Friday, November 20, 2015

We don't do abs; everything we do is abs

Claudia finishing her strength day with a kettlebell/box jump workout.

Lately I've been getting a lot of question about abs.  Some people want to know what we do for abs, or what extra bonus work they can do. It's always a leading question too, like "can I do some sit-ups (or crunches, or planks)?"  I always say no.

Why don't I allow you do to those movements? At best they're a waste of time, and I'm not willing to give up the opportunity cost of you doing something more valuable at the gym. At worst those movements are actually harmful (ever notice how much your spine bends in a sit-up?). People spend way too much time using their abs to generate motion - sit-ups or crunches, for example. That's not what those muscles are really meant for. Sometimes people will get really good at using their core for stabilizing, like planks. That's a bit better, but it's still not what I want you spending your valuable time at the gym doing.

The best way to train the trunk (I hate the term "core"), is to use it how it's meant to be used: reflexive balance. We train that with lots of carries: farmer's walks, suitcase carries, overhead carries, sandbags (when I get some new bags that don't leak). All of those things load you in an off-balance way, and the act of walking requires many quick micro-moments to stay balanced. This trains your trunk better than anything else.

But more than that, everything we do has implied trunk-strengthening (or at least activation) required. Heavy squat? Kettlebell snatch? Power clean? Pull-ups? Everything we do requires you to tighten your entire trunk, from front to back and the sides - to create a "barrel" that can support the weight you're lifting. If you're floppy, you won't lift much weight. The act of lifting more weight will strengthen those muscles.

But what about those tests like the Presidential Fitness test with their timed sit-ups? Number of sit-ups in a certain time may be an okay test, because it should be correlated with how strong your trunk is. But I bet you that someone who squats 600 pounds will perform much better on that test than someone who only "does abs". Training for a test will make you good at a test. Training for fitness will make you good at the test (if it's a good test of fitness), but will also make you more fit.

I personally do a ton of loaded carries and lots of heavy overhead kettlebell work, both of which require lots of trunk activation. I'm a bit cocky about how strong I think my trunk is. Last week I did the Tactical Strength Challenge (Deadlift, Pull-ups, Kettlebell Snatch), and guess what was the most sore when I was done? My trunk! Those three simple movements required so much trunk activation that by the end of the day, that was the most-used muscle group.

So do you want to get a stronger trunk? Do more heavy lifting and more heavy carries. Don't waste your time and risk injury doing "abs". No sit-ups at Barbell Strategy - don't even ask.
Squat 3x5 (~80%)
Deadlift 3x5 (~80%)