill more birds with one stone”, meaning all the major muscle groups including abs are worked at one time, leading to greater fat loss.
The body will perform better. Since the body was meant to move, it’s important to keep moving and to keep moving efficiently.
For example, trainees will be able to bend down to pick up what has fallen, hold and carry groceries up the stairs with ease, run to catch the bus or train without rapidly getting out of breath, and also sit down and stand up quickly. If you’re one to feel pain during the normal daily routine, you’ll notice a difference after just a few workouts fashioned this way.
Here are three super beneficial exercises for awesome abs to include in your program. Keep consistent and you’ll never have to do a crunch again.
Squat With a Kick:
Lower Body, Abs, Back, Overall Conditioning.
1) Start by standing with feet close together.
2) Keep arms up with elbows facing forward.
3) Lower down into a squat as low as possible, keeping feet flat on floor and back flat.
4) As you stand back up, raise right knee and extend to a kick.
5) Go back down into a squat when the right foot goes back down to the floor.
6) Kick up with left leg, then repeat on each side.
Abs, Back, Legs, Shoulders.
1) Start standing; bend over and place hands on floor.
2) Walk hands out until in the pushup position.
3) Walk hands back to standing position, then repeat.
4) For a challenge, add a pushup at the end of each walkout before returning to standing position.
Plan 3: 60 Day Challenge
by Daniel Woodrum
Crunches and situps have been a staple in training programs for generations. Most fitness professionals have clients who always insist on ending their training sessions with multitudes of these.
There’s no doubt their abs will be sore at some point after all those reps. And so may their lower back and neck from the strain placed on them.
Fitness experts are finally getting some bit-time media exposure with their “no-crunch” campaign to the public.
As a fitness enthusiast, you should know that building a strong core is the first step towards maximizing strength gains and building muscle, and that strong supporting muscles around the spine will help reduce lower back pain. Since the core includes all the abdominal muscles that contribute to the aesthetic look (six-pack), a strong core is the foundation of a ripped midsection.
With the sedentary lifestyle more prominent today, the spine is in a constant state of flexion. Why in the world would people want to reinforce this problem with numerous sets of spinal flexion exercises such as crunches?
Stuart McGill, the professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, has stated: “. . . when the spine is fully flexed, we’ve measured the spine losing up to 40 percent of its ability to bear compressive loads. In other words, the spine is the strongest when in a neutral position.”
Spine bending exercises fall short when you consider the risk vs. reward factor. There are not enough benefits to crunches to benefit the risk of serious low back injury.
60 day challenge – Go 60 consecutive days without doing a single crunch or situp. This includes eliminating Russian twists, stability ball crunches and side bends. The purpose of this challenge is to develop both a healthy core and strong abs.
Crunch-free core training – Alwyn Cosgrove is one of the most well-known and respected fitness experts. He has created a system which features three basic categories of core exercises. These three categories of stabilization will be the focal point of this crunch-free 60 day challenge.
This type of stabilization puts the body into a position in which the trainee must stabilize the spine and pelvis, holding them in this position for a specific amount of time. The most fundamental examples of this type of stabilization are the planks and side planks. A stability ball may be used for a more advanced progression of this exercise:
Stability ball plank – set forearms on the Swiss ball, and toes on the floor. Your body should form a straight line from neck to feet. Hold for 30-90 seconds.
This category of stabilization requires the trainee to move one or more limbs while keeping the spine in a neutral position. This training differs from static stabilization in that you’re firing faster-twitch muscle fibers into the mix. An example of dynamic stabilization is the rollout-type movements.
The goal is to keep the spine in its most neutral position, while the center of gravity moves away from the middle of the body. The extra movement needed in these exercises forces other muscles to contribute.
Mountain Climbers – Brace your abs. Start in the top of a pushup position. Keep abs braced, pick one foot up off the floor and slowly bring it towards the chest. Do not let hips sag. Keep abs braced and slowly return leg to start position. Alternate sides until you complete all the required reps.
Stability Ball Rollout – Kneel on a mat and place hands on top of stability ball. Brace abs and slowly lean forward and roll hands over the ball while it moves away from your body. Keep body in a straight line and go out as far as you can. Contract abs and reverse the motion to return to upright beginning position.
Stability Ball Jackknife – Brace abs. Put elbows on a bench and rest shins on the ball. With back flat, your body should form a straight line from shoulders to ankles. Keeping back straight, roll the ball to your chest as close as possible by contracting your abs and pulling the ball forward. Pause and return the ball to starting position by rolling it backwards.
Integrated (Strength) Stabilization
This is the category of stabilization that is most often overlooked. Integrated stabilization is often seen as exercises that don’t seem to be working the core.
For example, the one-arm dumbbell chest press may appear to be working only the prime mover muscles. While the prime movers are being worked, the oblique muscles are getting an intense contraction as well.
Integrated stabilization is designed to develop core strength and stability. They work the targeted muscles all while forcing the core muscles to stabilize an unbalanced load.
Renegade Rows – Start in a pushup position with hands wrapped around two light dumbbells. Keep abs braced and row one dumbbell up to your ribcage. Slowly lower under control and alternate sides.
Dumbbell One-Arm Shoulder Press – Stand with hips back, knees bent and abs braced. Hold one dumbbell at shoulder level and place the other hand on obliques. Press dumbbell overhead and slowly return to starting position. Stand upright and complete all reps on one side and switch.
Dumbbell One-Arm Chest Press – Lie on a bench and hold one dumbbell at arm’s length above the chest. The opposite arm can hang free or be placed over the chest area. Slowly lower dumbbell to chest level and press it straight back up. Do all reps for one side and switch.
The aforementioned core exercises are a much safer and more effective alternative to crunches. Implementing this type of core training builds balanced stability, endurance and strength in the abs and lower back. Break away from the crunch-aholic syndrome and start training smarter.
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