If I see another sit up variation being prescribed in a general public exercise instruction video, I think I’ll lose it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely anti-sit ups.
I just think there are numerous movements to prioritize before doing them, which not only create a greater training effect, but also promote a safer environment.
We’ve already learned that for the most part, a visible 6-pack has much less to do with the exercises we choose and much more to do with how lean we are.
That comes down to nutrition beyond anything else.
With all this in mind, let’s get down to the real reason everyone should be training their trunk muscles: To make them stronger.
There are sure-fire (and often neglected) exercises that fit the mold for the 5 key functions of the trunk. Allow me to go over my top pick for each.
Function 1: Anti-Rotation/Plate Transfer Plank
The muscles of the trunk have a primary goal of keeping the spine protected. That means it’s more about resisting unwanted forces than it is about creating forces all the time.
Where anti-rotation is concerned, it’s the role of the obliques and quadratus muscles to keep the spine stable and still while performing a movement. My go-to anti-rotational movement will continue to be the plate transfer plank.
Related: Boyce's Choices - Top 3 Exercises for Abs
Such a simple idea becomes so effective simply because the abs are asked to contract harder when one base of support is removed from the floor. Focusing on sets of 3 transfers in each direction is a good place to start. Remember, you’ve defeated the purpose if your body goes through a drastic and notable shift.
Function 2: Anti-Extension/Ab Wheel Rollout
The anti-extension capacity of the core really exposes potential weakness, especially in the lower abdominal region. The truth is, when the spine in unable to maintain neutrality due to weak trunk muscles, it in turn acts on the pelvis by way of anterior tilting.
The result of this is usually tightness through the hips, stress on the lower back, and dysfunctional squats and deadlifts to boot.
As the arms move further away from the body (think of an overhead press pattern), the prevalence of poor anti-extension becomes more pronounced. It’s very difficult to bear load overhead while maintaining a neutral spine if you have the propensity to fall into back hyperextension.
The best way to train this position to get stronger is to change the force angle of the load while in said position. The ab wheel rollout is a demanding, but effective tool for doing so. It’s my true favorite training tool to use, but in truth, I realize that most lifters will probably make errors when attempting this lift.
With that said, a smart regression would be the hand walk, demonstrated here by my friend Ben Bruno. Keep the glutes squeezed tight to maintain a flat low back. The second you fall into an overarch, you’ll feel it right away. Limit the distance you travel with your hands to start, to ensure the core remains braced.
Function 3: Trunk Flexion/Hanging Leg Raise
Like I mentioned above, most people gravitate to sit ups or crunches to torch the abdominals. The problem I have with these movements is the fact that in each scenario, the ribcage moves towards the hips and the thoracic spine and neck go into excessive flexion to do it.
The abs are trained at the expense of the health of other regions of the body, which isn’t the greatest tradeoff when looking at most of the general population. Instead, I prefer making the abs contract via flexion from the bottom up. This allows the ribcage to stay in place and tall posture to be encouraged through the upper spine.
The hanging leg raise is my go-to movement for trunk flexion, and it’s as tough as they come, without the presence of compression on top of it all. Remember, it’s okay to round the lower back to get the knees up to the chest level. That’s part of the purpose. If you don’t, you’ll be relying solely on hip flexion, and won’t sufficiently train your core.
Function 4: Rotation/KB Passive Rotation
A good coach will favor anti rotation, but he’d be remiss to think that we shouldn’t ever think about creating it either. It is indeed a function of the core region worth mentioning.
What’s important here goes a little beyond the exercise in question, and instead zeroes in on the quality of the movement pattern. The truth is, most lifters aren’t properly capable of rotating through the proper segments of the spine.
Whereas many will create rotation by twisting through the shoulders (in good intention), it’s a lot easier to start rotating through the hips and lumbar region. Fixing the shoulders and focusing on using the proper region of the spine through a passive thoracic rotation is a smarter move when grooving this pattern. And below is my favorite way to do it:
Function 5: Extension/GHR Blackburn
Don’t forget: The lower back is part of your trunk and core. And you guessed it – it’s the prime muscle responsible for proper extension of the spine. But there’s a bit more to the story. It goes beyond hitting up the 45 degree back extension and feeling the burn.
Making sure the posterior chain is properly engaged is one big step in the right direction. It’s easy to use the lumbar spine when the glutes aren’t properly engaged. But when they’re held tight, the body usually tells a different story.
Related: Concrete Core - 4 Core Workouts for Stronger Abs
Bringing the extremities into play adds another layer to the story. If we think once again about an overhead press pattern, most of the spinal dysfunction happens while the arms are fully extended.
Training this pattern using the GHR Blackburn helps the body understand how to brace the trunk and glutes while using the spine erectors and QL muscles effectively and efficiently, without succumbing into a severe overarch of the spine.
Focusing on slow and controlled reps and a sustained time under tension for endurance is the smartest way to train here.
None of these movements are too sexy. And more importantly, none are gimmicky “secrets to a 6 pack”.
They’re exercises that will improve the overall health of your core and translate to plenty of strength in your big lifts.
Choose to focus on one capacity of the trunk per day at the end of each workout, or put them together as their own workout day within your training cycle.
Either way you slice it, you’ll see where true strength comes from.