The world is abdominal crazy. From 'Ab-Blast' classes to topical creams and electrical gadgets, people try every-thing to flatten their abs. But is allof this necessary or even worth the time? More important, does this fixation on abdominals improve performance in a functional environ-ment, such as work or sport, or reduce injury? To answer these questions, we need to look at the role the abdominal muscles played in ensuring man's survival under selective evolutionary pressures.
Did cavemen do sit-ups?
Imagine primitive man out on a hunt. He has been hunting for hours but, having no luck, decides to hit the dirt and knock out a few crunches to keep his abs looking good for primal babes. Does this scenario seem very likely?I don't think so.
It is easy to think of the abdom-inals as muscles whose primary function is aesthetic. However, this is analogous to thinking that a car is simply a box on wheels. To appreciate the abdominal wall, we need to briefly examine its innervation.
The abdominal muscles receive innervation from each segment of the spinal cord from T5 to L1. Most muscles in the body have only two sources of innervation: primary and secondary. The deltoid, for example, is primarily innervated by C5 with secondary innervation by C6. This knowledge allows practitioners to assess neurological function by testing specific muscles innervated predominantly by one segment-so the deltoid is commonly tested to assess C5 nerve function.
This is important because each nerve branches from a specific seg-ment of the spinal cord, and each segment acts like a brain to deliver its message to the specific musclesit feeds. So, the abdominal muscles could be considered as having nine spinal brains controlling them. When we consider all the vital functions provided by the abdominal wall, such as joint stability, and visceral (organ)/ respiratory, circulatory/immune and digestion/elimination system-wide support, the need for such intricate innervation becomes obvious.
But how should we train our abs?
Back to the future
Who we are today is an expression of what our ancestors were long ago. Research states that it takes 100,000 years for 0.001% of an organism's genes to change (J Mol Evol, 1984; 20: 22-5). This means that our bodies are virtually identical to those early Homo sapiens who were roaming the planet around 100,000 years ago.
Our ancestors were mostly hunters and gatherers, and some experts, such as George Constable (TimeFrame: The Human Dawn. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1990), believe primal man preferred meat over plants for flavour and caloric density. So, we may assume that early man spent a good deal of time hunting as well as foraging for fruit and vegetables.
Hunting was also a strenuous activity, requiring a strong core. Throwing a spear with enough power to bring down prey required the anterior oblique muscles to work synergistically with the leading leg, torso, and opposite shoulder and arm.
Once the hunter downed an animal, whether he had others to help him or not, he most likely had to drag the animal home. During the action of pulling, the posterior oblique muscles serve as the prime mover (Lee D. The Pelvic Girdle, 2nd edn. NY: Churchill Livingstone, 1999). Also, it is more natural to pull with greater force from only one arm to move heavy or awkward objects, thereby placing rotational torque on the hunter's body. The abdominals contribute to the combined actions of pulling and trunk rotation, and stabilize the posterior oblique muscles.
To get an animal home, the hunter probably used a 'power clean' type of lift to heave the carcass into a comfortable carrying position. To do this, during the bend pattern, the deep abdominal muscles (inner unit) play a vital stabilization role (IAAF Tech Quart, 1999; 14: 27-34) while the outer unit muscles provide overall stability to help prevent the hunter from losing his balance while lifting.
The hunter then had to trek home, using a combination of walking, high stepping and lungeing. During the trek, the anterior and posterior oblique muscles are used to produce an efficient gait. As the ground he covered was probably uneven, the primal hunter would have needed fully functional abdominals to handle the challenging terrain while bearing a load on his back.
To traverse across large objects, the hunter would have been required to lunge. As many of you are aware, performing a loaded, dynamic lunge requires significant stabilization from the abdominals, not to mention the added work associated with acceler-ation and deceleration of the load atop the hunter's body while travel-ling over unpredictable terrain. This constitutes real abdominal training. A system of muscle actions designed to support and move the body laterally would be mandatory. That system is called the 'lateral system'.
Another important movement, especially in combative or defensive situations, is the 'primal push' pattern. This would have required the full and synergistic activation of the anterior, posterior and oblique systems-more good abdominal training. The lack of chairs and tables meant that primal man would have had countless opportunities to use the primal squat pattern, particularly the more useful front-loaded squat, requiring functional stabilization from the abdominal muscles.
Out of the past
There is much debate over how the nervous system stores and accesses movement information (motor programmes). Some contend that the brain is not sufficiently large or fast to store the billions of movements we perform in a lifetime, nor can it create new movement patterns at real-time speeds. Of the numerous proposed theories, R.A. Schmidt's hypothesis of generalized motor pro-grammes (Motor Learning & Performance: From Principles to Practice. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1992) correlates with my own clinical observations. Schmidt proposes that the brain stores key movements in a relative timing sequence that is easily modified in both velocity and amplitude to become other movements.
Numerous studies have proven that squats, for example, improve vertical jumping far more than leg presses, knee extensions and leg curls. This is because the relative timing (rate at which body segments move in relation to each other) is similar. So, when you improve your squat strength, you are developing strength in a sequence that the brain can immediately apply to similar movements, such as vertical jumps, that share a similar relative timing sequence.
Using my clinical observations and correlating them with motor learning research, I have developed a system of exercise based on the movements I felt were necessary for survival in our developmental and primal environ-ment. I call this system the Primal PatternTM system (Chek P. Advanced Program Design, Correspondence Course and Video Cassette Series. Encinitas, CA: C.H.E.K Institute, 1997, 1999).
I've proposed that any primitive man or woman who could not perform any of the primal patterns (squat, lunge, bend, push, pull, twist and gait) from a standing position would have perished. Based on countless clinical examples of people who were not successful with the traditional approach to conditioning or rehabilitation, I have found that their ability to perform one or more of these Primal PatternsTM was notably deficient or dysfunctional.
I have surmised that almost all sports or work activities can be broken down to any single Primal PatternTM or combination of primal patterns. Appreciating the essential role of the abdominal wall as a key stabilizer mechanism and literally the 'core' of most movements, I have found that abdominal conditioning using Primal PatternTM movements is critical to long-term athletic success and injury prevention.
More interestingly, one needs only to look back into the literature to find that abdominal isolation exercises such as the crunch are relatively new. They are exorbitantly new in terms of the evolutionary development of our nervous systems. Indeed, the US Army's Manual of Physical Training, published in 1914, is a 335-page book full of exercises to train soldiers-but take a guess at how many sit-ups, sit-up variations, crunches or similar abdominal isolation exercises were presented in this thorough manual of physical conditioning? Correct-zero! There is, however, page after page of Primal PatternTM-type movements.
Examples of functional abdominal training-the kind that gives you a 'six-pack that works'-are the Single Arm Cable Pull, the Single Arm Cable Push, the Wood Chop and any of the other Primal PatternTM movements. These exercises all meet the require-ments of functional exercise based on the guidelines used at the C.H.E.K Institute, and serve not only to improve one's abdominal aesthetics but, when executed correctly, they will train and maintain optimal motor skills in the body.
Training for the future
After all this, I am not saying that abdominal isolation exercises are useless. What I am saying is that they are only training the body to be strong at the particular movement being repeated in that exercise. Doing crunches makes you strongat crunches, but does nothing to improve your ability to swing a golf club, bat or hockey stick.
Aside from rehabilitative settings, first-phase base conditioning and body-building competitions where isolation and hypertrophy are necessary to achieve a specific objective, Primal PatternTM training can be considered to be real abdominal training. The way to the podium is through a careful and intelligent progression of abdominal or 'core' training.
The ultimate goal of any exercise, aside from the benefit of improved strength, is to develop automaticity. This is the ability to produce move-ments, or their approximations, with optimal form and at real-time speeds without having to think about it. After all, if you have to think about how you are moving, your brain will not be free to concentrate on how to win the game.
This has been adapted from Paul Chek's article 'Back to the Future of Abdominal Training', published in the December 2000 issue of Testosterone Magazine.
Paul Chek is founder of the C.H.E.K Institute in Encinitas, CA, and an internationally recognized lecturer and educator in the fieldsof orthopaedic rehabilitation, and corrective and performance exercise. For more information, call 0208-874-6942 (UK) or visit his website at www.chekinstitute.com