One of the biggest misconceptions about working out the midsection is the is the terms “core” and “abs” being used interchangeably. Is ab training really the same thing as core training? Here is how to differentiate the two…
Abs: the visible muscles of the rectus abdominus and obliques involved in lumbar spine flexion (bending forward), lateral flexion (side bending), and rotation (twisting) at the spine. The rectus abdominus also works synergistically with the glutesand hamstrings to tilt the pelvis posteriorly.
Core: the collection of deep muscles (most notably the transverse abdominus) involved in stabilization of the spine (to minimize movement) for purposes of protection of the spine, to keep your guts from spilling out, and includes the pelvic floor muscles so your core keeps you from peeing your pants…
Don’t these muscles all work together anyways? Yes and no. Your abs will contract isometrically while doing core training and your core muscles will be working to a certain extent during ab training.
Examples of ab training include sit-ups, crunches, hanging leg raises, machine or cable crunches, side bends, and twists. Exercises that I would categorize as core training would include planks, side planks, and any exercise where you are moving the hips and/or shoulders in free motion while having to maintain a neutral spine (that’s a lot)!
The farther out your hands are from your body in free space or the farther out your feet in free space the greater demand that there will be on core stabilization muscles (compare doing a leg lift with bent knees vs straight legs). There’s a saying that I learned in physical therapy school that goes:
“Proximal stability leads to distal mobility”
Meaning that you must develop stability closer to your body in order to get safely mobile far away from your body (so if you’re having trouble with your overhead pressing or squatting, you’ll be limited by your lack of core stability).
Who should train their core? Everyone! You must understand that there are many exercises that will develop core stability because of how they’re performed. Some examples are squats, deadlfts, push-ups, pull-ups, overhead pressing, overhead squats, etc… wait, what about planks and all the trendy stuff going on in fitness clubs all over? They’re all useful but the basic exercises that have been around from the beginning of strength training literature are just as good!
Who should train abs? Not everyone… like that answer? Focus on ab training should be limited to groups of people who want to develop the appearance of the visible ab muscles. Recreational bodybuilders and physique competitors would be one example of this group. You can develop a good midsection without ab training but you will not see optimal development unless you train those muscles directly and with significant resistance. People who have herniated discs, compression fractures, and similar spinal conditions SHOULD NOT be doing spinal flexion exercises aka ab training!
Some bodybuilders say they do not train abs but again they are short changing themselves from maximal development of those muscles with deep crevices. My mentor taught me the benefits of weighted ab training and in my personal experience on the day of my bodybuilding show I was able to stand up my mobile phone on its side between my abs because they had that much more depth. Ab training can turn a six-pack into an eight-pack and visible abs into class winning abs.
Can you do both simultaneously? Yes, there are two exercises I recommend that will kill two birds with one stone: the ab wheel and assisted glute-ham raise. Both involve full body movement at the shoulders and hips and require both spinal flexion the spinal stabilization.
Hopefully this helps you understand the difference between ab training and core training. Use both as appropriate for your goals!