Six Pack Abs


My son and I at Olalla Lake Triathlon

My son and I at Olalla Lake Triathlon

Six pack abs start with good nutrition.  There is just no way around it.  I feel there is an unhealthy obsession with core exercises in the gym, especially ones that flex and rotate the lumbar spine.  These exercises can cause injury, especially for those who already have low back problems.  It’s unfortunate that people focus on these exercises while neglecting their nutrition.   A person can do millions of crunches and if their nutrition isn’t good, they will never see their abs.  No fad workouts, fancy machines, or any amount of crunches is going to do it.

Several years ago, I realized that traditional core exercises such as crunches, russian twists, and supermans (back hyper-extension), were not tolerated well by most of my clients, especially those with low back pain.  Studies have shown that more than 80% of Americans suffer from at least one episode of back pain during their lifetime.  In my search to find acceptable alternatives, I came across the work of professor Stuart McGill, an expert in spine function, injury prevention, and rehabilitation out of the University of Waterloo.  He has two excellent books, Low Back Disorders and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.  He has done extensive research that shows how damaging to the spine exercises like crunches, russian twists, and supermans can be.   According to McGill’s research, traditional sit-ups place 3300 N (730 lbs) of compression on the spine, while the superman exercise places 6000 N (1400 lbs) of compression on the hyper-extended spine.  The shear tolerance of the spine in adult cadavers was found to be around 2000 to 2800 N from research by Cripton and colleagues.  McGill also states that repetitive spinal flexion in humans is limited and genetics can be a determinate to how much a person can handle, but in the long run, excessive spinal flexion isn’t good for anyone.  Physical Therapist and Strength Coach, Charlie Weingroff asked a question in his Training = Rehab/Rehab = Training DVD, if we can agree that our position in a crunch exercise equates to poor posture, why would we repeatedly train in that posture?  Most people already spend too much time sitting as it is.  Core stability training is a much safer way to train, and from my experience, even people with low back problems can do it without discomfort.  After all, the main purpose of the core muscles are to stabilize the spine.  Examples of core stability exercises include curl-ups (a modified crunch created by McGill), dead bugs, side planks, and bird dogs.  When it comes to core stabilization, there are plenty of exercises to choose from with many variations.  Functional strength training can also help strengthen the core.  A recent study out of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that the front plank was best for strengthening the rectus abdominus, while front squats were actually equivalent to the superman exercise for activating the erector spinae muscles, but front squats (done correctly) appear to be safer for the spine.  It has also been shown that a standing cable chest press activates the core twenty percent more than a standard barbell bench press.  As you can see, there are many ways you can activate the core without doing a single crunch.

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In the picture at the beginning of the post, you can see the outline of my abs.  Guess how many crunches I did to achieve them?  Zero, that’s right, zero crunches.  I incorporate planks and other core stability exercises in my workouts, but I do those exercises to protect my spine.  My body fat is low because because I limit my carbohydrate and sugar intake.  Since my body fat is low, my abdominal muscles are visible.  I just wanted to get my point across that we don’t have to spend countless hours focusing on the core exercises. Strength training and cardiovascular exercise will be beneficial, but nutrition is always going to be number one if you want to see your abs.

I have talked about training the core in the past, but I decided to revisit this topic because I still see a lot of traditional core exercises being done at the gym.  I figured that core stability training would have caught on more by now.  As the work of Stuart McGill becomes more known and with mainstream books such as the New Rules of Lifting for Abs,  hopefully people will have greater awareness of the best and safest strategies to train the core.  I wanted to make it clear why I use core stability training in my training programs, because I think there is too much evidence that traditional core exercises can be harmful to the spine.  It always comes down to the risk being worth the reward.  If you want to have six pack abs, my suggestions in order of importance are to get serious about your nutrition (limit carbs and sugar), do core stability and functional strength training, and include some form of cardio.

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