Who do we believe?
The strength guys say something like "forget doing abs, just do heavy squats and deadlifts".
Don't even say the word core around these guys. The functional guys say "lying down is not functional". The functional guys seem to be against any core training not done standing. If we proceeded logically we would see that both groups, the strength guys and the functional guys, at least agree that all good core training is done standing.
As usual, I disagree with both parties.
In my continued pursuit of unpopularity I'm going to disagree with both the functional guys and the strength crowd. I know the t-nation reader is saying "but you are a functional guy". Not true. Actually, I'm a results guy. I'm a best practices guy. Yes, my first book was called Functional Training for Sports but, I think some of the proponents of functional training have gone too far and, I'm not the only one. I got an email recently from Matt Nichol, strength and conditioning coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Matt said "I feel like I have to apologize these days for actually trying to get my guys strong".
Truth is everybody has their own definition of functional training. Mine is the application of functional anatomy to training. This means I'm going to take what I know about anatomy and apply it what I know about training. The important thing is I'm not going to forget or dispose of what I know about training.
I still think that one leg exercises are more functional then two leg exercises because we move on one leg at a time. I still think dumbbells are more functional than a bar because of the unilateral nature of dumbbells. We are unilateral machines. Face it. With that said, I still believe in lifting weights. I want my athletes to be strong, and to be strong you have to lift heavy stuff. Reaching with and or waving a five lb. dumbbell in three planes of motion is not training. It might be warm-up but, it's not training in my book.
However, this article isn't about the function debate but rather about training the anterior core, the abs. I think there is a compromise between the functional guys and the strength guys. The key to getting the strength crowd to listen might be getting them to realize that this doesn't come from me but rather from one of their own courtesy of t-nation.
From the great Dan John; "I love those damn five dollar ab wheels. I loved them when they came out in the sixties, I loved them when they returned with the advent of the Internet, and I love them as my favorite "anterior chain" exercise."
Guess what, I agree with Dan. However, we have a small problem, we need a progression.
Ab wheel rollouts are tough. Too tough. That's the reason I abandoned them years ago. Many of my athletes got exceptionally sore or, were unable to hold a stable lumbar spine. In fact any of my athletes who had any abdominal issues ( previous strains etc.) were actually told by me to never do them under any circumstances.
How does all this tie into the first paragraph about functional training? Well, it turns out that this is why I half-agree. The function of the anterior core is absolutely not flexion. That is where I 100% agree with the functional guys. When does anyone ever do anything in real life that looks like a crunch? I agree with the functional folks that lying on your back doing abs is not only a waste of time but probably dangerous.
Check out Stuart McGill's work. Not a lot of flexion. Look at McGill's method for causing disk damage in a lab setting, repeat flexion. Ideally we need an anterior core or as Dan says "anterior chain" exercise that doesn't involve flexion.
So the key in my mind was to find a progression that begins with four point exercises like planks and progresses to things like plank reaches and rows. .
Phase 1- Front Planks
If your athletes or clients can't hold a perfect plank for 40 secs ( not very long, I know). Start there. Remember a perfect plank looks like what the person looks like in standing. It's not a prone crunch.
Phase 2A- Ring or TRX Fallouts
In past years we would move from planks to rollouts however, I was consistently not happy with the rollout technique. As a result we went to ring or TRX fallouts as kind of a 2A and, had great success. The key is still the "moving plank" idea but we have found that people grasp these easier than stability ball rollouts.
Phase 2- Stability Ball Rollouts?
The Stability Ball is like a big wheel. The weaker the athlete the bigger the ball. The 3rd video demonstrates the Stability Ball Rollout. I don't care how strong you think your abs are. Do yourself a favor and do Stability Ball Rollouts twice a week for the first three weeks before you try a wheel. If you start with a wheel there is a good chance you will strain your abdominal muscles.
Phase 3- The Ab Dolly
I know, an infomercial piece of equipment in a t-nation article. I'm sure a few of the meatheads will call me all kinds of names on the forums. ( Note to meatheads. Sticks and stones…). Ab Dollies are a bit pricy but make a nice transition to the wheel. I am all about progressions that keep my athletes healthy. In fact at Boston University I purchased 8 Ab Dollys. The Ab Dolly makes the transition from the stability ball to the wheel much easier. It's a physics thing. The Ab Dolly allows the user to be on the elbows first to get a short lever rollout.
Phase 4- The Wheel
If you bought an Ab Dolly you really don't need a wheel. Simply grasp the sides of the Ab Dolly with your hands to lengthen the lever. I like the wheel better as you get better diagonals when you get more advanced but, for phase 3 it really doesn't matter. The key is that the moving piece is now a full arms length away.
Phase 5- Val Slide or Slideboard Rollouts
The Valslide or Slideboard now adds a frictional component. Instead of the wheel rolling bodyweight creates drag. This again makes the exercise harder, particularly the concentric or return portion. You actually have to pull yourself back in.
Phase 6- Bar Rollouts
I almost left these out but they actually work as a progressive resistance exercise. Start with an empty bar and add 10 lbs. a week. The bar rollouts don't change the eccentric nature of the exercise but, boy can they change the concentric.
The bottom line is that Dan John is right and all the "just do heavy squats and deadlifts" guys are wrong.
If you never intend to run a sprint or throw a ball, you core musculature may be fine without direct ab work. However, there is no denying the role of the abdominal musculature in pelvic control when the body is in motion. The abdominal musculature or core muscles must act to prevent the spine from going into extension. In order to do this a specific stress must be applied. The anterior core progression gets the body to use the muscles the right way and does it in a way that can keep anyone healthy.