If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I'd be filthy rich. There is one fitness goal that dominates all others – defined abs. Its no surprise really, a lean and defined mid section is widely considered the hallmark of a great physique. Which might explain why notable bodies like Brad Pitt in Fight Club are still talked about today. Here is how I've answered the million dollar question.
Despite the obvious visual appeal, muscles of the core have very important functions too. As the link between the upper and lower body, the core must be really good at stabilizing the hips and spine. Both from the standpoint of performance and injury prevention.
With that being said, aesthetics and function DO NOT necessarily go hand in hand.
You can have abs that look like they were carved from stone, yet possess about as much stability as a slinky. On the other hand, you can have a strong and stable core, hidden beneath a squidgy and undefined midsection.
Now, of course, body composition will ultimately determine ab definition. But taking that variable out of the equation, this mismatch is also in part a product of your training method. There is the "Abs" training approach and the "Core" training approach.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather have it all – abs that function as good as they look. And the good news is, you can! There is a sweet spot.
But before I present the answer to the million dollar question, lets take a look at the two ends of the ‘abs' vs 'core' training spectrum.
Most people that train solely to look better fall into this category. Think of the infamous 'Eight minute abs routine'.
A heavy focus on training the rectus abdominis (the 6 pack muscle) which is the main muscle involved in spinal flexion.
A lot of flexing, bending and twisting motions of the spine.
Popular exercises include variations of sit-ups, crunches and side bends/twists.
Training volumes are often high – Lots of reps and sets.
Pro’s / Con’s
From an aesthetic standpoint, this approach does do a decent job at making your rectus adbominis bigger and thicker so they stand out more. However, this goes completely against the way your core functions—training the abs as movers, not stabilizers. This can lead to increased injury risk, low back pain and postural dysfunctions (and wasted time).
This is the go-to approach for people that train for health and performance reasons. The result is a core that primarily functions well to stabilize with a positive secondary side-effect of looking defined/toned.
A focus on training the spine to resist motions such as anti-extension, anti-flexion and anti-rotation.
Popular exercises include plank variations, roll-outs, palloff presses, cable chops, and loaded carry variations.
Rep range varies but there is a greater emphasis on ‘quality’ than quantity.
Pro’s / Con’s
Improving core stability will mitigate injury risk and safeguard the low back. It will also result in a better foundation for force production in the upper and lower extremities which leads to better performance in the important fundamental movement patterns (squat, lunge, push, pull, etc.) and all athletic activities.
How do I put this information into action?
A happy medium can exist between two seemingly opposing strategies. However, you shouldn't divide the shares equally.
Core training MUST be the priority. The benefits far outweigh the ‘oldschool’ approach to direct ab work.
A good rule of thumb is that you want a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of core training to abs training. This will provide you with the necessary workload to develop all-round core stability and enough isolated work to make those muscles pop.
For the sake of simplicity – let’s breakdown ‘core’ and ‘ab’ training into their constituent parts.
With regards to core training, there are 3 distinct categories that should be covered:
And for the ab training, we have:
Upper abs – rib-cage flexes toward the hip
Lower Abs – hip flexes toward the rib-cage
With the above information, you can be pretty creative. But to give you some ideas and get you going, I’ll walk you through some examples. It is important to note that the bigger, foundational movements (squats, lunges, presses, pulls, etc.) should make up 80-90% of your training. These movements will do a superior job at improving body composition so that your core muscles can be seen in all their glory! Isolated core training falls into the other 10-20%. I would recommend including core work into the beginning or end of your training.
Stick with these:
Sprinkle in some of these from time to time:
The core functions primarily to RESIST movement, not create it. So core training should heavily feature ANTI movements. This is important from a functional standpoint and even more so if you suffer low back pain!
Stop doing primarily crunches and try these instead
Anti-rotation exercises: Ditch the russian twists and try palloff press variations and anti-rotation chop variations
Anti-extension exercises: Ditch the crunches and try plank variations like plank saws, stir the pot, and deadbug variations
Anti-lateral flexion exercises: Ditch the side bends and try side plank variations and single arm carries
Im always going to favor training methods that carry over to improved function and performance – and you should too. The health, performance and longevity of your body depends on it. My clients and I have had great success with this strategy and it will work for you too!