Everything you've been told about building a great core is a lie.
Endless crunches isn't the answer.
Most of us have no idea how to build a core that both looks great and is functional.
I’m writing this guide not only to educate you on how to build a strong, aesthetic core - but also because I’m currently on a mission to take my core strength to the next level, and want to give you the exact strategy I'm using.
We're chasing more than abs that look great on Instagram. This guide is how you'll achieve functional core strength and stability along with the looks. We want to move and feel just as good as we look - like a Spartan warrior.
Basically, we’re chasing aesthetics and performance.
This starts with educating you on some common false beliefs around core training, teaching you the proper way to train your abs for both performance and aesthetics, and finally giving you the exact plan I’ll be following for the next few months.
So like I said before - what most of us consider a “great core” is incorrect. It's much more than just visible abs.
What if I told you... abs that look great aren’t necessarily strong.
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 you’re training is anything like most online clients before starting coaching (or even how I trained until the last few years), 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 - 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 deadlifts. This leaves you unable to get functionally strong and build the lean, athletic body you want. To feel your strongest and most confident, you need to do more.
Do you need to know exact function of the Multifidus to build a strong core? Nope.
Just understand that feeling your absolute strongest and best requires a lot more than just crunches.
Now, before diving into the training strategy we'll both be using for a strong, aesthetic core, I need to make one thing clear - you have to be lean to achieve a core that looks great. Getting lean comes primarily from your nutrition. If you’re ready to build a lean, strong body I highly recommend combining this training program with nutrition coaching.
Let’s start by breaking down how to train your abs for looks. When we talk of building you a strong and aesthetic core - this is primarily the aesthetics portion of your training.
You’re focusing on spinal flexion, which means the aesthetics portion of your training consists of:
→ Leg Raise, Knee Raise, and Reverse Crunch variations
→ Sit-Up and Crunch variations
A common mistake with this portion of training is doing thousands of reps.
That won't be necessary.
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 - other muscles typically take over.
Your abs recover quickly - most clients can train abs 3-5 times per week (with smart programming) with no recovery issues. 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”.
Here’s a few movements you can incorporate to build more aesthetic abs:
→ Crunch Variations:
→ Reverse Crunch Variations:
The mind-muscle connection is important here. Focus on the few movements from this list that you “feel” the best.
Now, we’re training your core for strength and performance.
This portion of your training takes you from just looking good, to a the strength and confidence badass warrior. Your core is geared up for functional strength and performance.
We're using the term anti-movement training to encompas 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 watch paint dry than hold a plank for 60 seconds - it’s straight up boring.
The idea that anti-movement training has to be tons of boring planks is an idea we're about to clear up.
Smart anti-movement training isn't boring at all. One of the most important things for turning your training as a client, into a lean, strong lifestyle that you thoroughly enjoy - is making it fun. So no worries, we won’t let this be boring.
Online clients often mention their functional core training as one of the most challenging, fun, and engaging parts of their training - you’re in good hands here.
Similar to your aesthetic-focused work, you can train anti-movement a lot without any recovery issues. For your strongest, most functional core, make a point to include at least one of each of the following categories into your program weekly:
Here, you’re working to resist extension at the spine.
The goal here is to resist rotation at the spine.
→ Anti-Lateral Flexion
Here, you’re working to resist bending sideways at the spine.
This is the most underrated, aspect of a strong, stable core. None of the above matters without the ability to breathe properly.
You need strong core muscles. But to really stabilize the spine, you also need to be able to create lots of “intra-abdominal pressure”. Breathing into your diaphragm is what will fully activate all these muscles, 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 Transverse Abdominis muscle are intricately related.
Now, since this is a bit hard to visualize, I’m going to talk you through the concept like I do with online clients. I'll also link a few videos below that I typically send to new online clients, to make sure you have a deep understanding of the concept.
So, in general the ability to breathe deep into your belly is important for your health - it relaxes you and promotes recover, along with strengthening the Transverse Abdominis.
Now, when we're talking about lifting heavy weights, understanding The Valsalva Maneuver is also very important.
The Valsalva Maneuver is essentially pulling in a big belly full of air, and then forcefully breathing out against a closed windpipe (no air leaves your mouth or nose).
This technique traps air in your lungs and creates pressure inside your abdomen (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.
1. Start by pulling a big breath, deep in to your belly.
2. Now, push your tongue against the roof of your mouth and imagine pushing that air down through the floor of your stomach hard.
3. Perform Steps 1 & 2 during heavy squats, deadlifts, or any movement that puts a lot of stress on your spine - pull the breath in at the top of the movement, and continue to push through the floor of your stomach through the challenging portion of the rep and past the “sticking point” (usually about ½ way up). As you near the top of the rep, exhale and repeat.
From everything you’ve learned, we can apply these fundamental guidelines to your core training for aesthetics, strength, and functionality:
→ For Aesthetics - Include 2-3 weekly flexion exercises. Train these in the 8-25 rep range, for 8-12 weekly sets.
→ For Strength & Functionality - Include 3-4 anti-rotation 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 9-16 total sets. Include one focused on each: anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion.
→ For Health & Longevity - Practice diaphragmatic breathing regularly. Incorporate the Valsalva maneuver to increase intra-abdominal pressure when lifting challenging loads.
Because the goal is always providing you as much free value and education to build your most confident self - I've built you a free Core Training Blueprint. This is designed for you to add on to your current training program to build the core of a Spartan warrior (this is the exact core training program I'm following for the next 6 weeks).
Download your FREE Core Training Blueprint below ↴
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the Online Coaching Business Bairfit. His Instagram is noticeably missing any calf pictures.
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