The one question I get asked the most is either; “What’s the best fat-burning exercise?” or “How do I get great abs and fast?”. The former is a topic for another day but the latter is a great question, in fact it was only this morning that one of my male Bootcampers asked me this exact same thing.
Tim Ferriss, author of the excellent ‘Four Hour Work Week’ (a must-read in my opinion although I don’t like it as it almost begs ‘dog-earing’ of pages, which freaks me out a bit) once said that this was the question he received the most also. He said he would carefully write down the answer to the question and hand it to the person who’d asked… and guess how many people did what he said and indeed succeeded? None.
This may seem a rather bizarre tale. He knew, he told them, it works and they still didn’t do it. Why not?
You’ll have to excuse me but I need set the stage a little first before answering that one.
‘Abs’ versus ‘Core’
Before delving a little deeper let us first find out what the abs and more importantly the core is. Targeting the core is the goal in so many disciplines from Yoga to Pilates, from gymnastics to running, from Karate (the chi) to strength training; the list is endless. They all use and refer to the ‘core’ in different ways, yet the ‘crunch’ is often seen as the way to target it.
The core is made up of several different major muscle groups including:
- The pelvic floor muscles
- Transversus abdominis
- Internal and external obliques
- Rectus abdominis
- Erector spinae
There are also minor core muscles including the latissimus dorsi, glutes (maximus and minimus) and trapezius. The core is not just your abs (or rectus abdominis to be precise). The core at the end of the day is all that is involved in stabilising the thorax (chest/ ribs cage) and pelvis during dynamic movement.
‘Abs’ really just refers to our rectus abdominis (the ‘six pack’ – and yes we’ve all got it there whether it’s hiding or not!) and obliques at the outside. The rectus abdominis are primarily responsible for spinal flexion (movement that produces forward bending, such as bringing the chin toward the chest, bending forward at the waist as if to pick up an object or crunching in at the waist as if to receive a blow). Therefore a crunch-type exercise only serves to improve spinal flexion.
The only people that really need to be strong in spinal flexion are American footballers, rugby players, wrestlers and martial artists. For all other people, the core is what we want to make strong for purely functional reasons in everyday life and to increase efficiency in exercises such as walking, running and jumping. Plus someone with a strong core (all the muscles mentioned above) looks balanced and usually stands upright and if the fat level is low enough, usually 12-15% for men and 14-18% for women, then a strong core shows a true athletic looking body. Conversely someone who has been performing nothing but crunches as their core work, is probably stooping forwards with poor posture and will have an increased tendency for a lower back pain, due to an imbalance from front to back.
There are much better ways of targeting the core than doing crunches and besides most people crunch incorrectly with poor form and this can invariably lead to injury, back pain and poor posture. In fact, my personal least favourite item of gym equipment is the ab cradle, for precisely these reasons.
So, if the risk of injury is greater than the reward then why do crunches or sit ups at all? A good question and unless you’re an athlete looking to protect yourself in spinal flexion, or a bodybuilder or cover-model looking for the aesthetic advantage of having bulging abs, a crunch occasionally creates the hypertrophy stimulus necessary. Remember though again, these people have low body fat already to show them off… If I had to do a crunch, I would nearly always ensure the crunch or weighted crunch was done on a Swiss-ball to isolate the rectus abdominis (even though the obliques do contribute to spinal flexion) and keep my ‘eyes to the sky’ to avoid neck-craning and precipitous neck and back issues. This exercise offers a greater range of motion than the floor without putting your lower back at risk. For functional crunches for athletes (rugby players and the like), I’d consider overhead medicine ball slams and straight leg sit-ups to recruit these muscles.
So Why do We Have Abs Then?!
At this point you might be thinking if spinal flexion is so bad then why do we have such a plethora of muscles capable of performing it. It’s a good point and the theory is based on evolution. Our vulnerable parts are all at the front with less vulnerability at the back suggesting that as a species we evolved to run away from our enemies. Originally we used to walk on all fours thereby protecting our organs but once upright we had no large teeth or claws to protect our front. Today when attacked or if we think we are going to be hit, we automatically hunch, roll our shoulders forward and tighten the muscle sheath around our organs… or spinal-flex. In today’s world, hunching is everywhere, at the computer, the dinner table, on your iPhone, slumping in a chair or sofa. It begs the question that if your spine is constantly flexed (and badly) then why would you go to the gym and exacerbate the problem with a spine-flexing exercise like a crunch? The answer of course is you don’t or shouldn’t, unless you are an athlete who needs to be able to spinal-flex as part of their sport. Have I said this already?!
What are the Alternatives Then?
So how can we work our core without spinal-flexing? Simply put we use non spinal-flexing exercises such as:
- Isometric Holds such as: Planks (and all the myriad variations, such as mountain climbers)
- Hip Flexions such as: Suspended or Hanging Jacknifes or Low Pulley Pull-ins.
- Shoulder Extensions such as: Roll-outs and Swiss Ball Salutes.
- Squats, Lunges, Push-ups or any other compound exercise which requires a strong core to stabilise the pelvis and/or thorax
Number 2 and 3 above require a great self-knowledge of how to rotate your hips and activate the correct muscle groups and should be reserved for those that can activate their core very easily (therefore finding it very hard) on the isometric holds. As I often say, a front plank is harder the stronger your are. However for someone that has trouble really feeling the core engage on a plank, a jackknife or a rollout is rarely going to be effective.
When progressing appropriately, 2 and 3 can be extremely effective. With rollouts for example, research has shown that an abs-slide rollout works 25-30% more the rectus abdominis than does the standard crunch (and you are not flexing your spine). These exercises also serve to integrate and stabilise your core meaning not only are they more effective but they are much safer for you back. And just as in a Swiss ball crunch some roll outs are better than others. The abs wheel though effective is difficult to progress from kneeling to feet and progressive improvement is key. Hence the reason why myself, and everyone at PWPT, will include lateral chops and twists, Olympic lifts, abs-slides, push-aways, front squats, walkout push-ups and static holds, such as a variety of planks and climbers, in all our workouts and Bootcamp sessions.
The Take-Home Message?
There are many safe and effective core exercises other than the crunch, so unless you are going to appear on the cover of a magazine in a swimsuit or take part in Olympic wresting then take it easy on the crunching.
So what about the big Tim Ferriss question? “How do I get great abs fast?”
Some people get lost in the minutiae of exercise. Paralysis by analysis if you like. However, after years of following a conventional routine of crunches and sit ups, he discovered he could attain discernable abs in 3 weeks by doing only the routine below, as long as you had or had maintained 12% body fat (women – 18%). If your body is higher than this, then it would obviously take longer.
Men – 50 kettlebell swings followed by 10 myotatic (Swiss/Bosu Ball) crunches and 10 ‘Cat Vomit’ exercises (6 minutes in total, twice a week).
Women – the same but adding in timed (quality!) planks and hip flexor exercises.
Eat a minimum of 30g. of protein for breakfast with vegetables and for all other meals only eat low/slow carbs (e.g. quinoa and sweet potato, twice a week) with protein and lots of vegetables. No A,B,C,D,E,F.
…and nobody stuck to it because? Because you also need those oh-so rare ingredients commitment and discipline, rather than just the idea. This is something that no amount of abdominal and core exercises will take care of.
Can you do this? Many PW Campers can, or at least we’ll find out in 10 days’ time 🙂
p.s. Feel free to share the knowledge with your fellow fitness buddies. Everyone could do with knowing this I believe. Use the share buttons to the bottom left of this post.