Evidence for Direct Core Work Found Lacking

Ask any average person on the street how to get nice abs and they’ll probably mention crunches. A new research review suggests you’re probably better off doing deadlifts and squats.

For as long as I’ve been a trainer, people have been doing a lot of core exercises in the gym. In fact a search on the web will give you innumerable articles, videos, and web sites devoted to core workouts. When I first started training, people did old-fashioned sit ups and that was pretty much it. But that became passé, since it’s clearly a hip flexor exercise and people wanted to really target that core. So then I began to see people doing more and more exotic stuff to target those elusive muscles.

The evolution of core work has gone in this direction for a few reasons. First, what most of us call “the core” is an important part of the body that helps us stay strong and healthy. Second, the core muscles weren’t isolated by any of the traditional exercises, as is obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes. Third, let’s face it, a nice set of core muscles is sexy for most of us. Problem is, a review this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning casts doubt on virtually any recommendation on the matter.

The researchers had a simple goal: they wanted to know what exercises hit the core the best. Specifically, they looked at all the available research on studies testing the electromyographic (EMG) activity of the lumbar multifidus, transverse abdominis, and quadratus lumborum muscles.

Now that was perhaps a lot of exercise science nerd-talk. Testing EMG activity just means that they observed the electrical impulses of the muscles. The more electrical activity, the harder the muscles are working. As far as those three muscles go, they are some of the deepest core muscles you have. Really, it doesn’t get any more core than these muscles.

And what they found was, to be frank, a lot of garbage and sort of anticlimactic. Out of almost 3,000 potential studies, they found that only seventeen were relevant to their criteria. It’s not like they had strict criteria either – the studies just needed to be EMG studies on healthy adults doing exercises people might do at the gym. The major finding was that there is little research on the topic, so don’t listen to any trainer that tells you otherwise.

The seventeen relevant studies they did look at weren’t excellent in design, but one consistency seemed to ring true. Out of all the exercises, be they situps, planks, unstable surface training, and so forth, the best exercises for the core are – drum roll please – basic free weight exercises not targeting the core. That’s right, your deadlifts and overhead presses are better than your ball crunches or yoga poses.

The muscles the researchers chose are hard to EMG, and they are the sorts of muscles that hold your insides together, so the results of this study make good sense. But it seems at least strongly plausible that when my old-school lifting buddies answered “squats” to the question of “what’s the best ab exercise?” they may have been right. One thing is for sure though: more research is needed to be certain about the answer.


1. Jason Martuscello, et. al., “Systematic Review of Core Muscle Activity During Physical Fitness Exercises,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(6), 2013

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