Hello and welcome to part 2 of #abs: The Money Muscles. A lot of you really seemed to very much enjoy the first part of this three part mini series given the number of comments I received on twitter, and I hope you’ll enjoy the next two parts just as much, if not more. As part of the changes that are happening here at MattToronto.com, Tuesdays and Thursdays will feature specific muscles, their function, and how to train them for maximal strength, growth, and athletic efficiency. In my opinion, and I’m sure yours as well or else you wouldn’t be reading here, the human body is an amazing specimen. Capable of doing so much, and through learning and the sharing of knowledge I believe that we all become that much more capable of expanding and extending the boundaries of our physical abilities. This is a very exciting concept to me as I feel there is a somewhat collective result when we all work together to further ourselves and our sport. Having said that, let’s get our learnin’ on!
In the the first installment of #abs: The Money Muscles, we learned the six muscles that make up the abdominal portion of our core. Those six muscles are the transverse abdominis, the internal oblique, the external oblique, and the rectus abdominus. Both sets of oblique muscles are located on either side of the body, so those two pairs added to the other two muscles comprise the six muscles of the abdominal region.
I’m also going to include the erector spinea in this conversation for the purposes of todays conversation. The erector spinea is comprised of three muscles that begin at our neck and travel down the spine to our lower back. The reason I’m including these muscles is because they directly oppose the abdominal muscles, much like the hamstrings do to the quadriceps. When one is contracting, the other is stretching. In every exercise that I use as an example today, the erector spinea will be involved. I’ll get into the muscle of the back in much more detail soon, I assure you.
The main function of the abdominal muscles is to stabilize the spine, and to bend the spine forward, not unlike what a crunch accomplishes. As stability is the primary role of the spine when day to day life is taken into consideration, a weak core will result in an improper lumbar curve and swayback posture. When the spine can not hold itself in its proper position due to muscle weakness or imbalances, then back pain is the result. Today we are going to arm ourselves with an arsenal of exercises to make sure that back pain is something we will never have to seriously consider. Of course due to heavy and frequent training, the management of back pain just like any other muscle pain will have to be addressed, but muscle soreness is not at all the same as back pain.
Taking the issue of core strength a step further, having a strong and stable core will of course improve athletic performance of every kind. I bet even a ping pong player would be that much more lethal with a core that is stronger than their opponent. I’m not knocking ping pong either, it’s a fun game, but I think you get I’m saying. If you want to perform a high level in any athletic endeavor, you core needs to be an asset, not a weakness.
What you may not be overtly aware of is that having a functionally strong core is necessary in order for power to be transferred to the limbs. This means whether we are bench pressing or performing power cleans, a strong core is going to take you to the next level. Spending months trying to get your squat numbers up may be better spent increasing the strength of your core. This method of increasing strength is somewhat counter intuitive to what one would think, and therefore not often the method of choice.
You can’t argue with the facts when it comes to how strength functions in our body. This is because all power, regardless of how that power is being utilized, originates from the center of our body and radiates outward. In order for a rapid contraction to occur in our quads or triceps for example, our core must be completely stable. If our core is weaker than our limbs when performing our lifts, the body will be more concerned with the stabilizing of our core than it will be with the transference of power to the working muscles. As you can see, the first thing that should be addressed in any effective training program should be core strength. This goes opposite to how many train. Core training may not be as glamorous as a big deadlift, but I can guarantee you that if you want that deadlift to grow then addressing core strength is the quickest way.
There is one core specific exercise that immediately comes to mind when working the core as one muscle, and enhancing the natural stabilizing element of the core muscles. It is probably about the least popular too. Any guesses? If you said the almighty plank, then you are correct. This exercise in my opinion is a very true test of core strength, mental strength, and spiritual resolve. Doing a plank and the many variations for any significant period of time is tough. Really tough. If it isn’t, then you aren’t doing it long enough. It should be a mainstay of any serious lifter or athletes regular exercises.
If we were to focus on the muscle most responsible and most trained when it comes to the plank, that muscle would be the transverse abdominis. This of course is very logical due to the fact that this muscle wraps around our core something like a a back brace does, and is the abdominal muscle most influential in the stabilizing of our spine. That makes it in my opinion, the most important of the abdominal muscles. I can’t emphasize enough the value of the plank as part of core training, and conversely to the aesthetics of our abdominal wall. Without a strong foundation, which is precisely what the transverse abdominis will provide, building an impressive exterior will be limited. You can’t hang the art on the walls if the walls are crumbling, right?
The next in the importance of spinal stability is the internal oblique. This muscle is on either side of our torso and is trained best when there is rotation of the torso involved. An few example of this type of exercise would be the crossover crunch, or the side to side kneeling cable pulldown. There are various angles of cable chops that target the internal oblique as well. I like to do these with a straight arm, so the handle is held as far away from my body as possible. By doing so the function of the muscle will be tested, as it’s stability that we are after here. Peak contraction is of secondary consideration with both sets of muscles listed so far.
The external oblique is the oblique that is visible on the sides of our torso. Often mistaken for love handles, the external oblique is trained very similarly to that of the internal oblique, but with a little more emphasis on rotation and contraction. The arm sweep comes to mind as an effective exercise example. This is when you get yourself into a push up/plank position and sweep one arm up until it is pointing toward the ceiling, and you finish in a side plank position but up your hands as opposed to the elbow/forearm as when in a traditional side plank. This can be performed with dumbbells or without. I would encourage you to try light weights as well as heavy, and vary your rep range accordingly. The challenge of doing this exercise with heavy dumbbells also brings a very large stability factor to the movement, and ultimately the abs are most effectively trained when forced to work hard when stabilizing the spine.
Lastly is the rectus abdominus, and this is the form of abdominal training I see the most of. The rectus abdominus is the muscle least used in stabilizing, but most visible and therefore the muscle that is trained the hardest. This muscle is best trained when the spine is pulled forward, by doing and exercise like a crunch, or a leg raise, or a medicine ball slam. Any exercise that involve forward spinal flexion will challenge this muscle.
It has been brought to the fitness worlds attention of late that excessive crunching can be very dangerous to the spine, and its joints and ligaments. I personally feel that there is no need to avoid crunches, but be careful how much you exaggerate the movement. There was a time when I would try to curve my back as much as possible to get maximal contraction. I have since learned that bending to no more than 30 degrees accomplishes the same thing. Some common sense and caution should be used when performing crunches, but I trust you all to be able to know when you have a good contraction, and back of at that point.
When #abs: The Money Muscles resumes on Thursday with the third part, I will get into the specifics of how I undertake core training. It’s for me a very important part of my training and I give it the attention it deserves with an approach that divides my attack of the abdominals into three individual segments of training. There is no better way to ensure a long and active life than by strengthening our core. For those of us that will be lifting until the end of time, the strength of our core will go a long way to ensuring us a very productive and ever advancing training career. Sometimes training our core is the last thing any of us wants to do because of the effort involved. The work is always worth it however, if for no other reason than a nice abdominal package can be pretty amazing to look at as well as to show off. I trust you will put the new knowledge you acquired here today to work for you immediately and will be joining me for part 3. Tomorrow I’ll add a new food to our low carb pantry as well as dissect its nutritional profile, and explain the value of the nutrients. I look forward to seeing you all here again, but until then,