The truth and science behind abdominal training

Abdominal training is just as polarizing and controversial a topic as abortion is in our country. Almost everyone has a different opinion and it always tend to spark big debates (I had one yesterday with a buddy of mine). Our abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique) are designed to assist us in trunk flexion, rotation and side bending. They also provide stability to our trunk and keep it rigid.

We engage our abs unknowingly most of the time when running most of our daily errands so our gym ab work shouldn’t have to be too long. Walk into any gym in your neighborhood and chances are half the people in there are training their abs via endless sets and repetitions. They are arguably the most obsessively trained muscle group in commercial gyms and health clubs today. But according to research and practical theory, we only should be training our abs with a select few exercises.

The following 4 categories of abdominal training will make your ab work at the gym more efficient and effective:

1. ANTI-EXTENSION EXERCISES: These are exercises in which you try to resist the trunk from going into lumbar extensions. The Plank, Pike and Roll-Out are some examples. In all 3 exercises,  the lumbar spine naturally wants to ‘sink low’ but you have to make sure your don’t arch’ your back or let your hips dip to low into lumbar extension. This resistance from you makes anti-extension exercises a staple in abdominal training.

2. ANTI-LATERAL FLEXION EXERCISES: These exercises cause the resistance against tilting, side-bending or lateral flexion of the trunk. Barbell Rainbows, Suitcase Deadlift and Waiter’s Walk are some of the popular ones. In all exercises, you have to keep your trunk stabilized and rigid to avoid tilting laterally. The resistance provided by you causes contraction in the abdominals and oblique muscles.

3. ANTI-ROTATION EXERCISES: The Pallof Press (all variations), renegade rows and 1-arm plank variations are best choices in this category. The Pallof Press may be the most effective, as it also activates the shoulder girdle and hip abductors. Again, naturally the trunk and hip want to rotate and you have to resist against those rotational forces. The Barbell Rainbow is also an anti-rotation exercise.

4. HIP FLEXION EXERCISES: Hanging leg raises, reverse crunch and prone jackknife are the ideal choices here. Unlike the first 3, where stability is the challenge, these exercises traditionally contract the abs eccentrically and concentrically. The hip flexors, the muscles responsible for bringing the knees and trunk together (psoas and iliacus), are the primary movers of these exercises. These exercises usually create a much more quicker ‘burn effect’ on the abs than the above 3 so people tend to perform them more often.

WARNING: Too much hip flexion exercises can tighten the hip flexors thereby leading to chronic pains and even injuries. This is even riskier for those with desk jobs who sit for an extended period of time. Because we already use our hip flexors when we walk, climb stairs and bend over, the objective here should be to try and limit their involvement as much as possible when we train our abs.

Keep in mind, abdominal training should not be confused with core training. Although both of their training modalities overlap, one can have a sculpted set of abdominals but also have a weak core. Having washboard abs is a result and testament of genetic potential, diet and lifestyle management. Development of a strong core is based on the ability to resist forces against the lumbar spine and hip complex. Powerlifters with pot and beer bellies and athletes possess some of the strongest core musculature. Powerlifters have to resist stability forces in complex movements like the squat, clean and jerk, deadlift and overhead press while athletes are constantly resisting lateral and rotational stability forces in their sports.

I hope I was able to shed some light on abdominal training. You don’t need to be spending endless amounts of time training your abs. Depending on your training schedule, select 1 or 2 exercises from each category listed above and perform them at a challenging effort level. 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps will suffice. Remember, a clean and solid diet will ultimately determine how sculpted your abs will get.

Here’s a sample ab routine for a person who trains 4 days a week:

DAY 1: Anti-Extension (Plank : 3 sets of a challenging hold time)

DAY 2: Anti-Rotation (Pallof Press: 3 sets x 15-25 seconds hold per side)

DAY 3: Hip Flexion (Reverse Crunches: 3 sets x 12-15 reps)

DAY 4: Anti-Lateral Flexion (Suitcase Deadlift: 3 sets x 12-15 reps)

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