Stop Doing Sit-ups! .. Why Conventional Ab Training Just Doesn’t Work
I’ve written a few posts now on Hyper Lordosis or Anterior Pelvic Tilt and it’s effects on lifting. The fact is, almost everyone has a degree of hyper-lordosis due to the fact we all use chairs far too often! From working to travelling to relaxing, it is all usually done in a seated position, this then in turn re-inforces the poor posture already lurking, causes tight lower back/hip flexors and weak or elongated abdominals/gluteals.
Most of us then try to address it with some stretching of tight muscles and strengthening the weaker ones. The problem with strengthening the abs is that the overwhelming majority simply don’t know how to. They will do something like sit-ups or crunches and hold a plank for minutes on end. The problem with these is:
- Situps work your hip flexors more than your abs, especially with the classic jerking off the floor type, crunches are a little better, but still involve the hip flexors and tend to lead to…
- Upper back rounding – When crunches are performed the movement reinforces poor posture by causing you to round your upper back each rep so leading into Kyphosis or a Neanderthal type posture – Instead of keeping your shoulders back and down with good posture, you’re constantly rounding your upper back and pushing your chin forward.
- Too much flexion and extension of the spine. Alot of people do situps by arching the lower back, pulling their body up with the hip flexors, then rounding forward towards the top of each rep. Think about it – what happens when you keep bending something back and forward over time? SNAP!
- Most people hold a plank ‘passively’ – hips sagging and upper back rounded (see post on RKC Plank for a better option)
- Due to the law of reciprocal inhibition (when a muscle on one side of a joint contracts, the other opposing muscle relaxes), your already inactive or weak glutes get weaker every rep because your hip flexors are strengthened with every rep! In other words – Sit-ups exagerate the problem you’re trying to address!!
Real Abdominal or Core Strength is simply the ability to stabilise the spine especially when under load. This is the primary job of the abs after all! How often are we even required to perform a sit-up/crunch type movement? I can’t even think of an example after getting out of bed! But, I can certainly think of many an occassion where I am supporting a load – Carrying shopping, picking up the kids/pets, moving things around, picking things up, etc etc.
If you’re already doing heavy deadlifts/squats/press’s then your core will already be getting plenty of stabilisation, if not, or you want to focus on it a little more you can’t go wrong with looking at the olympic weightlifters (especially the lightweight category). They are required to stabilise huge loads overhead and generally have the physique to match! Makes sense really, if you’re going to lift something heavy over your head then your abs are going to have to work overtime to keep your torso upright and stabilized.
To work on stabilisation, you can’t beat a bridge/plank type movement (performed correctly!)the light-weight Olympic lifters do things like supporting weight on their stomachs while they’re laying over two chairs, making their abs a “bridge” for the weight and forcing their whole core to stabilize and work to keep their back straight. A bit of an extreme version for most, but it is the general ‘bridging’ principle we’re looking at – Try the RKC plank to start.
Instead of doing hundreds of reps of easy situps and causing so many muscle imbalances, un-even weaknesses and strengths… if you’re going to do abdominal exercises to train your abs to contract your body in half… you should try harder ab exercises.
Try and focus more on lower ab work. Most people have weaker lower abs compared to their upper abs. This is usually due to crunches and upper ab work like that.
On top of that, posterioral problems and muscle imbalances are common from doing so many situps and from crunching your ribcage down towards your pelvis. You need to work your abs in a different plane of motion.
If you are lifting heavily on a regular basis, there is a great move for strengthening the abs, but also to stretch (decompress) your spine from those heavy loads. The Hanging Leg Raise and its variations
- They strengthen your abs
- They decompress your spine
- They stretch your back
- They help Correct Lordosis by training you to tilt your pelvis posteriorly and up.
Train your abs the way they were meant to be – As spinal stabilizers and with harder contraction exercises.
Think You Have a Strong Core? The RKC Plank for Maximum Whole Body Tension
So you’ve been doing a plank variation for some time now and can hold it for a couple of minutes so think your ‘core’ is strong?
There is a far more difficult and massively more effective version called the RKC Plank (Russian Kettlebell Challenge).
Most of us hold a plank ‘passively’ with little activation of the internal abdominal muscles that the plank is supposed to strengthen. A few tweaks to it and you’ll understand what a plank really is and be stronger under the bar for it!
Anyone who has read any of Pavel Tsatsouline’s books will know he advocates ‘whole body tension’ in all movements, but especially when looking at strength training. The RKC plank is a great way to learn how to do this and can then be applied to your lifts.
——————– An extract from Deadlift Dynamite by Andy Bolton and Pavel Tsatsouline ———————
Senior RKC Thomas Phillips has called the plank “the most popular exercise performed incorrectly”. Most folks either let their backs sag or their butts shoot up and use a minimal amount of effort in order to last the longest. Using poor form amounts to what Gray Cook, RKC, calls “adding fitness to dysfunction” and all sorts of problems down the road. And going for a minute or longer develops endurance rather than strength.
The difference is fundamental.
To express max strength one must learn to maximally contract all the muscles at once and hold nothing back. To develop muscular endurance one must learn to use as few muscles as possible and the least effort.
The conflict is obvious.
The bottom line: a strength athlete ought to practice the plank as an all out effort, and has no business leaving the 5-20sec window.
Giving it all in a short period of time is what the RKC plank is all about. Sports scientist Bret Contreras comments:
The RKC plank is a reverse-engineered core exercise that has evolved into a brutal full body isohold. I learned about the RKC plank (also called the Hardstyle plank) from Pavel Tsatsouline, creator of the RKC, and when done right, it wipes you out completely after only ten seconds. Sure you can do a [regular] plank for 3 straight minutes, but now show me that you can do a [RKC] plank and exhaust your body through maximum muscle exertion. The RKC plank has you manipulating whole body muscle tension to generate maximum internal work. Though you won’t be moving as it’s a static exercise, you’ll be engaging in a 10-second isometric war…
Contreras took EMG measurements to compare the peak activation of various midsection muscles in the traditional front plank and the RKC version and here are the results:
|Exercise||Lower Rectus Abdomnis (RA)||Internal Oblique (IO)||External Oblique (EO)|
|Standard Front Plank||33.5||42.6||26.7|
In the RKC plank, the six-pack is contracting more than three times more intensely, the internal obliques more than twice, the external obliques almost four times as intensely as in the typical plank seen in gyms everywhere.
It is the many technique subtleties that make the RKC plank work so well, so pay attention, and add various technique elements to your practice gradually. If you try to do it all the first time out, you are bound to forget something.
- Place your elbows directly underneath your shoulders or slightly in front of them. Either keep your forearms parallel to each other or make your fists touch. Keep your fists in the “hammer” position.
- Keep your whole body in one straight line, from head to toes. In the beginning it helps to have a training partner place a stick on your backside to teach you what a straight line is. Your back may not sag, your butt may not pike up. Your hips must extend as they do in the deadlift.
- The stick will also help you correctly align your neck. The following subtle alignment practiced in martial arts and physical therapy makes a difference. Stretch your neck long—and then, in Dr. Michael Hartle’s words, “rotate the chin in the direction of your chest around the axis going through your ears.” This will flatten your neck against the stick. You may have to practice it lying on your back at first.
- Look straight down on the ground, between your wrists.
- Make tight fists.
- Breathe shallow, as you would when holding a bar on your back between squat reps. Periodically employ Hardstyle breathing—short, powerful hisses. Do your best to keep the tension out of your head and neck.
- Lock your knees and pull up your kneecaps. You will have an easier time doing this if you stretch your hip flexors first.
- Cramp the glutes and try to tuck your tail under (posterior pelvic tilt)—without bending the knees! We do it for many reasons. Contreras has one more and it is right down our alley: “The posterior pelvic tilt develops glute endurance and helps engrain proper deadlift lockout form.”
- You may not let your knees bend or your butt shoot up when you are strongly tucking in your tail!
- A useful cue for the posterior pelvic tilt comes from karate: point your belly button slightly towards your head. Insist on keeping your knees locked and your kneecaps pulled up.
- Use your lats to maximally “unshrug” your shoulders away from your ears.
When you have figured out how to do all of the above, add the following powerful subtleties added to the RKC plank by Dr. Michael Hartle, Senior RKC.
“Make sure the toes are fully extended and the ankle is maximally dorsiflexed.” In other words, point your feet and toes towards your nose. “This aids in the anterior chain contraction one is achieving during this plank.”
Simultaneously drive your elbows and your toes hard towards each other (isometrically). This will make your body pike or jacknife. Prevent your pelvis from rising by tensing your glutes even harder and driving the hips forward, as in the DL lockout. Now you will understand what Bret Contreras meant by the “isometric war”!
Practice the RKC plank in sets of approximately 10sec long, always stopping before the intensity of the contraction drops off. We are in the strength business—not endurance business.
Weightlifting Belts – Should you use one? Pro’s and Con’s
The use of weightlifting belts used to be limited to Olympic lifters and Powerlifting, however in recent years they have become much more widespread and now even people completely new to lifting are using them. Are they really necessary? And if so, what are the correct uses and are there any dangers?
Belts serve two main purposes. They reduce stress on the lower back when lifting in an upright position and help to prevent hyperextension when pressing overhead. A lot of people assume that the belt supports their back, however the actual point of the belt is to increase intra-abdominal pressure which help stabilise the abdomen. For this purpose the best one is a powerlifting type belt which is the same width all the way round. If you are using a belt with a thinner front section, my advice would be to wear it backwards so you can use it as intended.
How to wear it – The correct placing of the belt varies from person to person depending on their own body structure, but as a guide it should be worn around the small of your back and lower abdomen. You want it fairly low, but not so it pushes into your hips/pelvis at the bottom of a squat or deadlift. You want it fairly tight, but as your aiming to push your abs into it, my recommendation is to go for one notch looser than full tightness. This will also make it easier to remove after your set!
How to use it – In order to increase the intra-abdominal pressure, it is important to use the Valsava maneuver. Take a big breath into your belly (not diaphragm/chest), and push your stomach as hard as possible into the belt. Imagine your trying to blow out as hard as possible but with a closed mouth/throat. This pressure against the belt will then provide support around the whole midsection and feel nice and stable. If your belt is done up too tight (see previous point), you will struggle to get a big enough gulp of air into your belly as it’s already being restricted.
When to use it – I personally don’t advise using a belt for every exercise or even for every set of the big lifts. In order to increase your own core stability, you need your lower back and abs to function normally. Try and save the use of the belt for max effort sets only. Correctly performed squats, deadlifts, etc .. work your abdomen and lower back harder than any specific core-type training, especially under heavy load so do yourself a favour, skip the sit-ups and practice your main lifts. I’m not saying you shouldn’t train your abs, but remember the main purpose of your core is to stabilise the spine. When under load this is an absolute necessity, if you use a belt every set, you won’t increase your own strength & stability around the middle and may be more at risk of injury due to muscular imbalances. On top of that, when you do decide to lift without one, you will feel very weak and unstable.
Pro’s of belt use:
- Increased intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) to support spine
- Prevent hyper-extension of the lumbar spine
- Increased stability during main lifts
- Allows heavier weights to be used
- Reduced spinal shrinkage (lower back compression) due to increased IAP
Con’s of belt use:
- Inhibited motor recruitment patterns
- Increased blood pressure
- Injuries can be more severe – due in part to heavier loads being used
- Will not make up for bad technique
- Weaker core (if used excessively)
These are just some pro’s and con’s, if you are interested in a more in-depth study have a read of Stuart McGill’s review here.
In summary, belts are not necessary for most types of weight training in which the spinal erectors don’t work against heavy resistance – i.e. machine work or isolation exercises like bicep curls or lat raises. They can be used for heavy compound lifts, but I recommend only on max effort sets. Anyone with blood pressure problems or heart conditions should use them sparingly, if at all.
Most importantly – Do some research! don’t just throw on a belt because your mate/training partner tells you to, or you’ve read it in some forum somewhere. Read up on what they’re for and why to use them!
Farmers Walks – Build your forearms & traps and strengthen your core – all whilst doing your ‘cardio’
Anyone who has performed a Farmer’s Walk with a significant weight will agree, they are killers! Although they look straightforward, they work your whole body, leave you gassed, and have been referred to as the ‘moving plank’ by spine specialists – Definitely a recommended ‘core’ exercise as far as I’m concerned. As a ‘Hench’ conditioning exercise, what can beat walking around carrying big-ass weights?
The normal Farmer’s Walk can be performed with just about anything you can pick up, from dumbbells and kettlebells to sandbags and olympic plates (loose plates – savage on the grip!). Simply assume a deadlift position over your objects, pick them up and walk a pre-determined distance for a few sets. As a guide, try to use bodyweight in total, or to be truly Hench, work up to bodyweight in each hand! Aim to walk 30-35 metres around 4-6 times.
The single handed Farmer’s Walk is the king of core strengthening! It will absolutely trash your grip, obliques, traps, lats and just about everything else! Set-up is the same, but with just one weight, swap it after each length (30-35 metres). Again work towards being able to hold bodyweight in one hand for Henchness!
Most importantly – Focus on posture throughout the entire exercise. Keep your shoulders back and down, head up not forward, arms by your sides and abs braced throughout – If you’re walking like a Neanderthal you’re not doing yourself any good! Throw these on the end of your workouts as a finisher, done correctly you won’t be able to hold a weight afterwards!
Start with the two handed variety and move on to the one handed for a real challenge! For a true strongman type Farmers Walk, either use purpose made handles or olympic barbells, the added instability will only increase the benefits of the exercise!