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Everyone wants, “Abs of steel”. The obsession with a chiseled core dates back as far as the beginning of the fitness craze. There are literally thousands of abdominal routines, exercises, machines, and other gimmicks that promise a perfect core, but that is why the aim of this article is to separate fact from gimmicks.

Simply put, the use of exercise equipment that claim to develop the core muscles can, in fact work to a degree, but core training does not have to be so complex. Have you ever noticed that athletes like powerlifters and weightlifters have a muscular core by default because of their use of squats, power cleans, and deadlifts? There is plenty of peer-reviewed research to support this too!

In one study, it was found that competitive female weightlifters had stronger internal obliques, followed by external obliques, and then finally transverse abdominis muscles compared to the control group. This study also suggested the balanced relationship between these core muscles. This was achieved simply without the use of gimmicks and, “fly-by-night” exercise equipment.

 

Popular Abdominal Exercises With Issues:

  • Swiss Ball Crunches:
    This exercise trains the rectus abdominis, but does so by overemphasis on the muscle due to the range of motion. This could cause lower back pain, muscle imbalances, and hernias.
  • Regular Abdominal Crunches:
    When a muscle is under tension, but there is no change in the length of muscle.  Examples here include holding a barbell at the chest or holding it once extended.

Although, as stated above, specified abdominal exercises are not needed. At the same time, we also recognize that some trainers insist on adding abdominal exercises into their routine. In addition, many clients demand them to be a part of their exercise regimen.

 

Exercises To Consider In Place Of Those Mentioned Above:

Single-Leg Jackknife Sit-Up:

These are popular for sprinters because it works the hip flexors and the abdominals and mimics the act of running. Lay down flat on the back, one leg is bent and the entire foot is in contact with the floor, while the other leg is straight. Arms are held at your sides and then you must lift your leg and trunk at the same time and as rapidly as possible. This exercise is to be performed the same number of repetitions for each side.

Reverse Sit-Ups:

This exercise can be done with legs bent, or with legs straight.  The bent-leg version means just bending the legs at the knees and then bringing the knees up to the chest and then back again.  Once these become easy, an upgrade to the straight-leg version is in order.  This exercise is performed the same way, but instead consists of bringing the legs up toward the chest without ever bending at the knees.  Both of these variations activate the rectus abdominis and target the area directly below the bellybutton.

Pullovers:

This exercise typically requires access to a gym with a cable machine of some sort.  Every type of pullover works the abdominals, but a specific variation is most effective.  This variation calls for the anchoring of your feet on a sit-up board with your knees bent.  Simply pill the weight behind the head and return to the starting position.  It is important to keep your core stationary and you can even make this exercise more difficult by leaning back and adding more weight.

Straight-Arm Lat Pulldowns:

On a high-pulley machine, hold the bar with your arms stretched out straight and above the head.  The key here is to maintain the straightness of the arms during the entire pull-down motion while keeping the abdominal region very tight and engaged.

Bracing Exercises:

These are great because they allow for the avoidance of mis-training the abdominal muscles. They also work very well for people that already have a well-rounded core, as opposed to just flexion-based exercises. Flexion-based exercises (even the ones mentioned above) can often favour specific core muscles and create imbalances. Here are two bracing exercises that we highly recommend:

  • Planks:

These are best performed with the face down and forearms and toes on the floor.  Elbows should be directly under the shoulders and forearms are facing forward.  The key is to engage the abdominal muscles by bringing the navel toward the spine while keeping the core tight and rigid.  Hold this position for 10 seconds and release to the floor.  Over time, the 10 seconds should be incrementally increased as you gain more strength and stability.

  • Paloff Presses:

Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and feet firmly pushing down into the floor.  Make sure that the resistance band is anchored in place.  The key here is to press the resistance band away from the anchor point and away from  the chest by filly extending your arms in front of you.

Our verdict is that the use of total-body exercise are more than sufficient in developing a strong and balanced core, and then adding stability/bracing exercises for the winning formula is the optimal strategy.  For those that absolutely insist on specific exercises, we’ve outlined a few that we recommend, and a couple that should be avoided.

 

References:

https://www.poliquinstore.com/articles/hardcore-ab-training/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51799717_Comparison_of_lateral_abdominal_muscle_thickness_between_weightlifters_and_matched_controls