There was a time in the early 2000s, as a 16-year-old kid, when I was getting in shape for the first time of my life. It was two years since I had taken my first steps to transforming from the chubby little video gamer I had always identified myself to be. I was thrilled to feel what it was like to lose some of the weight I had carried around for years while developing a little bit of muscle. In these early stages, goal setting was so very important as I hadn’t yet developed any kind of actual enjoyment in the process of being active.
I eventually reached a point that many exercisers comes to at one point or another, and in the name of vanity, I set out to develop a 6-pack of abs because, well… maybe I thought it might be cool. Or maybe it was the movies or comic book heroes that marketed to me that this was what it meant to be in shape. Whatever the reason was, I don’t remember, I just went for it.
But at 16-years-old, what did I know about developing a strong, defined midsection? Well, I had seen the Rocky movies a few times. I also knew that when I did crunches in JROTC for our physical fitness test that my abs would hurt for 3 days after. I also think I heard time and time again that this Actor/Actress did 500 crunches a day to get in shape for this or that movie role.
So with this knowledge, and this knowledge alone I set out for my goal… and failed miserably.
I remember starting with 100 crunches per day, 5 days per week while finding… no visible abs. It didn’t take long for my endurance to increase so I began increasing to 150 per day and before long, 200 crunches per day, and while after a while I had no problem maxing out my JROTC crunch test, I still had no visible abs. There was no attention given to nutrition, and while I didn’t know it at the time, I was performing a useless workout program.
The experiment was a failure, but it taught me a great deal of information, though I wouldn’t realize it for maybe a decade later. And while the appeal of visibly defined abs no longer interests me from an aesthetics perspective, I have learned a tremendous amount since that time about how functional it is to have a strong, balanced and coordinated core for both in-the-gym training and in the real world.
While core strength is becoming more and more discussed in the fitness industry and in mainstream marketing, our general perception as a whole of what core strength is and how it is developed is still commonly misconstrued. After spending the past seven years working in commercial gyms, I have seen dozens upon dozens of people each day make the same mistakes I described above, and I hope to set you up for success with the information in this post so that you can be spared the mistakes that I and so many others have made.
Breaking the Spot Reduction Mindset
We cannot spot reduce where we lose fat. Period. (Although it would be awesome if we could…)
Where we store fat in our bodies is a great deal attributed to both gender and our genetics. To generalize, men typically tend to store more body fat in the abdominal and midsection area, while women tend to store more body fat in their hips and lower bodies. While there are many exceptions to this overgeneralization, this is the case for most people.
As we overindulge and store calories in the form of fat in our bodies, our genetics also determine whether we store more fat in our legs versus our arms, or our hips versus our bellies, or our fingers versus our toes. You get the point.
This means that when we attempt to lose body fat in our bellies, that really, we just need to burn fat in our bodies which is a combination of:
• A well balanced diet
• Creating a healthy caloric deficit (which doesn’t entail starving ourselves)
• Performing activities that raise our metabolism (heavy compound movements for example, and exercise in general)
But if aesthetics are important to you whether it is regarding your abs or any other muscle group, there IS a secret formula, which really is not a secret at all, and it’s:
(Developed muscle in an area) + (Low Body Fat) = Muscle Definition
The big mistake, however, is that most people set out to “get abs” by nearly starving themselves which certainly does some work reducing fat albeit an unhealthy one, but it also reduces muscle in our bodies which means it shrinks muscle in the abs. Remember, no muscle = no definition.
Nutrition is perhaps the most essential component to seeing the abs, but developing the core is a very close second, and from a performance standpoint, strengthening the core area is the foundation of most great exercise programs as it protects us from injury, and strengthens all movements we perform. But how do we strengthen our core?
Stop Doing Crunches and Sit-Ups
I know this sounds counterintuitive, but not only are countless floor crunches and sit-ups repeatedly performing a movement that worsens the ramifications of the seated desk position that causes so many of us to have slouched posture, tight hips, and low back pain, but it also doesn’t work well for building the abs. In order to build muscle effectively for any area in the body, heavier progressive overload exercises work best.
Even when putting aside the evidence that crunches and sit-ups are correlated with tight hip flexors (which cause low back pain) and stress to the discs in the spine ( Which also cause back pain,) the nature of these exercises is more of an endurance classification, and while you may “feel” the area working, you’re just getting better at resisting fatigue in the abs, and not necessarily building muscle. There are better methods and exercises out there, and I intend to share them with you.
Some Quick Physiology
If you want to skip the science stuff, scroll ahead to Effective Ways to Strengthen the Core. While I won’t dive too far into the physiology that influences muscular growth as it pertains to the core, it is important to briefly touch upon it to explain why other training methods work better than crunches and Russian twists when it comes to truly achieving a stronger core.
According to the 3rd edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, “Heavy resistance training brings about significant adaptive responses that result in enhanced size, strength, and power of trained musculature.”
The three primary hormones involved in muscle tissue growth are testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor.
Maybe you’ve heard of these chemical compounds before in the news or articles covering athletes’ illegal use of steroids or performance enhancing drugs, however, they actually occur naturally in our bodies (in both men and women) and can be influenced to a degree by heavier resistance training. These compounds are responsible for building lean muscle which is a huge factor in burning fat and feeling and looking stronger. Most of all, using some of the training protocols used for influencing these hormone levels will also develop strength in the entire body, especially the core:
Natural Testosterone Boosting Methods:
• Large Muscle Group Exercises
• Heavy Resistance (85%-95% of 1 RM)
• Moderate to High Volume of of exercise using multiple sets, exercises, or both.
• Short Rest Intervals
• Two or more years of resistance training experience
Natural Growth Hormone Boosting Methods:
• Growth hormone has not been found to be affected by low resistance high repetition exercises (VanHelder study noted in text mentioned above)
• An Intensity Threshold (lifting heavy enough) exists to get the body to begin secreting growth hormone
• Kraemer study showed less break time mixed with total volume of exercises (Volume = Weight x Reps x Sets) increases GH serum levels
• 10 Rep Max sets were shown to produce higher levels of GH responses
When evaluating the natural ways to boost growth hormone and testosterone to build muscles, you see in both cases, it requires heavier resistance loads (sets of 3 to as many as 20,) so it makes sense that an endless number of repetitions and long duration sets of “abs” won’t be very effective for building much musculature there. These exercises fall into a category of more of an endurance type, and they still carry the risks mentioned above.
Effective Ways to Strengthen the Core
So where does this leave us? Well, we should approach the core like we would if we were trying to strengthen anything else such as the biceps, triceps, lats or quads.
Compound Movements are king in any exercise program; even when focusing on core strength. The degree of core strength and stability required to perform a squat or a deadlift or a bent-over-row, with safe form and full range of motion is tremendous. I can personally attest to this from my own experience in 2015, When I entered a 90-day weight loss challenge for my job, and I finally achieved my 16-year-old self’s goal (although this time, “getting abs” wasn’t the goal.)
The difference this time around was there were many more principles of nutrition and physiology that factored into the program. By following a protocol that required a lot of caloric output by using heavier compound movements and a sensible nutrition plan (yes, I ate carbs… LOTS of carbs which are healthy and part of a well balanced diet) the conditions were right for a favorable transformation to occur.
99% of this program consisted of compound movements: Squats, Deadlifts, Pullups, Bent Over Rows, Overhead Press, etc. without ever performing an abdominal crunch. The core works hard in every single one of these exercises, even though they are not “ab movements.”
This is not to say isolating the core is useless. It can be highly effective for isolating weaker areas and imbalances and can be especially effective as a good warm up for lighter lifting or circuit training days, or a great way to end a workout on heavier lifting days. In fact, core stability exercises help quite a bit to ensure compound movements are functioning properly. But stability aside, there are still some pretty great isolation movements out there which include the following:
• Hollow Body Holds
• Pallof Presses
• Stir the Pot
• Dragon Flags
Resistance Loaded and Full Range Of Motion Exercises:
• Suspended Leg Raises
• Cable Woodchop/Horizontal Rotation
• Side Bends
• Cable Flexion (Cable Crunch)
• Ab Wheel
Piecing it all together can be tough, but let’s try and break it all down right here into a few short bullet points to simplify as much as possible:
• Core performance has different categories in which we discussed three: Core Strength, Core Stability, Core Endurance
• Core Strength is most associated with growing the size of the abdominals and other core muscles (though the other categories play an important role)
• There exist specific loads, rep schemes and movements that trigger muscular strength, power and size in all muscles including the core
• Compound Movements, if performed correctly with full range of motion and enough resistance will activate the core in very large amounts and are strongly recommended for developing a strong core
• When isolating the core, focusing on time under tension and full ROM resistance loaded movements are highly effective when compared to high endurance exercises such as crunches
These are some of the fundamental principles we implement into our exercise programs when training in-person or in our Eon Fitness: Online Personal Training Program. If you’d like to learn more about ways to strengthen your core or improve your exercise programming, we encourage you to bookmark our main page and check back regularly for more posts and tips.