Are you training your abs functionally?

November 9, 2009 | by Dr. Jess

When we think of training our abdominal muscles, we think of crunches, planks, and sit-ups. These do help to get stronger and aesthetically pleasing abs, however, they may not help us in the real world and in sporting movements. All of our muscles function and turn on in three dimensional movements. That is, they function in forward and back, side to side, and rotational or twisting motions. In addition, to make them functional in a real world environment or sport, you need to train them in similar conditions as the sport. So if you are a soccer player, you may want to train them upright and on your feet in three dimensions. If you are a swimmer, you may want to train them prone and side-lying in three dimensions. Our abdominals connect the pelvis (lower body) to the thorax (upper body). Any kinetic energy originating from the ground and feet have to go through the abdominal muscles to get to the upper body and arms. Let's look at the task of throwing a baseball. About 50% of the power throwing a baseball comes from the lower body. The kinetic energy starts with the feet, through the legs, and then the pelvis. At this point, the abdominal muscles have to transfer that built up kinetic energy into the chest and out through the arm. Any loss of energy through the abdominal muscles by inefficient activation, function, or weakness will cause the shoulder to have to regain that energy and power to throw the ball. You can see if this happens over and over again, the likelihood of developing an overuse injury of the shoulder is high. To properly activate a muscle and turn it on, we need to eccentrically load it. This means, we need to put the muscle through a controlled stretching or elongating movement to load it and store kinetic energy, only to be able to explode and unleash the power. Therefore, in our example of throwing, the arm is cocked back, the upper body rotated backwards and extended while the pelvis starts its movement forward. This puts a stretch on the abdominal muscles where the proprioceptors (nerves that detect movement) turn on the abdominals to contract concentrically, thereby initiating the forward movement of the upperbody resulting in the arm throwing the ball. Think of a whip. The energy starts and is stored in you hand, and then is transferred through the whip to snap at the end. Tennis serve, throwing, golf, volleyball spike are all good examples of energy being stored from below and then transferred to the arm like a whip. You can even think of this from the opposite direction. How many soccer players do you know kick without moving the arms or upper body? We can transfer the energy from our upper body to our feet by having abdominal muscles functionally turned on. Now that you have a better idea of how our abdominals really work in the real world, you can start training them correctly. To sum it all up, you can train your abs:
  • In three dimensions
  • Environmentally appropriate for your sport, ie: on your feet, on your stomach, in the air
  • Emphasizing the stretch reflex (eccentrically contracting) to turn them on
  • Moving both the upperbody and pelvis in three dimensions, either in the same direction or the opposite direction
Not only will your abdominals look nice, you will have the added benefit of functionally trained abs to prevent injuries and improve performance!
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