Abs/Core Workouts 101:
Designing An Abs/Core Workout
Your core supports your spine, which is important because that's where all movement and sensation begin. You see, the Central Nervous System (CNS) is the brain and spinal cord, which means protecting your spine is protecting your life.
Let's take a closer look at what happens when your core is weak
(or more commonly, when you train your abs the wrong way with
typical sit-ups, crunches, leg throws, and other dangerous exercises):
Poor posture -- when your core is weak, other muscles have to fire for it. So, instead of moving the way your body was intended, we substitute other muscles, crunch our bodies forward, and subconsciously move towards the fetal position. Put simply, a weak core means our 'monkey brain' feels we are unsafe -- in truth, a weak core means you are unsafe. Posture is only the symptom...
Love handles -- sometimes love handles are about having too high of a body fat percentage. However, they're often a result of muscle imbalances leading to poor posture and fat folds. When you correct postural position by strengthening your core, you may notice you've reduced or eliminated love handles altogether.
Lower belly bulge -- training your core means you are exercising your abs, but it also means you are exercising your low back. More often than not -- when a person has a low enough body fat percentage -- pelvic positioning is the reason the lower belly sticks out the way it does. Train the low back, tip the pelvis backwards a bit, and out your abs will pop.
Tight hips (or hamstrings) -- often times, tight hips are a sign of a weak core or improperly trained abs. This is because other muscles -- like your quads or the muscle attaching to your IT Band -- try to take over the work for your abs. Since these phasic (on/off) muscles aren't designed to contract and hold all day long -- like your abs -- they fatigue and get sore. Over time, one hip becomes tighter than the other, and activities like getting on a foam roll become dreaded, because they are so painful.
Low back pain -- if your core is weak, your low back is no longer being supported properly. Now, it has to bear your weight all day long with every step -- and while you sit -- but it lacks any strength or endurance to do so.
Neck pain -- most people don't realize this, but there are two little muscles that run up and down your spine and are considered part of your core. These two muscles, called your multifidi, resist rotation, help you rotate, and bend backwards. When they are weak or out of shape, the neck has very little to support it against the strong SCM (sternocleidomastoid) and trapezius muscles. This inevitably leads to neck pain, shoulder pain, and the risk of other neck and shoulder injuries.
Poor sexual endurance (and endurance, in general) -- sex comes down to strength, power, endurance, and mobility, from a movement-perspective. When your abs are weak, or your core is out of shape, you'll be lacking in all four categories. This is because all movement originates in your CNS as an electricity signal, moves through your spine and out to your arms or legs, and then activates a muscle or group of muscles. When you dampen the signal at its origin, you have lost strength, power, endurance, and mobility all at once.

Instead of experiencing a constant decline in your physical fitness levels and overall health, strengthen your core, get flat abs, and feel great. Prioritizing your abs (and low back) will lead you towards better health.

But it's important you go about training them the right way.

There are four major points to consider:
  • Mode -- bodyweight or weight-based resistance training, incorporating as many unstable surfaces as possible.
  • Frequency -- 2-5 days/week (2-3 days/week for maintenance; 5 days/week for fast abs) (*results may vary)
  • Intensity -- 8-9 out of 10 intensity for high intervals, 1-2 out of 10 intensity for low intervals (example: 50 seconds high intensity, 10 seconds low intensity)
  • Duration -- 10 minutes + warm-up and cool-down

Functionally speaking, your core helps you catch your balance and stabilize. This means every time you take a step, your core helps you avoid falling over. And every time you lift a heavy weight, or extend your arms/legs out in front or behind you, it's your core stabilizing you and preventing you from tipping over.

So, we train your core with bodyweight exercises, occasional use of heavy weights, unstable surfaces, and multiple speeds of movement. The more we mix it up, causing your body to react, stabilize, and re-center, the better we are training your core for the real world.

In terms of frequency, it's important to train your core at least 5 days/week when you want to progress quickly.

However, there are a few exceptions to this:

Exception #1: Heavy exercises -- if you're choosing a lot of heavier exercises to build core strength, rather than mobility or endurance, it's important to rest until you are no longer sore before lifting heavy again. Generally speaking, it takes 48-72 hours, and 'not sore' is determined by a pain scale, as follows:

On a scale of 0 to 10, where:

0 = no pain/soreness whatsoever
10 = worst pain/soreness imaginable

A strength-based workout should get you to a 5-7 out of 10; you'll want to be 3 or less before your next workout on the same muscle groups.

Exception #2: Power-based exercises -- generally speaking, you'll want to rest two to three days in between every power workout. This is because you're asking your body for maximal exertion and it takes time to recover. During power phases of a training program, I often recommend muscle balancing exercises on off days to avoid injury and keep moving.

Exception #3: Maintenance phases -- as with any training program, training your abs/core should be goal-based and fully periodized. This means it's important you pick three isolated phases that are six week each, and assign logical goals to each one. Basically, if abs/core is your main focus, that will be your middle six weeks; your first six weeks will be prep work, and your last six weeks will be recovery. During prep and recovery phases, you'll want to stick to 2-3 days/week on any abs or core exercises and avoid the heavier exercises.

To help you understand 'periodization', here's a practical example as it relates to abs training:

Phase 1 (Weeks 1-6):
Fat Loss
3x/week + Bodyweight Abs/Core Workouts 2x/week
Phase 2: (Weeks 7-12):
Workouts 5x/week
Phase 3: (Weeks 13-18):
Flexibility, Mobility,
& Tissue Release
3x/week + Bodyweight Abs/Core Workouts 2x/week

After 18 weeks, simply repeat or mix it up and work on another goal.

You'll notice I've chosen bodyweight abs/core workouts for the first and last phase, as these are 'maintenance' phases, and our goal is to improve mobility and endurance, rather than power and strength. This brings up an important topic about intensity:

Intensity is perhaps the single biggest variable that will determine your results. If you're willing to regularly push yourself to a personal best -- with good form to avoid injury -- you will progress over time and see better and better results. On the other hand, if you don't like to sweat, try hard, or put in the work, it's a solid bet you'll never see your abs.

Your goal should be to hit 8-9 out of 10 intensity on every high interval of every set; every low interval is meant for active rest, so it's a 2-3 out of 10 intensity, if that. Often times, you'll use your low intervals simply to change to a new exercise, prep yourself, and get started.

For the most part, it's a good idea to stack 10 different exercises together into a circuit, on one minute intervals. This way, you can choose 50/10, 40/20, 30/30, 20/40, or 10/50 for your high/low intervals, respectively, and mix it up over time.

You'll want to sequence the exercises in a particular order, so you can make sure to rest one group of muscles while working another and so on. Here's an example workout, to make things more clear:


Perform each of the following exercises for 40 seconds at high-intensity (as fast -- or heavy -- as you can go!) and rest for 20 seconds as you prepare for the following exercise. Your goal should be to hit complete fatigue by the end of every high interval. When you have completed all ten exercises, your workout is over.

*NOTE:  It's important you don't sacrifice proper form for intensity.  High-intensity can only be achieved after mastering an exercise, so be sure to practice before ramping up your intensity within a given workout or exercise.

At times, there are advantages to re-organizing an abs workout, changing it so you have supersets of related muscle groups, or giant sets in cluster format to build muscle a bit more quickly, but the same could be said for mixing it up in any other way with your workout program.

The main reasons I choose the workout format above for abs training are:

It's fast and easy to get in your abs workouts (10 exercises in 10 minutes, and you're done!)
Lower risk of injury (when you do supersets and giant sets of the same or related muscle groups, you increase the risk of going beyond a muscle's failure point and getting injured.)

Many of the exercises chosen in the workout above are full-body exercises; and, you might also notice typical abs crunches, sit-ups, leg throws, and other dangerous abs exercises are not listed. These exercises can result in injury to your neck, low back, or elsewhere and they are not recommended.

You see, a typical crunch, sit-up, or leg throw ends up placing almost all the strain through your neck and hip flexors, instead of your abs and core. When you do this, you actually weaken the strength of the nerve signal leading to your core, and you make it next to impossible to recruit your actual core muscles.

Besides, those exercises are training the wrong muscles, the wrong way. For clarity, you have 'bracing' abs muscles and 'stabilizing' abs muscles. The latter are part of your core. Let's take a closer look at which exercises concentrate on which type of abs muscle:

  • Bracing muscles (fake core): rectus abdominus, rectus femoris, gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, paraspinals, quadratus lumborum

    • common exercises: abs crunches, sit-ups, leg throws, knee raises
  • Stabilizing muscles (true core): transversus abdominus, internal oblique, external oblique, psoas, multifidus

    • common exercises: planks, pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, lunges, cleans, presses, split jerks, farmers' walks, sprints, animalistic movements, battle ropes, sandbag training, flipping tires, climbing

Yet, sometimes you choose the right exercises and your body might choose the wrong muscles. This can be because of old habits, or because your nervous system isn't well organized for movement. The solution, regardless, is to create new muscle memory.

Here's how I recommend you go about creating new muscle memory:

  • Do 5 extra planks per day, each to complete fatigue.
  • At the end of every plank, hold through "phasic shakes" period (i.e. trembling, feeling like you can't hold it, and keeping your core locked in anyway).
  • Monitor form by having a spotter or looking in the mirror to make sure you haven't dropped, twisted, arched or rounded your low back.
  • Over a period of six weeks -- if you hold perfect position -- your nervous system will recognize your stabilizers as your true core, and they'll naturally be recruited in every exercise you do. If you make a mistake or lose position, don't be discouraged; however, it does take six weeks of perfect form to create this plastic change in your nervous system.

At first, you'll want to correct every little mistake you make. Over time, you'll want to think about how you performed at the end of every set; eventually, at the end of every workout. By fading your feedback over time, you'll learn more quickly.

Last but not least, we need to discuss food. Most people get this all wrong -- the rule is simple -- eat food that is good for you.

The #1 mistake most people make with their diet is allowing small amounts of "abs-poison" to seep in. For example, you might have a few bites of ice cream every couple of days, eat some deep fried food from time to time, or have "only" a soda or two per day.

If it's not a whole food and/or you don't feel at least as energetic after eating as you did when you sat down, it's not actually "food" for your body. This is one of the most important lessons I can teach you.

Now, "good" for you can be confusing, so let's go back to basics:

  • Eat whole foods (fruits, vegetables, grass fed and organic meats, eggs, grass fed butter, first cold-press olive oil, coconut oil, and some grains, like rice). Avoid eating even small amounts of other foods, as they cause inflammation and often ruin nutrient absorption.
  • Test out each whole food, one by one, and see how you feel immediately after you eat it, and then an hour or two later. Keep the foods that make you feel great; eliminate any food that makes you feel less energetic than before you ate it.

When you simplify nutrition to 'eating whole foods' and 'feeling-based eating', you are adapting your diet in a very natural way, and your abs will naturally want to pop out.

The easiest and fastest way to a flat stomach is cleaning up your diet.

A flat stomach helps you recruit your core, and your core helps your flat stomach look and feel so much better. Eat well; redefine food's purpose to nourish your body and fuel it for your day.

Remember, your core supports your CNS, which is the communication center to the rest of your body. Abs are made in the kitchen and through intensity. By spending 10 minutes training your core with dynamic and unstable exercises, you'll be able to achieve a balance reaction and stimulate your metabolism at the same time. Learn to alternate the emphasis on different body parts with each exercise -- but still include as many joints as possible -- and see your results accelerate. Finally, reprogram your body to recruit your core, and avoid using bracing muscles in its place.

As you can see, there's a lot that goes into designing an abs training program. And, as you might have guessed, I'm interested in helping you get great results. Instead of being focused on choosing the perfect exercises, intensities, reps, rest periods, intervals, and equipment, I'd rather you focus on scheduling your workouts, keeping track of your results, and measuring your progress over time.

Besides, if you get even half the results of our other clients, you won't be sorry. Go ahead and click the add 'activate my membership' button below: (*results may vary)

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