Abs Are Made In The Winter
This isn’t a clickbait headline, for many people they’re wasting precious time during their summer diets training their abs. Forget what you’ve heard previously, you cannot spot reduce your abs i.e. training them doesn’t mean they’ll reveal any sooner.
When you’re dieting, your body is not in a position to gain muscle (unless you’re a beginner trainee/drug enhanced lifter or you’re returning from a long lay off). Your fat loss diet should be set up to focus on that only i.e. you should be eating below your maintenance calorie level, a ‘calorie deficit’. To build muscle, you need a ‘calorie surplus’, to eat above maintenance.
Like your biceps, your lat’s, your quads, your calves… your abs are muscles, they’re built with a surplus of food and training. Training during your diet is preserving them only (unless you classify as the populations above), however, we need to take into account crossover from other exercises.
For example, abs are involved in compounds such as a squat, deadlift, overhead press, bent over row. Whilst there is no direct work they are involved in stabilizing. So, they’re unlikely to be completely under-used resulting in muscle loss.
Performing some ab work may be a good idea during a cut, especially if they’re weak, but it certainly won’t get you abs any quicker. I advise spending more time training larger muscle groups which will expend more calories and more time performing CV (HIIT or steady state cardio) than extensive ab workouts.
Now when it comes to ‘bulking up’ this is where you’ll really benefit from training your abs, you’ll have more energy, the food to enable growth and time. If you can increase their muscularity when you’re not dieting, you’ll see the rewards when calories come down and your body fat is lower.
Build a stronger core with anti-rotation exercises
Your core is made up of multiple muscles contracting together to create a stable platform around your spine. As the spine is the only rigid structure around your lumbar region (lower back) it needs a network of aiding support to not only hold the skeleton upright but reduce injury, protect internal organs and transfer energy from the legs to the centre of mass.
Each muscle is connected to bones to create a specific movement and having so many muscles helps to create rotation, flexion, extension and lateral flexion around this part of the spine. Rotating is possibly one of the most basic functions of the lumbar spine and occurs in so many aspects of ‘functional movement’ it should have its own specific focus. Without training this function, you can leave yourself open to injuries and misalignment which can lead to decreases in performance improvements. These rotation muscles (internal oblique and transverse abdominis) also create a stable platform to lift from in a stabilising function of anti-rotation.
It is often mentioned that it is sufficient training to just lift heavy, which will train your core when in actual fact training heavy will engage the core muscles but not necessarily improve them. Therefore there is a need to train them in isolation to keep making changes either aesthetically or performance based.
Training heavy will also mainly focus on one plane of motion, normally the sagittal plane, whereas rotation only occurs in the transverse. If I’ve lost you there with biomechanical terminology, all it means is that we rarely use movement in the gym that would put you in a position to actively recruit the obliques and transverse abdominis.
There is a relationship between muscular force and the speed of contractions, where you can lift a heavy load, but must do so slowly, and you can only move a light object quickly (relative to your absolute strength). All areas on this should be trained for maximum benefit, so low load high speed, and high load lower speed. Past the end of the curve, there is an isometric and eccentric strength which is greater than anything you can lift concentrically. Training one of these types of contractions can lead to a greater benefit in overall strength and this is particularly the case in the core, where one of the main functions or rotators is stability and anti-rotation.
Below are 4 variations to put into your training to help train this.
Pall of press
Using a cable or band, stand with soft knees at a 90 angle to the base of support. Bring your hands to your chest and press them away from you keeping them in line with the middle of your body without tilting or twisting through your shoulders.
Single arm row-3 point row-renegade row
Placing one hand and knee on a bench (on the same side), a dumbbell in the other hand and the other foot placed on the floor so your hips and shoulders are parallel to the floor. Lift the dumbbell driving your elbow behind you in line with your waist ensuring you don’t rotate through your shoulders and keep your belly button pulled in.
Variations & harder levels:
Single arm press
Using a bench (or ball as pictured to make harder) keep your belly button pulled in and glutes engaged. Press the dumbbell over your shoulder and control down making sure one shoulder blade doesn’t come off and your shoulders don’t rotate.
SA weighted hyperextensions
Using a hyperextension bench and add a small weight to one hand and complete the exercise keeping the shoulders square with the hips at all times.
The strength it takes to complete all of these exercises will develop and strengthen the function of the core, especially when joined with rotation exercises and heavy compound lifts. It is worth noting that the core is not the only area to rotate and additional training could be beneficial to other joints such as the hips and shoulders and even at the knee if you struggle with balance. Training for this could be adding a rotation to your dumbbell press, or offsetting some of the weight off for your exercises, for example: lunging with a heavier weight in one hand, or squatting with a bar and 10 kg one side and 15 kg on the other.