“Is training abs really necessary?” is a question asked quite commonly…
If it’s a question you also might have, then that’s what we’re about to discuss.
The abdominal muscles play a crucial role in stabilizing the body. They are also responsible for rotation, flexion, intra-abdominal pressure, maintaining low back health, and aids in preventing knee ligament injury.
The question is, would it improve your weight lifting experience if you train your abs directly, or are they trained hard enough just by your regular training activities?
If you look at these studies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) it becomes clear that when performing upright, resistance, dynamic exercises (such as squats, deadlifts, overhead press etc.), significantly activates more core muscles than exercises in the horizontal initial position. And thus may not need to add instability device exercises (exercises that isolate core muscles such as crunches) to augment core stability training.
Unilateral exercises, as well as non-machine exercises, such as unilateral standing dumbbell shoulder press, one arm rows, and one arm bench press, have much greater abdominal activity than when doing exercises in a stable position (such as seated or machine) or when doing bi-lateral exercises with a bar.
Training as the method mentioned above will increase core stability and power, which will improve athletic performance directly.
Training the abs directly for lots of reps, under low load (bodyweight), for a period of time will increase core stability and core endurance. This kind of training will not have a positive correlation for athletic performance, but might increase long distance running performance. (6)
Core stability and endurance will prevent fatigue and improve lower extremity alignment and mechanics, which will help to prevent injury when doing endurance type activities, such as cycling and running long distance. (7)
This study also states that increasing abdominal endurance will not improve exercise performance. Training the abdominals intensely will increase abdominal strength, by increasing motor unit recruitment. However, when lifting weight, that ability to recruit more motor units is not made use of.
It is also found that training abs intensively will not improve intra-abdominal pressure during lifting. (8)
Intra-abdominal pressure is what helps to stabilize the spine and enable you to lift heavy weight (when holding breath). The transverse obliques are the abdominal muscles responsible for intra-abdominal pressure.
So all these studies conclude that training your abs directly, with isolation movements, will increase core strength and endurance, but will not increase your weight lifting performance.
However, if you train as mentioned earlier (unilateral, free weights, resistance dynamic exercises) and still find to have weak abdominal muscles, I’d recommend isolating the abdominal muscles and strengthening them directly.
Best exercises to isolate your abdominals
External oblique: (its function is to rotate the trunk in the opposite direction, such as twisting)
- reverse curl
- Power Wheel (pike, knee-up, and roll-out)
- hanging knee-up with straps.
- Vacuum (this exercise moderately activates the external obliques, but not so much the rectus abdominis. (9) The abdominal drawing-in exercise (vacuum) is often used as a stabilization technique to recover the neuromuscular control of athletes whose trunk stability muscles have been damaged. It’s also widely known to reduce the pain of low-back pain patients. (10)
Internal oblique: (its function is to rotate the trunk to the same side, such as bending sideways)
- Power Wheel (pike, knee-up, and roll-out)
- hanging knee-up with straps
- reverse crunch inclined 30 degrees
Rectus abdominis: (its function is to pull the ribs and pelvis in and curve the back)
Upper abdominis: pike
I personally wouldn’t just do any kind of ab curl exercise as it greatly increases lumbar spine pressure and increases the risk for injury. Read more here.
And just remember, training your abs won’t make your abs show any better (11). Abs are made in the kitchen. Meaning, you have to eat a clean diet with the correct amount of calories to show those abs.
So I highly recommend doing heavy compound unilateral exercises to strengthen those abdominals and to get a really good meal plan to get all those benefits.