Everything you've been told about building a great core is a lie.
Endless crunches aren't the answer.
The truth is, most of us have no idea how to build a core that both looks great and is functional.
So, I’m writing you this guide to educate you on how to build a strong, aesthetic core. Because you're chasing more than just abs that look great on Instagram... You want functional core strength and stability to go along with the looks.
Basically, you’re chasing aesthetics and performance.
Today's blog will teach you how to achieve both.
What most of us consider a “great core” is incorrect. It's much more than just visible abs.
Abs that look great aren’t necessarily strong, or good at stabilizing your spine under heavy load.
See, your core’s most important role isn’t gaining more followers on Instagram… it’s stabilizing your spine and helping your trunk resist movement, especially under heavy load.
Now, if your training is anything like most online clients before starting coaching, you’ve probably done lots of crunches and leg raises… and not much else.
While this focus on strictly spinal flexion movements (think: crunch & reverse crunch or leg raise variations where you're "flexing at the spine") is fine for building up your "6-pack muscle" (the Rectus Abdominis - the visible layer of muscle we consider our “abs”) - your core is many more muscles than just the Rectus Abdominis.
So by only training spinal flexion, you're not training most of the muscles that help resist movement.
As you see, only training your Rectus Abdominis leaves a lot on the table when it comes to developing a truly functional core.
Neglecting the rest of the core manifests itself as trouble stabilizing your trunk, and often low back pain when doing movements like squats and standing rows or presses.
This leaves you unable to get functionally strong and build aesthetic, athletic body you want.
Now, do you need to know exact function of the Multifidus to build a strong core? Nope.
Just understand that building a core that can support both your aesthetics goals and high level performance requires a lot more than just crunches.
Let’s start by breaking down how to train your abs for aesthetics.
Here, you’re focusing on spinal flexion, which means the aesthetics portion of your training consists of:
1. Leg Raise, Knee Raise, and Reverse Crunch variations
2. Sit-Up and Crunch variations
A few of the most common mistakes when training abs for aesthetics:
→ Doing thousands of reps.
Really, not necessary (or smart).
Like every other muscle group, you’re best suited to stick to the 5-30 rep ranges most of the time when training abs, and pursue "effective reps" (most of your sets need to be within a few reps of failure).
Also, know that low rep (less than 5), high weight sets aren’t a great idea for abs, as other muscles typically take over.
→ Taking a dedicated "ab day".
Your abs recover quickly. Thus, it makes more sense for you to train 1-2 ab movements multiple times per week than it does to have an entire “ab day”.
→ Choosing movements with a short range of motion.
For building muscle, generally a fuller the range of motion (ROM) = more muscle building stimulus with each rep. Problem is, many of the floor-based exercises most of us traditionally do have a VERY short range of motion.
For example, a Cable Crunch has much greater ROM potential than a Floor Crunch.
→ Not controlling the negative portion of the rep.
We know that muscle damage is potentially helpful for muscle growth. Most muscle damage occurs on the negative or “eccentric” portion of the rep. ⠀
However, most people pay no attention to controlling this portion of the rep, and therefore struggle to build their abs. ⠀
→ Inconsistent range of motion.
Similar to Mistake #1, not identifying clear “start” and “end” points to each rep makes it impossible to gauge progress week-to-week. If you have ab movements that you can really “feel” sometimes, and not at all other times… this is likely the problem. ⠀
→ Neglecting nutrition.
No matter how much you train your abs, they won’t show up until you get relatively lean. You won’t get lean unless your nutrition is on point.
A few of our favorite movements that tick the above boxes for more aesthetic abs:
- Cable Crunches
- Decline Crunches
- Reaching Sit-Ups
- Swiss Ball Crunches
[Reverse Spinal Flexion]
- Reverse Crunches
- Decline Reverse Crunches
- Hanging Knee Raises
- Hanging Straight Leg Raises
- Strict Toes-To-Bar
The mind-muscle connection is important here. Focus on progressing the few movements from this list that you “feel” the best.
Now, we’re training your core for strength and performance.
We're using the term anti-movement training to encompass all of the other core movements and muscle groups you don’t hit when you’re training your rectus abdominis. So yeah... this is important.
Now, if you’re anything like me you’d rather trek through the fires of Mordor than hold a plank for 60 seconds... it’s straight up boring.
But fortunately, the idea that anti-movement training has to be strictly planks is a myth we're about to dispel.
Similar to your aesthetic-focused work, you can train anti-movement a lot without any recovery issues. To build a truly strong & stable core, make a point to include at least one movement from 2/3 of the following categories into your program weekly.
Here, you’re working to resist extension at the spine, with movements like...
- Ab Wheel
- TRX Fallout
- Renegade Row
- Hollow Body Sweep
- Hollow Body Flutter Kick
- Hollow Body Holds
- LLPT Planks
- Modified Candlestick
- Slider Body Saws
The goal here is to resist rotation at the spine, with movements like...
- Anti-Rotation Dead Bugs
- Pallof Press Holds
- Renegade Row
- Swiss Ball Stir-The-Pot
- Birddog Row
- ½ Kneeling Push/Pull
- Landmine Bus Driver
→ Anti-Lateral Flexion
Here, you’re working to resist bending sideways at the spine, with movements like...
- KB Bottoms Up + Farmers Walk
- Chaos Farmer’s Walk
- Suitcase Carries
- Farmer Carries
- Zercher Carries
- Side Planks
- Side Plank + Row
One of the most underrated, aspect of a strong, stable core.
To really stabilize the spine, you'll often need to be able to create lots of “intra-abdominal pressure”.
Breathing into your diaphragm (the muscle below your lungs) helps fully activate the muscles of your deep core responsible for stability, and truly create a core that feels rock solid, no matter what.
The ability to breathe deep into your belly, and the development of your deep core muscles are intricately related.
On a similar note, understanding how to perform The Valsalva Maneuver can be very helpful.
The Valsalva Maneuver is essentially pulling in a big belly full of air, and then forcefully breathing out against a closed mouth (no air leaves your mouth or nose).
This technique locks air in your lungs and creates pressure inside your abdomen (a.k.a. intra-abdominal pressure), which stabilizes your torso against heavy loads.
Picture a plastic water bottle. With no lid on, the bottle can easily be crushed.
However, with the lid on, the air inside pushes out against the walls of the bottle when you apply pressure, keeping it from being crushed.
This is how the the Valsalva maneuver works.
As you attempt to lift heavy weights, the air trapped in your abdominal cavity helps keep the torso strong and rigid.
[*Note: For those at a high risk of cardiovascular problems, performing the Valsalva maneuver can be dangerous. You can also overuse this a bit for sets >5 reps, and wind up just out of breath & exhausted, without actually stimulating the target muscles much.]
From everything you’ve learned, we can apply these fundamental guidelines to your core training for aesthetics, strength, and performance:
→ For Aesthetics: Include 2-3 weekly flexion exercises. Train these in the 8-30 rep range, for 6-12 weekly sets.
→ For Strength & Performance - Include 2-3 anti-movement exercises per week. Reps will vary, but generally 6-10 reps per side or 30-60 second holds is a good rule of thumb. Train these for 4-10 weekly sets. Practice diaphragmatic breathing regularly, and incorporate the Valsalva Maneuver when appropriate (low rep, heavy sets of movements that put lots of stress on the spine).
If you're ready to stop collecting information and start transforming your body, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.
We apply proven, science-backed nutrition & training methods through individualized coaching to help you get the body you want, and teach you on how to keep it for a lifetime.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.
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