Monday, March 28, 2011

Boyle-ing Abs

I can’t even tell you how often I hear someone at the end of the workout say something like “I need to do more abs, I want to get a six-pack." The truth is that passing on a six-pack is a better way to get a six-pack than six hundred sit-ups. The key to abdominal definition is the visibility of the abdominal musculature, not the strength of the muscles. You can do one million sit-ups, crunches or whatever exercise you want and it will have no effect on abdominal definition. When people ask me the best exercise for abs I tell them table push-aways. 
It usually takes a few minutes for them to get it. It’s not a joke, it’s the truth. If you want better abs, eat less and train more but, don’t just train your abs.
Email from Coach Mike Boyle

He continues:
The truth is there are lots of good reasons to do abdominal work or core training as we now like to call it. A strong core (strong abs) is one of the keys in the prevention of  back pain. A strong core will help you look better and improve performance in a host of sports but, sit-ups or any other abdominal exercise will not reduce bodyfat.  The fact of the matter is that crunches will lead to back pain long before they lead to visual abs.

One way to define core strength is by measuring the ability of an athlete to resist deflection of the spine under load.  In other words, if you can pull 400 pounds from the floor while sustaining the stability of your spine, that's a objective measure of your core strength.  It's also a measure of your core strength when you push or pull a heavy object, throw a ball/spear/rock, jump, execute a clean and jerk, and/or punch a heavy bag.  In each of these events, power is generated in the hips, usually by pushing against the ground through your legs, and transmitted in a wave through the torso to the arms.  If your core cannot make itself rigid, it becomes a poor force transmitter.  The interesting thing about our bodies is that we need to bend sometimes, and to be rigid sometimes.  Structurally, to be able to bend, we must be built in such a way that our ability to make ourselves rigid is compromised.  Like all design problems, the trick is to optimize these capacities to gain best function.  For example, most of us would not be well served to be as flexible as a yogi or gymnast, nor would be we be optimized if we were as strong as world class strong man competitors.  For a general level of fitness, we need strength, and we need mobility through a full range of normal joint motion, and we can have both without compromise, as that's what we're made to have.

There are some gymnastics movements that require an aggressive flexion of the trunk - think of making your body look like a parenthesis, in which your hands and feet are in front of your belly.  Situps and crunches might be useful to that end, but that's an exception to the general rule that to have core strength, you must pick up heavy things.  You can get strong limbs and metabolic conditioning from swimming, but you can't get core strength.  You can be fast and mobile from sprint training, but there's a limit to the amount of core strength you can create by sprinting.  You can develop immense aerobic capacity and leg drive from intense bicycle training, but you will be deficient in core strength (not to mention eccentric weight bearing capacity).  You can grow powerful in grip and arm strength from climbing ropes or doing pullups, but of course, this does not make your core strong. 

What to do?  Learn to squat, learn to deadlift, and use those modalities with your swim, bike, pullups, situps, rope climbs, med ball throws, sled pushes/drags, and sprints to develop a balanced, general fitness, which lends itself well to any physical challenge.  Does this sound like a "core strength and conditioning" program?  It is, in both meanings of the word.  It must make your core strong to be effective, and will serve as the core of any training one might want to attempt.  This is why successful S&C programs look similar, and utilize squats, deadlifts, sprinting, olympic lifts, jumping, dragging, pushing, etc. 

I agree with Coach Boyle in that having a six pack is about eating.  Having a strong core, including functional and very strong abdominal muscles, means you need to get busy stabilizing your spine whilst enjoying squats, deads, cleans, and presses lest you become all show and no go.

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