I’m a little old school when it comes to training terminology. Cute little made-up terms just don’t do much for me. I know there are smarty-pants terms like pillar strength, core conditioning and spinal stabilization, but instead of trying to sound smart, I still like to call it all ABS. It doesn’t necessarily describe exactly what we’re doing, but old-school phrases like “let’s get some abs done” just work for me.
Your abs, hips, groin and low back work together to move and control the spine and pelvis. A lot of articles, research and presentations have been done on how all of these muscles act synergistically to create and control movement. Let’s take a look at the different functions your core performs.
Spinal Flexion/Pelvic Rotation – When the rectus abdominis contracts in isolation, it flexes the spine and posteriorly tilts the pelvis. It basically does a crunch and/or hanging leg raise. The obliques also assist in these motions.While we don’t perform these exact motions very often in sports, the movements are very easy to load. You can develop a tremendous amount of strength with these motions, but they certainly shouldn’t be the only thing you do.
Some experts believe that spinal flexion is dangerous and should be avoided. I’m not even going to get into that debate. We just need to understand that it is a movement the abs control and it can be loaded as a strength exercise. The decision whether to actually do it is another subject.
Also keep in mind that there is no such thing as upper and lower ab exercises. When the rectus abdominis is contracted, the whole things contracts, not just part of it. You may feel it more in one area of the other, but the whole thing is working. You’ll feel it more on the end that is moving rather than the anchor end. For example, you feel it more in your upper abs in a sit up because the upper abs are pulling the ribs in an effort to create the movement. A hanging leg raise will give you the feeling you’re working your lower abs because that’s the part of the muscles that is moving your pelvis.
Spinal Rotation – While many muscles work synergistically to produce rotation, your obliques, quadratus lumborum and multifidus are the prime movers. The rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, psoas, intertransverserii and rotatores also contribute. It should be noted that controlling rotation is at least as important as creating it, and this stabilization will be discussed below.
Rotary movements can be resisted, but you have to be careful when you do this. Adding too much of a load often leads to excessive sheer forces and the movements can be dangerous when they’re not controlled. Because the hips and legs are often involved in real-life rotational movement, it is also difficult to isolate the muscles responsible this motion.
Spinal Extension – The erector spinae, multifidus, iliocostalis, interspinales and semispinalis are responsible for extending the spine. In real-life movement, it is almost impossible to take the glutes and hamstrings out of this picture because they usually kick in to help move the pelvis as the lumbar spine extends. Some experts don’t like extension exercises while others point to evidence that suggests it’s importance. Again, rather than debate, we just need to understand that it is a movement that can be loaded to increase strength.
Lateral Bending – While standing, bending occurs mainly because of gravity. When you’re on your side, several muscles kick in including the obliques, erector spinae, iliocostalis, intertransvererii and semispinalis. It is typically a motion that needs to be controlled more so than created, so it is mainly addressed though stabilization exercises.
Stabilization – Every muscle that articulates the spine and pelvis is somewhat responsible for overall stabilization. Stabilizing the spine and hips gives the arms and legs a base from which they can push and pull. Stabilization includes posture and the ability to hold positions. It often includes an anti-rotation component as well. Because so many movements need to be resisted or controlled, this is where everything has to work together synergistically for maximum function.
It can get pretty complicated, but no matter how you look at it, or what you call it, the bottom line is this – if you want to perform well, you gotta have strong “abs” if you want to create and control movement.
Most of these movements don’t occur exclusive to the others, and none of these muscles ever acts all by itself like we hear in anatomy class. In human movement, we usually see a combination of two or more of these motions. Don’t make the mistake of trying to mimic sports movements in the weight room, but it’s great to combine the motions as you’ll see in this program. Working one motion in the weight room will not ruin the synergistic relationship the muscles have during human movement.
Typically, I create programs that address multiple planes of motion and functions, but sometimes I just like to train the abs HARD with difficult exercises. If you like training hard – and smart – try this routine:
This video demonstrates all of the exercises.
Hanging Leg Raises – Hang from a bar and pull your feet to your hands. If you can’t get your feet all the way up, try bringing your knees to your elbows. If you can’t do that, well….you’re probably not going to like the rest of the workout either.
Plank Rows – Attach a band or tube to something low to the ground. Get in a plank position with your feet wider than normal. Take one arm off the ground and grab the band with your arm fully extended in front of you (over your head in this case). Pull the band to your shoulder and slowly return to the starting position. Keep your hips parallel to the ground without rotating. That’s the hardest part. This one looks easy, but don’t sleep on it.
One-arm Decline KB Sit-Ups – You may not like sit-ups or flexion exercises. I don’t really care – just give this a try. On a decline sit-up bench, hold a KB in one hand with your arm locked out in front of you. Sit up and raise the KB as high as possible. Do an even number of reps on each site.
Ball Rollout & Pike – Get in a push up position with your hands on the ground and feet on a stability ball. Leave your hands in place, keep your body in a straight line and push your feet backwards as far as you can. Next, pull your feet back and raise your hips in the air as high as possible while keeping your legs straight. Return to the start position and repeat.
Back Extension with Anti-Rotation – You may or may not like back extensions. Again, just try it. Do a back extension while holding a band at arms-length that is attached to something at your side (or have a partner hold it). Keep your legs straight and only rise up to parallel to the ground. Control your speed and do an equal number of reps on each side.
Rockers – You need a partner for this one, but I hear time and again that this exercise produces the strongest ab contraction people have ever felt. It’s worth finding a partner. Lay on your back with your knees up and your hands behind your head. Pull your elbows to your knees and hold them against each other. This is the start position. Hold that position while a partner pulls your feet away from you. Keep your elbows against your knees and your shoulders/upper back will “rock” off the ground. Hold the top position, then slowly lower back to the start position. Always keep your elbows against your knees to maintain the contraction throughout the set.
Obviously, if any of these exercises causes pain, don’t do them. If you’re not strong enough to do them, don’t tell anybody, and just work your way up to performing each one correctly.
Push hard to do as many reps as you can of each exercise, and only rest about 30 seconds between exercises. You should shoot for at least 10 reps of each exercise, but you may not be able to do that for all of these. In 6-10 minutes, you’ll fry your abs. If you’re a beast, or took too much pre-workout, feel free to go through the routine twice, but once is more than enough for most people.
Enjoy this difficult “ab workout.” I look forward to hearing how it felt.
Jim Kielbaso MS, CSCS is the Director of the Total Performance Training Centers and is a co-founder of UltimateStrengthAndConditioning.com. He has written three books and speed and strength development and has produced multiple video products related to speed training.