In my own experience, a lot people have similar goals in mind when they join a gym or hire a trainer. They want to look better and feel better about themselves. As we all know, one muscle in particular is often displayed as a sign of fitness superiority… rectus abdominis better known as: abs, 6 pack, etc etc. But, there is much more that goes into having a solid core than a 6-pack. Many people strive to attain this look in their work outs, but often do not succeed because there is a misnomer in the community that people continue to fall for, and that is the more isolated core work you do the stronger and leaner you’ll get. However, research has proven time and time again this modality of training is...eye wash. The term “core” is a relative term and really can be placed on any body part, so I will use “trunk” when referencing the muscles associated with trunk movement.
Firstly, you cannot target fat areas with exercises, that is not how the process works. Fat is an energy source stored in the body. It is accumulated when our caloric consumption exceeds our caloric expenditure. So, when someone does crunches, they are not targeting belly fat, and belly fat does not magically turn into muscle. The muscle is there currently, and has always been there (unless there’s a problem), it is just covered by a layer of stored energy. In order to remove these excess energy stores, you must burn off the energy! This is accomplished by doing a healthy mixture of activities, and the more of the body that is involved in the activity, the more energy you’re burning (for the most part). As we have discussed previously, there is a ton of variables that will decide how much energy will be burned in the activity.
Secondly, completing isolated trunk movements is nowhere near as beneficial as completing externally loaded, total body movements that teach the body to work in unison. With that being said, I do use isolated trunk movements in my “trunk and spine” warm up before lifts. I do this to “turn on” smaller muscle groups, work in different planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse), and prepare the body for the real work of the day in an unloaded fashion. For example, the deadlift is a total body movement that requires massive amounts of trunk strength from the entire system to prevent unwarranted flexion of the trunk. Before I attempt this exercise, I will complete a circuit that mimics the requirements of a deadlift and promoting rigidity of the trunk, but I will be on the ground which is a regressed position. It gives the body an opportunity to wake up before asking it to accomplish a heavy task such as the deadlift. The reason I use isolated trunk movements is to prepare the body for the focus of the day, while others will dedicate a whole work out (ab day) when in actuality they can spend their time more efficiently completing total body movements like a squat, lunge, deadlift, or step up.
Crunches, planks, and the ab wheel all have their place and can be challenging to perform! But, if the goal of your program is to actually develop trunk strength and lose fat, those exercises do not hold a candle to total body movements mentioned previously. Plus, in every exercise there is a way to get the trunk more involved. Shifting from bilateral exercise to unilateral exercises to narrow your base of support, and uneven loading of movements will place a greater demand on the trunk musculature. Isolated trunk exercises have a place in my programming, and they should in yours as well, but they should not be the focus of a session… unless you’re coming back from injury, then that is a whole other can of worms.
-Thank you for your time! If you have any questions please let us know!
Coach Nate Garcia