Ok, so I have to confess, this post isn’t actually about getting a six pack; I just wanted to get your attention with a catchy title!
But, I am going to tell you how to get the most out of your ab exercises to make you stronger and to help prevent lower back injury both in AND out of the gym.
Perfect, consistent technique.
It’s what we should all strive for when we’re in the gym.
However, sometimes people get so focused on how their technique looks that they don’t think about how an exercise is supposed to feel. Proper activation is very important and it is one of the most overlooked aspects of exercise performance.
The most common example I see of this is during core stabilization exercises.
For example, I know a few gym members who can perform picture perfect Ab Wheels. But, when I ask them if they feel it in their abs, they say no. In fact, most people say they feel the majority of activation in their low back musculature.
Obviously there’s something wrong here. Think about it…
Does it make sense that an Ab Wheel is producing a lot of activation in your low back?
Unfortunately, people don’t consider this and instead are only focused on their technique.
Why is this a problem?
Because you’re not training the ab muscles to “know” what it feels like to effectively brace your core.
As a result, you’ll be less likely to properly brace during big, compound movements in the gym, or when you perform various physical tasks outside of the gym.
Ultimately, this will increase your chances for a low back injury and/or general wear and tear.
So, how do you get your abs to “turn on” when performing exercises like the Ab Wheel?
Well, it’s kind of a personal thing, but here’s the most successful strategy I’ve used.
Get The Abs To Feel The Burn
The principle is this- perform an exercise during which you feel your abs working.
Then, right after, perform the exercise you’re looking to get better activation in.
While you’re performing the second exercise, focus on reproducing the same feeling in your abs.
Here’s the primary way I implement this strategy.
First, perform a modified Dead Bug.
Simply lay on your back with your legs up. I like to place my hands under my back to maintain the natural curve in the low back. This is a Dr. Stuart McGill strategy with the specific style of crunch he recommends based on his 30+ years of research.
Brace your abs and drive your low back into your hands. Then, slowly lower your legs until you feel your abs start to activate. Once you experience good activation, hold that position for 10 or so seconds.
Don’t lower your legs so far that your low back starts to escape the back of your hands.
Keep in mind that this is going to be individually specific. Don’t just try to replicate the position The Chief demonstrates in the picture above.
At no point should you feel this in your lower back. Remember, the point of doing this in the first place is to learn how to properly activate your abs.
…This last pic obviously has nothing to do with the exercise. This is our little princess, Sasha, demonstrating her famous Dead Bug position. She likes to do this when she doesn’t want to listen to you.
From there, immediately go to the exercise you’re looking to get activation in. For this blog, let’s assume it’s an Ab Wheel.
Perform 3-5 reps with the Ab Wheel. Try to replicate the same feeling in your abs that you experienced during the modified Dead Bug.
Work within a range of motion that allows you to maximize ab activation and eliminate any feeling in your low back.
If you’re successful, repeat this until you’re able to simply start your sets going right into the Ab Wheel.
It’s individually specific, but most people only need to do this a few times to get their abs firing appropriately.
Your Abs Are Firing, Now What?
It seems as though “core strength” is one of the most commonly used phrases nowadays.
However, Dr. McGill’s research suggests that improving the endurance capabilities of the core is more important.
And, if you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it?
Unless you’re performing a big 1 rep max in the squat or deadlift, higher rep sets and life in general are going to be more impacted by the endurance capabilities of your core.
For example, growing up good ol Dick White had Chris and I split and pile a lot of firewood.
If Chris or I did just a couple pieces, our backs would be fine the next day. However, more than likely we’d do this for at least an hour or two. The next day(s) our backs would be a little stiff.
This same idea applies to other outdoor activities- raking leaves, shoveling snow, etc. It’s really the higher volume that tends to wear us out, not a smaller/more condensed effort.
So, how can you adjust your core training to better meet these functional needs?
It’s simple- increase your volume.
Volume is your sets, reps, and/or frequency.
So, you can increase the number of sets you perform.
You can increase the number of reps you perform.
Or, you can increase the number of times you train your core.
Whatever combination you decide on- make sure your abs are properly activated on each rep and the quality remains consistently high.
Here’s a hypothetical on how to increase your volume using the Ab Wheel. Let’s assume you’re currently performing 3×10 on 2 separate training days.
So, your starting total volume would be 60 total reps (3 sets X 10 reps X 2 days = 60 total reps).
Week 1- 3×12-15. 2 days a week. This totals 72-90 total reps.
Week 2- 4×12-15. 2 days a week. This totals 96-120 total reps.
Week 3- 4×15-20. 2 days a week. This totals 120-160 total reps.
Week 4- 4×25. 2 days a week. This totals 200 total reps.
Week 5- 3×25. 3 days a week. This totals 225 total reps.
Week 6- 4×25. 3 days a week. This totals 300 total reps.
See how you can reach your endurance goals by slowly increasing your volume?
Using this hypothetical progression, you’d increase your volume by 5 over the course of 6 weeks. That’s a pretty significant increase!
If you ran 5 times as much as you do now (assuming you run), you’d probably get in better shape, right?
But, if you were to make such an increase in 1 week, you’d probably be sore, miserable, and at risk for an overuse injury, right?
Be smart and make gradual increases in volume to reach your goals in a safe and sustainable way.
If you’re using the Ab Wheel or other bracing exercises in your training, you’re awesome.
However, if you’re not “feeling the burn” in your abs, I’m sorry, but you’re not as awesome as you could be.
I hope the quick fix I detailed above can help you out.
And, once you get the activation aspect down, consider progressing your volume and emphasizing more endurance, if you think it will help you reach your goals.