Training the Core

Here is the second episode of our three part core series. Check out the first episode to learn what the core is.

The Over-Prescription of ab Exercises by Fitness Professionals

I see so many trainers get this wrong. They either do not know the science of core stability and strengthening – they are following the herd and not breaking status quo – or they know the truth, but know the public do not. Therefore, they feel they can still get away with it. When we do isolated exercises for the core, it burns, it hurts, it feels like we are really doing something. This is why they are often used as finishers, to make clients feel they have achieved something in a session. That being said, should anyone do ab exercises? I think many people attempting to get a “strong core” are really concerned about the appearance of their body fat. This is, however, more easily rectified with optimal nutrition.

Who Should do ab Isolation Exercises and Which ones Should you do?

In normal human movement, muscles do not work in isolation. They co-contract. Even when you are doing an exercise to target a specific muscle or muscle group, it may target that group more than others, but no muscle works in isolation. We can define a core stabilisation exercise as any exercise that transmits motor patterns and utilises stability of the spine, while using repetition (McGill et al., 2003). These include compound stable surface exercise such as the deadlift, squat and shoulder press, all commonly used in bodybuilding,

Some research demonstrates that these compound lifts, provide higher core activation than callisthenic-style exercise performed on unstable surface (Hamlyn, et al, 2007). Thus, we can deduce that those who perform traditional compound exercises are likely to receive sufficient core stability training without the need for core isolation (Willardson, 2007). It is important to note that unilateral exercises, such as single arm standing shoulder presses, provide more benefit than bilateral exercises, utilising the serape effect, which simply speaking, is the body’s diagonal stabilising musculature of its axis (Santana, et al., 2015).

Studies demonstrate greater neuromuscular core activation from exercises performed unilaterally, compared to bilaterally (Saeterbakken and Fimland, 2012). Standing exercises, compared to seated ones, similarly demonstrate greater core activation. They therefore require greater core stabilisation (Santana, et al., 2007), (Behm et al., 2005). Therefore, standing, unilateral exercise, where appropriate could form the crux of a bodybuilder’s core stabilisation exercises.

But, if we are training for aesthetics and have low body fat, we can build blockier abs by using resistance-based core exercises. But the effects are minimal. Lower body fat is the main reason for visible abs.

If we are Going to Train the Core or abs Separately, What are the Most Effective Exercises?

The rectus abdominus is the six pack and its job is the bring the chest to the navel, curving the spine. If this is true, then we need to include exercises that replicate this movement. With the best exercise being the crunch movement and the hanging leg raise (Contreras and Schoenfeld, 2011). Crunches target the upper abs and leg raises target the lower abs a little more, but not significantly. Remember to round the lower back, a point normally missed, because lifters normally focus on keeping their lower back stable. Similarly, with hanging leg raises, we need to focus on initiating the movement by rounding the lower back, while bring the legs up toward the body. If we lift just the legs, we will target the hip flexors.

If we are looking to train the obliques separately then the same study found side bends were a clear winner.

Should we Train all the Core Muscles Equally?

This depends on what our goals are. If your trainer has identified weaknesses in the body (if they haven’t tested for this, run away now), then they may get you to target specific muscle groups in the body. The issue is, if we over-train any body part, this will lead to imbalances. If I over strengthen my TrA, it can cause postural issues in my pelvic region, for example. So therefore, I recommend training the body as a whole, to maintain balance. Too many people make the mistake of splitting the body into parts and using a reductionist method.