Sorry to report, but you can have six pack abs and still be in terrible condition for lifting. A six pack, as the rectus abdominis is commonly referenced, is the gold standard in physical fitness, just slightly ahead of huge biceps.
Both are flawed metrics for true fitness.
This is gonna crush Justin Bieber, but the function of the abdominal wall is first to keep in your guts. The ribcage only covers part of our trunk. To see this wall in all its glory is a matter of body fat, not crunches.
Lest I downplay the value of your abs, let me add, abdominals are some of the largest muscles in the body. When we talk about using the big muscles, these are they.
Also, your abs stabilize your trunk, like a wall that holds up your roof. In short, you need abs that function. Seeing them is a bonus.
As a matter of function, the most important abdominal work you can do is isometric work. Beyond that, it’s about how you use them in everything else that you do, and how you test them. Yeah, you gotta test them. We’ll come back to that.
In a nutshell, isometrics are when the muscles tighten but don’t change shape. The most famous, or infamous of these for abs is the plank.
Despite the commonality of net elbows for these, my preference is you do these with your arms extended like the top of a push-up. It won’t help your abs, but it will help your shoulders.
Plus, when in life do you push things with your elbow, besides that nasty paper towel dispenser?
Isometrics, or Isos as you may hear them called, ask your abdominals to serve their primary purpose: guts stay put. While this may seem remedial, the ability for you to stabilize your guts is the difference between a successful lift versus one that is not safe.
With loose abs, any lift can compromise your intestines, your ab wall, you spine, and more. The more iso-intensity your abs can take, (to borrow my own metaphor) the heavier roof you can load on them. [Read: lift more.]
You don’t have to hit planks all day to develop your abs unless there is a deficiency. You will know this by testing, but as long as you can activate that ab-wall, then you should be doing so in every movement you make. This means inside and outside the gym.
There is no move that doesn’t mandate you start and end by tightening your abs. You can try it right now. Imagine there is a cable connecting your bellybutton and anus. Shorten the cable.
This pulls your abs in and your pelvic floor up, clamping down on your guts.
By this logic, you should be clamping down before you bench press, squat, deadlift, and pick up your toddler.
Does your back hurt when leaning over the sink? Tighten that cable and find you have a renewed endurance. Does removing groceries from the car give you visions of slipping a disc? Shorten the cable. Raking leaves? Shorten.
While at first it seems very simple, there are some things you will want to avoid when shortening the cable; namely the belly poking out and the pelvis tucking under like a dog tucking his tail.
The explanations get a little technical so see a professional if you notice these, but here is what you will notice…
The tail tuck can happen when you shorten from a standing position but often kicks in during planks. If you notice you are tucking, stop until you can sort out a solution. What is happening, is you are altering the relationship of your pelvis to your spine, which isn’t a big deal in a plank, but dangerous in a squat.
The belly poking out can happen anytime. It may be because you’ve been a hardcore cruncher. Obsessive crunches often cause an imbalance in the abdominal muscles, where the six pack is working too hard. There are deeper muscles that should be able to pull in your belly button, body fat layer aside.
You can formally test for these faults, but it’s better to keep an eye out all the time. Again, seek help if you get stuck.
Always keep in mind that we train the abs for function. No amount of crunches is going to give you Bieber abs. Sexy abs should be an ancillary result, not a goal.