How to Build a Muscular Midsection
by Bryan Krahn
Serge Nubret has been a bodybuilder for more than 50 years. He was one of the very best at the exact moment when being a great bodybuilder meant more than it ever had before or ever would again. He finished second at the 1975 Mr. Olympia, the one shown in Pumping Iron, which makes it the only bodybuilding contest ever imprinted in American popular culture. Finishing second means he beat out Lou Ferrigno, the guy the filmmakers presented as the only real roadblock in Arnold’s quest for a sixth straight Mr. O.
Nubret had one of the most perfect physiques the world has ever seen. And he built it with one of the craziest workout routines imaginable. He trained six days a week, two hours a day. He did dozens of sets for each muscle group, with double-digit reps and hardly any rest in between.
Abs? He reportedly did 2,000 daily sit-ups, nonstop, when preparing for a contest. According to a recent interview, he was still training his abs for an hour a day, every day, probably right up until he suffered a stroke earlier this year, at age 70.
As you can imagine, this was a guy who never experienced the perineum-numbing indignity of a stationary bike. His logic was, why waste time on a bike when you can burn calories and develop your abs at the same time?
Try doing that kind of routine today, and the cognoscenti of the fitness industry will stage an intervention, complete with readings from the latest studies by Dr. Stuart McGill. For all I know it might be illegal in some states to train abs with that kind of spine-buckling volume.
But at the same time, we all know the desire to have rocking six-pack abs hasn’t gone away. So I asked some of our resident TMUSCLE training experts to help us find the middle ground: How do you train abs for aesthetics first and foremost, without risking your spinal health with high-volume sit-up routines?
The coaches were unanimous in their belief that the road to a perfect six-pack should still begin with functionally sound training. “I take a view that training for performance will take care of the cosmetic,” says Santa Monica-based personal trainer Chris Bathke. “It’s like how when you train for strength improvements, physique improvements usually will follow.”
Strength coach Tim Henriques agrees. “Even though the ab routines I design may be thought of as ‘functional,’ my clients still want aesthetically pleasing results,” he says. “I think with the right exercises you can accomplish both feats.”
Can you build a hard, ripped midsection without making today’s most forward-thinking trainers choke on their foam rollers? Let’s discuss.
Rethinking the Anterior Core
“Anterior core” is the current phrase we use to avoid saying “abs.” It includes the major midsection muscles, which perform the functions we associate with ab training: trunk flexion, rotation and anti-rotation, lateral flexion, stabilization.
Each is important for aesthetics as well as function. And yet, the function we talk about most is trunk flexion, in which the upper torso is pulled closer to the hips. The controversy starts with the most popular ab exercise in existence, the crunch.
“When does anyone ever do anything in real life that looks like a crunch?” asks veteran strength coach and TMUSCLE author Mike Boyle. “The function of the anterior core is absolutely not flexion. I agree with the functional folks that lying on your back doing abs is not only a waste of time, but probably dangerous.”
The “functional folks” tend to be influenced by the aforementioned Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and a prolific researcher. McGill has shown that repeated spinal flexion damages spinal discs, at least in a lab setting.
The influence of McGill’s research goes beyond performance specialists like Boyle. Scott Abel, who specializes in training competitive physique athletes, agrees with Boyle’s critique of the lowly crunch. “By shortening the range of motion of the traditional sit-up, it takes much of the hip-flexor involvement out of the movement,” he says. “But that’s all you’re doing with the crunch. You aren’t burning many calories, and there’s hardly any functional benefit to working muscles through such a short range.”
So if traditional trunk flexion is potentially dangerous, in the case of the sit-up, or a waste of time, if we’re talking about crunches, what the hell can you do for the anterior core?
Short answer: ab rollouts.
McGill’s research has shown that they force the rectus abdominis — the “six- pack” muscle — to work like a beast. It’s brutally hard for the abdominals to lengthen while providing full support for the lumbar spine.
But therein lies the problem: Rollouts are really hard to do with good form, and this is one of the last exercises you’d want to do with bad form. “Many athletes get exceptionally sore, or are unable to hold a stable lumbar spine,” Boyle says. “I actually told my athletes who had any abdominal issues [such as previous strains] to never do them under any circumstances.”
If you aren’t ready for rollouts, there are plenty of intermediate steps, starting with the plank. As almost every TMUSCLE reader knows, this is a static exercise in which you hold a modified push-up position, with your weight on your toes and forearms and your body forming a straight line from your neck through your ankles. A gym novice should work up to a 60-second hold. Advanced lifters should be able to hold the position for two to three minutes.
For more advanced plank variations, you can raise your feet in the air or wear a weighted vest. To prepare for the rollout, you can start with walkouts from the push-up position, and progress to modified rollouts by resting your forearms on a Swiss ball, and slowly rolling it away from you and then pulling it back in.
Not all our coaches, however, have given up on trunk flexion. Henriques includes high-pulley cable crunches and hanging leg raises for clients who might benefit from abdominal hypertrophy. “Some people argue about the importance of this, but sometimes you need to isolate the muscle and build it up so others can see it,” he says.
But Scott Abel advises caution, citing his years of work with competitive bodybuilders. “Many pro bodybuilders have ruined their waistlines by including too many loaded movements,” he says. “The abs grow out and bigger.” (Yes, Abel acknowledges that “other factors” contribute to the expanded waistlines we see in bodybuilding.)
Let’s Twist Again
For years, the concept of trunk rotation was represented by the twist with a broomstick, perhaps the most useless ab exercise ever invented. A close second would be the abdominal-twist machines you still see in some health clubs. Less useless, but still not recommended, are the many variations on twisting crunches and sit-ups.
Today we have so many good trunk-rotation exercises to choose from — everything from cable lifts and chops to Russian twists with a medicine ball to hitting a tire with a sledgehammer — that you hardly ever see the really dumb ones performed anymore.
Trunk rotation is an important movement for function as well as appearance; it’s hard to imagine playing a sport without using powerful twists at some point. The prime movers for twists are the external obliques, with contributions from the internal obliques and rectus abdominis.
Equally important is anti-rotation — training those same muscles in your middle body to resist forces trying to pull your torso around to the left or right. One increasingly popular example of an anti-rotation exercise is the Pallof press, in which you stand sideways to a cable machine and press the handle straight out from your midsection. With all the resistance coming from one side, your torso muscles have to work hard to keep your body upright.
While everyone seems to agree on the importance of rotation and anti-rotation exercises for ab training, the consensus dissolves when the subject changes to lateral flexion — bending and straightening sideways against resistance. You see it most often in health clubs in the form of side crunches, with or without an Ab Roller, and with dumbbell side bends. If the goal is to target the obliques, those exercises clearly do the trick.
But should you target the obliques in that movement pattern? As with forward trunk flexion, there’s no simple answer. Powerlifters, for example, use heavy side bends to build core strength. But for bodybuilders, lateral flexion carries a perceived risk of thickening the waist in the exact places where they want it to be narrow.
Mike Robertson, a frequent TMUSCLE contributor, thinks those fears are overblown. “I’ve yet to see an athlete whose obliques and lateral flexors dominate the rest of his physique,” he says. “And a well-developed and strong set of obliques can really enhance the development of any athlete.”
Still, the functional anatomy of the obliques suggests that you can develop those muscles perfectly well without lateral flexion. They’re fully engaged in all the exercises and movements we’ve mentioned so far. Just because the obliques are active in side bends doesn’t mean anyone needs to do them.
Strike a Pose
If there’s one aspect of ab training that’s often overlooked, it’s stabilization. Sure, everyone reading TMUSCLE understands that “core stability” is important for function, but it’s also crucial for aesthetics.
“The internal obliques and transverse abdominis, the innermost abdominal layers, help compress the abdomen and provide support to the midsection against the pull of gravity,” says Kevin Weiss, a bodybuilder, trainer, and TMUSCLE contributor. “In simple terms, these endurance-oriented muscles help you stand up straight and keep your gut from sticking out.”
Or, as Bathke says, “It’s hard to show off that six-pack with a swayback.”
Of course, any movement in which you have to stabilize your spine against a load will challenge those muscles. They’re working hard whenever you do squats, front squats, good mornings, or overhead lifts. Some coaches have suggested that a steady diet of these money lifts is all the stabilization work you really need for function as well as aesthetics.
Scott Abel disagrees: “It’s limited, like having a car jack that’s only good for the left front tire.”
Six-Packs, Lost and Found
Now to the fine print. There’s more to a well-developed midsection than smart training.This might be painfully obvious to the average TMUSCLE reader, but it bears repeating: No matter how well-developed your core may be, you’ll never be able to show it off until your body fat dips into the single digits.
Diet plays the biggest role here, and it’s a deal-breaker. “No one can out-train an inconsistent or improper diet,” Abel says. “And if your own metabolic set point is such that having quilted abs is not your genetically natural predisposition, then you’d better have expert help in achieving that look.”
Speaking of genetics, even with a great training program, a great diet, and a knowledgeable advisor, you still have to listen to your body. “You can’t look at someone with an exceptional body or body part and assume you can achieve the same results by mimicking his workouts,” Abel says. “There’s far too much individual variation in the way we respond to the workouts we do.”
Individual response is especially variable when it comes to energy-systems work. Some guys thrive with tons of cardio, and some do fine with none at all.
Abel says to practice caution here. Hours a day of steady-state aerobics can lead to a suppressed metabolism, burned-out adrenals, and even an unexpected weight gain. “As I always say, force the body and it reacts. Coax the body and it responds.”
Abel likes to steal a page from Serge Nubret’s playbook, and design core-training sessions to have huge calorie expenditures. Weiss, his protégé, is a big fan of this system and uses it throughout his contest prep. “I don’t particularly enjoy training abs, and I hate doing cardio,” he says. “So I do my ab training in a circuit fashion, which not only saves time but also creates an oxygen debt, which reduces the amount of cardio I need to do to get into contest shape.”
Although our coaches agree on most of the major principles of ab training, they offer three distinctly ways to put them into practice.
Scott Abel’s workout can be used three or four times a week not only to train your abs, but to create a fat-burning oxygen debt as well.
Chris Bathke’s routine can be used every workout without risk of overtraining the basic movement patterns.
And Tim Henriques’ workout is for guys who want to train their midsections hard and heavy a couple times a week.
Scott Abel’s Gold-Medal Program
Abel makes a living as a bodybuilding guru, but looks to gymnasts as the best role models for ab training.
“Gymnasts’ abs are never large, blocky, or distended,” he says. “And they get that quilted look without special diets or hours of cardio.”
Abel concedes that elite gymnasts are genetically predisposed to be good at what they do. They also train hours a day from a very young age. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn important lessons from their training systems, particularly when we contrast them with the traditional approach to ab exercise.”
Gymnasts perform a lot of exercises in which their core muscles work synergistically not only with each other, but with the rest of their bodies as well. “Trying to isolate muscles of the core is not only fruitless, but damaging,” Abel says. “As I said earlier, you only have to look at the bigger stomachs of pro bodybuilders.”
Abel uses the following categories for ab exercises:
• Static exercises, in which you have to control your limbs in space in a variety of movement planes and ranges of motion. An example would be a plank exercise in which you raise one leg and hold it out to the side.
• Movement-based exercises, which force muscles to work together in multiple planes of motion and with various degrees of rotation. An example would be standing wood chop-type exercises using a medicine ball. You can chop in vertical or horizontal patterns, or any diagonal pattern in between.
Do the following exercises as a circuit, with no rest between exercises and as much rest as you need between circuits. Keep constant tension on the abs throughout the exercises, and do each movement deliberately, with as little momentum as possible.
|A1) Swiss-ball alternating step-off||4-6||10-15 (each leg)|
|A2) Dumbbell pull-in||4-6||10-12* (each side)|
|A4) Seated bicycle abs||4-6||15-30 seconds|
* You can use heavier weights for fewer reps, if you choose
Swiss-ball alternating step-off
Start in a locked-out push-up position with your toes on top of a Swiss ball. Slowly take one leg off the ball and, keeping it straight, lower it as far out to the side as you can. Touch the floor with the toe, then slowly raise it back up to the ball and repeat with your other leg.
This exercise forces your lower core muscles and glutes to function as a unit to control, stabilize, and move your body in a challenging position.
Dumbbell pull-in (aka Renegade row)
Grab a pair of relatively heavy dumbbells and get into the push-up position with the weights on the floor. Pull one dumbbell up to the side of your waist, slowly lower it to the floor, and then repeat with the other arm. You’ll feel it in your obliques and glutes.
Stand holding a medicine ball or dumbbell with both hands. Spread your feet about shoulder-width apart. Push your hips back, as if you were preparing to jump, and start the movement with the ball or dumbbell between your legs and as far back as you can reach. Now pull it upward as fast as you can until your arms are fully extended overhead and your legs are straight. Immediately lower the weight as you squat down for the next rep.
You can do any number of variations. Change the angles by going from vertical to horizontal or diagonal. With cables or tubing, you can go high to low or low to high.
When you’re doing diagonal chops — low to high or high to low — you can pivot on one foot to extend your range of motion and involve more muscles.
Seated bicycle abs
Sit on the floor with your legs in front of you, and your arms at your sides or overhead. Now pretend you’re riding a bicycle. This one works the rotation/anti-rotation functions of the obliques, with a mild isometric contraction of the rectus abdominis.
How you do this exercise depends on your experience and comfort level with it. For the most basic version, kneel with your forearms resting on a Swiss ball. Roll the ball out as far as you can, then pull it back. The standing version, with both feet on the floor, is more difficult.
To do an ab-wheel rollout, start with your knees on the floor and the wheel directly under your shoulders. Roll out as far as you can while keeping your lower back flat. Pull it back to the starting position. This exercise incorporates your lats and triceps along with your abdominal muscles.
The most difficult version is the barbell rollout. The form is the same as the ab-wheel rollout, but you’ll need considerably more core strength to control the bar as you roll it out and pull it back in.
Chris Bathke’s Daily Dose
This routine is for guys who like to hit their abs at the end of each workout. You’ll do a single exercise each day, addressing a different function of core strength while supporting proper postural alignment. If you train three times a week, you’ll do each exercise once a week. If you work out six times a week, you’ll do each one twice.
Day 1: L-sit hold
It’s easy enough to describe this isometric exercise: Grab a chin-up bar or the handles of a dip station, and hold your legs out straight as long as you can while keeping your shoulder blades pulled down. Start by attempting two 30-second holds, keeping your legs straight and torso tight and motionless. Rest 60 seconds between holds.
When you can get beyond 30 seconds on each hold, you’ll know you’ve developed serious core strength and endurance.
Day 2: Pallof press
This exercise, mentioned earlier in the article, trains the anti-rotation function of your abdominal muscles. Stand sideways to a cable machine with the pulley set at chest height, or use a band attached to a firm support at the same height. Hold the handle or band with both hands at the top of your abdomen. Set your feet shoulder-width part. You want to start the exercise with some tension in the cable or band.
Now press it straight out from your chest, hold briefly, return to the starting position, and repeat.
You want to keep your torso upright and your shoulder blades down. If you see one shoulder hiking up, reduce the weight.
Start with two sets of eight reps, and build up to three sets of 12. Rest 60 seconds between sets. You can make it harder by increasing the weight or moving your feet closer together. You can also try alternating between the cable machine and a band. The band, with its variable tension, offers a different kind of challenge to your core muscles.
Day 3: Medicine-ball rollout
This may be the most difficult of all rollout variations, especially if you’ve never tried it before. As with the other exercises Bathke recommends, it forces you to use upper-torso muscles in conjunction with your core muscles, which have to work at full capacity to extend your torso while keeping your spine stable.
Kneel with both hands on a medicine ball, with your arms straight and directly under your shoulders. Now walk the ball out with your hands as far as you can. Hold the fully extended position for a second or two, and then walk the ball back to the starting position.
Start with three sets of five reps, and add one rep per set each week. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Tim Henriques’ Fully Loaded Ab Routine
Henriques likes to include loaded trunk-flexion exercises in certain situations. If you lack strength and size in your abs, this is the routine for you. You can do each workout once a week, or train your abs three times a week by rotating the two workouts. Just make sure you give your core at least one full day of rest between training sessions.
|A1) Kneeling cable crunch||2-4||8-25||0-60|
|A2) Hanging leg raise||2-4||8-25||0-60|
Kneeling cable crunch
As shown in the photos at right, attach a rope to the high cable pulley, grab the ends of the rope, and hold them just above your head as you kneel facing the cable weight stack. Crunch down, hold for a second, return to the starting position, and repeat.
You’ll see that there’s a wide rep range — it’s up to you to decide if you need more volume with a lighter weight or if you need to build your abs with a heavier load.
If you go heavy, you might need to rest before you start your set of hanging leg raises. The goal is to work as quickly as possible, going from one exercise to the other with as little rest as you can manage. As your conditioning improves, you should be able to do three or four rounds with no rest between exercises.
Hanging leg raise
If you can’t hang from a chin-up bar and knock out sets of hanging leg raises with perfect form, you need to start with an exercise you can handle, and build up to the more difficult variations.
Here’s the progression, from easiest to hardest:
• Reverse crunch on the floor (or reverse crunch on an incline bench, with your head higher than your legs, if you can start there)
• Roman chair knee raise
• Roman chair leg raise
• Knee raise from chin-up bar, using elbow supports (like AB-OrigiOnals)
• Leg raise from chin-up bar, using elbow supports (bodybuilders can stop here if their grip prevents them from doing the next two variations)
• Hanging knee raise (hang from the chin-up bar with an overhand grip, your hands just outside shoulder-width apart and your shoulder blades pulled down and tight)
• Hanging leg raise (athletes should shoot for this one)
|A1) Ab-wheel rollout||2-4||6-20||0-60|
|A2) Standing ab-band hold||2-4||10-20||0-60|
|A3) Sword swing||2-4||8-20*||0-60|
* Each side.
Again, with this compound set, the goal is to rest as little as possible between exercises and rounds.
Standing ab-band hold
If you just look at the video to your right without reading these instructions, you might think that the guy pulling up on the band — it looks like he’s doing a ballistic external rotation — is getting the workout. But it’s the guy holding the other end of the band who’s training his abs.
To do the version shown on the video, you’ll need a band and a training partner. Hold the band with your arms down by your sides while your partner pulls up on the other end of the band and you resist. Have your training partner increase the resistance every couple of reps.
No training partner? You can do ab pulses with the band attached to something above your head, like a chin-up bar.
No band? Do a straight-arm lat pulldown, and hold the bar in the bottom position for 20 to 60 seconds.
With this exercise, you’re training your abs to resist extension, increasing their strength, stability, and endurance.
You can use anything that’s straight and solid, from a broomstick to a Body Bar, which is a weighted bar you might find in your gym’s aerobics studio; it comes in sizes ranging from 9 to 24 pounds. You also might find unweighted bars in the aerobics room, to which you can add small weight plates at just one end, as shown in the picture to your right. That gives you a feeling of swinging an ax or sledgehammer.
The main rule is you don’t want anything much heavier than 15 pounds, which would slow down the movement and defeat the purpose.
To perform the exercise, which is shown in a video to your right, stand holding the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart or wider and your hands spread, as if you were swinging an ax. Do horizontal swings, stopping when the bar goes past your outside leg. Make sure you drive into the swing, and then forcefully pull the bar back to the starting position. The faster you go, the better it works as a conditioning drill.
Do the same number of reps for each side.
All of the TMUSCLE coaches and contributors we interviewed agree on one major point: There’s no disconnect between training abs for aesthetics and training them for function.
As Abel says, when you look at gymnasts, you can conclude that training for function is training for aesthetics. A strong and well-conditioned midsection will look amazing if your body fat is low enough and your overall level of muscularity is high enough.
Just remember these points when training your abs:
• For complete ab development, include all the functions of your anterior core muscles in your training: flexion and/or resisted extension; rotation and anti-rotation; stability and posture.
• It’s hard to think of any reason to do sit-ups and crunches. Even if those trunk-flexion exercises don’t produce the disc damage in the gym that’s been demonstrated in the lab, there are lots of better ways to train your abs.
• If you need to increase the size and strength of your anterior core, you can do trunk-flexion exercises like the cable crunches and hanging leg raises that Henriques recommends. Just remember that abdominal muscles have some potential to gain size, and if you’re successful you’ll end up with a thicker waist.
• Just because muscles are designed to do something doesn’t mean you have to train that function. This applies especially to lateral flexion — side bends and side crunches. Your oblique muscles will develop just fine without those exercises.
• If you find traditional cardio annoying or boring, you can get the same effect with intense and fast-moving ab workouts.
None of this, of course, will give you the aesthetic effect you want if your diet and overall conditioning leave you a few cans short of a six-pack. But get those two parts of your program in order, throw in one or more of our coaches’ ab workouts, and that photo-worthy six-pack you’ve always wanted could be yours for the low, low price of some hard work and dietary discipline.
Serge Nubret: great abs, crazy-ass program.
Desiree Walker, a Fitness competitor and client of Scott Abel, won the USA Jr. Nationals and earned a pro card. She built this body, complete with rockin’ abs, without drugs, extreme dieting, or one minute of steady-state cardio.
Swiss-ball alternating step-off
Dumbbell pull-in (aka Renegade row)
Seated bicycle abs
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Kneeling Cable Crunch
For the sword swing, you can add a light weight to a bar to create the effect of swinging an ax or sledgehammer. Note the use of multiple clips to hold the weight in place. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.
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