Activate and train your core to sculpt the abs masterpiece of your dreams.
By Raphael Konforti MS, CPT
Want to build the kind of eye-popping, rippling abs that will have your gym buddies and the opposite sex both in awe? If so, and this is a relatively new obsession, you might be thinking it's time to get down and dirty with endless stomach-busting sit-ups. Think again! Why? The sit-up is the most popular abs exercise in the world, but it’s definitely not the most effective.
Let’s get a few things straight: Sit-ups and crunches are pretty low on the list of great core exercises. Your abs deserve better than sit-ups. They’re a last resort exercise when you don’t know any better. It’s like when you don’t want to go grocery shopping so you eat the old food that’s been sitting in the pantry the last year. You don’t want to, but it’s better than nothing. That’s where sit-ups fall on the scale of core exercises, a last resort.
If you didn’t realize there are better exercises, you’re not to blame. Sit-ups have been made famous over the years through bootcamps and gym classes. The problem with sit-ups is that they’re just not that effective. There are better ways to sculpt your abs. As well, there are far superior core exercises to increase your functional strength. After all, when’s the last time you did a sit-up motion in your day-to-day life or when playing sports? You might do something similar to get out of bed, which can be tough for some, but these exercises will make that a walk in the park. Here’s how you can build a better six-pack without sit-ups.
Why These Exercises Are Better
It comes down to training principles. Force is needed to challenge and build muscles. The more force a muscle has to produce, the harder it has to work, leading to micro tears in your muscles. Micro tears get repaired and muscles come back bigger and stronger.
Another huge factor is muscle activation. Increased muscle activation means that more muscle fibers will be recruited and contracted. Contraction is very good. Why? It means the muscle is working and it makes it easy to feel if the correct muscle is working. Have you ever performed a set of sit-ups and felt your neck or hip flexors working? Finishing a set of sit-ups with burning hips and neck muscles is a sign your abs aren't being targeted properly. There isn't much of a point of going through the hassle if you can’t hit the target.
Sit-ups only focus on one function of the core and put the body in a position that leads to other muscles joining and taking over the party. Getting proper muscle activation requires exercises that put your body in a position to succeed and allow for maximal force to be placed on your abs.
Structure Of Your Core
Understanding the core enables you to more effectively pick the exercise for the target areas you want to hit. What makes up the core is a very hotly debated topic. For the purpose of building a stellar six-pack, we’ll focus on the abdominal muscles.
The muscle you’re most concerned with for looks is the rectus abdominis. That's literally the six or, if you’re lucky, eight-pack. Then there are the external obliques, which are on either side of the six-pack. There are also internal obliques. These can’t be seen, but play a huge role in core stability and strength, which keep your core in tight. Finally, the transverse abdominis is what holds everything together. This is an internal muscle that keeps the spine aligned. It's what you feel when you do a plank or brace like someone is going to poke you in the stomach. It isn't possible to truly isolate any of these muscles because they work synergistically, but you can place certain emphasis on them with different movements.
Functions Of Your Core
Knowing what’s working is as important as knowing how it’s supposed to work. The core is involved in every movement in the body. The six-pack is usually trained by moving the core, but the core is actually most powerful in resisting movement and stabilizing the body.
Studies have shown that abs are activated more during intense planks than sit-ups. The key phrase is "intense planks." So your regular elbow plank won’t work well if you’ve been on a training program. It’s simply too easy and your abs won’t have to work very hard to maintain that position. On top of that, it’s very easy for other muscles to get involved and you don’t want that.
The solution is to make the exercise harder and maintain good form. Then your core will have to turn on. Always know your limits and build up. When you feel you can do an exercise for more than 15 reps or 30 seconds, then it’s too easy. However, if you can’t perform three reps or hold the position for five seconds, then you need to scale back. If an exercise is that challenging, you can bet your core is overloaded and other muscles are crashing the party and not bringing six-pack-building results.
Spinal Flexion – This is a crunch motion, basically closing the gap between your hips and shoulders while rounding your spine. It's not something you want to emphasize.
Spinal Extension – This motion occurs during a prone cobra or low back extension machine exercise. The distance between the back of your shoulders and glutes gets smaller. Although your lower back does most of the work, your abs still have to help control the movement.
Rotation – Rotations come with twisting motions like woodchops or swinging a baseball bat. Most people shrug this off as sports movement, but it’s a great metabolic challenge that, when performed correctly and intensely, will build a visually chiseled core.
Anti Rotation – Anti rotation occurs when your core has to resist a force from moving it. Your entire body has to work here, especially your abs. This is the most underutilized movement of the core that has serious six-pack building capabilities.
Lateral Flexion And Extension – Have you ever stood up, held a dumbbell bent to the side, and lifted yourself back up? That’s exactly what lateral flexion and extension is. A key part to note is that both sides are working whether or not you feel it. Generally this isn’t a smart movement. You may feel your obliques, but it’s not good for your spine to bend sideways. There are much better exercises to train your obliques. Plus, lateral flexion/extension exercises make your obliques and love handles bigger.
The body rarely does just one of these motions at once outside of the gym. It'll have to create and deal with force using all the movements. The good news is this makes the core work harder and you can take advantage of this with the exercises.
As you incorporate the following exercises, keep the total number of reps under 10. Why? Any more than that and it becomes an endurance exercise. In other words, high reps won’t be more beneficial. Higher intensity is the key, which means moderate reps. Always start with low intensity and build up. Here are the four exercises you need to start today for a better six-pack!
Stability Ball Rollout
Remember how intense planks activate the core more than sit-ups? This is the intense plank you need.
Get in a push-up position and then put your feet on top of a stability ball. Pick a size that allows your shoulders and hips to be the same height. Once you stabilize, use your hands to push your body backwards so the ball rolls up towards your knees. Go as far as you can comfortably go, making sure your core doesn't give out. Pause for one second and then pull yourself forward so your shoulders end up directly over your hands.
TIP: The intensity of this exercise depends on how far you can extend back. Do your best to keep the movement slow and controlled so you can find your limit without overdoing it. Stability ball rollouts work so well because more force gets put on your core leading to higher activation so that every muscle in your core has to work. You’ll be blown away by how sore your abs will be.
The Pallof press is an anti-rotation exercise that forces your core to stay as resistance tries to twist your body.
Set yourself up perpendicular to a free cable machine and start at arms distance from the cable arm. Using both hands, grab the handle and hold it out in front of you. The resistance of the cable will try to twist your body towards it, but hold on tight and keep your feet firmly planted. Your hands should be directly in the middle of your body and both hips squared up. If you can master that, try making this exercise harder by pulling the cable towards your chest and pressing it straight back out. Do this exercise for 30 seconds or 10 reps on each side.
TIP: Keep in mind this isn't a macho man exercise. It should only require a small, humbling amount of weight. As you perform this exercise, keep breathing and try to contract your abs the entire time. To make this exercise even harder, you can change your stance. A narrow stance makes your body less stable, so your core will have to work even harder to keep your body aligned. Also, the further the handle is from your body, the harder it will be. You’ll quickly be able to tell how hard this exercise trains your obliques. Rest assured, every little muscle will be working and your overall strength will improve.
Think crunches are bad? Guess what? The TRX crunch isn't what you think. It’s one of the toughest abdominals exercises you’ll ever try.
Get in the plank position with your feet in TRX straps. You can also use a stability ball and start on your hands. While holding the plank, bring both knees up to your chest, slightly raising your back up. Contract your abs and extend your legs back out.
TIP: This exercise does an incredible job of simultaneously hitting your lower abs to build a V-taper and holding a tough plank to keep everything engaged. It’s an awesome two-for-one movement. Again, keep this movement slow and controlled. Why? Speed makes it easier, so try to suffer just a little bit. Aim for the 10 to 12 rep range. You can also take this exercise to the next level by incorporating a body saw. It's the same movement as the stability ball rollout: While holding the plank, push your body back so your head moves away from your hands and pull yourself back. Once your shoulders are over your elbows, do the TRX crunch.
Low To High Woodchops
Time to do some rotation. Think about how far you can hit a baseball or golf ball. The reason you are able to do that is because of how much force your body can produce through rotation. Remember: High levels of force build abs quickly. Pay close attention to your form. Your body must be properly aligned otherwise other muscles will take over the movement.
Set a cable handle at knee height. Standing perpendicular to the handle, grab it with both hands pivoting your feet so your hands stay directly in front of your torso and your back isn’t twisting. Always keep the handle directly in front of your torso and pivot your feet away from the cable while rotating your hips. Lift the handle diagonally upwards and then lower back down, pivoting your feet and rotating your hips.
TIP: This move takes a lot of coordination and integration, so start with a low weight and small range of motion. As you master it, you can increase the weight and speed going for 10 to 12 reps. You can even upgrade to throwing a medicine ball against a wall (or to a friend) and catching it for full power. Your abs will be sore for days if done correctly. It may be tough to feel this exercise working your core at first, but, rest assured, your core plays a huge role. Also, your abs will be working hard to accelerate and decelerate all the momentum, which is one of the big functions of the core.