8 packs for the ladies!
“Blast your core for those six pack abs.” “Strengthen your core to improve your performance.” “The core is key to balance.” Core, core,core core core…..
All this talk about the core yet many trainers differ in opinion of what exactly the core is. Some will say it’s the Rectus Abdominus muscles (aka the six pack) others will say it’s the muscles around the waist and lower back. Medically speaking, there is no clear definition.
No matter what your core training program is, abs are STILL MADE in the kitchen!
I am partly to blame for not helping with the confusion. Depending on the exercise being performed, I have been known to coach my athletes where I believe the “core” is. In some cases, the core is the areas of the body between the neck and the bottoms of the feet. In a different technique I will specify around the waist through the lower back, down the glutes and into the hamstrings and quadriceps.
Putting this is in simpler terms, the core includes all muscles that support the spine. The human spine is structurally unstable and muscles are required to stabilize it. The role of the bodies midsection, as defined as the abdominal complex,lower back, hip and gluteal muscles are responsible for connecting and transferring energy from the lower body to the upper body.
The old, and unfortunately still quite common belief is that you need to perform 100’s of sit-ups or crunches in order to build a strong core. I’m sure chiropractors have seen a lot sore lower backs due to these outdated methods.
Several trainers have had their clients engage in direct ab training first, before moving on to resistance training. One trainer explained things by telling me that she always forgot to train abs with her clients, so she made the habit of training abs first for all her clients so she would never forget. While I applauded her efforts to provide the best for her clients, I cautioned that training the abs first in programming weakened a major stabilizer. By the next time I saw her she had moved direct ab training to the end of her clients workouts.
Another trainer told me that he didn’t directly train a clients abs until “he could start to see their abs.” Which means the clients bodyfat percentage had to be low enough that abdominal musculature was starting to show. What I don’t know is if he had the client engage their core during lifts.
When training the core, as defined as the middle of your body, it is important to remember that you move in three planes of motion. Therefore, your core training should reflect and support this. With beginner athletes I will typically only train one plane of motion per workout. My more advanced athletes will work in all three.
Some of my favorite direct core exercises..
Pointers (aka Bird dogs). Starting from the hands and knees position, maintain a neutral spine and reach out with one arm and the opposing leg. Keep the hips in a neutral position and not twisted. Focus on the reaching and glute engagement, hold for a mental count of 2-5 seconds then switch sides. Begin with 20 total repetitions (10 right and 10 left) for three sets.
Bugs. Lying on your back with a natural curve in your lumbar, lift one knee up and raise the other leg. The opposing hand of the lifted knee points towards the ceiling while the other arm remains on the ground above you. Alternate sides smoothly and exhale each time your arm and knee reach the middle, pulling your abdominal muscles inwards (pull your belly button to your spine.) 20 repetitions total (10 left, 10 right) for 3 sets.
The side plank. Variations of this exercise exist and can be scaled to the athletes strength and stability. The least difficult version of the exercise involves having the knees bent and touching the ground while the hips lift up to straighten the body, then descend to touch the hip on the ground and back up. The version above involves a static hold in the up position and is related to the standard plank. Repetitions and sets vary according to version and skill.
The Hip Thrust (aka Body weight glute bridge) Press the heels into the floor, lift your hips and contract the glutes hard. 3 sets of 20 repetitions. I prefer this move be performed with a long contraction at the top.
The narrow squat. Common in Yoga and more difficult than it looks. Requires balance to execute and should be initially be performed at body weight, although some athletes will find adding small dumbbells slightly easier to perform as they lend a bit of ballast. The athlete must be coached on proper hip hinge mechanics to execute this technique and many will have to “earn their depth” which can be achieved after a few repetitions. A variation of this technique could be a narrow goblet squat using a kettlebell. I instruct the athlete to squeeze their glutes and their abs during the technique, squeeze the glutes in the top position and load their hamstrings in the bottom position. Standard air squats can be used if balance is a concern. I rarely use this technique any more, but do think it is a pretty good technique to be put in between other exercises.