When it comes to building a solid midsection, there’s a lot of very outdated information floating around out there on the internet. Ranging from a belief that doing endless reps of crunches will magically scorch the fat off your tummy (it won’t), to those who think they don’t ever need any direct abdominal training at all and can instead get all their core work done from heavy Deadlifts and Back Squats.
This three-part series is going to give you a path through the noise and take you from couch potato to six-pack savage.
Intelligent core training starts by building a foundation of rock-solid stability and then upon that unshakeable base; forging a set of jaw dropping abdominals worthy of any of your favorite Marvel superheroes.
But first a brief anatomy lesson.
The human spine is made up of 24 moveable vertebrae which are divided into three sections.
The top 7 vertebrae are called your Cervical Spine and run up through your neck. I won’t be talking too much about that in these articles, except to give you this little bit of useless trivia about the C Spine: A giraffe has the exactly the same number of Cervical vertebrae as a human being.
Next down comes your Thoracic spine which has 12 vertebrae and is the longest section of your spine. It starts at the base of your neck and runs down to just above your low back.
As you can see from the above picture, the Thoracic Spine is attached to the ribcage which provides it with support and stability.
The Lumbar spine, comprised of the bottom 5 vertebrae, is just hanging out all by its lonesome, with nothing but the muscles of our core to reinforce it. If those muscles aren’t strong enough to do their job, you’re at risk of developing low back pain or getting injured.
“You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” – Charles Polliquin
Because if your core is weak, then when it comes to your ability to express your strength or speed in the real world, everything will be weak because it’s resting on a shoddy foundation.
A strong core will also allow you to resist movement when you don’t want it. A healthy spine should be mobile and flexible, but there are definitely hard limits to what it can and can not do, and exceeding those limits can lead to some issues.
Think of core as being the bridge between the lower and upper body. Your ability to squat a heavy weight depends just as much on your cores being able to support that weight as it does on your legs ability to lift it.
For example, when you lift a weight overhead, if your core muscles aren’t strong enough to support your low back, you might find yourself bending backward to compensate and, if you go too deep into lumbar hyperextension, you might see yourself going into surgery.
Being able to resist rotational forces is also extremely important, especially if you play sports or lead an active lifestyle. Your thoracic spine has 80 degrees of rotation which is plenty, but the discs in your lumbar only have about 2 degrees of rotation each, and it’s the job of your core musculature to stop them getting twisted any further.
Your spine is also capable of bending side to side in a movement called lateral flexion. When you pick up a heavy suitcase and start walking, it’s your ability to resist unwanted lateral flexion that keeps you upright.The muscles we’re going to focus on to build a robust, tight midsection are your Internal and External Obliques, Rectus Abdominis (aka the six-pack muscle), Quadratus Lumborum and your Transverse Abdominis.
Internal and External Obliques: These muscles are primarily responsible for rotation through the torso, along with assisting with both flexion and lateral flexion. Any time you do a twisting exercise, you’re hitting these.
Rectus Abdominis: Its main job is abdominal flexion (i.e crunching).Quadratus Lumborum: The bodies primary lateral flexor.
Transverse Abdominis: Responsible for increasing intra-abdominal pressure to support the lumbar spine and functioning much like a weight lifting belt. If you want to know what this feels like, try holding a full hollow body and your TVA will make its presence felt.
Engaging The Core
This first phase of core training involves building strength and endurance in these muscles and creating a stiffness throughout your midsection that is strong enough to resist the unwanted forces that seek to pull your spine into a risky position.
The below video will show you a simple two-step process for creating that stiffness.
We’ll be focusing on three different types of stabilization exercises:
One workout per week, choose one anti-extension exercise and one anti-lateral flexion exercise. The next workout , do the other anti-extension exercise and one of the anti-rotational exercises.
3 Sets of Planks
3 Sets of Side Planks
3 Sets of Hollow Body
3 Sets of Static Palloff.
The core should be trained 2 – 3 weekly with at least one day between workouts.
I’ve given progressions for each exercise so find the one that works best for your currently at. Once you can hit the given goal for an exercise, move onto the next progression.
If you haven’t worked out in a while, start at level one.
Anti-Extension Exercises: Planks and Hollow Bodies
Remember to maintain a Posterior Pelvic Tilt and create tension in every muscle below your neck.
– Level One Plank: Sixty Seconds
– All other Progressions: Thirty Seconds per side.
If there is one exercise that can give you tighter looking midsection, it’s the hollow body. They strengthen your Transverse Abdominus, which functions like your bodies natural weight lifting belt.
Hollow Bodies are a big part of gymnastics core training and, if you haven’t done these before, expect some to feel some serious burning in your abbies.
On all progressions make sure your low back is pressing hard down into the floor. Focus on crunching the shoulders off the ground and squeezing the space between your ribs and your hips.
For all progressions: Sixty seconds.
Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercises: Side Planks
Focus on driving up with the top hip AND getting the bottom calf as high off the ground as possible.
These can be a challenge as much for the shoulder as they can for the core.
- Assisted Side Plank: Thirty seconds per side
- Side Plank; Sixty seconds per side
- Side Plank with Leg Lift: Thirty seconds per side
Anti-Rotational Exercises: Static Palloffs
Focus on keeping your hands directly in the center of your body with your arms straight.
This exercise can also be performed with a bungee if a cable machine is not available
– Both Progressions: 30 seconds per side with 20% of your bodyweight.
In the next part of the series, we’ll discuss Dynamic Stabilization Training and take things to a whole other level when it comes to kick ass core exercises.