A six pack for a guy is one of those things that no matter what else in life he achieves he will probably show off the most. First sign of sun and the tops of, selfies topless in front of a mirror on facebook or even the ‘use my t-shirt to wipe my brow in a gym session’ accidental reveal of the washboard abs…You know who you are Mr P!
Even for women, a flat stomach looks great and is much envied by muffin topped individuals looking through holiday snaps.
But those six packs, lean torsos or tight waist lines are actually a good thing not just for aesthetics but for every day FUNCTION, and we all know that abs are made in the kitchen anyway…right?
A strong core, the group of muscles comprising of your abs, the oblique’s around the side, the lower back muscles and a group of deeper muscles surrounding the spine are imperative when you put your spine under tension through a range of activities, be they fitness or not.
You have seen the weight lifters with a bent bar on their back, squatting the equivalent of a smart car on each side. A lot of the time they will be wearing a big old belt and this is to protect their spine, to help those core muscles in their job. Whether you think belts should be worn is another matter, but usually when you’re lifting weights up at that level you need the help to make sure the spine doesn’t do anything funky that it shouldn’t.
So having a strong core protects the spine. It stops it bending when we lift heavy things, either off the floor (dead lift/ shopping) or from above (shoulder press/ paint off of a garage shelf). It helps when there’s an impact (bracing yourself as you are about to get a punch in the stomach or hit on the dodgems) from both the front and the rear….its natures weight belt.
So to have a strong core will help with a lot of things in life, injury, posture and functioning correctly.
So, how to train it?
Sit ups and crunches are a pretty much a mainstay in most gyms, either using an ab rolling machine (don’t even go there) or weigh plates or cables and depending on your views these are or aren’t harmful. They do force your spine into a flexed position (bent forward) which does compress the vertebrae and can cause slipped/ bulging or herniated discs. But that’s another discussion.
For me is the issue with them is the use of another group of muscles that can take over from the core and therefore limit any progress we might make.
The hip flexors are what they say on the tin, they are at your hips and they flex (bend the hips) forwards…..the same action as we see in sit ups and most people’s attempt at crunches.
My second issue with them is that, due to the fact most of you reading this will have been sitting in an office all day, maybe even sitting in an office reading this, most of your will have hip flexors that are in a shortened position all day. Your hips are at 90 degrees bent, shortened and slightly tightened. So effectively you will be working a muscle that is already tight, already over used and already probably shortened, plus due to the law of reciprocal inhibition (ie when one muscle is turned ON /tensed…the opposing muscle is OFF/ relaxed), your opposing muscles, which in this case are your glutes…your bum are weak or not firing up properly.
All in, causing you a number of postural and functional imbalance issues around the hips…again another article.
So we want exercises that isolate our core muscles.
We want one that braces our spine like a belt does when we lift heavy.
We want one that if you are prone to back issues doesn’t cause any flexion or extension of the spine
I give you the plank
You have done the plank, attempted it or unwittingly done it in a number of situations. A press up is a plank with straight arms, laying face down holds you in a plank for a short time.
The plank is basically holding your body as straight as you can from your toes to your head, with your torso raised off the floor by your elbows or hands.
You have to brace those core muscles to prevent the spine from sagging down.
You are not overly moving during the course of the exercise, so it reduces the risk of injury. There are no pieces of equipment to lift/ pull or push…or drop.
It’s a great exercise to start working on your core strength when you are starting out, to prepare you for any vertical loads you may encounter…ie weights on your back for a squat or above your head when pressing.
But the plank can become too easy, gym competitions of planks lasting 2 minutes and longer are always going on.
Lengthening the amount of time doesn’t necessarily mean you are effectively strengthening your core, it just means your endurance is improving.
So how can we intensify the plank?…easy! Here are a few ways to progress your plank, get washboard abs (remember abs are made in the kitchen not the gym though) reduce your waist, strengthen your spine and lift heavier safer.
Plank with glute and hamstring squeeze
Remember that reciprocal inhibition we talked about earlier, even though the plank reduces the amount of hip flexor usage from a sit up there may be some. So to turn OFF the hip flexor, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can….squeeze those hamstrings as if you were trying to bend your leg (without bending your leg). This will relax the hip flexor and you should feel the plank get harder, plus you are giving those glutes a little workout too….WIN WIN
Reduce contact points
4 contact points is very stable, unless it’s the table I’m sat at typing this which is pretty annoying. Anyhow remove 1 or 2 points (don’t try more than 2) reduces stability and makes you work harder. Play with 1 had off, 1 foot off, diagonal hand and foot etc etc.
Be careful with this one; make sure you have a strong plank first. You can add small weight plates on the small of your back/ bum to increase the load and increase intensity. Don’t collapse to the floor, lower yourself gently.
Add some movement
This not only reduces contact it also gives your glutes a great workout too. In the plank position bring one knee forward, tucked under you as far as it can and then kick it backwards and upwards as far and high as possible, alternate sides.
In a plank position bring your right knee out to the side and forward towards your right elbow and then back, alternate sides. To make this hard try and keep your knee and foot off the floor as you bring it forward.
This removes a contact point but also shifts your mass off centre making you work harder to stabilise…plus it’s named after my favourite super hero
Cross Mountain climbers
This one is similar to the Spiderman but in this case you take your knee to the opposite elbow. This is done with a straight arm plank (slightly easier due to your raised position). Again try and keep your feet off the floor all the way through, take your knee as far as you can toward the opposite elbow and twist your body as you do to feel the tension shift to the side of your torso.
In a straight arm plank position, with hands close together, feet slightly wider, take one hand and rotate your body as far towards the sky as you can so you are both pointing and looking straight above you, return and switch hands and direction.
Slightly more difficult but equally as effective. Lay on your side, on your elbow directly under your shoulder. You can either have one foot on top of the other (side on) or toe to heel with the top foot in front….now raise your hips off the floor and feel your side tense up.
These are just a few ways to add intensity to a great exercise, and due to the way they work a certain group of deep core muscles not only add protection can make that waist tighter and therefore narrower.
Not many exercises do that.
So include them in your workout, even use them during your rest period and feel the benefit without spending 5 mins shaking uncontrollably in the process.
For more tips, how to improve your health and fitness or to get in shape then drop me a mail, and please share this article to anyone you think may benefit.
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