Six -Pack Abs: Superficial not super when it comes to athletic performance

Core, core, core. It’s all you hear today in sports performance. “My athlete can’t do this or that because he has a weak core.” Gimmicks are all over TV touting tight six-pack abs. They are all geared toward flexion because when people “feel the burn” of an exercise, they feel as though the exercise is working. So athletes rush to the gym and coaches prescribe mega reps of crunches and sit-ups.

Without a complete understanding of how the core affects performance, this is a complete waste of time.  A strong and balanced core is a unit including several muscle groups working in coordination, not just the superficial six-pack. The most important muscles are the deep ones that cannot be seen and that are mostly responsible for athletic performance.

I liken the core to the transmission in a car — it allows for the transmission of torque and power to the legs and arms (speed & power).  It incorporates the frontal abdominal muscles (rectus abdominas), the lateral abdominal muscles (obliques), and the back muscle groups (erector spinae).

In terms of performance demands, I break it into three “athletic movement components.”  These components are:  trunk flexion (bending), trunk extension (upright), and trunk stabilizing (holding).

Athletes commonly overdo the flexion aspect of training. This results in overdeveloped flexion muscles. These overdeveloped muscles take over and don’t allow the erectors (back) or obliques (sides) to help distribute or carry the load in athletic activity. So athletes who have this condition tend to develop lower back problems especially when doing power lifts or overhead lifting. This frontal dominance also can contribute to shoulder injuries for throwing athletes.

Secondly, overdeveloped flexion muscles can result in an improper pelvic (hip area) tilt which will translate into groin, hip, gluteal, and hamstring injuries.

What is my prescription for Gamespeed athletes?

A well-rounded core program that creates a balance. Because most athletes are flexion dominate in their core strength, I suggest a 50-30-20 ratio. What this means is 50% of your exercise load is dedicated to the erectors or back muscles, 30% is dedicated to the obliques, and 20% to the flexors, which in most cases are already overdeveloped.

My favorites:

Back exercises (erectors):  bridges, hyper extensions.

Oblique exercises: medicine ball seated twists, side-bends.

Flexor exercises: leg lifts, bicycles.

I also suggest the following training protocols:

  1. Training each movement group on a separate day.
  2. Training for strength not aesthetics.
  3. Use a variety of exercises to train the movement groups.

Today it’s common for athletes to pursue the six-pack ab. But keep in mind — pursuit of the six-pack abs might result in a “belly flop” of your performance.