Core exercises do (not) make great abs

The question…

What exercises should you be doing to get a decent set of abs?

Most people are asking for a super effective and advanced plank, leg raise, or crunch, wiggling the torso in this way or that. They’re usually surprised when I encourage them to work on building their push, pull, squat and lunge patterns with good form. Developing your abs has less to do with traditional abdominal exercise and more to do with total body strength.

The core is the center of gravity where movement begins, comprised of the bones and muscles attached to the pelvis, rib cage, and spinal column. Studies like this one (example) have shown that a relatively heavy set of standing overhead shoulder presses demands far more from the abdominal muscles than does traditional seated crunch or pointer dog exercises. If you really want to work the core, do some variation of plyometrics and especially relatively heavy unilateral (working on arm or leg at at time) free weight exercises. The core muscles must work intensely to stabilize the rotational forces that result when working one arm or leg at a time.

Iron irony…

Becoming a an all-over strong person usually requires a fairly prolonged period of consistent strength training. Being able to maximally benefit from and tolerate a relatively intense resistance training program over weeks and months requires that you exercise with good -quality- to your movement patterns. Some traditional core exercises are helpful for gaining range of motion, stability, or motor control necessary to establish good quality movement patterns before going heavy with your training.  Therefore, traditional core exercises do have value, just not in the way that most people assume.

Now, having VISIBLE abs is a related but somewhat different topic. Here we must go beyond the topic of core-building exercises and address the life of a person more holistically.

Quick videIMG_1441o of an actual busy, pale, 41-year old dad, just AFTER the holidays, provides evidence that you don’t need to waste time with a lot of (traditional) core exercises.

I mean, this is day 14 of my 2018 detox so buy my product and program ; )

Important factors in having VISIBLE abs include…

  1. Genetics. Some people are predisposed to building/growing/gaining, and others to staying lean. I have personally witness how some fit, high-performing athletes must exercise twice the discipline in their training and diet to see half the results show up in their mid section. Others seem to be naturally lean without a whole lot of extra effort. These are the folks that have a hard time gaining size and strength when they want to.
  2. Diet. You absolutely can out-exercise a poor diet. But not for long. Developing healthy habits and doing the basics well over the long-term is far more important than specific diets and ingredients. Common-sense, non-strict dietary habits in combination with reasonable exercise that causes you to carry some muscle may not get you to 3% body fat, but it will carry you far.
  3. Overall activity level.  I work on my feet for most of the day, moving with variety and relatively low intensity. I have house- and yard work, play with the kids, and have difficulty sitting still. I give myself no mental “credit” toward a bigger desert for being active. The many people who sit for the majority of the day may benefit more from sustained cardio. Of course, you could always find manual work to do around the home or community. An hour of coaching soccer or picking up trash along the road burns far more calories than your 7-minute ab routine.
  4. Muscle mass. Most people are unaware that carrying muscle all of the body helps the abs in at least two ways. The abs are “worked” when they are required to counteract and stabilize the strong hip and lower back movements. A well developed back side literally fills up your skin and pulls it tight around the abdominal area.

Relatively unimportant factors include lots of sustained cardio, epic high-intensity brain and body frying workouts, special restrictive diets, and special secret ab exercises.

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