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Revamp Your Core Training Approach

Get The Abs You've Dreamed Of!

Posted by GT_turbo - January 2nd, 2020

Over the last 5 decades, the world of fitness and bodybuilding has gone through dramatic changes, as public interest in personal fitness and bodybuilding caught mainstream attention in the 1960s. As the industry boomed rapidly, hundreds of so-called ‘fitness experts' and their fitness theories popped up all around the globe, making it difficult to discern facts from myths. Who are you to believe when studying and researching exercises and nutrition?

One body part that most of us aim to have, irrespective of gender, is perfectly toned 6-pack abs. In fact, the hype about how to develop well-defined abs has persisted since the late 80s, and there are a plethora of ab exercises and tips to be found all over the internet, most of them similar in nature; focusing on different variations of core training and compound lifts.

Sorry to shock you, but when it comes to developing a well-defined set of abs, isolation exercises like lifts are the least effective method for gaining abs. This might sound unreal if you have spent most of your life growing up around 90s action movies and muscle magazines, watching rocky doing 1000 crunches a day or Bruce Lee efficiently doing the dragon flag leg raises. The secret (not really) to gaining a 6-pack lie mostly in your diet. In this article, I aim to give you an easy breakdown underlying the relations between the different factors of having a good set of abs and the difference between functional training and aesthetic training.

The Diet

Before we move on to the core argument of whether compound lifts or core training is the secret to building an impressive set of abs, you need to understand the importance of diet first. The first thing that you need to understand is that the secret to gaining a 6-pack quickly lies in your kitchen, before you even start sweating. In fact, there is an old fitness anecdote that says that most of the bodybuilding process takes place in the kitchen. As long as your diet is poor, you cannot have well-defined abs or well-defined muscle tone overall.

Abdominal muscles develop internally and are covered by a layer of body fat, which makes the muscles invisible to the naked eye as long as the layer of fat persists. Being in a calorie deficit will eventually make you shredded no matter what. And no spot reduction does not exist; for this reason, abs are one of the hardest muscles to see due to the "stubborn fat" subcutaneous fat layer that is in that region.

This is the hard choice that every bodybuilder must do, go on a bulk with higher calories to increase muscle mass but most likely kiss goodbye to a well-defined midsection, or maintain lean body mass and shred extra fat to get a well-defined set of abs.

Unfortunately exercises whether cardio, direct core or compound alone, makes little difference in the removal of abdominal fat. As a result, diet becomes the primary influencer between whether the results of all those long cardio and workout sessions will show or not. The calorie intake of our bodies differs from individual to individual which is why you first need to consult with a certified nutritionist to get an accurate figure of how much of a calorie deficit your body can handle without straining your health. Once you have that figure pegged out, it will be much easier for you to see your abdominal muscle gains instead of just blindly sticking to a workout regimen.

In fact, with the right diet and exercises, your abs can become visible within a short-time period of 6 weeks. For that reason, I recommend that you check out Scott's meal planner app, which will help you figure out your calorie count and macronutrients. Also, add the fat loss program and that will help you shred the extra pounds off and get the sweet set of abs you want!

Are We Training Core The Right Way?

So let's begin by saying that this topic is very controversial in the fitness industry, as some who swear by direct core training as the quickest and most effective way to gain abs, while others will swear it on their dumbbells and barbells. Which of these parties are right? Surprisingly both, but the argument persists because most of the followers of either training style fail to see the bigger picture that requires both methods of training to get the best possible results.

Let me answer the debate first of all by giving you both theories; direct core training will hypertrophy the core muscles while compound movement will use abs as stabilizers and recruit more muscles; therefore, burn more calories. Both of these theories are correct but is it the smartest way to train our core?

What Is The Core?

The core muscles mainly consist of:

  • Rectus Abdominis (Flexion/Stabilizer)
  • Transversus Abdominis (Stabilizer)
  • Internal & External Obliques (Rotation/Stabilizer)
  • Multifidus & Erector Spinae (Extensor/ Stabilizer)
  • Diaphragm (Stabilizer) & Glutes (Hip Extension/ Stabilizer) muscles (even though not direct core, they are also part of the group).

What we call abs is the frontal side of our body and mainly considered the rectus abdominis. By only doing crunches or any flexion exercises, you are forgetting about all the other core muscles.

Now here comes the interesting part. When I wrote each of the muscles above, I also wrote down their function. One thing you may notice in all of them is they are all considered as stabilizer muscles. This is huge because we always trained abs as a "mover" like any other muscles in our body by flexing, extending, or rotating.

Although this seems to be a good thing to do, we have established that the core’s primary function is to stabilize the pelvis and spine. This spinal stiffness will safeguard the body against injury, and will allow you to generate significantly more power with your upper and lower body. Unfortunately, if you look around most gyms and even personal training studios, you will observe people performing endless amounts of crunches, sit ups, twisting exercises, and so forth.

Very few people focus on core stability, and as a result, they never achieve the spinal stiffness that is needed to perform exercises, sports, and even daily activities safely and effectively.


Functional Core Training

Now that you know the role of the core muscles, let's see how its function relates to training. Optimal core strength potential implies that we have the ability to:

  • Provide stability and structure to the torso for loaded, unloaded, predictable, and unpredictable dynamic movements.
  • Progressively change or prevent movement as demands increase.
  • Absorb, decelerate, and transfer ground reaction forces across the kinetic chain and out through the extremities.
  • Provide protection to the spine and pelvis.

All of these abilities can be provided by training the core in 3 main categories:

  • Anti-Extension
  • Anti-Lateral Flexion
  • Anti-Rotation

Anti-Extension Exercises

These exercises, like the name implies, consist of stabilizing your core and not letting your body go into extension. Some examples are: Planks, Stability Ball Rollout, RKC plank, Abs Wheel Rollout.

Anti-Lateral Flexion Exercises

These exercises consist of stabilizing the core by not letting it move into lateral flexion or side bending through the lumbar spine. Some examples are: Side Plank, Side Plank Row, Overhead Pallof Press, Farmers Walk, Suitcase Carries, Waiter Carries.

Anti-Rotation Exercises

Finally, the last group of the 3 main functional core exercises consists of stabilizing the core and resisting rotation of the body at the lumbar spine. Some examples are: Plank Reach, Pallof Press, Clock Plank, Kneeling Pallof Press.

Functional Vs Aesthetics

Research shows that exercises like crunches that pull the lumbar spine into flexion or the dumbbell side bend that pull your spine into lateral flexion exert a large amount of force on the spine. Hopefully you have learned by now that core muscles are better trained as stabilizer and not movers for the simple reason that putting the spine into an awkward and weak position is probably not the best for lumbar health.

Now, with that said, I've never heard of anyone getting a slipped disc from too many crunches so if you like them, doing them every once in a while won’t hurt you. In fact, crunches are fine for bodybuilders who want to maximize hypertrophy of the rectus abdominis.
Whether you're going to the gym to get shredded or bulk up or improve at a sport, a strong core will help you get well-defined abs but most importantly keep you injury-free. Therefore functional core work should be assisted with direct core work, and that's where crunches, leg raises, and other mover exercise comes in.


If you want a sweet set of abs, the most critical step is first to clean your diet, then get a fat loss program that will shred the fat off your stomach. Finally, my take on core training comes from a functional base to keep healthy and injury-free. This is really important if you are an athlete of any sports and need to transfer power throughout the kinetic chain. With that said, old school core training still has a place if aesthetics is what you are looking for, and this is crucial in sports like bodybuilding. By combining all these components and having discipline with the proper diet, anyone can achieve an impressive-set of 6-packs in a short amount of time.                                


By Kevin Masson MSc, CSCS, CPT, USAW

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