One of the perpetually hottest fitness topics is how to get a six-pack. In fact, if you Google the phrase “six-pack abs” you’ll get 18,300,000 results. That’s a lot of people all wanting to know how to get six-pack abs, or trying to sell their six-pack abs program.
The problem is that we got steered away from functional training back in the 70s by the bodybuilding craze that we’re still trying to change perceptions. Many coaches are still fooled by an athlete’s appearance and wonder why their player with the underwear model physique can’t perform like he looks. The short version is that to get six-pack abs you need to train one way but to perform well you need to train another.
Getting that sought after look is actually quite easy. For starters, don’t eat junk. Ever. If you eat clean 99% of the time you’re well on the way to having a visible six-pack. With the abs visible courtesy of low body fat levels we need to also train in a way to make the abs develop into that ridged look. Like with all things body building that means we need to perform isolated training for the abs. And that’s the big difference between aesthetic training and performance training. For performance what you require is that your midsection acts like a stiff brace, keeping your pelvis and spine aligned so that you can produce maximal power. So the exercises we’re looking for are ones that replicate that – planks and their variations such as push ups, mountain climbers, burpees and hollow drills are ideal. For that GI Joe look you require exercises that actually train the body through flexion, rotation and lateral flexion, meaning that sit ups, hanging leg raises and Russian twists are good choices.
Research shows pretty clearly that flexion and rotation of the spine is bad for it long term. So in my mind, if we train exercises that deliberately put ourselves in these positions we are basically playing Russian roulette with our spines. In other words, it’s not a matter of “if” we injure our backs but “when”. Sooner or later you’ll just run out of tolerance for these movements. The bad part about back injuries is that it’s not like we come with warning labels stating that you have so many flexion or rotation incidents that you can cope with during your lifetime. You can be fine for years and then one day you hurt your back bending to tie your shoes.
There is actually an upside to this – the manner which we train our abs for performance is the same way we should train them for protecting our spine. We want a stiff core that transmits power, but also helps deflect potentially damaging forces through our muscles, rather than through our joints. For many they think that doing planks is all that is required. However, there is a big difference between making the shape of a plank and propping yourself up on your elbows and toes and actually performing a plank. A plank is supposed to be a replication of a neutral position, we get more feedback by lying down so that we can feel gravity working against them, rather than from standing.
To set the position we need to do a few things. First we need to set the pelvis. Tense your glutes as hard as you can, then rotate your pelvis forward and back until you find the position where you can generate maximum tension. That’s neutral. Many will find this is pulled far further forward than they imagined. The next step is to brace the abs as if about to get kicked in the stomach. Next imagine locking the ribcage to the pelvis to brace further. Finally, learn to breathe shallow into your belly so that you can do all that while maintaining tension. For many this is as far as it goes. While a good start, and miles better than just propping on the floor all saggy like a worm, it’s still not enough.
To make the plank functional so that the strength gained carries onto the football field, in the ring or out on the trails running, we need to get the body really set up. One of the main things about performance is that the body needs to be stuff and the limbs need the mobility to move freely and produce force. Basically the role of the core is to keep the body stable and counter act all the forces the limbs produce – like in running where there is a rotational element to the arm swing and the body needs to work at anti-rotation to stay straight – or to stay stable and link that power from one end to the other – as in punching where the foot drives into the ground but the expression of that leg drive is seen in the speed and power of the punch. And we do this by setting the joints in a particular way.
Externally rotating the shoulder and hip allows the body to maintain it’s stability far better than if we just try to keep them loose. That torque created at the joint allows us to keep your neutral pelvis and abdominal brace. The basic premises goes like this – to create torque when the arms or legs are in flexion we need to create external rotation. Exercises such as the back squat require external rotation at the hip to better set the legs and feet and allow better hip mobility and exercises like the plank, where the arms are in flexion, require external rotation at the shoulder. To illustrate, try a push up and corkscrew your hands into the ground. Imagine rotating your fingers out before you start. Feel how that tighten sup not just the shoulder but the entire plank too? And a tighter plank means greater performance. After you’ve tried the hand turnout test try a set of push ups with your glutes completely switched off. You’ll notice it’s much harder to get alignment in your back, maybe even impossible. But you should also notice that it’s hard to get that same screwed in feeling in the shoulders with your glutes switched off – it’s all one piece and the systems all need to be on line for maximum performance.
Check out this video below of a demonstration of this external rotation concept as well as what happens when you try to compensate.