If you ask just about anyone what their main fitness goals are, flat, toned and defined abdominals is usually at the top of their list. However, from a fitness standpoint, the aspiration for the “perfect set of abs” should be balanced with the type of training that will best enhance the overall strength of the entire core’s function.
‘Rock-Hard Abs’ Is About Far More Than Aesthetics
Your first inclination may be to think that doing a lot of sit ups will develop the type of abs you see in fitness magazines. But know this: No matter how many “crunches” you do, you will not be able to decrease the amount of fat on your waistline.
Several factors come into play when trying to decrease fat around your abdominal region. As mentioned in the video above, one simple trick is to simply push yourself away from the table rather than over eat. But here we are going to focus on your core, the muscles that make up your core, and how to best train that region of your body. Having a strong core will allow you to:
- maintain good posture
- conduct everyday movements of reaching and bending more easily and safely
- continue to have strong continence
- sustain strong balance and stability
These are all solid reasons to work on and develop your core muscles, and as you can see, it’s about far more than aesthetics. In fact, developing and maintaining a strong and functional core should be of interest to everyone — not just those who are avid gym rats.
When you achieve a strong and balanced core unit, you also have a decreased risk of injury due to falls; and most importantly, many other areas of your body will work better together.
Your lower back, hip flexors, pelvis, knees and even your feet will work harmoniously when your core is balanced and strong. Obviously this would be of great importance for everyone, regardless of your age. For the aging population a strong core will help you perform daily activities with greater ease and grace, and it will help with continence.
A strong, balanced core is also integral for students in order to have good posture while carrying books and backpacks, and is important for office workers sitting at the computer all day, and even the mother carrying her newborn for several hours a day.
In essence, a strong core is directly related to having a pain free lower back. And it is a well-known fact that lower back pain can affect your overall health and well-being. Lower back pain can cause additional pain, from headaches all the way down to foot pain. So it is easy to see the importance of a strong, well balanced and well trained core.
What Makes Up Your Core?
In order to develop and maintain a strong core, it is essential to first understand the muscles that make up that region of your body, and what types of exercises work each specific section. While your abdominal muscles are relatively small in comparison to other skeletal muscles, the core section of your body, as a whole, is quite large. Also, your core region is complex and composed of many different muscles, both in size, shape and function.
The core region of your body consists of your entire trunk; everything from your pectoralis (chest muscles) and back, all the way down to your glutes (buttocks).
Paring it down further, the abdominal section of your core consists of the following four regions:
- Rectus abdominis – this is what is known as the “six pack”. It is the most superficial muscle group of your abdominal core area and allows you to flex and bend your spine. This muscle group also helps to stabilize your pelvis for any type of walking or running movements.
- Transversus abdominis – these muscles are the deepest set of muscle fibers in your abdominal wall. This area of the abdominal wall acts like a belt and help compress the abdominal contents. You also use this muscle group when flexing and bending.
- Internal and External Obliques – these are the muscles on the sides of your core and can actually function independently. When they function independently, they serve to rotate your trunk and laterally flex your body. When they contract both sides together at the same time, they help in flexion of your spine and compress your abdominal wall.
It has also been suggested that strong internal obliques are essential in maintaining good low back health. This is suggested because the internal and external oblique muscles attach to the erector spinae muscles and aid in pulling your trunk laterally. If this attachment is strong, and the muscles on either side are strong, your spine will be better supported and movements involving rotation of the trunk will be more efficient. Therefore, it is supported that strong oblique muscles improve lower back health. (Plowman et al, 1992)
- Erector spinae – while these muscles are not actually abdominal muscles, they are the main ignitors in back extension. They are a group of muscles that begin at your neck and extend down to your lower back. Any training of your core must include these important lower back muscles as they greatly aid trunk stability, agility and strength. These are the muscles that allow you to pick up and hold heavy objects in front of you, and to stand tall while doing so.
Now that you know the muscles involved, let’s discuss how to best work them to get the most “bang for your buck” to create a strong and stable core region.
The Best Exercises for Your Core
While experts agree that working and strengthening the core is essential to overall well-being, there are differing schools of thought as to which abdominal muscles are most important to work. In the end, the key is to balance stabilizing exercises with functional strength movements.
Most core exercises, when performed correctly, are relatively effective and do some good for your muscles; some are just more effective than others. One school of thought you can ignore is the notion that all you need to do is crunches to effectively train your core. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In order to effectively train your core, you must incorporate a variety of stabilization, functional and traditional exercises. A study by Petrofsky et al (2007) actually put this to the test by researching how much muscle activity is generated by different abdominal exercises. The simple, traditional abdominal floor crunch was found to produce and recruit the least amount of muscle activity when subjects were attached to an electromyography (EMG) machine.
That’s not to say that you should never perform a traditional abdominal crunch; but this particular exercise should be done as part of a varied, well thought out core strengthening routine.
Several studies have been conducted to determine the amount of muscle stimulation and level of activity in relation to the particular core exercise performed. It has been well documented that exercises that require constant stabilization throughout the movement performed, ignites the most muscle activity.
Core exercises, specifically abdominal exercises, must be done in a variety of ranges of motion, in different angles and positions, in order to engage all muscles. It is also important to understand that what works for one person or body type may not work for another. So the key is to find the variety that works for you, is challenging for you, and produces visible results.
Let’s Get Started!
Now that you know the basics of how to think of your core, let’s talk specifics.
It is helpful to think of your core routine in different segments: Traditional Exercises, Functional Exercises, Stabilizing Exercises, and Extension Exercises.
- Traditional exercises are those that you are probably most familiar with, such as the standard crunch; a standard crunch with rotation, which incorporates your internal and external obliques; or a standing rotation with a band or light hand weight.
- Functional exercises target most of the muscles within your abdominal wall and are performed by stabilizing your body while in motion. An example of such an exercise would be functional work on a stability ball, as your body is working to stabilize itself on the ball.
- Stabilizing exercises are best known for stabilizing your spine, drawing the transverse abdominal wall back into your spine and increasing lower back stability. Lying on the floor and pulling your belly back toward your spine and holding that position while maintaining breathing deeply is an excellent exercise to start with. Once this is mastered, you can add movement such as a slow bridge or extending your leg while maintaining the drawn-in posture.
- Extension exercises are performed to strengthen the erector spinae in your back. Oftentimes, back exercises are ignored when devising a core training program. However, it is an integral part of your core routine. A good exercise to start with for extension is lying on your stomach with arms extended above your head. Then raise both arms and both legs, at the same time, off the floor. Hold for a count of 5, or 5 breaths, and slowly return to the floor.
How often should you work your core?
Ideally, you’ll want to include core exercises every time you work out. Firstly, because a well-balanced core routine does not incorporate heavy weights, if any at all, and since there are so many muscle areas it’s not a problem to include core exercises each time you exercise.
Additionally, there are so many ways to vary your core workout using the different types of exercises above, as well as varying the repetitions, the sequence, how many exercises you actually do, the way you vary your contractions, and the position or tools you choose to incorporate into your routine that you can endlessly vary your routines to maintain a high level of effectiveness.
By incorporating these types of exercises and varying what you do every time you work on your core, you will be well on your way to a well-balanced, functional core.
Putting it All Together
So now you know about the musculature within your core, you know that you need to incorporate variety into a well-designed core workout, and you have several sample exercises to incorporate as well.
You want to be certain you are working all the areas of your core, and in doing so, incorporating a variety of exercise types, contraction methods, number of sets, resistance types and positions. This will give you the best shot at not only a strong and functional core, but also the best definition, as long as other aspects of your workout and eating regimen also promote fat loss and muscle building.
Remember that eating the right foods for your nutritional type is one of the most effective ways to optimize your health and metabolism. You can determine your nutritional type by taking Dr. Mercola’s free online nutritional typing test. He used to charge people $29 to take the test. However last year he decided to make it available for free to everyone, so please take advantage of it.
Remember your Nutritional Typing is NOT a label but it is a process where you do personal experiments and learn to listen to your body to find out what the best fuel is for YOUR body to make it thrive and avoid disease.
In addition to the specific core exercises discussed above, incorporating high-intensity, burst-type exercises like Sprint 8 will do wonders to improve overall speed, strength and endurance, and further promote fat loss — which is essential if you ever want see well-defined abs.
As with any type of workout, remember to vary your routine. Change it up! This is recommended about every 3 to 4 weeks. Your body has the amazing ability to recall what you do and get better at it. Once you get better at what you are doing, you need to further challenge your muscles. You do this by changing the contraction method, resistance, number of sets, and changing of positions.