Best exercises for six-pack abs and back health

Everyone wants a six-pack. Few people want to do the work. Even fewer have the slightest idea how the abdominal muscles actually work, and how they should be trained -- for appearance, for performance and for optimizing stability and motor control.

We all know what the rectus abdominis is. Maybe not by name, but we know what it is. This is the external layer of the middle of the abdominal muscle group, the three boxes on either side of the middle of the abdomen, i.e., the six pack.

And yes, you can have a visible six-pack if you train your abs intelligently AND follow an otherwise well-designed exercise and nutrition program. (Put down the Diet Coke and Swedish Fish, please.) But there is so much more to core training, and so many more functions than aesthetics alone.

In this post, Meghan Callaway explains how to follow a complete core training program that doesn't just focus on endless, mindless situps, crunches and v-ups. The most effective exercises are often not the sexiest, and this is especially true with the core. The simpler the better, and the key is to train all the functions of the abdominal muscles -- rotation, anti-rotation, anti-flexion and anti-extension.

My favorite ab exercise is the 90-Degree Vertical Plate Press. Not only will it bring out your six-pack, but more importantly, it will develop stability and responsiveness in the transverse abdominis -- the inner, cross-sectional layer of the abs that's responsible for stabilizing the spine. And if you're trying to exercise safely and increase performance in your workouts, what could be more important than protecting your lower back? 

This exercise can target the abs to produce some serious results through the core. 1. Position the hips and knees at a 90-degree flexed position to eliminate involvement from the superficial hip flexors. 2. Hold a weight plate directly in front of your chest with arms extended and press vertically under control.

Try some of the movements in this essential post about sensible, effective ab training. Let us know in the comments how they change your core training for the better.

Single-leg training for big gains

Single-leg training for big gains

Try single-leg training with isometric holds to spark big gains and train injury-free.

The correct way to fix tight hamstrings

The correct way to fix tight hamstrings

Back Pain? It's time to address your tight hamstrings. But avoid the standard rounded-back toe-touches that most people are doing. Try these safer, more effective hamstring stretches and mobility drills instead.

Study: Activity trackers not effective tools for weight loss

Technology is amazing. I use it every day to find the latest health and fitness news. I use it to coach my clients, interacting with them via Precision Nutrition's ProCoach platform and viewing their customized workout programs on

Some of my favorite stories I've reported during the past decade as an NBA journalist involved teams' growing reliance on technology to improve player performance and prevent injury -- such as this piece on the Golden State Warriors' use of wearable technology and this one on the importance of sleep.

Wearable technology is omnipresent in the fitness industry. From Garmins to Fitbits to Apple watches and Jawbones, it's become a cool trend for everyone to know exactly how many calories they're burning each day.

The only problem is, activity trackers may not help with weight loss. In fact, according to a new study at the University of Pittsburgh, people wearing activity trackers lost about half as much weight in a 24-month randomized trial than those who weren't wearing them.

How could this be?

First, let's take a look at the study led by John Jakicic, chairman of Pitt's Department of Health and Physical Activity and published last month in The Journal of the American Medical Association. 

The study followed 470 people ages 18-35 with a body-mass index between 25 and 39. All participants were placed on low-calorie diets and were prescribed increases in physical activity as well as group-counseling sessions on health and nutrition. 

After the first six months, participants were divided into two groups. One continued receiving monthly health counseling, while the other received a wearable device to monitor diet and physical activity.

The results? Those who utilized wearable activity trackers lost 7.7 pounds on average, compared to 13 pounds for those who only participated in behavior-based health counseling.

"While usage of wearable devices is currently a popular method to track physical activity -- steps taken per day or calories burned during a workout -- our findings show that adding them to behavioral counseling for weight loss that includes physical activity and reduced calorie intake does not improve weight loss or physical activity engagement," Jakicic said. 

Having coached nutrition clients who like to rely on wearable devices, I have a couple of theories for why this happened. First, whether you're counting calories in or calories out, calculating energy balance is a risky, error-prone undertaking. Specifically, as illustrated in this infographic from Precision Nutrition, consumer fitness trackers are off by as much as 30 percent when it comes to measuring calorie expenditure. Due to other factors, such as genetics, sleep, hormones and the macronutrient breakdown of your food intake (protein requires more energy to digest than carbs and fats), you could be looking at as much as a 25 percent error in measuring your energy balance.

I have encountered clients who use activity trackers and sync them with My Fitness Pal, thinking the more closely they monitor their energy balance, the more successful they will be at losing weight. In addition to how imprecise and error-prone calorie counting is, there's another problem: When people see the massive amount of calories they supposedly just burned in a given workout, they often view it as a license to pig out with a huge meal. In fact, you can set apps like My Fitness Pal to tell you how many extra calories you've supposedly earned that day.

If you're trying to lose weight and/or fat, not a good idea.

As the study shows, the most effective path to consistent and sustainable weight loss is a behavior-driven approach that includes learning how to make better food choices without apps, spreadsheets, scales and error-prone calorie counting. 

"While usage of wearable devices is currently a popular method to track physical activity ... these devices should not be relied upon as tools for weight management in place of effective behavioral counseling for physical activity and diet," Jakicic said.

Would you like to learn more about how we coach our clients to sustainable weight loss using a proven curriculum that focus on behavior and lifestyle change instead of gimmicks, extreme diets and fads? Let us know how we can help.



Stop the sloppy burpee

Burpees are renowned as the universal love-hate exercise. They provide an effective full-body conditioning workout and, if done correctly, they'll deliver results.

They also suck.

Anyone who's in the midst of a burpee workout knows that flushed, breathless feeling when you think there's no way you can keep going. And you also know the feeling of absolute exhilaration when somehow, some way you were able to finish. 

But too often, somehow, some way becomes "by any means necessary" -- including lazy, awful movement patterns.

Movement faults in the burpee

The problem I have with burpees is not with the exercise itself, but rather with those doing it. There are two typical movement faults I see. Those who've trained with me for a while know the first one:

  • Landing with your feet too close together when you come up from the floor. This puts you up on your toes with your knees in a compromised position. The long-term solution to this fault is to work on expanding your hamstring range-of-motion, hip function and core stability (with one of our go-to corrective exercises, Active Leg Lowering.) In the meantime, try landing with your feet wider, so you can land flat-footed with your knees in a safe position -- allowing you to absorb and generate force more efficiently. And ...
  • Finishing the burpee with a jump that reinforces sloppy, vulnerable shoulder position.

Whenever your arms are extended overhead, your shoulders should be in a stable, externally rotated position: armpits forward, elbows locked out, shoulder girdles anchored down. This is true when you're doing a barbell movement, finishing an overhead kettlebell swing ... and yes, when you finish a burpee repetition.

Fix your shoulders, fix your burpee

Friends don't let friends raise their arms overhead with armpits down and elbows bent and angled outward. Reinforcing this unstable position with no weight overhead will only train your shoulders to misbehave when loading is involved.

If this is you -- or if you think this might be you -- check out this post and video from my friend Kelly Starrett on how to spot it and how to fix it. Functional movement doesn't only apply to certain movements; it's something we should strive for and practice all the time.

Would you like to learn more about how we incorporate  the Functional Movement Screen and FMS corrective exercises into our program? Let us know how we can help.

For real change, skills instead of extremes

When a basketball player wants to become a better perimeter shooter, he or she gets in the gym and practices shooting technique. 

When a baseball player wants to improve his batting average, he goes to the batting cage and practices hitting.

So when people want to improve their body composition -- add lean mass, lose fat, feel and look better -- why do they try to do a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with achieving those goals?

Whether it's loading up on supplements, following an extreme exercise program or restricting food intake to the point of dizziness and deprivation, these strategies may work for a while. But once the unsustainable practices run their course, it's right back to the old way of doing things.

The way that wasn't working.

And guess what? The weight comes right back and the lean mass disappears ... often, with interest.

There's a different way. That's why at Max Velocity Fitness + Performance, we follow the Precision Nutrition approach to weight loss, muscle gain and performance enhancement. Just like improving in a sport, we focus on habits, practices and skills that lay the foundation for healthy living. 

Think about it: Could you become a better drummer by taking guitar lessons? Of course not. So why would anyone think they could become more consistent with healthy eating habits without learning the most fundamental skills involved in it -- such as appetite and hunger awareness?

As you can see in this infographic from PN, breaking down your goals into a series of simple, sequential and strategic skills is much more effective than going "all-in" with a series of unsustainable diets, fads and extreme exercise regimens. If you want to get better at something, you have to practice the skills that will make you better at it.

It sounds obvious. Sadly, it isn't. If you feel that you've wasted too much time on flawed strategies for weight loss -- strategies that involve extremes and fads instead of the cumulative acquisition of skills that bring you closer to your goals -- you're not alone.

And it doesn't have to be that way.

Would you like to learn more about how we incorporate Precision Nutrition's proven system into our training programs -- and how we use a proven strategy and curriculum to coach real people to real results with nutrition?

Click below to get started.