Flex your abs. Right now, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, flex your abs as hard as you can. What happened? What did your upper body do? Did it cave over a litte? What about your lower body? Did your lower back get a little looser and your pelvis tilt up in the front slightly? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you have some sort of dysfunction going on in your abs. It's not your fault. Everyone told you to do sit-ups. To do crunches. You read that article about some actress that does 15 trillion crunches a second. Or you are doing P90X or the 300 workout or some other stupid thing with some juiced out maniac/CGI muscle-guy-cartoon on the cover.
Before I drop some anatomy on you, lets go to common sense first. Think of the position you are in when you do a crunch or a sit-up or any conventional ab exercise. Your are on the floor basically forcing yourself into a contorted mess that is genetically programmed in us to be a sign of weakness.
Think very hard of any other time in life you would be in these positions. Here, I can come up with a couple:
-Lying on the ground, getting mauled by a bear
-Lying on the ground, getting eaten by a lion
-You had too much too drink and wake up wrapped around a toilet
-Someone just punched you in the stomach
-You are freezing to death and attempting to keep warm
-Oh yea, how about this... you were like this the entire time you were a baby
These examples took me 10 seconds to think up. The point is, spend most of your training in these positions and you are just getting ready to fail miserably in a situation where something terrible is happening to you. It's sprint, kill, eat. Not fall down, curl up, and get murdered.
Now, in order to understand what you are actually supposed to do with these muscles, you need to understand how they are supposed to function. Not function in terms of gettin' "bro-ed" up with your boys but function in regards being a better human. Lets keep it as simple as possible:
Rectus Abdominals (including pelvic floor muscles): The elusive "six-pack" muscles. Remember when I told you to flex your abs? Odds are, these were the only ones that did anything. The textbook definition of what these are supposed to do is trunk flexion, a.k.a. the sit-up motion. If your trunk is actively in flexion then antagonist (opposite) musculature must be in extension. The opposite musculature in this case are the muscles that keep your spine in a natural alignment. In other words, you have to force your lumbar, thoracic, sacral, and cervical spinal muscles into extension. In case you don't know what that means, it looks like this:
P90X put 50lbs on his deadlift... it's also going to put him in a wheelchair. In all fairness, I have no idea if this kid did P90X. I am sure he does plenty of crunches... on a bosu ball... for max reps... 8 times a day.
I know what you are thinking, "But, brah, how do I work my abs and look good with my shirt off?" Your abs need to work as a means to stabilize your spine. So, pretty much anything you do laying on the floor is out. Now its time to get creative. Here are some of my favorites performed by yours truly:
Front Squat Holds:
A few seconds will do... because any longer and you will lose the ability to fight your bowels from violently evacuating your body. As you can see, the spine is kept neutral and the body is in a natural position (not in P90X bro-guy roll around together position). Plus, stuff like this is much more badass than the average "core" exercises. Here is another one:
Blast Strap Fallouts (Warning: you will be very sore for a very, very long time):
Ok, technically, there is back extension at the beginning of the exercise. The reason this is awesome is because, when your abs are working during this movement, the spine is neutral and the abs are braced, not flexed. Imagine at the complete extension of the movement, that I drive my right knee forwards... it would look a whole lot like someone sprinting as fast as they could.
Obliques (internal/external and some of the glute complex to some extent): Those pesky love handles. People work these to death and nothing ever changes. Maybe because they are being worked the wrong way. The obliques function to counteract the pull of gravity on the body. Wow... think about that for a second. For anyone trying to get stronger/run faster/jump higher/relieve back pain, the obliques sound awfully important don't they? These muscles were meant to be very strong. If you think they weren't, think about how much weight you could hold and perform a side-bend exercise with. 50lbs? 100lbs? 200lbs? Maybe more? These need to be trained like a midget on steroids: hard and heavy.
The same thing can be done with a barbell, heavy dumbbells, dogs, entire sides of beef that you will eat all of immediately after you finish the exercises, just about anything. The key is to keep it heavy and do sets until it feels like someone injected concrete mix into your sides and lit your forearms on fire.
Now the MOST important aspect of your core. The one nobody trains.
The Back: (erector spinae complex, multifidus, and all kinds of other stuff that should be insanely/badassly strong in every human being but is not). These are the key to everything core-related. If your back is weak and feeble then you, as a person, are weak and feeble. Stop doing "Supermans" and start doing these:
Not the best form on the GMs but I did it and I am now stronger for it.
Key to these exercises: 1. Go Heavy- progressively work to heavier and heavier weights. If your form is good (neutral spine) and your programming is smart then it is IMPOSSIBLE to hurt yourself. 2- Again, keep a neutral spine, don't be lazy, be strong.
How do you put it all together? How about the deadlift.
Muscles worked when deadlifting heavy... oh yea, all of them:
Yes. This entire post was leading up to how awesome deadlifting is for you.
Want to know why people really do traditional ab exercises for countless reps over and over and over? Because they are easy. Anything that is easy is not good for you. EVER. Easy makes you fat. Easy makes you weak. The above mentioned exercises are very stressful and will make it hard for you to walk without crying for several days after you do them. You will eventually get used to doing these various acts of badassery but only after you've gotten all of the sadassery out of your system.
Now, re-do the test from the beginning of the post. Contract your abs again but, not into flexion. Contract your abs and brace while keeping the arch in your back. There. That was a step in the right direction.
Just some things to think about and consider in your own training to reach your own goals. Hopefully, this rant opened someones eyes and caused you to think outside the box a little bit. I'll probably get one more part out of this topic dealing with dieting. Not dieting like eating less or eating crap like "fruit" . More like dieting while eating like a meat-fueled, human muscle museum with exhibits on the history of being a badass. Between now and then, be sure to pick up something heavy. Sprint. Kill. Eat... and don't do sit-ups anymore.