Want washboard abs in just 30 days? How about a flat tummy in twenty? I could go on and on, but you’ve probably heard it all, and yes, it’s largely bullshit. In fact, getting the often marketed, yet ever-elusive abs of (insert professional athlete or entertainer with unlimited time and resources) usually has more to do with what you’re doing outside the gym than in it.
So instead of chasing fantasies about abs of steel, let’s focus on abs for real. In this week’s installment, we’ll explore the functional (i.e., real) role our core plays, why it’s so vital to balanced fitness and a couple concepts to consider for your training.
For the sake of clarity, while simultaneously hoping to avoid turning this into an anatomy lesson, I’ll use the term Abs to specifically refer to the abdominal muscles and Core as a more general definition for the abs and surrounding muscles, including the low back.
Unfortunately, much of the information on this topic isn’t really information at all, but rather a lot of propaganda masquerading as legitimate material. And while the fitness hype machine deploys such marketing strategies aimed at triggering emotions about body image, the inherent functionality of our core remains largely omitted. Not to sound conspiratorial, but like so many other things the truth is often hidden beneath all the empty rhetoric and hype. And that truth is our core serves 2 primary functions: protecting the spine and force transfer.
Put simply, core strength is about our ability to generate force and control it. Both are evident in functional exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, overhead movements, push-ups, etc. In the absence of proper core strength, these lifts can result in injury. For instance, low back injuries are often tied to deadlifting when, in fact, it’s more likely a result of not being able to control the force required to perform the deadlift. In a more real life situation, it’s not uncommon to see similar injuries just from bending over without weight.
The obvious question becomes, how can we train to improve core strength? I generally approach it through 3 different types of movements with my clients.
1. Anterior: These are exercises that strengthen the abdominal section. A simple version of this could be a Tuck-Up, whereas Knees to Elbow or Toes to Bar are more advanced.
2. Anti-Rotation: Meant to resist force and protect the spine, side planks are a good start here. If you think you’re good at side planks, aim for 90+ seconds held per side.
3. Bracing: Widely overlooked, yet critical, these drills train athletes how to created tension to reduce pressure on the spine. These are important for successfully executing the above mentioned functional movements. I tend to lean toward different versions of farmer carries here.
Core strength matters more for fully functioning on a daily basis than aesthetics. So, unless you’re a bikini or fitness model, get busy strengthening your core for everyday life.