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No one ever said building a bulletproof core or sculpting six-pack abs would be easy. Even so, fitness junkies of all experience levels often make it even harder than it has to be without even realizing it. Since a strong core provides a solid base for virtually every other exercise and movement you do in everyday life, it’s an important aspect of your overall fitness and one of the best things you can do if you want to stay injury-free.
Some of the most common core-training mistakes go far beyond the actual exercises you’re doing. Therefore, a deeper understanding of what’s going on from a nutrition, genetic and anatomical perspective is crucial to see where you’re falling short on your journey to chiseled abs.
Here, we’ll take you through some common core-training blunders and the mechanisms behind building a concrete core.
First and foremost, before I share a single concept when it comes to a solid ab routine, I would be remiss not to talk about nutrition. If you want a well-developed core, you must first pay attention to what’s going into your mouth. A consistent diet of minimally processed foods, quality protein and micronutrients is going to get you closer to the core of your dreams than all the planks in the world.
Dial in your nutrition — I can’t stress that enough! If you don’t even know where to begin, do your research or hire a coach to guide you.
The types of exercises you’re doing and how you’re doing them have a massive impact on the effectiveness of your ab routine. Doing lots of sit-ups gets you really good at doing sit-ups; this does not necessarily create a defined midline.
Incorporate exercises into your routine that not only engage your rectus abdominis but also target your transverse abdominis, which is located in the deep abdomen and resembles a strap. It’s sometimes referred to as the body’s built-in “weightlifting belt.” This muscle is your true core.
Exercises that engage the transverse abdominis create spinal stabilization, are extremely functional and carry over to pressing, squatting and deadlifting. These are activities that we must perform in everyday life.
Sure, it’s not as sexy as your superficial abs, but developing this muscle will keep you out of pain and prime you for every activity you can imagine.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, right? Well, the same principle applies to your ab routine.
The body is amazing at adapting, so if we’re not constantly bombarding it with a new and different stimuli, it adapts and ultimately plateaus. Switch up exercises, sets and reps frequently to stay on track.
Classic ab exercises are not the only movements that work your core. Compound movements like squatting, deadlifting, benching and pressing all engage your core in an extremely functional manner. However, using your core for all these movements requires thoughtful activation. Think about staying braced, ribcage down and keeping tension in the entire system to make sure you’re keeping your core muscles “turned on” throughout these exercises.
These compound movements engage the erector spinae muscles. These muscles run along your spine and are responsible for keeping you upright, so saying they’re important is an understatement. The transverse abdominis (the deep core or strap muscles we discussed earlier) are also key during compound exercises. These are the primary core muscles activated when you brace during a squat or deadlift.
Compound movements do not activate your superficial rectus abdominis muscles the way a targeted ab program would, according to research . Adding in a spinal flexion movement like a sit-up or a hanging knee raise would provide a greater development of your “six-pack muscles” than these compound exercises alone — if six-pack abs are your goal.
Maybe worse than doing the same exercises every day is working your core to the max every day. Just like you wouldn’t program two tough lower-body days in a row, the same principle applies to your abs. Your muscles need rest to perform, grow and rebuild.
Working the same muscles every day is a surefire way to see little to no changes in your physique. Taking a day off (preferably more) from training this muscle group can promote blood flow, decrease inflammation and increase muscle growth. Ample rest also prevents burnout and decreases your risk of injury.
The human body doesn’t operate in only one plane of motion. Therefore, training your abs in multi-planar and transverse (rotating) planes will have better functional carry-over and hit more of your core muscles at once.
For example: Only training planks or sit-ups focuses predominantly on the sagittal plane of motion. Adding in exercises that challenge you from multiple planes at once such as dumbbell woodchoppers, hanging windshield wipers and rotating forearm planks gives you way more in terms of gross muscular activation and better carryover to functional activities.
Realistically, having a defined midsection has a whole lot to do with genetics, so it’s important to keep that in mind when it comes to your expectations. I would place the ab muscles in the same category as your upper traps and calves, meaning they have a high genetic dependency. Some people just have great calves and have never, ever done a single calf raise in their life.
Same goes for your abs. You could be doing everything right when it comes to your diet and your workouts, yet consistently feel like you’re falling short. You’re seeing a two-pack, maybe even a four-pack, but never anything more than that, and your genetics might be why.
The rectus abdominis muscles are the most superficial layer of muscles that cover the midline. They play virtually no role in spinal stabilization (aka: not very functional), but they do regulate breathing, maintain posture, and help to protect your internal organs. Think of these muscles as all show, no go.
The rectus muscles have bands of connective tissue that give the appearance of “stacking” (think: that six-, eight- or even 10-pack look). You’re born with a set number and your genetics 100 percent determine the size and length of them. You can’t build more of these bands, so being strong or weak doesn’t play any role in increasing the symmetry of this connective tissue.
If you’re not genetically blessed, it’s even more important for you to focus on training them efficiently to get closer to the results you want.
About the Author
Genevieve Gyulavary is a doctor of physical therapy, CrossFit Level I trainer, functional movement specialist and athlete.