I have written a lot of content on the importance of core training and stabilizing the spine, but I still get the same question over and over, “Kyle, can we do some abs today?” or “Kyle, can we train the core at the end?” I am not going to get into the whole core training debate right now, but I would like to focus on the anterior core, which is the area that everyone associates with six pack abs. First thing is first, you will never, I repeat never get six pack abs by doing sit-ups or crunches. That’s right, you can do 20,000 sit-ups every single day and it won’t make a dent in your belly fat if your nutrition is not on point.
The anterior core’s main function is for stabilization of the pelvis and spinal column along with anti-extension and anti-rotation. Notice that I didn’t say flexion. The only time you should really be flexing your spinal column is upon rising from bed. In fact, McGill (2004) has shown that if you want to herniate a disc, flex the spine repeatedly. When done over and over, the results are always the same.
For anti-extension, think of a receiver going up to grab a football when thrown slightly high. How can this be mimicked in the gym? Simple, you can progress from stability ball rollouts (kneeling to standing), ab wheel rollouts and then finally TRX rollouts. The anti-extension mechanism is a breaking mechanism, something you can also get by snapping a kettlebell down while at the top of a kettlebell swing. Do not start with AB wheel rollouts as they are quite difficult and will leave you sore for days on end if you are new to them. Progress to them via the stability ball and less dynamic movements such as hand walkouts in the sagittal plane (perpendicular to a wall).
While discussing stabilization, you can pretty much start with the “root” exercise of planks. And no discussion of stabilization would be complete without a proper knowledge of breathing. I have people start with a flex band tied around their waist and have them practice expanding the band. For this, they need to perform diaphragmatic breathing, causing the belly to extend out, rather than the chest rising up. As an aside, if you are constantly chest breathing as many people do, you are causing your blood acidity to rise, something for coaches to think about while their athletes try to recover from a period of conditioning.
Once you get this belly breathing down, put it into practice while planking first from the knees and forearms, extending then to the toes and forearms and finally to the toes and hands (arms extended position). From here, you can progress to an unstable surface such as a stability ball or raise your feet up to increase the moment arm (kind of like making a pushup more difficult by going from your knees to your feet). A side plank would be progressed the exact same way. And no, planks should not be done for minutes at a time, in fact, I used to have our clients perform them for 1 minute if more advanced, but I am even rethinking this in favor of going for sets of 20-30 seconds.
As for the last category, anti-rotation, it’s probably the most advanced of the three categories. First, let’s get this out of the way: golfers and baseball players do not rotate from the lumbar spine. On closer inspection they internally and externally rotate at the hips. The lumbar spine is allowed only 5 degrees of rotation in total! Thus, you see the need to be able to anti-rotate. A simple exercise for anti-rotation would be seated medicine ball Russian twists, followed by kneeling chops or Russian twists with the grappler (landmine) apparatus and then finally standing chops or standing Russian twists. The arms might only move 6 inches, the key is as soon as you feel yourself rotating, go back to start and perform the rep again. By kneeling first, we make sure to take the quads, knees and feet out of it, making the glutes actively work with the anterior and deep core muscles. Another great exercise for anti-rotation, although a little more advanced would be bird-dogs, performed slowly while trying to avoid rotation. The spine is in a stabilized position with this exercise and there is very low torque and compression forces on the spine, compared to a superman, which imposes over 6000N of compression on the spine!
The bottom line is that core training is not what you probably thought it was. The core can and should be built with the above principles and it will spare your spine, improve performance and give you the desired midsection appearance that is nice to have too, but remember that if you eat like a pig, you will look like a pig. That is a topic for another day.