“Hey Coach, can you give me a good ab workout?”
It’s a question I get all the time. My response is usually something along the lines of “Are you attempting to look better, or are you attempting to play better?”
Typically, this question causes some confusion, and I will follow up by asking them if they’re trying to train their abs or if they’re trying to train their core. Like clockwork, they’ll fire back with, “What’s the difference?”
It feels like this little back-and-forth happens to me multiple times a week. Athletes need to realize that their core is a whole lot more than the muscles that make up a six-pack. When you think of six-pack abs, you’re really picturing the rectus abdominis. They’re made up of two paired muscles that run vertically along the front of the abdomen. Depending on your genetics, body fat level and muscle tone, the rectus abdominis become more or less visible. What we think of as a “six-pack” are really just a visible and defined rectus abdominis.
But your core is so much more than that. It not only includes other muscles in your abdomen, but also muscles in your pelvis, hips, lower back and butt. Certain definitions even include more muscles than that, such as the trapezius. So the point is that your core is much, much more than the superficial muscles you associate with a six-pack. While certain exercises, such as Crunches, do target the rectus abdominis, they do very little for the rest of your core muscles and can actually have a negative impact on the function of your core. For anyone striving for better athletic performance and a pain-free life, that’s a bad thing.
Here’s why your ab workout isn’t actually training your core.
What is the Function of the Core?
The primary function of the core is to maintain stability in the spine as force is transmitted from the lower body through the spine to the upper body. It’s essentially designed to transfer certain types of force while resisting others. The spine is not designed to be used as a lever for power production. It is designed to be a rigid column for force produced by the hips to travel through.
The rectus abdominis are a part of the region of the body known as the core, but they play just a small role in overall core function. Though they also play a role in posture, the rectus abominis are mainly designed to flex the spine, which is typical in “old school” core training like Crunches and Sit-Ups.
However, advances in the field of strength and conditioning have helped us realize that the spine shouldn’t be trained to move. Rather, it should be trained to resist motion. This is why we’ve seen a huge rise in “anti-” exercises, namely anti-flexion, anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion exercises, in sports performance training. Practicing bending our spine over and over not only puts us at a higher risk of low back pain and bulging discs, but it also reinforces poor movement patterns that your body will resort to during play. So yeah, you’ll feel a set of 50 Crunches in your rectus abdominis. But for athletes, making such exercises a staple of your routine simply isn’t worth the risk.
Ab Workouts Won’t Give You Abs
Alright, so let’s say you want to ignore my advice and perform a zillion Crunches in your quest for six-pack abs anyways. Even then, you still likely won’t achieve that goal. The stomach is the most common place fat is stored in humans. If you have excess fat in your stomach, no amount of crunches is going to turn that into visible abs.
Muscle tone is also largely genetic. Some people are almost literally born with a six-pack, and if you do not have those genetics, visible abs will not come easily. If you don’t have abs and want them, don’t think a ton of Crunches will get you there. Changes in your diet with the goal of reducing body fat will likely be key, and a smarter approach to core training won’t hurt, either.
True Core Exercises
Based on the above definition of core training, every time an individual squats or deadlifts while maintaining neutral spinal alignment, they are training their core. In fact, any free-weight compound exercise is going to require a good amount of core activity to be performed properly. In that sense, core training is quite broad. But there are also some more targeted options that can help you hone in on the core, specifically, and utilize it more efficiently when executing those heavy lifts. Here are some of my favorite options for building real core strength and stability—the type that will actually help you play and perform better.
Band or Cable Anti-Rotation
Band or Cable Chop
Band or Cable Lift
Plank Shoulder Touch
Plank Leg lift
Plank Low Row
Overhead Farmers Carry
A set of Crunches or Sit-Ups every now and again won’t kill your athletic career. But remember, if you are trying to perform your best, you need to train your spine to resist motion, not create it. Outside of rehab, isolating muscles during your training won’t do much to enhance athleticism. The body is one gigantic chain. Everything is connected, and you need to train accordingly. Plug these anti-exercises into your program and you’ll see what true functional core strength really feels like.