by Keke Lyles
I know for certain that ever since I began playing sports as a young adolescent, I wanted those six-pack abs. If you look through muscle magazines from thirty years ago up until the present, this is arguably the most popular topic covered. Ninety nine percent of everyone who goes to commercial gyms dreams of that beautiful six pack. Turn on the television and during almost every commercial break you will see an advertisement on the newest gimmick, diet, trend, or flat out lie on how to achieve that goal. I guess I can’t blame anyone for buying into this “core culture” because in our great Western society we place such an emphasis on the way we look. Although that doesn’t explain why we are still one of the most obese countries in the world. Or, perhaps it does explain it. We have a misconstrued view of reality when it comes to our health. We want quick fixes (5 min abs), we want to eat whatever we want (diet fads), and at the end of the day the only results that REALLY matter to us is what we see in front of the mirror.
But don’t let me single out the everyday common folk. I have athletes all the time question my core training with them. One afternoon I walked into my weight room after I thought everyone was gone, I found one of my guys doing sit- ups. When his eyes made contact with mine, without me saying a word, he shouted, “Well you never let me do them when I work with you!” My response was simple, “They pay me to keep you healthy and to aid in your development, and what you are doing is the opposite of that.” So why is that everyone has such a wrong view on this, or am I the one who has it all wrong?
Let us explore the “core” muscles. For the sake of keeping this simple, we are just going to focus on the RECTUS, TRANSVERSE ABDOMINIS and INTERNAL, EXTERNAL OBLIQUES. I would argue that the core is much more complex than just those four muscles, but again let’s try to keep it simple. Basic kinesiology teaches us the origin and insertion of muscles and from that, we thought we figured out what that muscle does. Because everyone reads the internet and think this makes them an expert, let’s see what Wikipedia tells us about what these muscles do. Rectus: “Flexion of the lumbar spine.” Transverse: “Compresses abdominal contents.” Obliques: “Compresses abdomen; unilateral contraction rotates vertebral column to same side.” So simple, right? WRONG!!! But this simple way of looking at the abdominal muscles has led everyone to believe that training your abs is about getting a six pack, which means you flex your lumbar spine over and over. Perhaps that is why one of my coaches has herniated discs in his back. Thanks to Stuart McGill, we know that our spine has a flexion/extension tolerance, meaning you can only bend it so many times before it breaks. Does P90X give you a refund after you blow out your back from the Ab Ripper? Of course not.
Now before I just rip on all the products out there, let me explain my stance. The abdominal muscles are not intended to work that way. It appears that they do, but research has revealed otherwise. Their PRIMARY function is to STABILIZE. Their other job is to transfer energy and to resist movement. Crazy, I know. Considering our spine has only so many bends in it before it breaks, we better have something that prevents all those bends. This is what the core does. If you are about to hyperextend, your core will fire to prevent spinal injury. If a football player gets hit awkwardly with his arm outreached, it is his core that will protect him. If a basketball player is jumping up to rebound and has to reach back, it is his core that allows him to stay in control to gain possession. You don’t see guys purposely doing lumbar flexion in competition, just like you don’t do it in everyday life. So why train that way?
And what is stabilization all about? Doing concentric and eccentric exercise will make a muscle bigger and stronger, but stabilization is about timing and coordination. Think of a robot-like machine that automatically swings a baseball bat as a pitch is thrown towards it. Now if you make it swing faster (stronger), what will happen? It will be a swinging strike since the bat will be in front of the ball. You must calculate the timing so it will hit the ball further. Timing and coordination are not about strength and size. Similarly when it comes to our core, it is not about strength and size. It is about our central nervous system controlling the timing and coordination of the muscle contraction to prevent an injury or transfer force. I would make the argument that training to make your core bigger and stronger to get a desired look will only interfere with its real purpose.
Additionally, a six-pack is seen because a person is lean. This comes from a combination of exercise and mostly diet. So drop the fads, leave Wikipedia alone, and challenge yourself to really understand the purpose of your muscles. Resist the temptation to measure success by the mirror. I measure it by injury reduction. Find an objective way for you to measure it.
Leave the Ab Ripper session behind and learn the real way to train your core. How can you train to stabilize? Then stabilize while adding movement to a limb, just like in sport and in life. Planks, side planks, etc. are a good start. Add farmer walks, or waiter carries, perhaps variations of bird dogs. Try prone, supine, half-kneeling, kneeling, and standing progressions. There is plenty of great material out there on how to properly train your core. The promise I will make to you is that training your core this way, along with the proper additional exercises and a solid diet, you will get that much desired six-pack, but more importantly, stay healthy.
Maybe I am crazy and sure I may be wrong about many things, but this is not one of them. My goal is for our culture to change regarding its view of the core. I want to see this shift not only for my players, but for everyone. Sit-ups should be a thing of the past, but yet we struggle to let them go. Train hard, but train smart.
Strength and Conditioning Coach Minnesota Timberwolves