“Isometrically training the rectus is consistent with its architecture and stabilizing function to enhance performance and power development in the hips and extremities.” – Dr. Stuart McGill
As a member of SWCC, a Naval Special Operations Force specializing in maritime warfare on small boats, I spent a substantial amount of time on a craft known as an 11-meter RIB. The RIB is an eight-ton, thousand-horsepower jet boat with a steeply angled Kevlar hull capable of speeds around fifty miles per hour.
This is all peachy when you’re on a nice flat bay, but when the boat is going airborne over open ocean waves while you’re wearing body armor, small weapons, ammunition, and a helmet with night-vision goggles, it’s pretty damn rough on the body.
This is going to hurt!
The best analogy I can come up with to describe it would be if you were to ride in the bed of a dump truck while racing down a bumpy road, partially blindfolded with a toaster strapped to the top of your head and an extra fifty pounds or so of awkward gear on your body. Every three to eight seconds, the bed of the dump truck is going to lift completely up and then violently and unexpectedly slam back down while rolling 45 degrees to either side. It’s like being in a car crash several hundred times in a night.
These impacts can reach 20 g’s and literally break bones. They’re rough on every joint in the body and the spine is particularly vulnerable. Shattered vertebrae were not unheard of.
This meant that when it came to physical training, optimal joint alignment and function was crucial, particularly for the spine. Nothing we did was for solely cosmetic reasons, although we developed lean and muscular bodies as a byproduct. We wanted to make it through deployments without broken backs and be able to do our jobs.
Abs trained for spinal stability look as strong as they function
This required a different approach than what most of the civilian world (and the military as well) did when it came to training the anterior core, which you probably refer to as your abs. As it turns out, this approach also works tremendously well for athletes and civilians who train primarily to look good naked.
When it comes to training the abs and the body as whole for visual appearance, it’s important that one develop the entire anterior core and not just the rectus abdominis, which is the primary muscle involved in situps, planks, and crunches. This approach will create a tight, well-balanced midsection with visually striking obliques, along with the sought after six pack.
The other consideration when it comes to visual appearance (as well as spinal stability) is posture. It’s been well established by researchers such as Harvard’s Dr. Dana Carney that an open, upright posture is crucial to creating the appearance of social dominance, also known as “the guy girls want to sleep with.”
For this to happen, the spine must be as erect (no pun intended) as possible, the chest held high, and the shoulders pulled confidently back.
The downside to movements like crunches is that they repeatedly flex the spine forward and pull the ribcage closer to the pelvis. This reinforces the exact opposite of open, tall posture. Movements like situps can also have a negative effect by tightening the hip flexors and pulling the pelvis into anterior tilt, which leads to excessive spinal curvature and a visually shortened, hunched over spine. Not many people think of hunchbacks when they’re trying to imagine a sexy body.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame did sit-ups and he wasn’t so popular with the girls!
Why it works
The joints of the body function along a continuum. Much like a bullwhip, a mobile section is anchored to a stable section that is capable of transmitting force without absorbing it.
The small sonic boom produced by cracking a bullwhip is possible because the handle is completely rigid and the whip becomes increasingly mobile down its length, all the way to a soft, pliable tip.
The spine functions similarly. The lower facets of the lumbar spine are meant for rigidity; they allow only a small range of motion.
As you move up from the lumbars into the thoracic section of the spine, the facets become increasingly mobile, just as a bullwhip becomes more mobile the further away from the handle you go:
No Spinal Flexion
Training the abs with spinal flexion movements such as crunches reverses this continuum. These movements loosen the lumbar spine and diminish the mobility of the upper spine. Therefore, we stay away from any kind of movement involving spinal flexion, and the majority of our ab work also avoids hip flexion.
As Dr. Stuart McGill has famously illustrated in his books and lectures, the role of the anterior core is to provide stability to the lumbar spine and transmit force. It serves to prevent undesirable motion, be it rotational, extension, or lateral flexion-based. To paraphrase Dr. McGill, if the rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle) was primarily intended to flex the spine, it would look like a giant hamstring muscle.
A Note on Hip Flexion
Hip flexion, the action of drawing the knee towards the chest, is a crucial part of athletic movement, and many people in particular need to strengthen hip flexion with the knee above 90 degrees of flexion.
In many athletes, a combination of immobility in the hips and lack of strength in certain hip flexors causes the lumbar spine to buckle (posterior pelvic tilt) during activities like sprinting or exercises like hanging leg raises. This leads to impaired stride mechanics and a weak spine.
With this in mind, we do specifically train hip flexion, primarily with exercises like wall march iso drills, mountain climbers, or dead bugs, which train ab/glute co-contraction and unilateral hip flexion. In this way, the athlete learns to separate hip flexion from spinal flexion and maintain the structural integrity of the spine.
Plank and Side Plank
These are well known by now in most circles and we still use them quite a bit. When in the plank, ensure that the spine is in a neutral, straight line. You should be able to set a broomstick on the athlete’s back and have it touch their upper back, sacrum, and head. Do not allow the lumbar spine to sag into extension.
A common variation is the “RKC Plank” in which you actively contract the glutes and place the elbows close together and further out in front of you than normal.
With the side plank, pay attention to the hips to ensure that they are not flexed during the hold. Firing of the glutes will help to ensure that the hips are extended.
Tall Kneeling Pallof Iso
This movement (and most like it) is generally attributed to the physical therapist named John Pallof who popularized them. I often drop the Pallof part out of the name, mostly because I can never remember how to spell it right.
Most of these movements are held for isometrics of between five and thirty seconds. We do them with a partner pulling on a band, although a cable machine works fine if you’re training by yourself. Rather than talking and destabilizing your spine by exhaling too much, just nod your head to indicate to your partner that he is pulling with enough tension.
The tall kneeling press can also be performed with a split stance to help train ab/glute co-contraction and stretch the hip flexor and is advisable for people who have a hard time keeping their lumber spine from extending with both knees down.
These are also often done as a press in which the hands are drawn towards the chest and then pressed fully away at intervals. By changing the leverage in this way, you get less resistance with the hands close to the chest and can break a 30-second iso into smaller segments. Try a 30-second bout, with three 10-second holds at the fully extended position and the hands brought briefly back to the chest in between.
Anti Extension Pallof Press Iso
We generally only perform this one with a split stance. The potential benefits of performing it with both knees down seldom outweigh the chances of hyperextending the lumbar spine and promoting poor movement patterns. Ensure that the spine is neutral at all times and pay attention to the shoulders. They should be positioned overhead, tucked slightly forward, and the scapulae should be retracted and depressed the entire time.
Anti Lateral Flexion w Band
This is performed with the resistance coming from the same side as the forward leg and with a split stance only. The scapulae need to be set down and back with the sternum high. Grip the band with the hand opposite to the resistance side and set the hands directly on top of the skull. Ensure that the lumbar spine is neutral. Many people who lack mobility in their thoracic spines and shoulders will arch their lower backs in order to maintain upright posture, so pay attention to the lumbar curve.
This variation adds an anti-rotation component to the traditional plank, which normally is solely an anti-extension movement. The hips must be kept flat and the glutes should be braced throughout the movement. We typically switch arms every five seconds for 20-second bouts, although we have worked up to switches every twenty seconds for 80-second bouts.
Years ago, I was talking with Pavel Tsatsouline about drills specifically for military guys working on small boats, and he showed me this drill. It’s a highly effective method for training spinal stabilization and the ability to mitigate impact. Pick your partner up by the feet, shake them slightly so that he can’t predict which foot will be dropping, and let go of one foot. Your partner should be able to maintain a neutral, tightly braced spine and keep both feet at least close to level. Pay attention to the shoulder blades. You’ll find greater stiffness and strength if the scaps are locked down and in, and the lats are tightly braced.
This exercise can also be performed from the pushup position, in which case the glutes must be solidly braced and the abs functioning to prevent extension at the spine. Tension in the lats plays a crucial role here as well.
Ab Lever, Full
These can be performed from rings or a pullup bar. A neutral grip bar allows for the best leverage. Here, the ability to generate full body tension is crucial, and the abs must brace powerfully to prevent extension at the lumbar spine. You can ease your way into it by bending one leg in order to decrease the resistance. If you do so, make sure that you contract the glute on the extended leg and keep your spine neutral.
Plate slides require both an anti-extension and anti-rotation effect from the abs. The glutes should be locked out in order to keep the pelvis from tilting in the anterior direction. We use 2.5 pound plates and move them every five seconds in order to allow the athlete to reset into the pushup position between each slide.
This drill places substantial demand on the gluteus medius while the core musculature must work to prevent lateral flexion. Keep the heel of the top foot at least as high as the toes in order to ensure that the athlete isn’t externally rotating the hip and moving from the hip flexors instead of using the gluteus medius to abduct the hip.
By understanding the function of the anterior core and spine, you’ve got a wide variety of options for training your abs to improve both appearance and performance. You have no reason to do situps or crunches ever again….and your spine will thank you.
Written by Craig Weller
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About Craig Weller
Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.
The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.
This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.
You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.