One of the most common questions I have been asked over the past 30 years is “Gina….what are the best abdominal exercises for getting a six pack?” For any of you other fitness professionals out there you will understand my reluctance to answer such a complicated question with a few word answer. It is so frustrating for me to comprehend that so many people would think the human body is such a simple machine, where-as in reality it is quite the opposite. There are so many considerations to make before giving an adequate answer to such a complex query, and yet I hear so many trainers give inadequate advice as if there is only one way. That is just pure ignorance and something that I struggle with ignoring if I experience it.
OK, so when I put my exercise physiologist hat on, my first consideration is “what are your current limitations/injuries/abilities?” An exercise that is quite safe for one person can be absolutely destructive for another. Lets take crunches….an exercise I have done for over 20 years when instructing my group exercise classes, but one I never program to clients today nor do anymore myself. My concern with crunches is the amount of disc pressure caused during spinal flexion, and the gradual wear and tear of the disc rings (annulus fibrosus) that can lead to deterioration and eventually predispose the person to a prolapse. But does that mean that no one should ever do a crunch? No! But lets be honest here….no exercise is quite done to death like the crunch! It’s the excessive repetition that causes concern.
Lets look at planks…..the gold standard exercise for developing core strength. Well I occasionally perform dynamic planks (moving from forearm to hand and vice versa) but even planks have their risks. In a horizontal position the vertebrae are not as stable as when in a vertical position (where gravity provides a compressive force from one to the other keeping facet joints more stable) and this can also provide increased risks. So should planks be banned for everyone? No!
As a functional strength trainer myself, I have my OWN favourite exercises that I choose for MY abilities and injuries, and I have to admit I don’t really work my abs in isolation. I prefer to choose exercises where the body works as a unit, so I may not implement abdominal exercises specifically. In every strength training workout I always perform some kind of uni-lateral exercise (i.e. one arm, one leg) for example a one arm cable or dumbbell row, lunges, cable wood-chops, half kneeling single arm overhead dumbbell press. Any exercise where my torso has to stabilise itself in order to perform the exercise properly, and trying to stay in the vertical as much as possible (except for the one arm dumbbell row of course). Explosive exercises are also great for activating the abdominal muscles – box jumps, stair runs, sprinting, boxing, kicking (the last two are awesome as they are explosive through rotation). Rope training is also amazing for working the abs, as too are some kettle bell exercises…..and it can go on and on.
So do your WHOLE body a favour and train the WHOLE body harder and you may be surprised at how much those abs turn on!
My biggest deciding factor when choosing exercises for a person (and for myself…remember I also have a chronic disc injury that I have to live with), is what is the benefit to risk ratio? If an exercise gives me greater benefit and has lesser risk I will choose it over another that is higher risk with less benefit. Elite athletes and a lot of bodybuilders will sacrifice risk to gain that little bit more benefit – so can you see that yet again, one size does NOT fit all. So what ARE the best ab exercises? It will be different for everyone, but yes…… some are definitely better choices over others.
Oh and lets not forget the biggest deciding factor for determining whether you can SEE those abs……your eating habits! If you want to see all that hard work then you will need to do something about your food and drop some body fat.
So that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If your trainer thinks everyone should train the one way….then it might be time to upgrade to a more understanding trainer.