There are so many areas regarding “core training” where people drop the ball that it’s difficult to even write an article to address all the missteps.
People need to know that the abdominals are (in an ideal world), responsible for plenty of force transfer through large movements and have a major role in supporting the spine and keeping the trunk healthy.
Training the core should have more to do with function than it does for aesthetics, especially since the coveted “six pack” look is dependent almost entirely upon genetics and a clean diet.
With all this in mind, it’s important to choose abdominal movements that actually do the job in making the abdominals stronger.
That means they become more resilient in their functions of anti-extension, anti-rotation, and proper trunk flexion.
The abdominals are primarily a unit of stability and work best when they’re trained as such. Movements like the ones below will jump start your progress and transfer to your other lifts in the gym.
Exercise 1: Ab Wheel Rollouts
Let me start by saying this right off the mark – this exercise is hard.
The ab wheel rollout is the quintessential anti-extension core movement that belongs in every core program as long as a lifter is capable to do it. It really exposes weakness in the trunk that a lifter may not know he had when he tries to control his back arch while moving the arms overhead baring load.
Related: Boyce's Choices - Top 3 Exercises for Arms
In both the ab wheel rollout and what I consider is its vertical plane counterpart, the overhead press, it’s very easy to fall into an overarch and place more pressure on the spine as the arms go overhead – and in both cases, you’ll feel it.
A coaching cue to use in the case of the rollout is to start from the knees and keep the glutes engaged the entire time. Tucking the tailbone in, as it were, will help keep the spine neutral and not extended. It takes plenty of concentration to maintain this positioning through the entire movement, but doing so makes the abdominals work overtime.
Exercise 2: Hanging Leg Rasies
People often interchange hanging leg raises with sit ups since in both cases the knees make it to the elbow or shoulder level. Though both movements involve trunk flexion and train the anterior core, the truth is, there’s a distinct difference between the two: The sit up encourages flexion of the thoracic and cervical vertebrae.
In a world where all we do is promote poor posture all day long, there’s no real benefit from reinforcing this by training our abdominals at the expense of our posture. Aside from this glaring problem, also into the picture comes compressive forces on the spine that may not be an instant killer, but we’d do well to avoid if at all possible.
Related: Boyce's Choices - Top 3 Exercises for Chest
The good thing about the hanging leg raise is the fact that the same trunk flexion can occur, but the mid and upper spine gets to remain neutral the entire time thanks to the positioning of the movement. This allows a lifter to focus on abdominal contraction without health disadvantages.
When performing hanging leg raises, remember two things: First, be sure to lift slowly. It will help the movement remain triggered by the low abs and not the hip flexors (which can easily take over if proper care to avoid speed and momentum isn’t taken).
Second, bring the knees as high up as you can. Make it a goal for the bottom of your shoes to face the wall in front of you. You’ll find that the only way to make this happen is to allow the lumbar spine to go into flexion. That’s perfectly fine and the best way to make a direct hit for the lower abs.
Exercise 3: Plank Variations
The standard plank is a go-to for many lifters, but most pride themselves in being able to hold a plank for minutes on end. When you take a step back and examine why this would be useful, you realize that there’s no real answer that can be given – especially when it’s clear that technical precision of the lift takes the backseat once enough time passes.
Holding planks for more than 20-30 seconds encourages technical breakdown and no longer has an impact on actual strength – which is usually lifters prime concern when they train. If you really want to make them stronger, you should first analyze your plank setup.
Set your elbows no wider than shoulder width apart, and keep a longer than normal arm position (when you look down, your elbows should be under your chin, not your shoulders). Next, be sure to engage the glutes to neutralize the pelvis and low back, just like in the rollout. Squeeze your quads and glutes tightly, and try to drag the elbows and feet towards each other while on the ground.
Your abs should be working hard to maintain this contraction. This is not a movement you should be able to hold for 5 minutes, or even 2 minutes. Focus on several sets of 20 seconds, maintaining the form detailed above. You’ll be surprised.
Related: Boyce’s Choices - 3 Best Exercises for Glutes
To up the octane a notch, include an anti-rotational component to your plank. The simple way to do this is by removing a single base of support from the lift.
The Plate Transfer Planks (seen in the video below) does this and creates the challenge of keeping the body as straight as possible and not succumbing to the rotational forces that encourage a lifter to lean to the supported side. Use 2.5 or 5lb plates, and time sets of 20-30seconds worth of work before resting.
Rotating? Make Sure You Rotate the Right Way
Many medicine ball exercises and other conditioning methods ask the spine to create plenty of forceful rotation to target the obliques. These are well intended, but can create contraindications for those who don’t possess proper thoracic spine rotational ability to perform the move.
Many times, people who have poor rotation at the thoracic region end up making up for this by rotating through the lumbar region, and that can mean the spawn of chronic back pain. In truth, the lumbar vertebrae are responsible for a very small degree of rotation, whereas the thoracic and cervical regions are responsible for much, much more.
Keep on top of this by doing less aggressive, fixed drills to improve your thoracic mobility. Isolate the upper back and keep the hips square. My favorite drill is a side lying thoracic rotation, seen here:
It’s not to be forgotten that the “core” actually comprises of everything below the nipples to the hips, on both the front and back of the body. If you’re just looking for a good looking abdominal region, that’s something a few vegetables and good parents can help.
As far as one that functions well and is incredibly strong, you have to train smart. Remembering your spine’s health should come first and foremost if you’re looking for change.