Firstly let’s distinguish the difference between your abs and your core. The abs are predominantly made up of global or outer muscles like the Rectus Abdominis whereas the ‘core’ is made up of more local or inner muscles such as the TVA’s, Multifidus, Quadratus Lumborum and even the Diaphragm.
When coaching my clients I often explain the importance of building a strong foundation and compare building abs on a poor core foundation to building a house on sand. In order to fully develop the more aesthetic or desired abs you must first ensure there is a foundation for them to develop on.
Often when trying to develop the ever elusive ‘six pack’ we find ourselves in a quiet corner of the gym with a matt, possibly a medicine ball and completing endless amounts of ab crunches, double crunches and whatever else makes our stomach burn. These are all great and the trunk flexor muscles along with hip flexors in most cases are getting a workout, however they won’t grow and they won’t adapt due to the lack of foundation and stimulus. The abs need to be worked like any other muscle. In order to develop ‘thick’ abs in my opinion countless numbers of stomach curls will not work, whereas the following exercises engage the abs and cause more adaptions due to their ability to generate a greater overload.
Exercise 1: Plank
I’m a big fan of the plank. It engages all the correct muscles and the isometric contraction will improve the strength of the targeted area far better than ab crunches will. However, the plank also needs to be progressive and after a while increasing the time becomes far more difficult, after all the new world record of over 4 hours for the plank means your core session could take the guts of half a day. My suggestions for progressing the plank are to add weight, use and unstable surface, make them dynamic, with a partner add resistance laterally with a band or to reduce the points of contact on the floor. This may be a simple exercise, but it is one of my favourites when progressed accordingly.
Exercise 2: Front Squats
Your core is engaged no matter which version of squats you do, but holding the weight at the front of your body challenges the anterior core more than a back squat does. In order to do the movement safely and successfully, you have to engage your core for stability and posture. Without strong abs, the weight will bend you forwards and cause injury. In order to get the most out of this exercise, control and full range of movement is key. I advocate a slow eccentric phase ranging from 3-5 seconds and sometimes even a pause section at the low point to get the most out of this exercise. This will definitely engage the abs/core a lot more as well as the legs. Ideally we need to be breaking 90 degrees in depth which will activate the lower abs further.
Exercise 3: Overhead Lunge / Squat
These are by far my favourite exercises for core development. Any movement or exercise performed with longer leavers will be more difficult. Furthermore, any movement where the arms and weight are extended above the head will affect the centre of gravity for the client and will engage the core for stability, posture, balance and control of the movement. Before attempting this I would ensure my client has the range of movement, mobility and stability around the shoulder joint as well as the hips, knee and ankle to avoid any potential injury.
Exercise 4: Hanging Leg Raises
I often see these being performed in various ways and methods, which don’t get me wrong is great as we need variety to keep ourselves stimulated as well as the muscle. However my most preferred method is by maintaining straight legs and elevating them to 90 degrees under complete control. The main focus should be on the slow and controlled tempo whilst not swinging. When performing this exercise a mind to muscle connection will improve the performance and growth: what I mean by this is the client should consciously contract their lower abs when raising their legs and keep them contracted during the eccentric phase. Give this ago and let us know how you get on… an alternative could be Grahammer Raises.
Exercise 5: Barbell Ab Roll Outs
These are one of the most neglected core exercises in my opinion. Very rarely do I see people using these in the gym or even PT’s coaching their clients how to perform them accurately: Place the barbell with a 5-10kg plate either side on the floor in front of you so that you are on your hands and knees similar to a kneeling press up. Grip the barbell with both hands shoulder width apart. Slowly roll the bar forward stretching your body into a straight line and pause there for a second before pulling back to the start position. To progress and make it harder you can perform it on your toes. This will really add some thickness to your abs and improve your core stability as well as mobility around the shoulders.
I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts and even your top 5 core exercises so please drop us a line on social media @FLM_Training