Social Media is awash with fitness videos of topless adonis's curling, crunching and grunting in ever more complicated yoga esq movements with enticing captions such as ‘2 minute 6 pack abs’ or ‘shredded in 60!’. But being realistic – is there any truth in it?
The question - "Is direct core training the best way to the 6 pack fraternity or toned tummy? Or, are there better options and if so, what?" That’s what we’re here to find out.
In this VS match the first point I’ll address is the indisputable requirement to have a bodyfat % level low enough for abs to actually be seen. For that purpose this blog will assess the effectiveness of direct core work and full body lifts on calorie expenditure (which has a direct correlation with fat loss) as well as each of their benefits for engaging the abdominal muscles forcing adaptation (hypertrophy / muscle development & growth).
Corner 1: Direct Ab Work!
Cutting straight to the chase.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning investigated the effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal body fat. Twenty-four healthy, sedentary (non exercising) participants were randomly assigned either to an abdominal exercise group or a control group.
The abdominal exercise group performed 7 abdominal exercises, for 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 5 days a week for 6 weeks. Body composition, and abdominal muscular endurance were tested before and after training.
The control group continued their lives as they normally would.
The study reported:
“There was no significant effect of abdominal exercises on body weight, body fat percentage, android fat percentage, android fat, abdominal circumference, abdominal skinfold and suprailiac skinfold measurements … Six weeks of abdominal exercise training alone was not sufficient to reduce abdominal subcutaneous fat and other measures of body composition.”
The takeaway that 6 weeks of crunching and grunting on the ab mat had done nothing to the body fat % around their abdomen or indeed their total body fat %. They lost 0% fat.
Corner 2: Full body resistance training!
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Translational Medicines is just one of many to examine the effects of full body resistance training on calorie expenditure.
This study took a group of young men and assigned them to either:
1) a Traditional Resistance Program of 4 sets of failure for 8 exercises at 75% intensity, with no change in diet
2) a High Intensity Resistance program of 3 sets per exercise of leg press, chest press and lat pull down performed at 85% intensity to failure followed by two subsequent 20 second rests followed by two further lifts to failure.
The Traditional program took an average of 62 minutes to complete with the group experiencing a 5% increase (av. extra 98 calories) in calorie burn 22 hours after exercise in addition to calories burnt during training.
The High Intensity Resistance Program took an average of 32 minutes to complete with the group experiencing a 24% increase (av. extra 452 calories) in calorie burn 22 hours after exercise in addition to calories burnt during training
In half the time – with half the volume participants in the high intensity resistance program had significantly increased their daily calorie expenditure, 19% more than those in the traditional resistance program and a full 24% more than those in following a direct core training programme!
This would directly translate to a significant fat loss if a similar program was followed for a few weeks, with progress accelerated when paired with a healthy diet.
Application: What this means for you and your training.
As the studies above suggest Abdominal specific training, even over a prolonged period of time and if performed multiple times per week will not change your body fat % however may increase the tone of the abdominals during that time.
High intensity resistance training however will act in a different way. Helping significantly cut down on stored body fat, especially when performed with consistency whilst following correct training protocol.
However, once body fat percentages have reached a low enough figure the additional abdominal training will certainly help improve abdominal aesthetics as well as being extremely beneficial for improving deep core strength and stability.
For those that are new to training with body fat loss from a higher level being the goal it would almost certainly be recommended to introduce a combination of heavier resistance training alongside bodyweight movements to provoke that adaptation. Once this level becomes low enough the residual effect of direct core training will really begin to show.
Final notes & Recommendations
If you are new to training and have a focus on fat loss training should consist primarily of HIIT training (High intensity) using full body moves. As the second study showed this had not only a massive effect on calorie expenditure but also increased metabolic rate for hours after training. Tracked only to 22hrs in the study there are reports this can in fact last up to 48hours post workout. Ideal workouts would include the likes of Core Collective's VELOCITY and RESISTANCEclasses.
For experienced trainees or those that have an interest in further body composition, including increase in metabolic rate, VO2 max and power / strength high intensity resistance training superseded with compound lifts should be utilised. Typically using a lower rep range with longer rest periods between linked movements, this style of training enables adequate energy system recovery between sets boosting strength and power and enabling the muscle to increase in both size and strength whilst also making huge jumps to body composition. Ideal workouts would include LIFT and PACE.
Isolated core training does have it’s use however there is no point fine tuning your abs if you cannot see them – as such your best bet is to ignore the instagram hype and focus on high quality, high intensity resistance sessions that incorporate well thought out full body lifts to effectively drop bodyweight and attain your own aesthetic goals.
The final piece in the puzzle
As I am sure you are all aware you cannot out-train a bad diet and unfortunately diet plays a huge role in body-composition. The simplest yet most misunderstood aspect of fitness, a well written diet programme will make the world of difference.
For those with an interest in eating for maximal body composition my website www.thetransformationlab.co.uk is constantly updated with new and delicious recipes that put the ease back into eating with nutrition consultations also available for those who are serious about results.
Additionally for immediate and lasting results I will be launching a new programme in partnership with Core Collective after the summer. If you are interested in joining please feel free to be in touch as they have a habit of selling out!
Yours in health,