Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to Get a Strong Abs Without Hurting Yourself

Core development is essential to any sport, activity or movement for that matter.  When the deep core muscles that support the spine are weak, your nervous system puts the brakes on your explosive potential as a protective mechanism. Not only that, but insufficient core stability strength will set you up for injury and limit your mobility.

Years ago, I felt that compound exercises such as the deadlift, squat, pull-up, and standing military press were sufficient to strengthen the core to the level it needed to be but my position on core training has changed substantially since then.

With the new core training techniques outlined here, you'll boost explosive power (for those in sport), strength and help flatten your midsection, reduce the chance of a back injury, and most surprisingly, you'll improve mobility.

To Flex or Not Flex

The first issue that needs to be addressed is spinal flexion. Research by Dr. McGill (an expert in the spine and core development) shows that repeated spinal flexion is detrimental to the intervertebral discs. (1) The strategy of rolling out of bed and then bending over to touch the toes with a rounded spine to stretch your back is enough to make McGill have a coronary.

For McGill, the ability to maintain lumbar lordosis (an inward curvature of the low back) while lifting and moving reigns king. When you're working out and your trainer tells you to keep an arch in your low back while pulling a deadlift, squat, etc. he's telling you to maintain lordosis.

McGill has tested many NFL players who have blown-out discs, and as long as they maintain lordosis on the field, they can continue to play. That's how important lordosis is.

A Punch in the Gut

Let's switch gears for a minute.

Imagine you're standing in line at the movies and your friend pulls his arm back and throws a punch toward your gut (hopefully you don't have friends like this).

What happens as you see the punch coming toward your midsection? The nervous system induces a reflex response to pull your ribcage down and in. This allows your abdominals to quickly induce high levels of tension.

Yep, your nervous system is forcing you to lose lordosis in order to develop maximum tension in your abdominals to protect your organs from the vicious blow. This is a necessary protective mechanism, and you should never argue with your nervous system...or your mother but that's for another blog post ;)

Therefore, even though the good doc has shown us that spinal flexion can be detrimental, I believe that some flexing of the spine is ok when training the core (i.e. Knees to Chin, Stabilty Ball Crunch, etc. that we do in our boot camp and personal training programs) however we want to focus primarily on stabilization exercises as we do and as are shown below. But how much spinal flexion is acceptable?

The Test

Try this simple exercise. First, sit up tall in your chair with your chest as high as possible. Feel the bottom of your ribcage push forward as you lift your chest.

Now, place your fingertips on your lower ribs. From here, pull your ribcage down and in until it stops. Make a note of how little your spine flexed when you did that. This is the limit of spinal flexion you should ever train. Any further flexion is detrimental to your spine and discs.

So the good news is that it only takes minimal spinal flexion to develop maximum abdominal tension.

Dying Bug with Wall Push

A core exercise you may want to try is the Dying Bug with Wall Push from Dr. Liebenson.  It's very similar to one we use called Leg Raises.

The "dying bug with a wall push" is an excellent way to teach someone to develop maximum abdominal tension without imposing unnecessary risk to the discs. Maybe you've seen a regular dying-bug exercise, but the addition of the wall push activates the lats, which are essential for core strength.

Perform two sets of 10 reps with each leg (20 reps total).

Leg Curl with Single-Leg Balance

Next up is the leg curl with a single-leg balance performed with a Swiss ball.

This exercise is terrific for building stability strength in the core and hips while activating the hamstrings. It's easy to think that the core is just a collection of muscles around your midsection. In reality, the core functions in a complex manner with the muscles above and below it.

With the dying bug exercise you activated the lats with the core. With this exercise you'll activate the outer hip muscles, glutes, and hamstrings since they help provide stability to the core.

Perform two sets of 10 reps.

Note: The entire sequence from the leg curl through the single-leg balance with each leg is one rep. Be sure to hold the single-leg balance for 4-5 seconds with each side.

The Link Between Core Stability and Mobility

A colleague of mine, Chad Waterbury down in California, tested this hypothesis on a world-champion point karate fighter who had a problematic low back and hamstrings that were tighter than guitar strings. He'd spent years stretching and getting massage and chiropractic adjustments to correct his back and hamstrings problem. Nothing worked.

First, Chad had him perform a standing toe touch test. He could barely reach past his knees. Then he had him perform just one set of the dying bug with wall push and one set of the leg curl with single-leg balance.

Chad retested his standing toe touch and he increased his range of motion by five inches! Keep in mind, this was after just one set of those two exercises. There was no additional stretching involved.

This same benefit can happen with those who have a notoriously tight rectus femoris or tensor fascia latae (TFL). If you have been impaired with overly-stiff hamstrings or quads, work on strengthening the deep core muscles. You'll be surprised how quickly they'll release once you activate the core.

Try it for yourself. Do a standing toe touch test. Then perform one set of the previous two core exercises and retest your toe touch attempt. Expect 4-5 additional inches.

Even better, this type of core training results in a permanent increase in mobility after just a few weeks of daily training. Stretching is rarely the answer to lower body stiffness. It's just a temporary Band-Aid. Usually there's a lack of stability strength at the spinal level that's causing the nervous system to lock up the muscles as a protective mechanism.

Now, let's move on to the last two exercises to complete the core training.

Stir the Pot

Start in a plank position with your elbows resting on a Swiss ball. Make circles with your elbows to activate the lats while the core has to stabilize your position. If you've never performed this exercise before, you'll be shocked by how deep you feel the muscles firing within your core.

Start with small circles for the first workout. Then focus on increasing the range of motion, or size of the circle, as you become accustomed to the exercise.

The goal with this exercise, or any core exercise, is to make it as difficult as possible. The lats and core are so closely linked that you can't really separate the two. But for the purpose of this discussion I'm mentioning them separately.

Perform two sets of 10 reps (five reps in each direction). Go slow at first.

Pallof Press

The Pallof Press is a terrific exercise to train the core muscles that resist rotation.

Perform two sets of each 10 reps per side or a 20-second hold per side.

The Program

Do the following circuit every other day.

The circuit looks like this:
Exercise                                                         Sets       Reps
1A    Dying bug with wall push                       2            10*
1B    Leg curl with single-leg balance            2            10
1C    Stir the pot                                              2            10**
1D    Pallof press hold                                    2             ***

Rest 30 seconds between exercises
* each leg
** 5 in each direction
*** 20 seconds each side

If you don't need this much core training and want to focus on increasing your lower body mobility, do the dying bug with a wall push and the leg curl with a single-leg balance every day until a normal range of motion has been restored.

Beyond Compound Exercises

Compound free-weight exercises do provide a strong stimulus for core development. However, if you're someone who needs to improve your strength and mobility, you need a more targeted approach.

Give this program a try for one month and you'll look and perform better than ever! (2)


1. McGill, S. Low Back Disorders. Human Kinetics, 2002.

2. Article thanks to Chad Waterbury, a neurophysiologist who specializes in body transformation and performance development. He trains everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors. His knowledge of how the nervous system regulates power and muscle development is what sets him apart from the crowd. To find out more, check his website

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