When's the best time to train your core?
We've all been there... having smashed your training session, and maybe even bagging a couple of PB's on the way, you pick up your towel and start swaggering toward the locker room, ready to put a big tick under your hugely productive day. And then it hits you. As if someone, somewhere has a voodoo doll with your name on it, and is busy sticking pins into your untrained midriff... Yes. You forgot abs!
If you're like me, it can be a real come-down going from a full-on training session - where your blood is coursing, and every inch of you feels alive - to then laying down on a mat for some weeny little crunches. But traditionally, abs and core movements have always been positioned at the end of a workout, on the basis that you shouldn't fatigue these supporting muscles prior to big lifts or more dynamic activities. And while this makes perfectly good sense, it shouldn't necessarily be the rule for every occasion. Also, due to the amount of attention this area of the body receives, abs are often trained more frequently than any other body part, almost as if they are exempt from the accepted train-rest-recover rules to getting stronger. So when, and how often should you perform your core training?
It all comes down to individual goals; and when training your core, it's important to train in a way that contributes to these goals, rather than just doing what everyone else does, or following the latest celebrity trainer 'abs blast' routine. Everyone trains for different reasons, so doing dedicated movements for your core may not be essential for every training session, unless it's going someway to achieving your aims. So let's look at what these aims might be when deciding the best time and frequency for training this area.
For most, the biggest reason for working the 'core' is probably aesthetics. And for those that are lean enough to have visible definition of this area, a good core/abs training programme may enhance the appearance of the torso, if looks are your number one aim. In this case, you really want to get the best out of your core routine, so trying to focus on chiselling your six-pack when you're wasted after a met-con circuit, may not be the best use of your time. Instead, a good way to get abdominal training into your week is to add it to your lighter training/recovery days (you just don't go light on this part of the routine). Two sessions a week should be enough, or just one for maintenance. So pick a day when you aren't doing a lot of compound leg exercises or high intensity intervals, and put more effort into your abdominal work at the end. I say at the end, because I would still advocate keeping your abs fresh for the rest of the workout in these circumstances, especially if your core routine is usually quite exhaustive. Ideally, this should then be followed by a rest day, or a day when you aren't doing complex work such as barbell squats, deadlifts or Olympic lifting, as your core musculature will still be in recovery mode.
But aesthetics are of course not the only reason abdominal & core exercises may be included in routines. Posture, back pain and sports performance are all areas where a strong and functional core can bring real benefits. And for some, this may mean devoting a bigger portion of a session to this area, rather than blasting out 5 minutes at the end. Take, for example, a historically sedentary individual (or even an active person, for that matter) with poor activation of the glutes and abdominal muscle units. I see this frequently with clients, and redressing it becomes one of the priorities in their programme. In these cases, there is good reason to include abdominal and core work as part of the warm-up routine, where certain exercises such as the hip bridge, bird-dog or Pallof press may be used to 'prime' these muscles, so that they function better during the main section of the workout. Priming, or activation work, does not involve exhausting the muscle, so there is no risk of pre-fatiguing important stabilisers before they are put to use in more functional movements. Similar work can be repeated during rest periods, to keep everything switched on; and again at the end, but this time with more intensity, so that an effective training overload is achieved in the weaker areas.
But regardless of your goals, abdominal and core training should always have balance. By just doing crunches, and ignoring the rest, you're opening yourself up to postural in-balances and possible injury. A good core routine should take a 360 degree approach, and incorporate loading in all three anatomical planes, weighted more towards those that you are weakest. Personally, I avoid any movement now that repetitively flexes the lumbar spine (full sit-ups being the best example), as some evidence suggests this may place excessive loading on the lower back. But this doesn't mean you should miss out on a good core session - quite the contrary: There are many exercises that will challenge this area without flexing and extending the lumbar spine excessively, and in doing so, work the core musculature as a complete unit, and in a far more functional way. And in a future post I'll cover some of these exercises in more detail, so keep tuned.
But for now, rather than dreading your abs routine, and squeezing a half-baked effort into the end of every exhaustive training session; choose a time when you can focus on, and even enjoy this training more, without it being detrimental to the rest of your workout.
Thanks for reading,