As I walk around the gym day in and day out I too often see people hoarding the crunch machines. More often than not the average gym-goer walks through the door, scans his/her id, heads up the stairs for 30 minutes or so on the elliptical, and finally beelines straight to the abdominal circuit on the machines downstairs. Even the more “advanced” members spend the last 20 minutes of every workout performing crunches in a myriad of different positions, assuming that the change of the leg height will put more emphasis on the obliques.Why do people insist on doing so many crunches? To get a six pack of course, because that is how it’s done. Well, not really. If you don’t get rid of the fat on top of those muscles, then they will never be seen, and no girl will ever love you. Seriously though, the abdominals are there and will be seen as long as you take care of your nutrition and get to work burning some fat.Crunches super-setted with crunches will not magically make you beach ready. Not to mention there is no functional carryover with crunches, so why not do some work that will help the rest of your body?
Before we get into specific exercises and ways to train, let’s explore the core and how it works. Most people focus on abdominals, but in reality, this is only one component of the core. In my opinion, the “core” is not just the trunk muscles, but also all of the muscles that stabilize the center of the body during movement. This would include the muscles of the shoulder girdle, the hip, and also those of the trunk. In addition to the more well known muscles, the trunk also includes some lesser known deep stabilizers. These muscles include the miltifidus and transverse abdominis. For a long period of time it was thought that the function of the core was to flex and extend the spine. However, an increasing body of evidence suggests that the actual function of these muscles is to stabilize the spine (lumbar specifically) and prevent movements such as flexion and extension. There is also a need for force transfer from the lower body to the upper extremities during movement, whether it is sports or just someone standing up from a chair. So instead of training for flexion and extension, training should be done to improve stability in multiple planes.
Now that we know what the purpose of these muscles is and what we need to improve, we can look at exercise selection. When selecting exercises, keep in mind that the body moves in multiple planes, so we must train each plane of movement. Additionally, keep in mind that we are including the shoulder girdle and hips into this equation. Now to the exercises. Over the past couple of years I have picked up on some great exercises from great names around the training world and implemented them into my own programming. I have also modified a few and have been experimenting with some of my own. Below are some exercises to try out and implement into your own training:
Plank With Knee Drive
Half-Kneeling Cable Chop
Just like any other part of a program design, we must remember that there has to be a specific progression. We can’t just start with the most explosive core exercise without developing a stable spine and strong base. A progression would start with exercises that involve little, if any, movement (such as planks or birddogs) and moving into more dynamic efforts where movement around the core is present, and finally evolving to explosive-type exercises where force transfer through the core is maximally utilized. The first stage of training is going to improve neuromuscular efficiency (making sure the core muscles are being activated) as well as spinal stability. As you progress, the stability of the core is going to be challenged during movement, such as with plank walk-ups, cable chops, etc. With explosive movements such as medicine ball slams, throws, or wood chops, the core is not only stabilizing the spine and center of the body, but it is also taking the force produced through the ground and transferring it up the body to the arms for maximal velocity of whichever movement you may be performing.
When adding these exercises into your workout, make sure you incorporate rotational stability as well as flexion and extension-based stability (remember, multiple planes of motion). Work up to 30 seconds on the holds and to rep ranges of 8-15 on the movement-based exercises, while completing 3-4 sets per exercise. With improvement in core stability there will also be improvement in many other lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench and so on. As an athlete, core stability is very important for performance, as every movement on the field or court must transfer force through the core. For the weekend warrior or your average gym buff, improved core stability will help with daily life, from movement to alleviation of joint pain. Also, as we age, posture is the first thing to go, and this leads to numerous health issues. Creating a strong core and a stable spine will help prevent-or at least postpone-this degradation of posture, thus creating a healthier, more mobile life.
When it comes down to it, ditch the crunches, avoid the machines, and start adding in some core work that will benefit, not harm you. You will be amazed by the improvements in the rest of your life.