A classic concern among athletes and new adepts to healthy living, which returns every year at this time when they begin to warm up actively the sun’s rays, the search for the perfect training routine to get a defined and defined abs, where health is not only noticed on the inside (quality of life), but also the outside (aesthetics).
However, we must not lose sight of the most important thing: a well-groomed abdominal area (which does not mean it has to be very defined) will improve our health, avoid discomfort and pain, and together with our buttocks, places the lumbar spine in a Physiologically adequate position to prevent the risk of injury. For me, the abdominal and gluteal muscles are the guardian angels of our lumbar spine, and their balanced development is the “best pension plan to maintain the health of our backs in the future.”
Abdomen training programs: not all are good
When choosing a routine, there are several alternatives (not all equally good), among which we highlight the classic abdominal routines or basic core routines, whose philosophy is based on the exciting concept of ” anti-movement.”
My professional recommendation is that most of the program (if not all) unless your sports specialty requires it, is based on anti-movement core exercises.
The classic abdomen routines (the ones I learned when I was 15 years old and which I still see in today’s gyms) are based on performing flexo-extensions in straight or oblique trajectory, using endless repetitions and with exercises such as curl-ups , elevations of trunk (sit-ups), scissors, frog kicks, bicycle, leg lifts, with little or much amplitude, depending on the variant.
In the world of current training, specialists have been using the sit-ups for a long, long time because the powerful hip flexors (psoas-iliac) have been shown to work harder than the abdominals, increasing with ease the lumbar curvature (lumbar hyperlordosis ), especially in people with a weak abdominal wall and also in women.
Some basic training programs include a series of very high abs repetitions, with several sets of 100 or more repetitions. It seems that the motto tattooed on fire in the hippocampus of the brain reminds us subliminally that “the more repetitions, the better.”
The question is, do you trust that automatic message when you lie on your blue mat? Actually, and looking for its sport functionality or health improvement, this type of protocols have very little functional applicability.
Abdominal training: what science says
There is a current very widespread (based on different studies of specialists in biomechanics and pathology of the spine as Stuart McGill and Shirley Sahrmann, among others) about the possibility of injuring the intervertebral discs performing classic crunches.
However, there are other researchers in the field of Exercise Sciences (such as Brad Schoenfeld or Bret Contreras) who argue that there is no scientific evidence that low-volume crunching exercise routines accelerate disc degeneration.
Thus, a review study of the scientific literature available in 2011 criticizes the conclusions that point to the crunches as a source of disc injury have been made from studies with porcine columns devoid of muscle, ligaments and the rest of tissues, during continuous cycles of flexion-extension to break the intervertebral discs.
It is easy to understand that these tests in the laboratory and with animal cadaver tissue are far from the biomechanical and functional reality of a person’s lumbar spine during training. However, it does alert us to the possible and hypothetical risk of its abuse, not to its rational use.
I have always liked to emphasize that the main function of the core (which is a muscular box formed by the abdominal, gluteal and paravertebral muscles, diaphragm, hip, and pelvic floor) is for stabilization and transmission of forces from the lower body to the superior and vice versa, rather than generating movement.
The most positive part of this complex debate is that two scientists with opposing positions on this subject, such as Dr. Stuart McGill and Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, have decided to work together to – in a short-medium term period – take more precise conclusions of this interesting topic.
At the moment, the collaboration has been carried out in 2014 and 2015 about the technical evaluation of the squat.
With what type of abdominal training to stay
While we await conclusive data, the training recommendations that, in my point of view, have more reliability with respect to the classic abdominal routines are the most complex: those that use a program of 3-4 series per exercise, with a range of repetitions of between 6 to 15, combining static and dynamic exercises in different levels.
You should not exceed about 60 repetitions of lumbar flexion cycles per training session. And there should be a minimum of 48h, being reasonable even wait until 72h, to return to work the abdominals.
Finally, as a warning, alerting exercises that flex the spine should be avoided during an hour later to get up (even in the next 2 hours) due to lack of disc flexibility, due to the excessive hydration that the discs accumulate after a good night’s sleep.
Most recommended core exercises: the plates and their anti-movement variants
When talking about routines to strengthen the abdomen, I always leave the proposal (for most people) to use anti-movement core routines with static or dynamic plates, going through the different options that the motor wealth of our body allows us.
Thus, we differentiate between static and dynamic exercises:
1. Static stabilization exercises
2. Dynamic stabilization exercises (four types).
Flexion exercises: such as the path of the bear, the throwing to the floor of a medicine ball, the lifting of the prone hip.
Extension exercises: like the ” good morning” with a disc, the extension of the spine standing with rubber, the swing with a kettlebell, the supine hip lift.
Lateral tilt exercises:
Such as lateral inclinations from stride, lateral inclinations with high load.
Rotating exercises: like the exercise of cutting wood, the Russian thoracic turns.
All these exercises can be done with arm movements, legs or both in each proposed category.
In this type of exercise you have to take into account three important rules to not lose health:
- Mobility should mainly be performed in the thoracic spine and hips.
- The lumbar spine should always remain stable, with moderate ranges, without reaching dangerous biomechanical extremes. “The combination in the lumbar spine of flexion plus rotation is potentially harmful” (Kapandji, 1994).
- Before starting the core work, two basic and indispensable points must be controlled: activation of the transverse abdominal muscle and the use of diaphragmatic breathing.
The 12 keys to designing safe and efficient core training
1. Training frequency:
It is not necessary to train the abdomen every day, it is a muscle like the rest, with the same need for work and recovery. 2 to 3 days per week.
2. Duration of the session:
Do not do an endless routine of abs. Well worked, abdomen fatigue very fast. A good session takes 10 to 20 minutes.
3. Moment of training:
It’s advisable to wait at the end of your training session or even leave them for specific core training.
4. Types of routines:
You can alternate 2 different routines (A and B). Also, if you do a specific core workday, you can perform both routines in the training session.
5. Nº of exercises:
A good approximation can be 3 exercises in beginners, 4 in advanced and 5 in performance.
6. Types of exercises:
Select them of different intensity. For example, 1 basic exercise, 2 medium, and 1 intense level.
7. Training order:
First, train the lower area of the rectus abdomen. Second, the obliques. And finally, the upper area of the rectus abdomen.
8. The technique is prioritized
Always (I always repeat), above the volume or intensity.
9. Duration of the exercise or number of repetitions
According to the type of exercise. Static basic exercises (isometric): between 30 to 60 seconds. 30 seconds in beginners, 45 seconds in media and 60 seconds in advanced.
The “McGill method” proposes repetitions of 8 to 10 seconds with 2-3 seconds of micro pauses between repetitions. A series of groups 15-20 repetitions maximum.
It is a very interesting method in people who suffer from lumbar pathology or very advanced plates such as the “Russian plate type RKC” (through a gluteal contraction with slight pelvic retroversion), one of my favorites.
Dynamic Basic Exercises:
30 seconds equals 15 repetitions.
5-6 repetitions or 15 seconds are enough.
Maximum of 30 seconds.
I advise to execute from 2 to 4 series or turns to the circuit, according to your physical form and the number of exercises chosen.
12. Material means:
They can be used very variedly since they increase not only the intensity but also the motivation. Therefore the adherence to exercise.
We have infinite possibilities, such as the use of self-loading, the fitball, the bosu, the TRX, the sliders, the elastic bands, the sandbag, the aqua bag, the Cardan-cross (landmine), the foam roller, the abdominal wheel, the dumbbells, kettlebells, bars, discs, rubber bands, etc.
Remember, with regard to the abdominals
In the routines to strengthen the abdomen that you can see on the internet or in gyms. Not everything that shines is gold, far from it.
What’s more, a lot of what you’ll see in gyms is coal, and bad (it’s not even an edible candy).
Should be banned, banished, or be part of the galleries of the wax museums. Since this way of working the abdominals without relying on biomechanics.
Such high repetitions generate more problems than the health benefits of the lumbar spine.
Remember the phrase “no pain, no gain” and pay attention to me next time you lie down on your mat. Again to do 100 trunk lifts with a weight disc between your arms. Our only intention is to keep your lower back safe for many years.