The Science Of The Six Pack

In a new monthly feature, renowned sports scientist Ross Edgley from TheProteinWorks.com takes a look at the latest must read studies from the world of fitness and nutrition. Today he tackles the six pack; namely, the best type of exercises to build a rock solid core…

When looking to develop a conditioning routine for your core, what’s the best form of training? Isolation (smaller) movements like your standard sit-up/crunch or compound (larger) movements like the plank? Well, I would recommend taking a look at a recent study conducted at Department of Kinesiology at The Pennsylvania State University, USA before you plan your next abs routine.

Background

Smaller, isolation movements like the standard sit-up/crunch are those that engage the ‘primary trunk muscles’, and these alone. On the flip side, larger, compound movements like the plank and all its variations are essentially those that engage and use ‘proximal limb’ muscles like the gluteals and deltoids (shoulders) whilst at the same time engaging the ‘primary trunk muscles’ (abdominal and lumbar).

Despite the mountain of research out there regarding core conditioning, it’s still not objectively known which type of movement is better. This is why researchers Jinger S. Gottschall et al (2013) decided to conduct a series of electromyography tests to find out and monitor the degree of muscle activation in the core muscles during each type of exercise.

The Test

Twenty healthy athletes (ten women and ten men) were chosen to complete a series of core exercises whilst they were connected to surface electromyography (EMG) electrodes around their stomach to monitor muscle activation.

Muscle activation was then measured during compound exercises and compared to the isolate ones.

The Results

The final results showed activation of the lumbar and abdominal muscles were greatest during the compound movements.

Specifically, the compound ‘Plank with Reach’ exercise showed a 20% greater activation in the rectus abdominis muscle compared to the isolation standard ‘crunch’. Furthermore, anterior deltoid, erector spinae, and gluteus maximus activities were two times greater.

This was supported by results that showed the compound ‘side plank’ increased external oblique activity by 25% compared to the isolation ‘side crunch’ movement.

Conclusion

Results from The Pennsylvania State University study clearly showed there was greater engagement in the muscles of the stomach (essential your six pack) during the larger compound movements, compared to the smaller, isolation ones.

This isn’t to say isolation movements like the crunch/sit-up aren’t without their merits – many strength and conditioning trainers believe that you must consider the entire training routine first when looking to develop a core training plan.

For instance, if you were to train shoulders and back on a Monday and they were suffering from DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), it might not be advisable to perform large compound movements like the plank on Tuesday. Instead, it would be worth considering isolation movements that don’t require the deltoids (shoulders).

However, overall, I think it’s safe to say get planking and doing those barbell roll outs if your goal is a strong, functional six-pack.

Key Exercises
The Plank

Side Plank

Barbell Roll Outs

Supplement Support

It must be noted that in addition to efficiently training the muscles of the core, you also need a sound nutrition plan to help lower your body fat enough for your abdominal muscles to be visible.

Studies also show that certain supplements can help, such as the active ingredients found in Thermopro from The Protein Works:

Thermopro from THE PROTEIN WORKS

References
  • Gottschall, Jinger S. Mills, Jackie, Hastings and Bryce (2013) ‘Integration Core Exercises Elicit Greater Muscle Activation Than Isolation Exercises’ Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 3 – p 590–596