Why you don’t need a hundred ways to train your abdominals

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Why you don’t need a hundred ways to train your abdominals

I personally find long and convoluted ab workouts quite tedious and unnecessary.  As I keep repeating doing more crunches or reps will not get you looking ripped any faster, or indeed at all.

It really is mostly diet and bodyfat.

The important thing to remember is that when you train your abdominals you’re not training to strip the fat, the main focus is on strengthening your muscles to have a better posture or to help you perform better in other movements, be it weightlifting or yoga.

There’s a bit of a societal obsession with abs and the six-pack, with thousands of articles and videos on how new and inventive ways in which to train them ‘more effectively’.

The thing si, once you’ve cleaned up your diet and are doing the cardio to lose the bodyfat direct ab workouts are about core strength and stability.  But you don’t need to spend half your workout on them.

Here’s why I think you don’t need most of the common ab exercises.

a) Why you don’t need The Plank-

This is a good beginners exercise for anyone who can’t do more than a few press-ups (on their toes).

If you can however then there’s no need to be doing it.  The reason is that when you do proper press-ups you’re holding your body in the same position as a plank, but getting more value for time out of it by also working your shoulders, triceps and chest.

Get good at push-ups and you don't need this.  Photo credit: Ready to Saw via photopin (license)

Get good at push-ups and you don’t need this. Photo credit: Ready to Saw via photopin (license)

The plank trains your isometric strength (your ability of your muscles to hold a static position) which if you squat and deadlift with good posture is already being trained more than adequately.  The ability to isometrically hold your posture with weight on your back is a lot more of a workout than using less than your bodyweight in the plank.

b) Why you don’t need sit-ups-

I blame Hollywood for the undeserved popularity and reputation of sit-ups.  You only have to sit through one Rocky montage before you start believing that doing a thousand a day is all you need to get ripped.

Done properly, they can again be an adequate beginner starting exercise.  The problem is that most of the time they’re not: from not doing full range of motion to turning them into a neck-straining movement you can end up wasting a lot of time or worse do yourself an injury.

And who has time to do a thousand sit-ups a day anyway?

The solution is the leg raise or in its more advanced form, the hanging leg raise.

10-15 of these with strict, slow form will not only give you a much more targeted workout they won’t bore you to death in the process.

c) Anything involving balancing on a ball-

I know it looks like it makes sense- create instability and you have to engage your core more, leading to a harder workout.

Instability can be good, for strengthening the stabilising ligaments and muscles and making the exercise harder.  A perfect example would be doing dips using Olympic rings instead of parallel bars.

Stuff like this though is an advanced movement- you’ve got to be pretty strong and good at normal dips before you can even think about doing them on rings.

Push-ups are not an advanced movement. If you can do a lot of them you can only keep progressing by moving onto dips, or weighted dips. 

Therefore using a ball to make your push-up unstable is kind of pointless.  I frequently see people at the gym who struggle to do 20-30 normal push-ups using a ball under one hand to try and grind out 10.

Going back to the plank/push-up point earlier what is going to work your core harder here, 30 to 40 full push-ups or 10 with a ball?

The work on your core and stabilisers caused by the ‘instability’ is negligible.

I have no idea what's going on here...photo credit: Personal Trainer Exercise via photopin (license)

I have no idea what’s going on here…photo credit: Personal Trainer Exercise via photopin (license)

You’re much better off just getting good at normal push-ups, and then progressing to dips.

d) If you’re squatting and deadlifting, you don’t need that much core work anyway

When people visualise working out, they imagine the movement of weight and the squeeze and contraction, which is why the sit-up seems so essential to developing core muscles.

However the range of motion required to work your core doesn’t have to be large at all.  Unlike your biceps for example which are designed to move your forearm through about 120 degrees of motion your core muscles (back and front) are there to support your spine.

Theirs is a more isometric contraction which if well-developed can offer rigidity and take the load away from the spine, for example when loads are placed on your shoulders or are being picked up or held.

So by practicing the squat and deadlift you can certainly develop your core strength without ever having to do a sit up.  You don’t necessarily feel it during the exercise but more often than not after squat or deadlift day my abs and lower back are as sore as my legs and upper back.

240 kg fail...it was close

Pretty sure my core is working hard here…

e) You can do most of your exercises standing up

This is the big advantage the free weight movements have over machines, in general.  You might not feel it when you’re just walking around but you are engaging and using your core just to balance.  If you start standing up while balancing or moving around extra weight then your core is also forced to work harder.

Instead of sitting at a machine doing shoulder press for example you can do a standing military press.  Doing something like this can also force you to adopt a better posture, simply because if you don’t you won’t be able to press the weight.

Keep pushing and who knows how far you will get?

Standing overhead press works the whole musculature

You really don’t need to be doing long and intense direct ab workouts.  Personally all I ever do is a few sets of hanging leg raises at the end of every workout.  It’s not to get a six-pack, but simply to directly stress the core muscles to help me perform better at my other major lifts, like the squat and the deadlift.

It’s lifts like that that heavily train my abdominals, even if it’s seemingly pretty indirect. 

But logically what is going to be more effective in creating a strong core, 100 sit-ups or supporting your spine with 180 kgs on your back?    

Stay efficient and effective in the gym, and enjoy it!


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