There are so many myths and misconceptions in the world of fitness and I would hazard a guess that a good 90% of these revolve around the core and abdominal muscles.
If you’re following the Fit Bride Bootcamp series, you’ll know that this month I had a special request from Staci for this month to be ‘abs month’. I was more than happy to oblige. Not only are abs one of my favourite muscle groups to train, we’re also really getting into summer holiday season now! With crop tops and bikinis all over the place, Staci isn’t the only one of my clients who has been wanting a big focus on the troublesome tummy area!
The thing is, words like “core” and “abs” are thrown about all over the place, often incorrectly. It’s no surprise that people often end up disappointed and frustrated when they don’t achieve the core strength and/or ripped six-pack that they desire.
So I thought I’d set a few things straight.
The Six Pack
What is commonly referred to as the six-pack is actually just the one muscle- the rectus abdominis.
It runs vertically down the torso and is superficial – on the outside of the other muscles. This is why, when the muscle is built up and the body fat percentage is low enough, it can be seen visibly.
You can do all the crunches in the world but without some cardio or high intensity weight training (and a consistently good diet), you can say goodbye to that definition! You just can’t expect the six pack to show if you’re carrying too much excess body fat. No matter how strong your abdominals are (more on that later).
Everyone has a six pack, but they come in all shapes and sizes. Genetics plays a huge role in the shape and size of your muscles. Some people have larger upper abs. For others, it’s the lower ones. Some people are symmetrical. Others are not. You’ll never have exactly the same abdominal structure as someone else. So stop focusing on the pictures of fitness models and focus on YOU.
As well as the rectus abdominis, there are three more muscles that make up the abdominal group. These are the internal and external obliques, located around the sides of the abdomen, and the transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominis (TVA) is underneath all the other abdominal muscles and goes around the spine for protection.
If you want well rounded definition, you’ll want to work on your external obliques. Exercises such as side raises and cable woodchops are brilliant ways of targeting this area to achieve the “side lines” that enhance the overall look of the abdominal area.
Both the internal and external obliques are crucial muscles for stabilization. More important than the rectus abdominis (which is actually a pretty inefficient muscle). It’s for this reason that someone could have a six pack, but if their obliques are weak then they won’t have that essential stability for compound movements such as squats or overhead presses.
The transverse abdominis is the other muscle that is key to strength and stability- this time of the pelvis and the lower back.
It’s the muscle that you feel when you think about “drawing in the belly button”. The ability to correctly activate the TVA is key to postural stability. That feeling of drawing the belly button towards the spine is otherwise known as stomach compressions, which are often used as activation for this muscle.
The plank is often used as a strengthening exercise for the transverse abdominis because it forces the stomach compressions to work against gravity – a more challenging feat than when lying on the back or sitting upright!
Muscles work together. You can get good definition by working one muscle in isolation but that doesn’t lead to overall core strength.
Other muscles in the body also contribute to the ‘core’ – which is a bit of an overused and very vague term. For example, the hip flexors, the glutes and the back muscles are also key to strength and stability.
A strong group core muscles helps to protect the skeleton, the spine in particular. By default, a strong core prevents injury during both exercise and everyday life.
It’ll also improve your ability to workout to your full potential. You’ll have the stable foundation required to perform the majority of exercises with correct technique.
The Fit Bride Bootcamp Abs & Core Workout Explained
You’d warm up for any other workout, so why not the abs? I like to do a few walkouts (from standing into plank and back) just to prepare my body and get a bit warmer. It’s also useful to lie on your back and just get that feeling of pressing the belly button towards the spine. Practising these stomach compressions just helps to switch on the mind-muscle connection to the TVA.
I love to work on stability. If anything because the exercises tend to be challenging but fun! I do a lot of work on Swiss balls. They serve as an unstable surface to force your stabiliser muscles to kick in! Equipment such as bosu balls and TRX also serve this purpose. For the Fit Bride Bootcamp, I used a combination of stabiliser exercises for the abs (Swiss ball crunches), back (Swiss ball back extensions) and the glutes/legs (Swiss ball glutes bridges).
These are the killers for the lower portion of the rectus abdominis and the hip flexors. Hanging leg raises, scissor kicks and plank jacks make a great combination. None of them involve crunches or sit ups and they all leave a super satisfying burn. In the plank jacks, be sure not to stick the bum in the air and support the lower spine by switching on that TVA!
Every workout needs something that’ll just finish you off. Working muscles to fatigue is necessary to get that pump and make the muscles grow. Weighted get-ups add a challenge for the rectus abdominis, while Russian twists will tire out the obliques. I like to finish with a static exercise – such as a v sit hold- just to make sure I’m completely done!
You can do a million and one sit ups every night and sure you might feel like it keeps you relatively ‘toned’. But if won’t give you a six pack or encourage weight loss. You need variety, different angles and different styles of training. You need a good amount of attention to all the muscles in the ‘core’ group. Most important of all you need motivation and hard work!
Make sure to head on over to LnL to see the full Abs & Core workout video and to read Staci’s commentary from Month 5!