Abs, everyone loves to train them, but everyone is doing the same stuff over and over again. Crunches, plank, some kind of leg fluttery thing they saw an influencer do. And that’s fine, but it gets kinda stale and even if they are done correctly, which often they aren’t, they are all a bit samey.
The thing with your abs is that they comprise of more than just the 6 pack muscle. Sure it’s the one everyone thinks of when talking abs, but there are a lot more besides. And they’re not just there to look pretty.
Function vs action
The function of your abs is to resist movement at your spine in order for you to have the stability to move your limbs and perform other movements. When your core is weak, you tend to find movement restrictions are common.
For example, a typical one I see is squat depth. When a new client, who has core issues, squats with no load it looks more than a bit off; a lot of forward lean, inability to get depth, and it ends up looking more deadlifty than squatty. And yes, both of those are technical terms.
However, if I put a weight in their hands, ideally in a goblet position, that gets their core fired up. And 95 times out of a hundred, the squat cleans right up. Therefore, some improved core strength will be a major component of their programming, at least initially.
The action of your abs is to create movement, help with breathing, and bracing. For example, your 6 pack muscles, can rotate your pelvis back, lock your ribs down (eg a reverse crunch). Your obliques can contract on one side to bend your torso to the side, or co-contract on both sides to create a forceful exhalation. They rarely work purely in isolation and the actions are varied, but by training their actions, you can better control their functions.
Let me explain.
If you find your ribs flare on say a row or pull apart, part of the issue may be a lack of upper back extension, but it may be a lack of ability to lock your ribs down and properly control your rib position. Working on a plank, or crunch variation can help you strengthen the required muscles, and get a better feel for what that locked down rib position is like. This makes it easier to replicate when you perform other exercises.
And the core is much more than the 6 pack, or rectus abdominis. You have the internal and external obliques, the tranversus abdominus making up the rest of the “ab” muscles. And you could argue that you should also include the spinal erectors, lats, glutes and hip flexors since they can all take a role in resisting movement around your spine.
And all of those above come in to play with the exercises I’ve listed below.
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90-90 side plank
I like this variation of the side plank because it takes out the common issues I see with a full traditional side plank. Not that there is anything wrong with that exercise, when done well it’s a great option, but it’s not done well all that often.
On your side with your knees and hips at 90 degrees and your hips slightly tucked under. Have your elbow stacked under your shoulder and palm flat. Brace your abs and lift your hips and knees off the floor, now reach with your top hand forward and slightly down.
Due to the hip tuck, you should feel a lot more engagement on your oblique on the bottom side. The first time I did this variation, I cramped on my second set…
The reach with the top arm stops you from sagging into your mid and upper back muscles, reducing the load on your neck and upper traps. You might feel your serratus (under your arm, wrapping around your ribs) working hard to stabilise your shoulder.
Hold for 5-10 breathes per side.
Band anti rotation plank
Set up in a pushup position plank from your knees with your arms stacked below your shoulders. Have a light resistance band anchored firmly off to one side, and grab it with your opposite side hand. So if the band is anchored on your left, you’ll grab it with your right hand. Now, keeping your hips flat and level, pull the band across your body, leading with your elbow (keeping it bent) and resist the band trying to pull you out of position.
Because the band loading is increasing as you pull across your torso, the load increases the more you pull.
If this position is easy, you can increase the difficulty by doing the plank from your toes. Or if you need to make it a little easier to start with, incline your position by putting your hands on a plyo box or chair.
Band resisted crunch
I like this crunch variation partly because it is deceptively hard, but also because it teaches you to engage your lats throughout the movement. If you can’t get your lats on, you’re going to struggle to maintain the 90° angle of your arms at your torso and you’ll lose the effectiveness of the exercise.
Set up on your back with the band firmly anchored behind you. Grab it with both hands and pull until your arms stick straight up from your shoulders. This should have enough tension to make you work to hold that position. Then crunch your abs, pulling your ribs towards your belly button and raising your head and shoulders off the flor about 2-3 inches. then control back down. Repeat for your target reps.
In the video, I show 3 different leg positions:
- Both knees bent. This is the easiest position to control your hips and low back position as it automatically puts your hips into a posteriorly tilted position.
- One knee bent, the other leg out straight. This is a slightly harder position to maintain the posteriorly tucked position at your hips, as the straight leg is trying to pull it back to neutral. You have to work a little harder and be more aware of using your abs to maintain good hip position.
- Both legs out straight. You have to work a lot harder to maintain your pelvic tilt and not let your legs pull your hips forwards, arching your back.
This is a great exercise to maintain your torso position against a moving load. You also get a lot of work on the outside of your hip on the loaded (front) leg.
Set up in a split stance (sometimes called a B stance), and go into a hinge position. Try to get your torso fairly flat and keep your hips level. Holding the weight infront of you with both hands, keeping it close to your legs, pull it across your body towards your lead leg side. The inside arm should stay straight and the other arm should bend to allow the movement. You’ll get a lot of work done in your hips, obliques and spinal erectors.
Give these a go to spice up your core training and thank me later…