Core and abs training are terms that are often used interchangeably. This adds to the confusion and wastes precious training time as a result of being lead down the wrong path.
If you want a strong core and stable spine then you should indeed train for that. On the other hand if you want to build a more dense and deeply-etched set of abs then you should be selecting the best exercises for that purpose. Check out the video below where I explain a little more.
Combining the show and go
Just because core and abs training are different things, it doesn’t mean that you can’t combine them for both “show” and “go”. Indeed, using more of a hybrid approach to training your midsection, while not prioritizing either — a stronger core or more densely build abdominals — Can give you some of each.
A hybrid approach to your core and abdominal training can be done in two ways:
- Option 1: Include both types of exercise and training approaches within your program. This can be a more complicated approach as it requires a deeper understanding of what “types” of exercise are more core-focused versus those that are abs-focused, as well as the movement patterns involved (e.g., anti-rotation, anti-extension etc.).
- Option 2: Include exercises that build both core strength and abdominal density at the same time.
“Hybrid” core and abs exercises
Here are some options that work to build both core strength and abdominal density at the same time. Feel free to add extra weight to these as required. I’ve provided a few recommendations for how to best do this below.
Elevated Stability Ball Knee Tucks
Stability ball knee tucks are a card-carrying meatheads nightmare. If all you’re used to are weighted crunches and planks then these’ll look and feel like a circus act gone wrong. Now, while I’m not a big fan of incorporating unstable surface training in to most core and abs workout routines, in this case using a stability ball is beneficial for a number of reasons. The biggest of them simply being that a stability ball can easily roll along the floor.
The instability of the ball will help develop proprioception and coordination, but, an unstable ball doesn’t necessarily mean you’re building more stability. This is a very common misconception. Instead, for a strong and stable spine you need to build strength within the muscles that support it, and in multiple directions. Too much instability and this’ll impact your muscle and strength development. In other words, I’m only recommending you use these if your balance is up to par.
Stability ball knee tucks act as an effective anti-extension exercise (resisting spinal extension and anterior pelvic tilt) while also challenging you in multiple directions as the ball wants to run away from you — it’s somewhat unpredictable, like the real life demands placed on your core.
How this becomes a hybrid exercise that benefits both your core stability and six-pack abs is largely as a result of adding some elevation to your knee tucks. Basic knee tucks performed with your hands on the floor don’t load the top of the knee tuck very well. Here’s a video of the basic version for reference:
It’s this tucking motion at the top as your pelvis tilts posteriorly that’s arguably the most important part for you six-pack abs. During the basic version, due to the angle of your body the tucking portion of the exercise is a wasted range of motion. Theres very little tension in your abdominals, and instead you could largely see them as somewhat of a dynamic plank.
The elevated stability ball knee tuck is a minor tweak on the basic version, but this minor tweak will allow you to train both an anti-extension and loaded posterior-pelvic-tilt component at the same time. There are very few ways to add load to this exercise, but one way I’ve found to work really well is to hang some chains off your hips while doing them.
Ab Wheel Rollouts with Flexion
You probably don’t need any convincing that ab wheel rollouts are a kickass exercise for developing a strong midsection. Rollouts require a strong eccentric “braking” action on the way down to eliminate a face plant. Then it requires a co-contraction of your abs, obliques, transverse abs and lats to execute in full.
While rollouts of all types are great, in my opinion to get the most out of them you’re better off doing them with a flexion component at the top. I wrote an entire chapter on flexion-based exercises in my upcoming book, Ultimate Abs (published by Human Kinetics), and dispelling the myth that spinal flexion is “bad”. So grab a copy of that when it’s out to read a breakdown of research on the topic of safety. But, from an efficacy and abdominal development point of view, in order to build more deeply etched and dense abdominals then spinal flexion exercises are highly useful.
Isometric contractions have very little impact on muscle growth (except those where you can produce extremely high levels of tension). Most folks traditionally perform ab wheel rollouts as an isometric exercise with very few degrees of motion around the spine or pelvic. By adding a flexion component you’re also adding an eccentric-concentric component which pay dividends for your six-pack development as well as your anti-extension core strength.
Think of these as somewhat of a crunching motion, while also paying close attention to tucking your pelvis towards your ribs as you come up in to flexion at the top (“close the space between your pubic bone and ribs”). To make these even harder then you can try adding a resistance band to the roller, which as you pull the roller inwards will load the flexion component even more. For difficulty you can also try adding strategic holds at different point of the movement. Adding a pause at the bottom of each rep will challenge the anti-extension component more.
Reverse Crunch Deadbug Combo
Deadbugs are a great exercise for a number of reasons. The big one being its anti-extension component which requires you resist unwanted extension through your lower back as your reach one arm and extend your opposite leg at the same time.
On its own the basic deadbug isn’t a very challenging exercise. Truth be told I tend to only program them for relative novices, or as a warm-up exercise for things like squats and deadlifts (we can talk about that another time). That being said there are a number of ways to increase their difficulty, one of these being to add an element of complexity.
The reverse crunch deadbug combo mixes together two great exercises that are used for different purposes. One of them for core strength and spinal stability, and the other a crunch variation to smoke your abdominals. The coordination component with this one takes some getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it they’re great fun to incorporate in your workouts.
In the video I’m holding on to a plate, but they’ll work equally as well holding a heavy kettlebell or medicine ball. Focus on raising your knees towards the roof rather than your head during the reverse crunch portion. This will help preferentially recruit the fibers of your rectus abdominis as your flex and posteriorly tilt your pelvis. During the deadbug component keep your low back pressed down towards the floor and your ribs from flaring as you lower your opposite arm and leg. The aim is to resist any unwanted movement. To make these even harder then try adding some small ankle weights to your ankles and wrists.
There are a few ways you can combine both core and abdominal exercises to get the best of both worlds. One of these is the use of somewhat “hybrid” exercises. Hybrid exercises are those that are core-focused but also challenge your abdominals to a significant degree at the same time. The above exercises will will give you a good place to start.
Please feel free to comment below if you have any questions related to this post, and share it on your social media to help educate others.
Also known as “The Fitness Maverick”, Gareth specializes in smarter training techniques to get you strong and looking great naked year round!