When should you focus on functional core work versus the superficial abs?
‘I want a six pack.’
‘I’d like a toned, firm tummy.’
‘I want to do exercises that lose weight from my middle.’
‘I hurt my back pulling my suitcase off the carousel at the airport.’
‘I’d like a stronger golf drive.’
‘I want better posture.’
On the face of it six goals, the first three of which sounding roughly similar, the last three sounding wholly different. The reality is that all of them require core work to differing types to achieve the result required. And yet, the start point is the same.
In the first three instances, the measure of success is the outward appearance of the midsection. What we are really looking at here is how lean that midsection needs to be versus how much abdominal muscle definition there needs to be. Each of these three statements requires less leanness and less muscle definition in theory, but often it is an individual preference that defines the goal. For example for some people they merely want the outline of their core, they don’t want a totally shredded look with all the abs visible and the veins on the stomach outlined. For others it’s the opposite. Some don’t even want to go that far; they simply want a flat stomach and no muffin top when they sit down.
The latter three examples are more result specific. We are judging success by a real world outcome. Lifting a suitcase off the carousel without hurting the back, improving the golf drive or improving posture can be measured in the real world, they aren’t measured by looking singularly at strength in the weight room or by body fat percentage.
But, as I say, in my opinion the starting position for all six of these goals, from a core perspective, is the same. And it isn’t the one that most people would begin with.
So let’s first look at the function of the core. Primarily your core muscles are designed to stabilise your body around the spine, and to allow movement from the trunk. That’s it. Those two things. What does that mean? Well, in the former’s case, it means that the core’s primary function is to protect the spine. It is designed to resist jarring actions from hurting the spine. It’s other function is to allow movement from the trunk. Now when you have a weak or inactive core other support muscles, such as the back, can come into play in order to aid resistance and protect the spine, or aid movement.
So let’s go back to our examples here. If you hurt your back lifting a suitcase from a carousel in all likelihood you’d be facing towards the case approaching you, grab it from a side on position and rotate to lift the case and put it by your side on the floor. In that action you are resisting the movement of the case as it travels along the carousel, then moving the case to put it down by your side. So your weakness/inactivation could be either in the resistance phase or in the movement phase.
It is very similar in the golf drive goal. Here this person isn’t indicating that they are suffering with any pain, but they have a lack of strength in their core that is inhibiting their action. Again, this could be a weakness or inability to activate the core, through either the resistance phase, or the movement phase.
In either case, you begin with strengthening of the core so that it can protect the spine, not create movement. Generating an ability to move first, on an unstable base, will only lead to exposure of the weak areas of the core.
Generating a stable base should be everyone’s first port of call when it comes to core training. That’s why personal trainers are obsessed with planks and side planks. They are isometric exercises that make the core resist and stabilise. If you work with a good trainer for your core they should be working on your transverse abdominis (TVA) engagement. The TVA is like your body’s internal girdle. It is a layer of muscle that wraps around the midsection and acts as a brace for your core. It is the fundamental aspect of core stability. One of the first core principles you should be introduced to is engagement and activation of this muscle, and then implementation of that engagement in all core exercises.
Here’s the interesting thing about the TVA. Not only does a strong and engaged TVA drawn in your midsection, helping to flatten the stomach, it improves posture. I want you, at this point, to stand up wherever you are and drawn in your midsection as though someone was about to hit your belly. The muscle you are bracing with is your TVA. Keep that braced, but only as much as is needed to keep it comfortably engaged and still breathe. Once you can do that it should feel much easier to engage the glutes and draw the shoulder blades towards one another and down. Engaging the TVA, therefore, is the beginning of creating good posture.
The second aspect of core stabilisation is the role of the obliques. The obliques sit on the sides of your core and allow the body to twist, flex and bend. However they also stop rotation. They are your body’s anti-rotators. Now in the golf and suitcase examples above the obliques would be where I would prioritise my core training, but only after I had ensured that the core stability in the TVA was present.
Don’t think I’m disregarding the look of the midsection here. I’m coming to that right now. But first, some basic anatomy. When people talk about the abs they typically use the word interchangeably with core, but in reality the abs make up a part of the core. The core covers a wide range of muscles across the midsection, whereas the abs is really only about the abdominal sheet on the front of the body, which is a superficial layer of muscle across the top of the abdomen. Men have eight abdominals, whilst women have six, because they have wombs. The function of the abdominal sheet is to flex and extend the core, meaning bending forwards or backwards. That forward bending is the aspect that will work the abs most. With this in mind the exercises that work the abs best are exercises like crunches and sit ups.
As I said above the most important two aspects to the look of the midsection are leanness and ab size. If you are above twenty percent body fat for men and thirty percent for women working on that superficial layer of your core for look is absolutely pointless; you won’t see anything at all. For men it is only when you get into the lower teens, under fifteen percent, and for women around ten percent higher, that you will start to see any real definition. At that stage bringing in exercises that work the ab muscles is useful. This, again is why you won’t see many good trainers make their clients do these movements unless the client they are training is very lean.
The final aspect of our look at the core is to consider the muscle type that you find in the abdominal region. Most core muscles are designed for explosive action. This means they respond best to strength training and, eventually, explosive actions. But this is not how most people train them. Most people consider core training to be an endurance activity; they try to do as many reps as possible, or hold a plank for as long as possible, rather than utilising resistance or making a plank shorter but increasing the required stability. If you train the core muscles as though they are designed for strength, as they are, then your core will get stronger and better, and the degree of leanness you need to reach in order to get the midsection you want will be higher and more easily obtainable.