Your Ab Work is Making You Look Fat and Setting You Up For Injury
Have you ever thought that the way you are training your abs could actually be setting you up for injury, and worse, could be making you look like you are a few months along a pregnancy?
Well, one day my father asked me what I had been doing for my abs, and it wasn’t in a good way.
He was asking me because from the side it looked like I was a phenomenon…a man with child…just like Arnold in Junior.
Or a for a more real life example, do you remember Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell?
The dude was a monster in the ring, and looked lean and athletic from the front.
But from the side, he looked like he had a bit of a “belly.”
And like The Iceman, I didn’t look fat from the side because I was carrying extra insulation around my waistline. In fact at the time I was actually right around 5% body fat, and from the front I looked like I had the six pack I was going for.
I had been crushing ab work almost everyday. I was strong in certain muscles (primarily the rectus abdominus) and I looked good from the front.
But my deeper core strength was mediocre at best, which set me up for future injuries. And on top of that, from a profile view I didn’t look so “lean and trim.”
And this was too bad because my goals were like most of you who are hammering extra ab/core. Those being:
- You want to increase performance and decrease injury potential.
- You want to create the flat, chiseled midsection that people like to look at.
And even though you are right in getting after the ab work as it is all about the abs, it is more about the execution of the exercises and making sure they target the core as a whole.
Because when you have a strong, stable and high functioning core, it helps to solidify proper hip and ribcage position, decrease the likeliness of overuse injury to the back, hips and knees, and, of course, gives you a better chance of looking shredded come beach season.
So what was I then doing, and many of you continue to do??
Creating Rectus Dominance
Rectus dominance simply means that you are relying on your rectus abdominus muscle, the “six pack” muscle, to create stability and perform many of the ab exercises.
And you don’t even have to be doing the “wrong” exercises.
Many now know that crunches and sit ups are not best for performance and health, so these exercises have been dropped from many programs, or at least not done with such high volume and frequency.
But you can even run into problems with exercises such as planks, side planks, anti-rotation presses, chops, and lifts. These are all great exercises I perform, and prescribe for my athletes, but too can feed into rectus dominance.
This is a problem because when you are relying primarily on the rectus to complete exercises, they grow larger and give you what may appear to be a “pregnant” belly.
Aside from looks, the rectus is not a great stabilizer of the hips and spine. The deep core muscles such as the obliques and transverse abdominus play a much greater role in stabilizing the system.
When the rectus takes over (dominates) and you are not using and strengthening the deeper core muscles, you are more likely to experience unwanted back, hip and knee pain (and other problems up and down the chain).
What is creating rectus dominance?
I, like many coaches, cue to “stay tight” and “engage the core” when I am cueing my athletes during exercises.
The problem is that staying tight and engaging the core means nothing, and more likely, the wrong thing, if you are not coached to understand how you should be doing so.
Most of the time when we think about staying tight we end up contracting our rectus and create what resembles a “crunch like” movement that brings our ribcage down excessively. While we don’t want our ribcage to “pop up,” we also don’t want to crunch down to stabilize.
So we must understand that “staying tight” doesn’t mean to crunch down, instead we must focus on staying “tall” through our chest while keeping the ribcage from popping up. This happens when we engage and prioritize our other core muscles, primarily the obliques.
One of my favorite cues to get the obliques engaged is to think about “shrink wrapping your spine” with your abs. These results in us “flattening” our midsection and contracting the obliques.
Also, since many of us fall into an anterior tilt at the hips (when the hips rotate forward), another one of my favorite cues is to “pull your zipper up towards your ribcage.” This helps to slightly posteriorly tilt the hip back to neutral during movements.
Focus on these two cues, as well as making sure to keep your “chest tall” and “upper back long” and you will better engage your obliques in order to stabilize the hips and spine, without crunching down.
Prevent Pain and Get That Lean Look
Focus on these cues before performing each and every exercise and it will help you to keep yourself from creating rectus dominance, and the unwanted pain and “pregnant look” that is the likely resultant.
This is just another example to show that it is all about the principles and execution of exercises, not the exercises themselves that truly matter.
Before any movement, shrink wrap your spine, keep your zipper up and stay tall through your chest…this is a big part of the recipe for less pain and a leaner, more athletic midsection.[/fusion_text]
Maximize Your Flexibility, Mobility and Movement
If your goals include not feeling like the tin man every morning when you wake up, and not missing games or life events because you have jacked up a muscle or joint, static stretching and dynamic mobility drills should be part of your training program.
Both static stretching and dynamic mobility result in a transient change to the tissue as well as components of the nervous system that typically allow your joints to move into greater ranges of motion.
These greater ranges of motion gives you the opportunity for more efficient movement to take place which, helping you to decrease injuries and enhance your performance.
For this reason, you want to perform them each and every day as well as with each and every training session, practice or game.
But even if you are going through them every day, you may find yourself still feeling “stiff / tight” and never becoming more flexible, mobile or able to achieve the range of motion with movements that you should be able to.
So what’s the deal?
Why can you not “keep” the range of motion you work so hard on?
1) You are not reinforcing the new range of motion with activation drills that turn on the muscles bringing the joint into the new range of motion.
So this be pretty easy to fix; you just need to add in activations, but…
2) You have to do so in an order that is optimal to solidify the new range of motion.
Let’s take a look into the typical order of a session.
A Typical Session
We typically place stretching, mobility and activation at the beginning of a training session to unlock ranges of motion for better muscle activation and overall movement for the upcoming session. This usually looks something like this:
- Static stretching
- Movement Prep
- Speed, Agility, Power
- Strength / Resistance Training
With this layout, an example start to a session may look something like this:
- Hip Flexor Stretch x30s/side, Butterfly Stretch x30s, Calf Stretch x30s/side
- Hip Flexor Mobility x8/side, Adductor (Groin) Mobility x8/side, Ankle Mobility x8/side
- Single Leg Glute Bridge x8/side, Side Lying Clam x8/side, Ankle Dorsi Flexion x8/side
The goal with these would be to stretch out the hip flexors, adductors and calves, put the hip and ankle through dynamic ranges of motion (mobility) and then turn on the glutes, lateral hip muscles and anterior shin muscles to solidify the “new” ranges of motion from the stretch and the mobility work.
While the layout above is a solid approach, there is one inherent flaw with performing all of your static stretching first, then your mobilities and then all of the activation drills.
The issue is that by the time you make it to your activation drills (the drills that are designed to turn on or “activate” specific musculature and help to solidify the new range of motion), you have likely lost some of the transient effect of the static stretch and mobility work for the targeted joint.
If the acute lengthening of the muscles, along with the “relaxation effect” of the muscles from the mobility work have dissipated, you will not be able to achieve as optimal a range of motion during the activation drills. This will decrease the ability to activate the targeted musculature.
Also, and more importantly, the “new” and better range of motion you achieved with the stretch and mobility will be harder to hold on to and create a better movement.
For example, if you stretch and mobilize your hip flexor to help you achieve greater hip extension, but don’t immediately activate the glute to actively bring the hip into extension, some of the extension range of motion from the stretch and mobility is likely lost. This will decrease the ability to use the new range of motion as well as decrease the activation of the glute.
This is why many times we will find ourselves working on stretching and mobility only to be back at square one the next time we work on it…we are unable to fully solidify the new range of motion with optimal activation, as we have lost some of the range of motion before we even make it to the activation drill.
A Better Approach
A better approach is to cycle through stretching, mobility and activation for each muscle/movement.
With the above example, this would now look like this:
1a) Hip Flexor Stretch x30s/side
1b) Hip Flexor Mobility x8/side
1c) Single Leg Glute Bridge x8/side
2a) Butterfly Stretch x30s
2b) Adductor Mobility x8/side
2c) Side Lying Clam x10/side
3a) Calf Stretch x30s/side
3b) Ankle Mobility x8/side
3c) Ankle Dorsi Flexion x8/side
By layering the stretch, mobility and activation together you will be able to take advantage of the transient effects of the stretch and mobility to better activate the necessary musculature. All of this will result in a better chance to “keep” the new range of motion and resulting movement.
Try it out and let me know what you think!
Over the past few months I have had the pleasure of reworking some short articles for Livestrong.com.
The goal was to update articles that may have been out of date or missing some key information. Most of the articles I have chosen to rework and provide helpful updates to are centered around proper movement and technique, and training to help prevent pain and dysfunction.
Below are two of the articles.
The first helps answer why your back may actually be hurting more when you stretch, and how you should actually be stretching and attacking the lower back. And even if your back doesn’t hurt, you want to make sure you are stretching and doing the right exercises to help protect the lower back.
The second article covers strategies to help you reverse and prevent a caved in chest, which is often a product of todays technology driven world as well as an unbalanced approach to training.
Check them out and let me know if you have any questions! There are many more that I will send your way soon!