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Fitness Focus - Sculpt Your Core

Personal health and fitness coach provides tip on core training for tummy toning and six-pack abs. This topic is one of the most frequently asked questions in my business.

After several years of personal training and nutrition counseling at True Health Unlimited, LLC.  I've begun to share much of my learnings with interested friends, readers, and relatives, some of who live in Waukesha.  Earlier this week, I posted a few articles on Patch.  The feedback was very positive and I received a follow up request to share additional posts on Patch.  So, I decided to respond to some common fitness and nutrition questions for interested readers.  Here's a very common one related to core training... 

Q: What is the best way to get 6 pack abs for a man and a toned tummy for a woman?

A: The best way to get abdominal (ab) results that most people seek is to train them correctly with a solid understanding of the basic physiology of the specific muscles involved. When it comes to training for 6 pack abs or toning that tummy, a person really needs to understand the fundamentals of the “Core” to avoid injury and maximize results. I'll first explain some of the fundamentals (a bit lengthy, but really important) and then provide some suggestions to get you started.

Let’s start with the basics of what you need to know about the core. First, the core is made of 29 different muscles. The core has both a local (inner) unit and a global (outer) unit. The local unit consists of muscles that are predominantly involved in joint support or stabilization and are not movement specific. The global unit is predominantly responsible for movement and consists of more superficial musculature that attaches from the pelvis to the rib cage and/or lower extremities. These are the muscles everyone sees and raves about on the commercials and magazines. The bottom line is you have “stabilizers” and “movers” and they must function in harmony for optimal core development, including six pack abs.

When these core muscles are conditioned well and function in harmony, they work together to provide for an optimal range of movements for everyday activity without discomfort.  Unfortunately about 75-90 percent of the population experiences recurrent or daily back pain and research shows that much of it is due to a poorly conditioned core. A poorly conditioned core is often plagued by muscle imbalances and when muscles overcompensate for each other, core disharmony prevails resulting in pain. For this reason, doing sit-ups or leg lifts without incorporating other essential core exercises is not a good idea because it would be like building a big, tall and heavy building on a small, weak foundation.

To prevent this type of muscle imbalance during normal activity and exercise, follow a program that incorporates skilled activation of the deeper muscles of the local unit (stabilizers) on an abs mat and then progressively integrates the superficial muscles of the global unit (movers).

LOCAL CORE TRAINING EXAMPLE (position and hold)

1. Using an abs mat, do the isometric plank* for 2-10 seconds between 12-20 times.

*When doing the plank and any other core exercise, it is very important to simultaneously activate the transverse abdominis (TVA), a deep core muscle of the local core unit.  The best way to do this is to simply draw your navel into your spine or "suck-it-in" and hold for the duration comfortable for you.  Activating the TVA is an important key to flatten your stomach.   In many cases, activating the TVA is the single most effective exercise for woman seeking to flatten the tummy, especially post pregnancy.

2. Do the prone floor cobra for 2-10 seconds between 12-20 times.

3. Try to repeat both exercises for 1-3 sets.

4. After 4-6 weeks of doing this 3 times per week (non-consecutive days), you can progress to some global core training.

GLOBAL CORE TRAINING EXAMPLE (active movement)

1. Do 12-20 trainer ball crunches (moderate tempo) immediately followed by 12-20 reps of bicycle crunches (quick tempo) or until muscles fatigue.**

2. Do 10-15 reverse crunches (moderate tempo shown with black pants below) immediately followed by 5-10 vertical crunches (slow tempo) with legs positioned perpendicular to the ground (pictured with shorts below).

3. Do 12-20 trainer ball back extensions for 12-20 reps (slow tempo).

4. Try to repeat these exercises 2-3 times per week (non-consecutive days) for about 4-6 weeks before making your next progression to more advanced core exercises.

**Technique is everything and therefore, it is always best to learn these exercises with the help of a workout buddy or qualified professional so that you can train in the most effective way.  Also, it is important to note that certain global core exercises can elicit increased muscle size of the global core muscles, which brings the "six-pack abs" to life.  This might be desired by some men, but not by women.  Therefore, women seeking a flatter core need to be cautioned not to overemphasize global core exercises and instead focus on improving the activation of the inner core unit as described above.

My Personal & Professional Recommendation

Core exercises are often the most misunderstood and under-utilized exercises due to a lack of understanding of their importance. I have worked with many people, both male and female, who have tried hard to tone their abs and have done pretty well before I met them. Many times, however, folks focus solely on their global ab exercises featuring movements that flex the spine such as sit-ups, crunches, etc., thereby neglecting local stabilization exercises for their abs and lower back. When local core muscles are weak, dominant global ab muscles cause muscle imbalances, resulting in back pain through time. Sure enough, when I ask most folks with back pain if they do local core stabilization exercises, I often see blank stares.

The good news is that with a little help putting together a balanced core program as described above and adding the understanding of core fundamentals, toned tummies and six packs can be maintained without pain or injury indefinitely.

So the best advice I can give anyone is to make sure the appropriate core exercises are part of any fitness program, especially when trying to tighten the midsection. I often recommend a mix of exercises with varied tempos as described. It's important to know that the effects of global core exercises are much more visible to the naked eye than local stabilization core exercises. Yet, it is the local core stabilization exercises that help your core feel much more stable and maximize the overall sustainability of your physique through time.

In closing, if you'd like to see pictures that go along with each exercise, visit Sculpt Your Core.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Randy1949 April 22, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Makes complete sense. So you just rest on the foam roll and let gravity do the work? Or is there some back and forth motion with the roll?
Dave Barnas April 22, 2012 at 12:45 AM
A little bit of both does the trick. For example, when working with clients, I usually have them position themselves to where the foam roll is directly creating pressure on the muscle that feels tender/tight, which requires some movement. Then, they hold their weight on that region to the level that is comfortable for them (subjective). For most people under age 65, about a 30-60 second hold is effective to help the muscle relax.
Nicole April 22, 2012 at 03:03 PM
What do u mean by stability ball crunches followed immediately by bicycle crunches? What is the bicycle crunches?
Randy1949 April 22, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Follow the link to see a picture of a stability ball crunch. Basically, it's an abdominal crunch done with the torso on a Pilates ball. It looks easier than it really is. I'm not sure about the bicycle crunches and whether they're done on the mat or on the ball.
Dave Barnas April 22, 2012 at 11:26 PM
Thanks for answering the first part of the question Randy. Nicole, after you complete a set of stability ball crunches shown in the link (Sculpt Your Core), you would move onto the abs mat for the bicycle crunches, which are sometimes referred to as sprinter crunches. A bicycle crunch is essentially a movement that begins on your back with your knees bent and feet flat and hands behind your head with elbows on the abs mat. Then, you perform the exercise by bringing your right elbow to your left knee via an ab crunch. You'd then return to the start position and bring your left elbow to your right knee. Then return to the start position. You'd repeat this "bicycle" motion for the desired number of reps. Does that help?

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