Training for Abs
In the recreational fitness world, abs are among the most sought after muscles for gym goers to train for, along with biceps and pecs for men, and glutes for women. Abs seem to be the muscles that you can regularly see both men and women training to get.
As a strength and conditioning coach with an athletic background up to the collegiate level, you might not like this, but having abs that pop don’t nearly have as much value in performance as they do in aesthetics. You can look at the abs of some of the greatest athletes of all-time, from Serena Williams to Tom Brady to Lebron James to Diego Maradona, and you’re probably not going to be at all impressed by the abs in the manner that you’ll be impressed by each athlete’s highlight reels.
However, since most of you aren’t training at the gym to become World Cup or Wimbledon champs, I have nothing against your desire to train for abs. We’ll be looking at some of the more common ab exercises, others you may not know about, and the potential risks that come with some of these variations. Also, before I begin, you should know that in many cases, it’s not so much the workouts that may be preventing you from being able to see your abs, but, rather, the diet; so if you truly want your abs to pop, especially if you’re past your late 20s, you’re probably going to have to make some serious cuts in your Taco Tuesdays and Happy Hours.
How is it that training your abs can put you at a greater risk of injuring your back? In many cases, the exercises that require you to bend your back is putting uneven pressure on the intervertebral discs. This is a chronic pain problem, so don’t expect this back pain to rapidly show up because it takes a while for it to become noticeable. For this reason, younger people may be able to get their abs to pop, but should they continue the same training regimen as they age, it is not uncommon for the desire to maintain the abs to wane because of chronic back pain. I mean, the Situation on the Jersey Shore was literally made famous for his abs, but it’s been a minute since he has pulled his shirt up at the club.
If you watch any movie with a training montage, most famously the Rocky series, you’re bound to see weighted sit-ups. Much like most other exercises, higher loads increase training volume, which, in turn, allows muscles to grow in size; this applies to pecs, biceps, quads, glutes, and, yes, the abs. However, weighted sit-ups carry with them an inherent risk of back injury since they involve flexing the lumbar spine, thus placing significant stress on the lower back. The repetitive rounding motion with added resistance strains the spinal discs, ligaments, and muscles. In other words, your abs may be popping out, but intense back pain may be just around the corner if you’ve been doing weighted sit-ups for a while.
When you add weight to sit-ups, this creates an imbalanced load distribution, increasing the strain on certain areas of the spine. While the spine is capable of handling a lot, it is not without its limits. Prolonged load imbalance causes excessive pressure on the intervertebral discs, and, ultimately, increasing the risk of injury. And if you’re one of those that wants to use 45 lb plates with your sit-ups to look more hard core, you may only be speeding up the process of your chronic back injury.
In 2018, I attended a coach’s clinic at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas. One of the presenters was physical therapist Heather Linden. She mentioned how so many fighters suffer from back pain, yet claim they’re constantly training their core. As Dr. Linden put it, most were only training the rectus abdominus (aka the six pack). Doing this overloads the strength capabilities in the front portion of the core, but the side and rear are left to become weakened, thus leading to a muscle imbalance that can lead to poor core stability and increase the likelihood of developing lower back pain and injuries.
Unfortunately, sit-ups aren’t the only weighted core exercise that can lead to chronic back pain. Weighted side bends involve bending the spine to the side while holding weights. Much like weighted sit-ups, this movement pattern can put excessive stress on the intervertebral discs and the muscles and ligaments supporting the spine. Remember, it takes time for you to notice, but, eventually, this can lead to strain, sprains, and pain.
What is my least favorite ab exercise I see people doing at the gym? By far, it’s the Russian twist. I wish I could say I’ve always thought this and never had my personal training clients doing Russian twists, but that would make me a giant liar. These make you so vulnerable to suffering chronic back pain because you’re maintaining lumbar flexion under load as you twist side to side. While there is little doubt that these can help abdominal and oblique muscles increase in size, thus making the abs more noticeable, you’re also putting so much uneven pressure at multiple points on the intervertebral discs in the lower back. I literally cringe whenever I see guys doing these with a 45 lb plate.
Probably the most unfortunate thing about being a guy is that we are always in constant competition about who can lift the most, and doing this when training your abs is a really bad idea. While there’s no problem with adding load to core exercises, you really want to avoid adding too much load. Unlike the quads, which are attached to the femur and connected from the hip to the knee, the abs can influence the back, in which a superhighway of nerves exists in the spine; in other words, any injury the occurs in the spine while training the abs, the amount of pain you experience is going to be really, really bad! Placing excessive load on the spine compromises structural integrity and increases the risk of back injuries.
Protecting Back Health
The aforementioned stuff is just what you need to be aware of, and the following is how you can properly train the core to increase its strength and limit the risk of injury.
As with any exercise, you cannot allow yourself to overlook great technique because this is what is going to allow you to avoid unwanted injuries. Emphasize proper form and technique during abdominal exercises. Avoid the typical gym bro ab workouts that require excessive lumbar flexion or lateral bending; instead, prioritize controlled movements that engage the core muscles without compromising spinal alignment.
What is the most important thing you need to know about the core? Its primary mission is to maintain back stability, which is what has to happen to avoid spinal injuries. You can do this by adding exercises that promote core stability and engage all the muscles of the core, such as plank variations, bird dogs, Pallof press, and dead bugs. Each of these exercises that can help improve core strength and stability while minimizing the risk of back injuries.
Practice patience when training the core, namely when load is added, as this can best help you avoid chronic back injuries. Start with lighter weights and commit yourself to be hyper-focused on maintaining proper form and technique before gradually increasing the resistance. The best way to maximize spinal integrity is to make improvements come gradually.
For the males and females that want their abs to pop, I get it. Social media, popular culture, and social pressure makes aesthetically pleasing physiques a desirable goal. For guys, when multiple studies indicate that women are most physically attracted to good abs, that’s just more reason to want to get abs that pop. While weighted sit-ups and side bends can get them to pop, you need to seriously consider the chronic back injury risks that come with these two exercises and ask yourself if a life of back pain is worth the cost of turning heads at the beach for a summer or two. Lucky for you, prioritizing healthy eating and proper nutrition, while performing exercises that increase core stability and reduce your risk of back injury, you’ll be able to have those abs and live a life without having to struggle with chronic back pain.