Are you training your 'abs' wrong?

18th December 2017

Everybody wants abs of doom. They want to flaunt that sexy, ripped 6-pack - especially over summer! But the reality is; most people are not training their abs correctly for aesthetics or function.

Lets talk for a moment on what I mean about training for function. Your torso can bend and twist; forward, backward, sideways - all kinds of ways! And what causes some of that movement is your abdominal muscles. So you can imagine if you only train one particular muscle group, in one particular movement you're going to start finding that exercise really easy - but how often do you really need to use that particular movement in your everyday life? This is function - what do you need that action for? For example the ever-popular but ultimately ineffective 'crunch'. How many times have you 'crunched' until you puke? Because you thought it would give you a really awesome 6-pack? Well, the good news here, is you don't have to subject yourself to that any longer! Crunches suck for getting that aesthetic, ab-tastic look and how many times in a day do you need to perform a 'crunchlike' action - maybe when you get out of bed?

Firstly, lets talk about your abdominal muscles; what they are and a little bit about how they work so we're all on a common ground about what 'abs' are and then I will explain how you can train your abs more effectively for function - which will lead to fab-abs with the right combination of training and diet. Your abdominal region is made up of the following major muscles and here's the basic action for what they do (we don't have a physio exam coming up, so we don't need to get super specific):

  • Pelvic Floor: The sling that holds your organs in place and stops them sliding down and out, it helps to stabilise your pelvis so it doesn't wiggle around while you try to perform the exercise. It also helps stop you from wetting your pants - handy.
  • Transverse Abdominus: The corset that holds your shape, protects your organs and helps to stabilise your pelvis.
  • Internal and external Obliques: The side muscles that help your body to twist and/or bend left to right. They also help you to flex forward (crunch action).
  • Rectus Abdominus: The 6-pack muscles that look good. They flex your body forward.

These are just the 4 major muscle groups that make up your 'abs'. There are also other muscles that can help perform 'torso flexion' (that crunch action) but they shouldn't; for example your hip flexor group and your rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles). These muscles are meant to help lift the leg but when the abdominal muscles are not strong enough to perform the action or are recruited incorrectly, then these leg/hip muscles start to intervene. Using the wrong muscles for the wrong action can cause injuries such as strains and other not-so-fun problems from over-use.

Hang on to your knickers, I'm going to dive into the 3 common mistakes people make when training their abdominals and how to avoid said mistakes.

1. IMPROPER RECRUITMENT OF MUSCLES FOR THE EXERCISE.

What I mean by this; is as mentioned above, when an exercise is performed with poor technique or when you get tired, your abs start literally crying for help! And your body doesn't want an injury so it naturally puts out the call to other muscles in the area to help out - in this case, usually the hip flexors and quadriceps. Great, help has arrived!

The problem is, we are trying to strengthen our abs, not our leg muscles. In addition, this is not an action we want to train our leg muscles to do - office jobs and sitting all day has already caused a wealth of problems with tight hip flexor; we don't need any more!

The underlying problem for improper recruitment of muscles is because we have not trained our bodies to recruit in the correct order. You wouldn't use a frying pan to make toast or spanner to tighten a screw - we need to use the correct tools for the job!

The table above has been deliberately set out in order of the deepest abdominal muscles to the surface muscles. We need to start with the pelvic floor muscles and the transverse abdominus; affectionately known as the "T-Zone" in Pilates. 

Why do we need to activate the T-Zone? Because by activating these muscles we can stabilise the pelvis so it doesn't rock or twist, by doing so we can control which muscles we recruit to perform the action - so not the hip flexors and quad muscles. Therefore we avoid injuries such as over-use injuries.

2. DOING THE SAME THING, OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

If you really stop and think about, now that you know when you flex your torso (crunch action) you are using your rectus abdominus and your obliques to perform the action; how many different variations of the same action are you doing? Standard crunches, crunches with your legs up, crunches with your arms up, oblique crunches, crunches on a fitball - So. Much. Crunching. Or technically known as forward flexion.

Yes we need to have strong abdominals to help support the spine and have a good base of support for all body functions - but flexion is not the only action we can do to achieve this. Take a moment to think about the kind of actions you need to perform your favourite exercises, common movement patterns at your job or in your daily life and which muscles you are using to perform those actions?

Now that you think about it, are you recruiting the right ones? Do you need to strengthen them to improve your function in that task? From here we can start to look at different exercises to support those actions. Or perhaps you do so much of that action you don't need to add those types of exercises into your workout, perhaps you need to strengthen the opposite muscles instead to help balance your body. For example if we're crunching all day, we're going to start to look like the hunchback of Notre Dame; it's not cute and I can tell you from experience that it's going to start to cause back pain.

3. THINKING THAT AB EXERCISES ALONE WILL GIVE YOU KILLER ABS OF DOOM.

Nope. You can do sit ups for days, won't make a difference. To be able to see your abs - specifically your rectus abdominus, you need be a certain level of body fat. This means consistent training with a mix of cardio training, strength training and diet. My perfect mix has been pole dancing and Pilates training. The pole dancing gives me the strength and cardio aspects.

While Pilates helps me to strength train and also balance my body to ensure one muscle group doesn't get too strong and over-power another causing tightness or even injury (think hunchback of Notre Dame).

I also think that function is much more important than aesthetics, so training for the best body function should be your top priority - yes, stop being so vein!

In addition, your core is made up of more than just your abdominal muscles. Your core are your central stabilising muscles from where all movement comes from. We must strengthen these muscles, in the way that they are intended to move to learn to recruit the muscle activation in the correct order and then when we use them in our other workouts or everyday life the recruitment and therefore action is so much easier.

Your core consists of the following;

  • Abdominals muscles
  • Gluteal muscles
  • Back muscles

To truly have a killer core, we need to strengthen all of these muscle groups. They need to be balanced so that you don't cause yourself an injury or weird tightness and they need to learn to work together by recruiting at the right time, for the right action - no more hip flexors helping in crunches!

I'm saying; you don't need to crunch until you puke! We can work our abs / core in other ways, other positions that are more relevant to our everyday life. For example, I need to be able to hold a straight body in a lot of the pole dancing moves that I do, so a plank is a more effective exercise for my body to practise. I also do a lot of extending my legs away from my torso, so Pilates bicycles are really good for me.

THE SOLUTION?

Pilates. The exercises are physically quite easy, but they require a lot of concentration especially at first to be able to perform them correctly. It still burns like *jeepers creepers* but it subsides within a few minutes.

Personally, I have found Pilates to be an awesome warm up for my main workout; as a way to connect my mind and body, to warm up the muscles I will be using and as a way to strengthen my opposing muscles to the muscles I more commonly use for pole dancing. This has reduced my weird tightness from those opposing muscles struggling to fight back which has significantly reduced my physio bill!

So do you have weird tightness? Do you want abs of doom (functionally)? What actions do you do a lot of? Do you need to strengthen those muscles or the opposing muscles?

Sometimes its hard to know, especially if you are new to exercise. But good news, I'm not! and I like to move in really weird ways so I'm confident I can help you work out what you need to work on!

Join me for a Pilates class, I promise I'll make it fun, informative (I always tell you WHY) and as specific to you as possible.

If you would like some FREE Pilates videos click here!

BONUS:

For an easy video on how to activate your T-Zone, check this video out.