Do You Really Need to Train Your Abs?
No one will dispute the fact that you need to train you core, the general area that connects all of your fleshy stuff from below the chest and above the waist, all the way around. The core provides a stable base to produce, reduce, and redirect force with the limbs of the body.
But some people will argue that directly training the anterior core—or front, which includes the rectus abdominis (the "six pack")—is unnecessary because big and heavy compound movements like the squat and deadlift already work it sufficiently.
In other words, do you need to train dem abz?
Anterior Core Training
I argue that you need to specifically target the anterior core. I believe that it’s part of what has made me a strong and healthy deadlifter.
When I train clients in our gym—The Movement Minneapolis—it’s not at all uncommon to have two full movements dedicated to some sort of anterior or lateral—or side (think: obliques)—core stability training, in addition to squats and deads. It’s a primary, fundamental part of the training.
Here are the main types of core movements that we rotate through in our programming at Movement:
1. Anterior core dynamic: exercises that generate movement through the core, primarily in flexion. Things like crunches, weighted, standing crunches, leg raises, leg lowers fit into this category.
Yes, we do crunches. Believe it or not the spine is designed to flex and I believe it should be trained in ways it can move.
2. Anterior core static: These exercises are mainly movements that resist motion such as planks, farmers walks, weighted planks, and body saws.
3. Rotational core dynamic: These are movements that require a twisting or rotating movement of the spine. They both generate the rotation and also stabilize. We favor Russian twists, Palloff twists, and windshield wipers.
4. Rotational core static: These movements focus on preventing rotation through the spine. A palloff press is the most classic example, in which you’re alternating between a short lever trying to rotate you and a longer lever trying even harder to make you rotate. The goal here is to resist the movement. Side planks also align closely with this category as an anti-lateral-flexion movement, as do single-sided carries and deadlifts.
In every training session we hit at least one, but more often than not, two of these categories, and over the course of a 5-week training block, we’ll address all four core modalities in roughly equal rotation. Some people will do more work from one or two particular categories depending on what their body needs most.
The Core Experiment
A few years ago, however, I wanted to challenge my assumption. What if it were true that you didn’t need to train the anterior core specifically, and you could actually get away with just training squats and deads?
If my assumption was wrong, my gym programming was wasting a lot of people’s time and effort. It also meant that they were missing out on results.
I decided to quietly do an experiment. Removing core training from my own programming wouldn’t be sufficient. It would be an n=1 experiment, which would be great to determine if I personally needed to train anterior core, but it wouldn’t tell me what I really wanted to know: Do my clients need it?
So I removed all anterior core training from their programming for the next 5-week block of training. I kept everything else the same. In place of anterior core variations, I put in sort of innocuous mobility drills that should have a neutral effect like wall slides and easy movement drills. Our normal programming consists of a lot of big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, kettlebell work, presses, and pulls.
At the end of each cycle we have “Max Week” where those who have trained consistently can re-test their maxes (from a 5-rep max for newbies up to 1-rep max for more experienced or advanced trainees).
I planned to observe the training and measure if there was a discernible difference in strength progress without the anterior core work. While far from a perfect experiment, the sample size was big enough that I would have the power to determine what effect it would really have.
That is, if I could have continued the experiment long enough to see it through . . .
Within two weeks I started to see an undeniable uptick in complaints about back issues. Not major issues, mind you. But more people coming in complaining of little tweaks and niggles.
The effect was so immediate and dramatic that I discontinued the experiment, reworked the rest of the cycle of programming, and reintroduced the anterior core work. The complaints vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
One of the things I hear most often from my one-on-one training clients and online coaching clients is a combination of “My core is the strongest it has ever been” and “Thank you for making me do the core work, normally I skip it on my own.”
So hit the squats and deads, but don’t forget to show your abs some love, too. Your back will thank you.
David Dellanave is a lifter, coach, and owner of The Movement Minneapolis in the Twin Cities. He implements biofeedback techniques, teaching his clients to truly understand what their bodies are telling them. He writes articles to make you stronger, look better naked, and definitely deadlift more. Read them on musclemorphosis.com.