For decades, we all thought that sit-ups and crunches were the way to develop six-pack abs. While exercises that use that bend-forward motion called “trunk flexion” do work the rectus abdominis (the front side of the belly that produces that washboard look), training that muscle through flexion is downright dangerous, according to Stuart McGill, Ph.D., one of the world’s foremost experts in spinal biomechanics.
McGill’s extensive research has led him to conclude that with enough bends, the spinal discs will suffer injury. Not might. Which is why he suggests skipping crunches entirely, and saving those trunk folds for the ones you’ll inevitably need in your daily life. Let’s call that new core training rule number one.
New Core Training Rule #1:
Don’t Bend So You Don’t Break
Even if we set aside the potential for injury, there’s another reason why bends and twists aren’t a great way to train the core: Those movements aren’t really the core’s main function.
“Sure, you can bend and extend and flex and rotate, but at the end of the day the core is probably more of a force transmitter than a force producer,” says Mike Robertson, co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training and creator of Robertson Training Systems. “That’s a big shift for a lot of people.”
New Core Training Rule #2:
Train the Core to Do the Work It Actually Does
While the rectus abdominis is responsible for flexing and bending the trunk, it’s only one of five muscles in the abdominal wall. What we commonly refer to as “the core” includes many more. Most of the time, the main function of this group of muscles is stabilization—keeping you upright while your extremities (arms and legs) move and shift. The core also transfers force from the ground into movement. Robertson, who trains professional athletes from nearly every major sport, says a good example of this is to picture a sport like baseball or golf.
“When you hit a baseball or golf ball, your core isn’t there to produce force,” Robertson says. “Your hips and thighs—those big muscles through the lower extremities—are what impart force into the ground. The ground basically reacts back, and your core is what gets that force out to your arms and into whatever implement you’re holding.” This is why Robertson seconds McGill’s suggestion to scrap sit-ups and the like, and instead employ moves like planks, dead bugs, and even push-ups.
“People may not think of a pushup as a core training exercise but it absolutely is,” Robertson says. “Any movement where your core acts as a stable pillar while you create motion with your legs or arms” will give you the effect you’re going for here. Even if you are already performing these effective moves, however, Robertson says there’s an all-too-common posture problem that can undermine your work. Thankfully, he also says that the solution is right underneath your nose. This rule may be the biggest game-changer of all.
New Core Training Rule #3:
Breathe Yourself Into Better Alignment
According to Robertson, many people are stuck in what he calls an “inhaled” or “extended” posture. You may never have heard those specific terms in regards to alignment, but you’ve surely seen the position: ribs hiked up and out, belly hanging down, pelvis slumping forward, with a deep curve through the lower back.
“A lot of our clients come in with this extended posture,” Robertson says. “When they do, it doesn’t matter what core exercise I give them. If they stay in that posture their abs are never in the right position.” To correct the problem, Robertson says he instructs whatever client he’s working with to first exhale fully, which can actually feel uncomfortable for some as strange as that sounds.
“We’ll cue in through the nose, out through the mouth,” Robertson says. “Once the exhale is done, we’ll pause for three to five seconds. For people who’ve been stuck in the inhaled posture, when we get all of that air out, it’s very hard for them to actually pause, because their brain is instinctively telling them ‘I’m suffocating.’ But it’s not, and when you get all of the air out of the ribcage, the lower ribs can come down, the pelvis comes underneath, and everything will be in a better starting position. “So now any abs exercise that you do, if you lock in that position, you’re going to get more out of it,” Robertson says.
Once you’ve gotten your body into this “exhaled” position, the trick is to maintain it while you’re inhaling. To do so, Robertson asks clients to think about filling both the ribs and the belly with air simultaneously. “When we’re cuing diaphragmatic breathing, we’ll cue in through the nose, and when you breathe through the nose, the chest and the belly fill at the same time—and at about the same rate,” Robertson says. What you don’t want is for the “belly to just kind of pooch out and stick you back in that extended posture.”
Robertson says his clients will spend the first three to five minutes of every workout breathing, finding this proper “exhaled” alignment, and then reinforcing the technique. They’ll spend another five minutes or so breathing at the end of the training session in order to turn off the sympathetic nervous system response and start up the recovery process. In between, the goal is to maintain that balanced chest-and-belly breathing from an “exhaled” position during every exercise.
“With the lower rib cage down, and the pelvis up underneath, the abs are in the right position,” Robertson says. “Now you can do all of those core exercises and get the most out of them.”
Here’s a quick step-by-step breakdown of how to incorporate this breathing technique into your next warmup and cool-down for better alignment and ultimately a tighter core.
1. Take the biggest inhale you can. Notice what it does to your belly and lower body alignment.
2. Exhale and let all of the air out of your lungs.
3. Hold that exhale for 3-5 seconds.
4. During that time, use your lower abs to lift the pelvis into neutral alignment.
5. On your next inhale, try to fill the ribs and belly with air at the same rate.
6. Focus on maintaining that engagement.