There has been a lot of controversy on whether or not a crunch is effective. This week on Sheer Strength Labs, Josh interviews functional training expert Jonathan Ross who has won the Personal Trainer of the Year award twice. Josh and Jonathan discuss the myths of the common crunch, planking, and how to build an effective ab training program.
Jonathan’s entrance into the fitness industry began in the late 1990s after his 424lb father died of obesity complications. This personal tragedy was a powerful motivator for Jonathan to help people live a better life. Jonathan started working as a trainer and is now an infopreneur who does consulting, speaking, writing, videos, and shares his information through as many channels as possible to help people pursue and maintain fitness.
Jonathan says to stop treating the abs like they are special because they aren’t. Abs are governed by the same rules as other muscles, but are simply in a special location because of the way the body stores fat. There is a first-in-last-out approach when we gain body fat, which typically starts at the central areas of the body because it’s efficient biologically for us to carry extra weight there. If you have added a lot of body fat, it starts at the outer parts of the body and works its way back in, so you start to see the changes in the central regions of the body last.
There has been a lot of controversy on whether or not a crunch is effective. Crunches are the dominant core exercise, and Josh says that everyone trains their core because they think it will give them six pack abs. Jonathan thinks that because everyone wants to have amazing abs, crunches were overused for so long in the fitness industry and have been done with poor technique. This means crunches can be used for harm but aren’t inherently harmful.
A lot of the research on crunches showing that they are unsafe has been done on pig spines. This is because a pig’s spine is similar to a human spine with regards to how it is constructed. The first issue is that people don’t do 8,000-12,000 crunches in a row as was used in the study. The second issue is that dead tissue doesn’t rehydrate, and the third thing is that dead tissue doesn’t respond to a training stimulus. When you add all these issues of the study together, you can see that by design the conditions are going to show tissue harm and will deem that crunches are unsafe to do. In the real world, someone might do two sets of twenty reps for a total volume of 40 reps versus 12,000 that might be used in a study.
We perform a plank to develop the ability to create and control full body stability. This teaches the muscles of the center of the body to work in good coordination and timing with the outer sections of the body and to create movement when we need it, as well as prevent movement when we don’t. Once we have that basic skill, it’s time to move on from planking and start moving. Jonathan thinks this movement is excessively overused and even wrote an article about it called What Comes After Planks. Life involves movement and not the absence of it. Holding the plank for a long period of time is not the best use of training time in a world where most people are pressed for time.
Once someone has perfected planking, you can then shift the body weight side-to-side, front to back, work on lifting a limb a foot and move out to the side. Jonathan suggests you treat the abs like any other muscle in the body whereby you add a new degree of difficulty to the exercise, which in this case is either moving the center of gravity or extremities.
For the person who wants to see visible abdominals, you would need to do weighted training. For the person who simply wants general fitness, Jonathan suggests using either load or body weight.
There are two very broad distinctions when it comes to ab training; these are stability and mobility. A crunch is a mobility exercise, and a plank is a stability exercise. Stability features the objective of having the abdominals maintain stability and prevent movement, while mobility is about seeing a change in length of the abdominal muscles.
Of the total workout program, every ab training portion would have 4-6 exercises based on the equipment and training level of the individual, but at least 2 would be falling into each category. So, for 4 exercises, 2 would be stability and 2 would be mobility.
On the days when we do our heaviest bilateral training, Jonathan believes it’s important to maintain the strength of the abs first as you wouldn’t want to pre-fatigue by doing those first.
The abs tend to recover faster than other muscles in the body because they are focused heavily on posture and are used all day. People seem to want to train their abs more often, but Jonathan doesn’t see the point and says to use the minimum effective dose of training.
When it comes to crunches, Jonathan likes to focus less on the main rectus abdominal muscle. You can train abs more than 4 days a week if you want to, but that would be the maximum. If you have to train more than that, then it is an indication you are not training hard enough on the other days.
You have more opportunity to make progress with what you’re eating than by what you are doing in your exercise. Your body builds itself out of your habits, and recognizes what it is getting most often. The goal is to eat clean whole foods as much as possible and keep away from heavily processed sugars and grains. Carbohydrates have a sugar-like effect in the blood, even if they aren’t sweet. Josh says he sees people massively overeat on protein. People tend to overestimate the amount of calories they burn in a workout and underestimate the amount of calories they eat.
People cannot maintain their weight loss. 90% of people who are on a diet right now will be fatter this time next year. Josh says you should look at your diet and ask yourself if you can see yourself doing this for the next 20 years. If the answer is “no,” then you need to make an adjustment.
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What Comes After Planks (article)
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