Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ab Exercise Surprise - Moves you mayn't have suspected require (lots of) abs/core

Six pack lust. So many workout programs are sold on the promise of delivering visible abs. As we've talked about before, a 6 pack is largely about body fat %: get it below 10 if you're a guy, 16 if you're a gal, and voila: visible abs. But what if you want stonking great abs? Then work them in traditional isolation patterns of crunches, as per these approaches for more ab strength/hypertrophy? Well, you could. There are some interesting programs to do that and folks like powerlifters and olympic lifters definitely have them - for a specific reason - as part of their workouts.  But you may find that you are already working your abs sufficiently to meet your goals - if you plan the rest of your program right. And on the high side, you'll be able to show off some beautiful skills that simultaneously work the abs.

Known Compounds We know that the abs get worked as part of many "compound" exercises - that is, exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once, and in particular, workouts that work the core: the hip, pelvic, lumbar areas. A kettlebell swing is a great example of a compound exercise that hits the core, getting both upper body, middle and lower body. A turkish get up (as worked through in Kalos Sthenos for example) requires lots of ab work to complete that getting up part. The more traditional squat, likewise. A push up, a pull up (even a pull up, here's a how to resource), all engage the fabulous core, of which the abs are a core part. But these aren't the only ones.

What i'd like to share here are a few exercises that shake up the abs and may be a bit of a surprise to find that they do. What i'd like to ask is to hear from you, if these or any particular moves have surprised you in how they hit your core.

Renegade Row.

The renegade row (detailed here) is a powerful exercise, demanding a lot of rigidness through the middle - like a plank - to maintain form. But unlike a plank, the renegade row is a lovely full body movement that requires a lot of sensory-motor integration and small movement firing.

You'll find that the obliques in particular are hit happily by this one - all the while working the chest, delts, lower back, butt - well lots of full on core and upper body too.

The windmill is a combination press and bend movement.
This one has been a big surprise for me, again working the obliques with light loads and lots of reps, The usual focus of windmill is hip/pelvis stability and shoulder stability, but goodness, this will fire up the middle - again the obliques, but in a way different and lower down than the Renegade Row

Flexed Arm Hang
I like pull ups. I do pull ups. A pull up is a part of the RKC II test - doesn't show up on the RKC I cert test. I looked at the test for the gals for the HKC cert and noticed that it's a flexed arm hang hold for 15 sec - don't even have to pull up to the bar.
A flexed arm hang means hanging onto a pullup bar so that the chin clears the top of the bar.

As a kid, one of the tests for a kid to get a gold fitness medal was a 60sec flexed-arm hang. For a gal who does pull ups, this is gonna be easy peasy.

Er, no, it wasn't. The first thing to start to feel it, beside the shake in my arms? My abs. Oh man.

So y'all out there who do pull ups? Well i got something to say to you: don't go for second best, baby: put your pull up to the test. Make them express how your abs feel then you'll know they're made of steal.

In other words, next time doing a pull up? Stop at the top for 15 secs (or longer, like 70 as in the USMC test) and see how that isometric hold works for you. It may just be a surprise.


Ok, this is perhaps my biggest ab surprise. After watching Andrea U Shi Chang skip non-stop last summer effortlessly for well over ten minutes, and listening to Rannoch Donald of Simple Strength talk about the many values of skipping (here's a discussion over at b2d on facebook), i've thought what the heck - especially for travel. Where do i feel it? Mainly? Yes, abs. That was a surprise.

And if you're interested in giving skipping a go, it's a skill, and one to think of initially in terms of short sets. It can cause DOMS in the areas of the calf muscles not generally worked - even by bicycle couriers.  But as said, more than that, abs will get it good too.

In the facebook discussion, Rannoch points to a couple sources from bodyweight maestro Ross Enemait: Part 1, and Part 2 of his tutorials are here. And here's some inspiration:


Variety is the Spice of Muscle Life
Each of these movements hits the abs in a slightly different way, and that's good - to be able to get the obligues through pulls and rotaion, and the abs through say static holds and higher reps.

What has surprised me is just the fact that these moves have been able to show me the next day the degree to which these are hitting the abs in new ways.  Why the surprise? I do a lot of swings with various load kb's (eg, running the bells). Recently i was able to start adding hanging leg raise work to my routine (until my shoulder said it wanted a break from pull ups) - that's supposed to be a big ab challenge.  i didn't really feel it there the next day, either.  Which suggests that HLR's may be at this point more about technique work than strength development - afterall, i ain't doing 20 in a row.  So, not a new load and not a new enough move to make the abs say "new work."

But skipping? Skipping? for like 70-110 reps? That makes my abs talk to me the day after? 

So, here's the thing, muscles adapt to movements by developing new muscle fiber firing patterns to support  loads and  movements. The more these are practiced, the more familiar, the more literally engrained they become. Change the load; change the movement involving that muscle, and the body has to put effort into learning a new process. 

When we feel that bit of next day challenge (aka DOMS) in a muscle group that's used to being worked one way, we know we're getting it in a new way. That's a good thing: it means our bodies and minds are mapping new skills and adapting in new ways - in this case part of the new adaptation is strength. And as posted recently, hypertrophy starts with rep one. So that's good too.

I'm not saying at all the desire here is to trigger a DOMS response; it's just a way to know that a muscle has been hit in a new way - and that can mean either a new move or a new load. Light DOMS is a way to know that that has been the case.

Potential Trivia:
In DOMS, it's generally the eccentric part of an action that causes the DOMS experience, which is why researchers testing DOMS will often have participants walks backwards down an elevated treadmill.

In the crunch, while most of us usually focus on the energy to contract in, the science suggests it's the uncurling - controlling the eccentric contraction that causes the DOMS response.

Recently we also looked at the role of these eccentrics in helping address tendinopathies - might there be a relationship?

So here's a question:
Above are four examples of Ab Surprises.

What moves have hit your abs/obliques by surprise - when perhaps you mayn't have thought the move was going anywhere near your midsection? Do you still do that move?

Look forward to hearing from you,



Gary Horn said...

Maybe you've already said it somewhere, but what do that abs do? What is their function as it relates to strength? Why should we spot-train for them, other than vanity? Are abs like pecs; pretty but of no consequence where strength is concerned?

dr. m.c. said...

Gary if you take a look at the links in the post about the core, that's a lot about how they work as part of the hip-pelvic-lowerspine complex.
let me know if that helps

Gary Horn said...

Ack. Missed that. Thanks.

Contemplating Conflict: A Blog About Life said...

Of all the exercises I've tried, the following have left an unexpected burn or DOMS in the core:

Explosive chin-ups from a dead hang

High-rep kettlebell snatches

Hanging leg raises to the bar with slow eccentrics

Heavy standing one armed military press with feet together and slow eccentrics

Planks with one arm or leg raised

Heavy odd object lifting (such as a moving day)

Any of those exercises work wonders for core strength, and most would constitute full body exercises in their own right. Put into a circuit training regime, I could imagine someone doing these exercises one after another and earning an easy six pack.


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