Pete McCall by Pete McCall

How many times have you been asked the best way to develop a six-pack?  If you’re like me I always chuckle a little and inform the inquisitor that he or she already has a six-pack – the problem is that it’s usually being stored in a cooler.  I go on to inform him or her that core training requires a lot more work than one or two exercises and that I can help them move toward their goals, but it will require some commitment on their part.  The interesting thing is that many fitness consumers think doing core exercises is the most effective way to lose abdominal fat, however research published in 2009 demonstrated that doing seven traditional “ab” exercises five days a week increases endurance strength of the muscles but DOES NOT make a difference in the amount of body fat (Vispute, et al).

Doing abdominal exercises in the hopes of burning fat is like trying to walk up the down escalator; it just isn’t that efficient.  The abdominal muscles, specifically the rectus abdominus, are often trained in an inefficient manner that doesn’t actually improve their functional strength to dissipate and distribute gravity and ground reaction forces, let alone expend enough energy to have a significant impact on stores of adipose tissue (body fat).

Many clients want to use crunches to sculpt their six packs, but did you realize that having early morning clients do crunches could actually be placing higher pressures on the intervertebral discs, increasing the risk of a back injury?  Now keep in mind doing crunches has never been linked to cancer, but they should not be the foundation of a core training program.

The musculoskeletal structure of the human body is designed to be most efficient when standing upright on the ground, not lying on the floor.  Think about it, the human body is designed to move, and the basic, default pattern of movement is walking, or the gait cycle.  The skeletal and muscle structures are designed in such a way to create mechanical energy from gravity and ground reaction forces in order to conserve metabolic energy. 

During gait, the right leg and the left arm swing forward at the same time, creating a counter-rotation of the torso and hips that eccentrically lengthens all layers of the abdominal fascia.  The muscles of the core are designed to facilitate this multi-planar action to make it smooth and efficient.  That’s right; the actual purpose of our core muscles is to work effectively and efficiently while the body is in an upright, vertical position. 

Researcher and expert on biomechanics of the spine, Dr. Stuart McGill, has found that using ground-based, vertical exercises to train and strengthen the core is extremely effective in that spinal “stability is a ‘moving target” that changes as a function of the three dimensional torques needed to support various postures and unexpected loads.” (McGill)

Put it this way, having your client lie on the ground to do three sets of abdominal and oblique crunches will not train her muscles and spine to accommodate the multi-planar forces she’ll experience when she lifts her young son from the car-seat or crib.  If you really want to make a difference in your clients’ lives and earn referrals to other clients, having an understanding of how to develop exercise programs based on human biomechanics will really set you apart from other trainers.

The big question is “which way is the best way to do core training?” Effective core training requires using exercises that integrate the hips, trunk and shoulders in order to efficiently distribute the forces (gravity, ground reaction and momentum) caused by upright movement patterns.   

That said, it is necessary to do some ground-based exercises to create core stability, but once that is achieved in the initial stages of a program such as during the stability and mobility phase of the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) model, then it’s time to challenge the client by progressing their core training to emphasize upright movement patterns and dynamic balance (the center of gravity moving over an unstable base of support).

If we truly want to train the core the way it is designed to work we need to get off of the floor and train the muscles from a standing position so they learn how to stabilize the body in a field of gravity.  Some of my favorite core exercises include (this is not a complete list, just a few exercises to establish core stability and enhance integrated strength):

For initial core stability:

For integrated core strength and dynamic balance:

Despite how many integrated core exercises are used during a training session my experience has taught me that if I don’t include at least a few sets of crunches then my client’s lower lip will start to tremble, their eyes will start watering and they’ll be complaining that we skipped core training.  To avoid this awkward interaction my recommendation is to use stability ball crunches as an active recovery interval between more challenging core exercises.  The cushion of the ball will minimize the pressure on the lower spine during flexion and allow a greater range-of-motion, both beneficial for any client. 

Muscles don’t know what they look like. They just do one of two things: produce force or reduce force. Proper core training requires an understanding of functional biomechanics in order to train the muscles to produce the right amount of force at the right time.  To learn more about core training and how you can use it to help your clients meet or exceed their goals, ACE is hosting a live webinar that will cover specific strategies to improve core strength and performance.  This way the next time a client asks you how to get a six-pack you can smile and know that you’ll have the ability to help.

Vertical Core Training Live Webinar Vertical Core Training Live Webinar

Branch out from traditional core exercises that just lay clients on the ground moving in a single plane. Learn to incorporate core-strengthening side-to-side, up and down movements. Prepare your clients' bodies to produce, stabilize and control force in a three-dimensional environment – the way their muscles work in the real world. Join the Webinar →


McGill, Stuart; Low Back Disorders, 2nd ed.  Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.  2007.

Vispute, et al. “The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(9) 2559-2564. 2009.