Is direct ab/torso work even beneficial?
I have been juggling around the idea in my head for a while now and am beginning to wonder, is any direct abdominal work going to create any performance or function improvement?
The problem I see is far too many everyday folks and even many of the athletes I work with, have almost nothing as far as body awareness goes. So does it really matter if we train the "abs"? Do crunches, oblique raises, bridging, russian twists even transfer to useful human movement, especially when the abdominal work is done prone or supine on the ground.
We all by now know the philosophy, "train movements, not muscles" when it comes to training for performance. It is now common training knowledge that muscles work in integration not isolation. A few years ago this was a paradigm shift from the old-school bodybuiling body part splits training (day 1:chest, day 2:back, biceps/ triceps, day 3: chest, day 4: quads and hamstrings, day 5: chest, again...oh I forgot chest is everyday; you get the idea), to training in terms of movement (upper and lower body push and pull, triple extension, etc.) We came to this realization that when we trained individual muscles and attempt to put them to athletic use, the nervous system was not trained to integrate these strong muscles into smooth, orchestrated movement skills. What bodybuilding style training creates is far more non-contact injuries, muscle pulls, tendonitis (acute inflammation: 1-5 days of pain) to eventually tendonosis (degenerative: chronic pain), and impingement syndromes, along with a whole host of other issues.
Body part training may make you look good, but it doesn't do much for performance. Following the concept of 'training movements, not muscles', why does abdominal training seem to be the exception?
If any of you know me and my training philosophy, you know I am a torso stability guy, specifically lumbar stability. This is an area I feel most people need work. Lumbar stability allows for greater hip and thoracic spine mobility, keeping your knees and shoulders healthy. I use stability exercises such as front and side bridges and back extension holds for torso work. These are simple hold-for-time exercises that train all areas of the abdomen. However, I am starting to use these only for muscle activation purposes, no longer training exercises. You see these exercises do not teach any movement and are done from a position that is not considered athletic or "functional" (I am starting to hate that word). Another problem, most people do not do stability exercises correctly. The hips and shoulders need to be aligned properly and cued to 'fire' a certain way, but that's a topic for another discussion.
So how do we get strengthen the abdomen and what are the best ways to do so? Thinking along the lines that the abdominal muscles are designed to prevent rotation, stabilize the spine, and transfer power from the lower body to the upper body and vice versa, the best training is movement, quality athletic type movements.
People need to learn to squat, lunge, and lift things with their hips maintaining a stable spine. More importantaly though, I think we need to get back to moving athletically more often. Young children don't need direct ab work. They don't have back problems or any of the other issues our ever-becoming sedentary society does. Kids play. They run, jump, climb, dance, reach, pick things up, and do all the other wonderful things kids do. They move...athletically.
I've had sore abdominal muscles after an afternoon of playing pick-up basketball. Did I do any direct abdominal work? No. Did I run, jump, change direction, reach, throw, and catch? Yes. The abdominals resisted rotation, stabilized the spine, and transfered power. When we use our limbs to move through great ranges of motion do different motor skills, our abdominal muscles have no choice other than to work, and work hard!
The issue becomes one of our society. Often times these normally active abdominal muscles have been shut off because we don't use them anymore. We no longer move for survival, we sit. So we need to step back and re-teach athletes/people to move properly again, minus the direct abdominal exercises.
More and more, I am witnessing abdominal exercises causing more problems than good. I seen too much training for the the rectus abdominus re-inforce excessive kyphotic posture, which over time, can and will likely, lead to impairments at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. The dysfunction can go the other direction as well. The excessive kyphotic posture will force the lumbar spine into great lordosis, creating anterior pelvic tilt, shutting the glute muscles off, causing issues traveling from the hip to the knee and then ankle.
Another issue is using rotation exercises for training the obliques. Many times the hips are already "locked-down" from lack of movement, so the lumbar spine has already picked up the slack and become more mobile. Add on twisting oblique exercises and now we are creating rotational sheering going on at the lumbar vertebrae. The increased mobility at the lumbar spine helps to further increase the immobility of the hips and thoracic spine. Again the dyfunction manifests itself outwards throughout the entire body. As you can see, without correct movement skills, direct abdominal training can be potentially harmful.
I am beginning to only using abdominal work such as side or front bridges as part of activation exercises to turn muscles on, not to train them. This is done first in our workouts prior to the dynamic mobility warm-up. I use it to help wake up certain muscles which in turn will hopefully create greater quality movement. As Mark Verstegen of Athletes' Performance Institute says, "Activate, then integrate."
So the question remains, is training the abs an entire waist of time? I don't know the answer but I am having a more and more difficult time seeing the benefit.
Here's a rundown to what I feel is the best way to get a strong torso and one the looks pretty good to boot. Just 3 steps, following in order:
1. Learn to move correctly (regain proper motor control: movement skills, activation exercises)
2a. Pick stuff up off the floor, squat (1 & 2 legs), lunge, step-up, RDL (1 & 2 legs), pull yourself up in a many different ways, and push things away from you. Load all these progressively heavier.
2b. Sprint, jump in many different ways off 1 and 2 legs, jump up onto and off of things, do all kinds of changes in direction, catch and throw balls, climb things, balance. Sounds like what you see on the playground.
2c. Condition, Hard!
3. Get after it... BIG TIME!
This should take care of your "core" pretty well.
Inevitably the question will always come up, what if the athlete/person is too weak in the abdominal muscles to squat or do a deadlift? Go back to number 1 and procede from there.
Don't forget, "Train movements, not muscles"