There are so many set patterns in exercise routines, created over the years, that it’s tough to break away from them, because of how they continue to be followed and reinforced. For example, we don’t even mention the pull-push-legs split while discussing workouts because push-pull-legs is the norm. Another one is working your calves at the end of leg day rather than towards the beginning, which in fact has more benefits. People opt for push-ups before hitting the bench but doing them both in tandem also has its benefits. Which brings us to abs and core work, which almost everyone does at the end of a workout. What would happen if we flipped it?
This might just be a matter of preference. After all, being fatigued at the end of the workout might mean you are less motivated to work the core, and your form suffers. It might be tempting to shave off a few seconds in a core workout, or skip a few reps given your body has already worked out. But there is also a scientific reason for wanting to avoid doing ab exercises after finishing the main workout set.
Fitness experts and journalists Alwyn Cosgrove and Lou Schuler have written a hugely popular book called The New Rules of Lifting for Abs. Speaking to Men’s Health for an article titled Why You Should Work Your Abs First, Cosgrove says, “People achieve better results when they do core exercises at the beginning of their workout instead of the end. if you always train your core at the end of your workout, it’ll never improve.”
But it also comes down to the choice of core exercises you do before a workout. Cosgrove and Schuler completely write off any ab exercises where you are flexing your spine. Instead, they urge athletes to focus on moves which are stabilisers of the core before the big lifts. The explanation is simple: let’s say you have a back day and are going to do deadlifts and pull-ups. Given that the spine will need the protection of a stable core to do these, doing planks, mountain climbers, around-the-worlds, and Pallof presses are perfect to set you up to move more iron.
This is not exactly new information. In fact, an article published in Harvard Medical School’s journal Harvard Health called Core Conditioning—It’s Not Just About Abs states that studies exploring the relationship between the core muscles mobility have been performed since the 90s. “Before they move an arm or leg, people with healthy backs (in contrast with those suffering from low back pain) automatically contract their core muscles, especially the transverse abdominal muscles, which wrap from the sides of the lower back around to the front. Experts concluded that well-coordinated core muscle use stabilises the spine and helps create a firm base of support for virtually all movement.”
This means that the contraction of the core before a move is not limited to spinal movements, but will also affect routine gym moves like the bench press and squats. But not everyone is lifting weights as part of their routine. There are many fitness enthusiasts who follow more cardio-based programmes. A major part of this is running. And seasoned runners will know how important running form is for proper progress. This is where it gets interesting because running and even cycling or swimming is about transference of energy.
“Running economy is a controversial topic in core training. Studies have shown that core function is related to running kinematics and respiratory work. Core muscles allow optimal force production, to control, support, and move extremities. Proper core exercise may result in an improvement in core endurance, respiration, and movement efficiency. However, not all studies have supported these findings,” states a study published in the journal of the National Library of Medicine, titled Effects Of 8-Week Core Training On Core Endurance And Running Economy.
A Popsugar article titled Should You Do Your Ab Workouts Before Or After Running? specifically discusses the relationship between cardio workouts and ab exercises. It concludes that a good idea would be to mix up the timing of the core part of the workout. “If you want to get really wild with your core work, you can even do ab exercises during a run, which might mean pulling over on the side of the track for a plank or hopping off the treadmill for a quick ab circuit. This less-traditional approach has its advantages,” it states.
Ultimately, it all comes down to knowing your body better—choosing which day needs a core workout before, midway through, during, or after the main workout. Try the combinations and see if it makes a difference by keeping notes of the quality of lifts and runs, rather than just the amount of weight lifted or distance logged.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.