Ab training is a complicated beast.
Similar in a lot of ways to the delts that we covered last week, there are so many functions of the body that are controlled or assisted by the abs that designing a comprehensive protocol is relatively impossible.
First we need to understand the anatomy of the abdominal complex:
1) Rectus Abdominis- The most superficial and anterior of the group and commonly known as the 6-pack: Responsible for trunk flexion.
2) Internal and External Obliques- These are located lateral to the RA and in between our hip bones and rib cage: Responsible for trunk rotation and lateral flexion.
3) Transverse Abdominis- The deepest muscle of the abdominal complex and forms a “corset” under the other muscles: Responsible for trunk stability.
Let's break this down even further...
1) Trunk Flexion- Exercises that force the RA to contract against load and go through a full ROM. The execution of the movement is crucially important to the efficacy. Hip flexors, obliques and even muscles of the low back are notorious for over-compensating for weak/tired RA so they should be mechanically disadvantaged whenever possible during set-up/execution. Ex) Swiss Ball Crunches, Hanging Leg Raises, Decline Reverse Crunches
2) Proprioceptive Stability- Exercises that force the abdominal complex to work in coordination within a changing environment. This category is the least hypertrophic but might be the most important for long term functionality and health. Even for bodybuilders and physique athletes, it is important to divert from “hyper-isolation” at times and allow the body to work how it was made to; as a unit. PS movements train not only the abs but also the nervous system. They may seem easy at surface level but perfecting these movements can be as challenging as anything in the gym. Ex) Birddogs, Rolling Planks, Deadbugs
3) Anti Rotation/Extension- Exercises that challenge that static contraction strength of the abdominal muscles. Typically, these are relatively low threshold but can be progressed through changing lever lengths and/or adding load. Though not correlated extremely well with hypertrophy, the increased muscular endurance and rigidity translate strongly to the ability to withstand greater systemic forces (i.e. train heavier) which potentiates growth potential. Ex) Plank, Ab Wheel Rollout, Pallof Holds
Interestingly enough, our focus here, the Swiss Ball Stir-The-Pots, integrate aspects of both proprioceptive stability and anti-rotation/extension, and that's what makes it such a valuable movement.
Now that we have established the WHAT, we can move onto the HOW...
At a basic level, these are planks on an unstable surface. On a higher level, we see that the dynamic forces being applied by said unstable surface (Swiss ball) combined with the variable lever angles relative to gravity (the "circles" made by the forearms) causes the body to essentially work together as a unit or be compromised.
When we venture this far away from single muscle/joint isolation, coordination and body-awareness become paramount for successful execution. A few things that are important to focus on to perfect the Swiss Ball Stir-The-Pots are:
1) Get a wide base with your feeet
2) Keep your hips high and level with your shoulders
3) Your hips should also be neutral or even in a posterior tilt in order for the glutes to assist with stability
4) Elbows should start right under the shoulders to be perpendicular with the floor
5) Shoulder blades should be protracted the whole set (think about reaching through your elbows and "pushing" the ball into the floor)
6) Make sure the circles are small and slow in order to maintain balance
7) The goal is to keep your entire body as rigid as possible throughout the set. Focus on that.
To reiterate, use of movements like STPs and others that fall into the same categories (planks, carries, etc) are more function than show. There isn't a lot of hypertrophy to be expected from becoming extremely proficient at these classifications of ab exercises.
But that's not the point behind why we should do them regularly!
Much like the glutes, our abdominal complex acts as an intermediary for absorbing force during ALL OTHER MOVEMENTS! Having stronger, more stable and better functioning abs aren't meant to improve your sex appeal or win you any bodybuilding shows. People are certainly more likely to brag about their bench press numbers rather than their Swiss Ball Stir-The-Pot proficiency. It's just not very sexy in actuality...
But in order to win the 100m Sprint at the Olympics, you must first be able to walk, and crawl, and coordinate complex motor unit firing to initiate locomotion. Placing appropriate attention on the foundation allows you to build a much taller skyscraper.