Core Issues

Dispelling myths and misconceptions of abdominal training.
By John Paul Catanzaro

More people are concerned about their midsection than any other body part. The core comprises roughly a third of the body, yet it receives full attention in the gym. Sporting a great set of abs is high on anyone’s list. Let’s face it, if the core is in shape, the whole body is in shape!

The “want” is there, the “how” is another story. There exists much confusion on how to train the abdominals properly. This article will dispel many of the myths and misconceptions regarding abdominal training. As you read on, take note on how many of these core issues you have fallen prey to.

Full Range of Motion

The primary function of the abdominals is to flex the trunk from 45 degrees of extension to 30 degrees of flexion. Most abdominal exercises, however, are performed either on the floor or on a decline bench, which is less than half of the range of motion (ROM). If you really want to get at your abs in a full ROM, perform pre-stretch crunches on either a Swiss ball or an AbMat (visit www.abmat.com for more information).

If you’ve been toying with these movements for a while and don’t feel much benefit anymore, try what I term the Sicilian Crunch. You must have a solid base of core training before attempting this advanced movement. It's one of those "let's play with the lever arm" type of exercises in which better leverage occurs during the weaker, concentric action and then all hell breaks loose during the stronger, eccentric action.

Basically, keep the dumbbell high on your chest as you crunch upward. At the top of the movement when you are sitting upright, extend your arms straight overhead with the dumbbell. Make sure that you have a good grip on it—if the dumbbell slips onto your head, it could ruin the set! Then slowly control the movement downward.

Keep your arms slightly bent and in line with your torso while lowering. It should feel like every fiber of your abdominals is ripping apart! Enjoy that feeling as you perform five sets of 4-6 reps at a 5010 tempo (i.e., 5 seconds to lower, no pause at the bottom, 1 second to raise and no pause at the top), taking three minutes to rest in between each set. Try to keep the total time under tension below 40 seconds and really exaggerate the eccentric action in a slow, smooth, controlled manner.

Unless you want to topple backward and send the Swiss ball into orbit, I'd suggest anchoring your feet under a sturdy support. Also, take advantage of the spherical nature of the Swiss ball or AbMat to achieve full range of motion.

Pressed-Heel Sit-Ups

The Janda sit-up has recently resurfaced as an effective abdominal exercise sans hip flexor activation. Well, according to Dr. Stuart McGill, a spinal biomechanist and professor at the University of Waterloo, the opposite phenomenon actually occurs! During the Janda (or pressed-heel) sit-up, contraction of the hamstrings causes hip extension, which means that even greater hip flexion (or psoas activation) is required to complete the movement! In addition, bent-knee sit-ups actually activate the psoas more than straight leg sit-ups! This was all confirmed through EMG analysis by Juker et al., 1998. Unfortunately, Janda’s hypothesis has never been substantiated by research.

Role as Stabilizers

If you want to build a serious set of abdominals, routinely perform the following exercises and their variations: squats, deadlifts, chin-ups and standing military presses. These multi-joint movements require a strong contribution from the abdominals to stabilize the core, particularly when heavy loads are used. It is not uncommon to hear people complain of abdominal soreness a day or two after performing multiple sets with a decent weight of the chin-up or standing military press exercise - the prestretch will tap into fibers you never thought existed!

Your abdominals act as a natural girdle, or weight belt if you will, when performing all exercises, particularly squats and deadlifts. These muscles act as a bridge between your upper and lower body and are heavily recruited as stabilizers.

Isolation exercises like pullovers, curls and even triceps pressdowns also require a good degree of core stability; however, the loads used are relatively low compared to the big 4 mentioned above. In fact, isolation becomes virtually impossible if large loads are used and, in many cases, the tension developed in the stabilizers will equal or even exceed that of the prime movers! So, you see, the abdominals can be trained quite effectively as stabilizers. The physiques of top Olympic weightlifters will attest to that.

Fiber Makeup

If you've been doing tons of reps of wimpy little abdominal exercises like most people, then it's no wonder that you're stuck in a rut like most people! The abdominals are composed of primarily Type II or fast-twitch (FT) fibers. The Rectus Abdominus, the so-called “six-pack” muscle, is comprised of 54% FT fibers (Colling, 1997). Here's what I suggest to really tap into those fibers:

  • pick big (i.e., multi-joint, compound) movements
  • train in a full range of motion (get the prestretch)
  • perform explosive concentric and slow eccentric actions
  • do many sets of low reps using heavy loads
  • make sure you get enough rest between sets

Below is a sample routine that will take advantage of the FT nature of the abdominals:

A1) Lean-Away Chin-Ups 6 x 1-3 @ 5-0-X-0, 120 secs.

  • add weight to chin/dip belt, clear chin at top, lean back as you come down by pushing the bar away and make sure to go all the way down at bottom

A2) Standing Military Press 6 x 1-3 @ 5-0-X-0, 120 secs.

  • clean the weight up to your shoulders, stand with your legs straight (yes, that means knees locked) and arch back slightly to maximize prestretch

B1) Decline Dragon Flag 4-6 x 4-6 @ 5-0-X-0, 90 secs.

  • this is similar to the move in Rocky IV, raise your legs until they are perpendicular to your body then shoot your hips up to form a bow from head to toe, slowly lower your body staying as rigid as possible

B2) Sicilian Crunch 4-6 x 4-6 @ 5-0-X-0, 90 secs.

  • laying supine on a Swiss ball, crunch inwards with the dumbbell resting on your chest then extend your arms out (completely outstretched, in-line with your torso) during the slow eccentric

If you would like to finish off with a couple of sets of wheel rollouts for as many reps as possible, be my guest. Make sure to work the legs and back/hip extensors during another workout. Rolling out of bed the next day should offer a pleasant surprise!

Upper and Lower Abdominals

A classic argument is whether abdominals should be divided into upper and lower classifications. One camp says that they are one muscle – there is no such thing as an upper and lower part. However, research has shown that you can selectively recruit different segments of a muscle depending on the type of exercise you do, and how much weight is used (Antonio, 2000).

In his Scientific Core Conditioning course, Holistic Health Practitioner and Neuromuscular Therapist, Paul Chek, explains that the abdominals are segmentally innervated by eight nerves from T5 to L1. Most muscles only have two nerves (one primary and one secondary); therefore, the abdominals have many functions. The ability of belly dancers to roll a quarter down their abs will attest to this. Chek feels that the abdominals should be classified as upper and lower, and even states that the “middle” abdominals can be trained if the body is positioned appropriately.

Exercise Order

The lower abdominals have the most complex recruitment patterns and are the weakest; whereas, the upper abdominals are much stronger and easier to train. Thus, perform your abdominal exercises in the following sequence:

  1. Lower Abdominals
  2. Obliques and Quadratus Lumborum
  3. Upper Abdominals

Abdominal Hollowing Versus Bracing

The popular act of drawing in the navel or "sucking in your gut as if you're putting on a tight pair of jeans" should definitely be abandoned unless there's a specific reason to do so (i.e., motor re-education) as it tends to detract the emphasis from other muscles. It is necessary to keep the core tight without the aid of a belt, but overemphasis on the Transversus abdominis (or TVA for short, which is basically the internal girdle that keeps your organs from spilling out) can negatively affect performance. The advice to activate the deep abdominal wall was well intended but, unfortunately, you cannot extrapolate information from a pathological population (i.e., low back patients) and apply it to healthy individuals — it just doesn't work that way!

Early in my career, I tried this approach with several clients. The report from most of them was that it felt uncomfortable, almost as if their lungs were being pushed out of their throat while squatting! The body doesn't lie. If something doesn't feel right, don't do it! McGill points out that there's a clear distinction between abdominal bracing and hollowing: 

There appears to be some confusion in the broad interpretation of the literature regarding the issue of abdominal "hollowing" and "bracing". Richardson's group has evaluated hollowing — observing that the "drawing in" of the abdominal wall recruits TVA. Given that TVA has been noted to have impaired recruitment following injury (Hodges and Richardson, 1996), Richardson's group developed a therapy program designed to re-educate the motor system to activate TVA in a normal way in low back pain (LBP) patients. Hollowing was developed as a motor re-education exercise and not necessarily as a technique to be recommended to patients who require enhanced stability for performance of the activities of daily living (ADL), which has perhaps been misinterpreted by some clinical practitioners. Rather, abdominal bracing, that activates the three layers of the abdominal wall (external oblique, internal oblique, TVA), with no "drawing in" is much more effective at enhancing spine stability. (McGill, 2001)

In summary, he recommends that you brace the abdominals — as if you're about to accept a punch — but don't suck 'em in if you want spinal stability. And guess what … after adopting this method, no more complaints and performance started to improve.

Still not convinced?

I remember Olympic strength coach, Charles Poliquin, once commenting on this practice. He said, "Why rob the neural drive from the extensor chain by drawing in the navel?" Bottom line, it makes you less stable, so why do it? The analogy I like to give is that of chopping down a tree. Visualize the side profile of someone sucking in their gut. Now, where will that "tree" fall if "chopped" down?

Louie Simmons and Dave Tate of Westside Barbell (these guys are renowned for producing world-caliber strength athletes) have stated numerous times that if you want to increase core stability, do the opposite — push out your gut!

Low back specialist and lecturer, John Casler, admits that the abdominals themselves cannot push out — they can only be pushed out by the forces of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). "If you don't believe me just go stand in front of a mirror and force all the air out of your lungs and try to push your abs out," says Casler. "Won't happen! What Louie or Dave are describing is the creation of IAP that will push the tensioned abs out — this creates a very rigid torso.”

It's pretty interesting, too, that kids naturally push their tummies out when lifting an object from the ground!

The late Dr. Mel Siff, co-author of the mighty Supertraining text, had a mouthful to say on this subject: 

It is far too inadequately understood (even to most sports scientists and coaches) that the pressure of the distended belly is not only used to support the spine in any form of squatting, deadlifting or cleaning movement, but also to enhance stability of the body by the contact between the lower abdominal region and the upper thighs. This contact, especially if the lower abdomen is thrust explosively against the upper thighs can very significantly enhance the strength of the starting drive from one's lowest position, especially in the squat. (Siff, 2003)

Despite all the evidence against it, there are still coaches and personal trainers who continue to endorse abdominal hollowing on practically every movement. Unfortunately, when you're in too deep, it's hard to get out! Jon Barron, in his book, Lessons From The Miracle Doctors, made a similar argument about the continued support of mercury amalgam fillings by the American Dental Association (ADA): "If you're in for an inch, you're in for a mile. What would the legal ramifications be if the ADA suddenly announced that they, and all the dentists connected with them, had been wrong for well over 100 years and had been slowly poisoning all Americans? Can you spell tobacco?”

The decision is yours.

Breathing and Intra-Abdominal Pressure

US weightlifting coach, Dragomir Cioroslan, recommends that you take a deep breath at the start of the movement and hold it while you lower, exhaling only when you complete the movement. Siff supports this advice stating, "Russian research cited in Vorobyev (Textbook on Weightlifting) shows that filling one's lungs to about 75 percent of maximal capacity before a heavy effort appears to be optimal for producing maximal force and power." This provides optimal support for the spine with the fewest side effects. There is also evidence that this action coincides with increased athletic performance.

Chek notes that sprinters do not take a breath for the first 15 meters since the body must stabilize for the maximal force of acceleration provided by the drive of the legs and explosive swing of the arms. According to Chek, "If this stabilization does not happen, the core is soft and power is not optimally directed, resulting in dissipation of energy and loss of performance.”

This is also true in archery and pistol shooting as stability and accuracy are connected with brief phases of breath holding. It is even common among combat pilots to hold their breath and perform the Valsalva maneuver (exhaling against a closed glottis) to prevent blackout during high G-force aerial maneuvers. In fact, we all perform a Valsalva maneuver unconsciously when confronted with near-maximal efforts!

I think strength coach, Charles Staley, put it best when he stated that we breathe quite well by instinct alone. Messing around with this could negatively affect performance. With that said, you will notice that you reflexively hold your breath to increase both intra-thoracic and intra-abdominal pressures. While I'm on this point, I never discuss so-called "proper breathing" when demonstrating an exercise because, like Staley, I feel that it detracts concentration and will negatively affect performance. It's hard enough trying to concentrate on technique, you just confuse people when you add special breathing instructions. Let it come naturally - you'll see that they will naturally hold their breath when they exert themselves!

Both McGill and Siff agree that the common recommendation of exhaling upon exertion (or raising of the weight) and inhaling on the lowering is a mistake. Much like the discussion of the TVA and abdominal hollowing, Siff states that the "careful instruction as to the technique of a given exercise will automatically result in the body responding with the optimal muscle recruitment strategy throughout the duration of the movement.” This also applies to breathing. Let it occur naturally.

A Valsalva maneuver or even a partial Valsalva (holding your breath until you clear the sticking point) will help to maintain IAP to stabilize the spine and make you stronger. If you want proof, try this experiment, courtesy of strength coach, Lorne Goldenberg. Next time you squat or deadlift with a heavy weight, try to hold your breath for at least the first 3/4 of the concentric action and then, on another lift, begin to exhale as you initiate from the floor. What will you discover? Easy, you'll be able to handle a much higher load when you hold your breath and blow it out at the end of the movement. In case you didn't know, relaxation is associated with gentle, controlled exhalation — not something you want coming out of the hole now, is it? And if you decide to perform heavy squats or deadlifts with improper breathing patterns, expect a sore spine!

Just to clear up any misunderstanding, the Valsalva maneuver should be permitted primarily during short-time ultimate efforts. Submaximal loading should be executed with longer phases of normal exhalation-inhalation and shorter phases of breath holding. I thought I'd add that last sentence in case you're part of the SuperSlow cult! And here's another really important point: make sure you breathe between reps! It might seem obvious to you, but beginners often stop breathing during repetitive lifts of low intensity, so remind them if necessary.

Of course, there's also a concern in hypertensive and cardiac patients—these individuals should breathe through pursed lips or hum out through the nose when lifting submaximal loads. Yes, maintaining a Valsalva maneuver while lifting a heavy load will significantly increase blood pressure (recorded as high as 450/380 by Dickerman et al., 2000) - this is a natural process that the body even adapts to over time. Nonetheless, it is normal to hold your breath while "exerting yourself" - check for yourself next time you have a bowel movement if you don't believe me!

Nothing in strength training is engraved in stone, but if you want your abs to look like they were chiseled out of rock, be inquisitive. There exist far more myths and misconceptions about abdominal training than any other body part. To find the real answers, you must address the core issues!

About The Author

John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.

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