As CrossFit trainers we get asked this question a lot. Because the mainstream fitness model revolves around body building methods (isolation movements and machines) it is difficult for people to come to terms, at first, with CrossFit’s apparent abdominal neglect. Go to any CrossFit competition though and you’ll quickly realize that isn’t the case. CrossFitters have some of the most shredded abs you’ll ever see in your life. What gives? You have to know a little bit about functional movements before understanding fully the enormous role abs play in our regimen. When do CrossFitters focus on abs, you ask? Every single day.
As CrossFitters we train utilizing functional movements. Proper functional movement requires a concept known as midline stabilization, that is, the ability to keep the torso rigid during any movement. Midline stabilization is especially important for movements that require hip flexion and extension (bending at the hips), and load. When bending at the hips, the torso must move as a single unit/together. Without proper midline stabilization, you’re likely experience very noticeable lower back pain, in addition to the inability to move heavy weight.
Midline Stabilization Simplified
Start thinking of your hips as a hinge and your torso as a door. When you open and close a door, the door itself does not bend (if it does you should probably get that fixed). Everything moves together. The same can be said of a proper deadlift. When pulling the barbell from the floor, the torso remains locked in place with the only movement happening about the hips.
Source: CrossFit Journal, “Anatomy and Physiology for Jocks” (August 2003)
I Thought This Blog Was Supposed To Be About Abs?!
Patience! Functional movements mimic real-world scenarios and have real-world application. It would appear then that the primary role of the abs, in the gym and at home, is to keep the spine in a natural, neutral position, not to flex and extend the spine as seen during abmat sit-ups. A strong stomach is what keeps you from crumbling beneath the weight of a front squat and every other movement involving a barbell. It would appear that the overhead squat is a predominantly quad and shoulder movement, but you better believe that the stomach is also working overtime to make sure your back doesn’t round out.
The only way to achieve proper midline stabilization is by engaging the stomach. This goes for any movement that requires hip flexion and extension, which, for CrossFitters, is damn near all of them! A tight stomach will stabilize the torso to prevent hyperextension and flexion of the spine.
Source: Star Factor Fitness. 5 Deadlift Technique Tips
As long as you’re fighting to keep your torso rigid for every movement, whether you realize it or not, you’re getting a solid abdominal workout. If you’re having trouble keeping midline stabilization though (you’re always rounding your back), you probably aren’t getting the ab workout you desire. What can you do to help the progress of your six-pack? Nutrition, first and foremost. But also start paying more attention to ab movements that require midline stabilization (neutral spine). Glute-ham developer sit-ups, L-sits, and hollow rock are unrivaled in their ability to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of the stomach. Each requires a solid spine, not one that’s flexing and extending with each rep. The stomach is responsible for that. The stabilizing strength you get from those will transfer much more effectively to the functional movements we perform on a daily basis.
Midline stabilization is a skill that must be trained and nurtured. Not only will you see the difference in your stomach, but you’ll also be able to lift more weight and say goodbye to those pesky lower back injuries. Is there still a place for movements like abmat sit-ups? Absolutely. It’s important to strengthen all of your muscles, no matter how small. More strong muscles means a stronger you. Just make sure you remain balanced. Your flexing abs are different than your stabilizing abs.
Glassman, Greg. “Anatomy and Physiology for Jocks.” CrossFit Journal. August 2003.
Glassman, Greg. “Three Important Ab Exercises by Greg Glassman”. CrossFit Journal. May 2003.