A flat, toned mid section – for many the epitome of health and fitness. No other muscle group has the sex appeal and aesthetic allure of a well conditioned “six pack”. Like most things worth having, developing a great set of abs is not easy, but it is possible to achieve success if we apply our selves and exercise not just our bodies but our minds also. It’s not just about training hard – but training smart. In this article, we will reveal the secrets for developing a mid section to be proud off…and save you a lot of wasted time!
Many people in the pursuit of abdominal perfection spend too much time focusing on the rectus abdominus (located on the front of the torso, running from sternum to pubis) and completely neglect the other components of the mid section. This is like trying to develop the biceps but not the triceps but still expecting to build a big, strong, functional arm. No matter how hard we try, this approach will limit our success and minimize the benefits we experience. Other common mistakes in abdominal training include the use of ultra high reps in the hope of “spot reducing”, using insufficient loading for fear of making the abdominal muscles “thick”, using ab cradles to “safely” work the mid section, ignoring the functions of the mid section, not using enough variety in ab exercise selection and training the abdominals too often.
The core, as the mid section is commonly known, is actually made up of a number of muscles, all of which deserve our attention if we are to develop a well balanced, functional and attractive set of abdominal muscles. Whilst it’s not necessary to know the names of all these muscles to be able to exercise them effectively, it’s worth casting an eye over the core’s components so you can dazzle your friends with your new found anatomy and physiology knowledge!
1) Rectus Abdominus - Front of torso
Flexion of spine, lateral flexion of the spine e.g. crunches, side bends
2) Erector Spinae - Back of spine
Extension of spine, lateral flexion of the spine e.g. back extensions, side bends
3) Internal Obliques - Side of torso
Rotation of spine, lateral flexion of the spine e.g. twisting crunches, cable wood chops
4) External Obliques - Side of torso
Rotation of spine, lateral flexion of the spine e.g. twisting crunches, Russian twists
5) Transverse Abdominus - Around internal organs
Compression of abdomen, drawing in of navel e.g. planks
Because of the different functions of the core musculature, it is necessary to train the midsection with a multitude of exercise to ensure balanced development which will ensure both good aesthetics and function. In other words as well as looking good (aesthetics) they will work well (function). Many abdominal routines are “all show, but no go” where as we ideally want to develop both show and go simultaneously!
The functions of the core can be divided into six specific movement patterns (hence the title of this article!) which need to be included when designing a core conditioning routine. Now, don’t worry if the list of movements seems dauntingly long or complicated, later in the article I will show you how to integrate these exercises into your current routine…
1) Flexion of spine – lifting shoulders
Crunches, sit ups
2) Flexion of spine – lifting hips
Reverse crunches, hanging leg raises, dead bugs
3) Extension of spine
Dorsal raises, back extension machine, deadlifts
4) Rotation of spine
Russian twists, cable wood chops
5) Lateral (side) flexion of spine
Side bends, side planks
6) Bracing/compression of abdominals
Planks, kneeling on a Swiss ball
As with all fitness training, whether it is bodybuilding, cardiovascular endurance, strength or flexibility orientated, there is no single “golden” routine which guarantees never ending results. To stimulate the improvements we seek from our bodies, we need to constantly challenge ourselves to work to higher levels of performance and intensity. The human body adapts very quickly to any stress that it is exposed to and, as a result, needs to be exposed to progressive overload in order to be stimulated to change positively. This means that, as our core conditioning improves, we must endeavor to increase the intensity of the exercises we choose to perform.
When considering the merits of a particular core exercise, it is vitally important to determine if we can make the movement more demanding as we improve the condition of the target musculature. If the answer is a resounding “no” then there are better exercises for us to choose! A good example of a poor core exercise is the old gym favorite the ab cradle.
With a little bit of practice, it is possible to perform literally hundreds of reps using this device which uses a lot of our valuable training but delivers very little in the way of progressive overload and therefore improvements in core conditioning. The ab cradle is an acceptable exercise for a complete beginner, but after a few short weeks, our newbie will have out grown this exercise and will need to do something more challenging to develop their fitness level further.
There are a number of changes we can utilize when progressing an exercise and by manipulating these “training variables” we can ensure we keep improving the condition of our target…
1) Increase external load (e.g. use a medicine ball, cable or dumbbell) to increase strength demand
2) Reduce rest time between sets e.g. from 60 seconds to 45 seconds to challenge recovery mechanisms
3) Increase volume of exercise (more sets or more reps) to increase muscular endurance demand
4)Increase complexity/technical difficulty of exercise e.g. progressing from a floor exercise to a standing exercise. Ground reactive core exercises tend to be more challenging and effective than those performed laying on the floor
5) Move more slowly (reduce tempo) to increase time under tension (TUT)
6) Increase the speed to develop greater muscular force/power
7) Progress from a stable to an unstable training surface (e.g. use a Swiss ball or Bosu) to challenge nervous system
8) Group exercises into “super sets” or circuits e.g. alternate between Swiss ball crunches and back extensions
9) Introduce static holds at point of peak contraction to extend duration of the set
10) Perform multiple exercises per function of the core musculature e.g. side plank followed by side bends
As a general rule of thumb, if it is possible to perform more then 20 reps of any given exercise in perfect form, it is time to use one of the training variables to bring the rep count down. Don’t waste time doing hundreds of reps of any core exercise … treat your abs like any other muscle group and keep the rep count in between 6 to 20 for maximum results in minimal time!
There are a number of options we can use for introducing our new “smart core” work into our weekly training programme. As we mentioned earlier, there is no “golden routine” which guarantees results. It’s a matter of deciding which option works best for you.
Perform all core movements in a single session 2-3 times per week, completing 1-2 sets of 6-20 reps, one exercise per movement pattern.
Divide the six movements into two groups of three, and perform one list on one day of your training week e.g. Monday, and the other list later the same week e.g. Thursday. Complete 1-2 exercises per movement pattern, 2-3 sets per exercise of 6-20 reps
Divide the six movements into three groups of two and perform one pair on Monday, one pair on Wednesday and one pair on Friday. Perform 1-3 exercises per movement pattern, 2-4 sets per exercise of 6-20 reps
Perform one movement per day, six days a week. Perform 2-4 exercises per movement pattern, 3-5 sets per exercise, 6-20 reps per set.
So, there we go – you now have all the information you need to create your own “six of the best” core conditioning programme which will speed you on your way to developing that fitness Holy of Holies … the six pack. Good luck and train both hard and smart.