Category Archives: Core Muscles
Ever meet one of those true strength freaks? One of those guys that can bench 300 for reps, deadlift 500, dunk a basketball, and carry heavy furniture around like it’s plastic lawn chairs?
While this kind of full body strength is impressive – not to mention useful when you need someone to help you move – it’s also a fine example of exceptional core strength.
Now I’ve done it. I said “core,” which immediately conjures up images of 30-second ab infomercial products and skinny men in spandex contorting on Bosu balls.
However, I prefer to use the word core as how the dictionary defines it: “the basic or most important part; the essence.” Extending this definition to training, it means your seemingly strong physique is nowhere near its true potential if your core strength isn’t up to par.
Now there’s no shortage of good core training articles available, and literally dozens of very effective exercises. But one of the problems with even sound core training advice is a lack of relevance to what you want to improve.
Considering you’re reading T Nation, there’s a good chance that you want to improve your squat, bench, and deadlift. So what will ground-based core exercises do for you?
Answer is, very little. You might improve your “isolated” core strength, but your performance in the Big 3 will likely be unaffected.
To get truly strong you need to choose what I call full contact core exercises. By “full contact” I don’t mean getting hoofed in the bread basket for sets of 8-10, but rather specific exercises that address and eliminate what I refer to as energy leaks.
Here’s an example: If your back rounds in the squat and deadlift, that’s an energy leak. And because you didn’t stabilize the trunk sufficiently, your power will fail to transfer from the ground to the bar. The consequence of this is injury, or a failed and ugly lift. So you need to find core exercises to address this.
How to Develop a Full Contact Core
The following four steps will help you develop a full contact core in no time. However, under no circumstances may you skip a step.
Imagine when you were a kid if you tried to skip the walking stage and went straight from crawling to sprinting. Exactly. Swallow your pride, do the steps in order, and derive the full benefits.
I’ll also provide two different exercise examples and progressions. You can use both or choose the one that best suits your routine.
Step # 1: Build Tension
The first step is all about creating tension. Isometric contractions are an effective way to learn this skill – most are familiar with planks and other foundational shit – but I’ve found moving resistance over short distances with control is better.
Full Contact Twist – Arm Movement Only
Start by holding a plank position with tense glutes, abs, and thighs. Squeeze the bar and push forward with one arm while pulling the bar with the other to create upper body tension. This helps prevent energy leaks in the shoulders and elbows.
Slowly rotate the arms to one side, pause for a second, and then return to the start position before switching sides. The goal is to be able to hold a position with maximum tension while performing a slow arm movement, all without letting any other body segment move significantly.
Band Rotations – Arm Movement Only
I learned this from Nick Tumminello and it’s a great way to teach athletes what a full contact core is all about. Start in what’s known as a “pallof press” position with maximum tension in the glutes and abs, and then rotate the hands between the shoulders.
Note: these should be small, rhythmic movements. Avoid using the hips or momentum to create the movement. Try standing in front of a mirror and making sure the navel doesn’t move at all. If you can manage that, you’re stable.
Step 2: Grinding
The second step is all about grinding. An often-used analogy for grinding versus exploding is the comparison of a tow truck and a sports car. If your car gets stuck in a snow bank on a winter night you want a tow truck to come save your bacon, not a Ferrari.
To lift heavy weights, you have to be able to create considerable tension. While it’s tempting to attack a big-ass weight with maximum speed, it isn’t always effective as the faster you move, the less force is generated.
You can always try moving faster through a sticking point once you start slow, but what happens if you explode into a sticking point and then get stuck?
The key is to learn to grind and control the force with the following grinding moves.
Grinding Full Contact Twist
The full contact twist exercise also includes hip movement. While you worked with a tight trunk in the first exercise, here you’re moving your hips while still remaining tight. This teaches you to transfer force as a single unit and while moving, stopping, decelerating, and accelerating.
Start the rotation to one side while pivoting with the feet. Lower the bar close to the thigh and under control before moving it with tension back up. Make sure to start the movement with the hips. The movement is very similar to what happens while punching and throwing.
Grinding Band Hip Rotations
This exercise is very similar to the full contact twist. From the same starting position as the previous exercise, rotate toward the attachment point with the hips while remembering to stay tight and not leak energy from the trunk.
Next, rotate in the other direction with the same hip action as with the full contact twist.
Step 3: Slow to Fast
After you’ve learned how to generate maximum tension and grind, it’s time to explode!
This step closely resembles the often advocated “controlled eccentric and explosive concentric” lifting mantra. This is an effective lifting cadence for both hypertrophy and maximum strength development but you still need to know how to stay tight! And this is how to do it.
Full Contact Twist – Slow to Fast
This exercise is performed like the previous version in step #2, but now you slowly lower the bar and pause for a full second before exploding up. Make sure you create max tension before exploding. If you can’t, start lighter.
Controlled Band Rotations – Slow to Fast
This is also performed like its previous version in step #2, but again you add the pause for a second before exploding up.
Step # 4: Fast and Furious
Reactive training methods are very important training tools, especially for athletes that have to be able to react when heavy objects (such as a 230-pound fullback) are rushing their way.
To effectively decelerate an object with high velocity you have to get extremely tight, fast – you essentially have to create an immediate pulse of maximum tension as there’s no time to slowly build it up. In this fourth and final step you’ll work to develop this vital quality.
As stated before, you can’t skip steps. Jump in here at number 4 and you’ll only get injured. You’ve been warned.
While the basic movement is similar to what you’ve already done, here you have to “jump” from position to position. This creates less control as each repetition will vary somewhat from the previous one. Because of this you must be able to demonstrate a full contact core despite slight deviations from a pre-planned path.
Explosive Band Rotations
Again, the execution is similar, only with a faster eccentric phase. Even though it’s easier and less dangerous than the explosive twist exercise above, you’ll certainly have to work hard to prevent energy leaks.
Now it’s up to you. Are you willing to let sub-optimal core training sabotage your strength and hypertrophy gains? Or are you going to embrace the power of intelligent core training?
It should be an easy decision. By learning to develop total control over a given resistance, you harness the power of energy transfer, thereby maximizing your strength potential.
All by developing a full contact core!
Sure, women love a guy with a chiseled six-pack. But that’s not the only body part they check out at the beach (or in bed). And while each woman has a different favorite muscle, these ten (in no particular order) are at the top of every female’s “what I notice” list. Take a look, then head to the gym and start sculpting.
You could have biceps the size of bowling balls, but if you’ve got the beginnings of a gut, any discriminating woman will think twice before considering you boyfriend material. Their fear: A little excess midriff meat now means one fat, sloppy bastard in 10 years.
Women see strong forearms and think you can do everything: Fend off a mugger, build a house, and maintain a dexterous touch long enough to leave them extremely satisfied. So roll up those sleeves, and let ’em have a look.
A Nice Butt
Women check out your butt because it’s a clue to your worthiness as a physical specimen. If you’re in great shape, it carries high. Otherwise, your rear end droops like a sack of old potatoes. Old, hairy potatoes.
A Broad Back
A wide back is essential for a V-shaped torso, and women’s attraction to it is ancestral. “When it was important that our mates protect us from woolly mammoths on the plains, we looked for a gene pool that could provide us with protection,” says Pega Ren, Ed.D., a sexologist in British Columbia.
“The shoulder muscles are really the muscles of love and war,” says Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., author of Survival of the Prettiest. They also make the whole look when combined with a broad back. Strong shoulders literally sweep women off their feet.
“Women want an overall sense of strength and fitness,” says Etcoff. “If a man looks as if he can lift something but can’t run, it looks disproportionate.”
A Big Chest
“Women treasure your chest as much as you do theirs,” says Emily Dubberley, a sex expert based in the UK. “Touching, kissing, and licking a man’s chest is undoubtedly a turn-on for most women.”
In a poll of Cosmopolitan readers, 1 out of 5 women confessed that nice biceps on a man makes them “absolutely melt.”
Many women prefer being on top because it lets them lean forward to rub against your pubic bone. Having well-conditioned hamstrings and glutes makes it easier to meet her halfway for more pleasure.
By: Scott Quill
The guy lifting beside you looks like he should write the book on muscle. Talks like it, too. He’s worked out since the seventh grade, he played D-1 football, and he’s big.
But that doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about. Starting now, ignore him.
The gym is infested with bad information. Lies that start with well-intentioned gym teachers trickle down to students who become coaches, trainers, or know-it-all gym-rat preachers. Lies morph into myths that endure because we don’t ask questions, for fear of looking stupid.
Scientists, on the other hand, gladly look stupid—that’s why they’re so darn smart. Plus, they have cool human-performance laboratories where they can prove or disprove theories and myths.
Here’s what top exercise scientists and expert trainers have to say about the crap that’s passed around in gyms. Listen up and learn. Then go ahead, question it.
Slow Lifting Builds Huge Muscles
Lifting super slowly produces superlong workouts—and that’s it. University of Alabama researchers recently studied two groups of lifters doing a 29-minute workout. One group performed exercises using a 5-second up phase and a 10-second down phase, the other a more traditional approach of 1 second up and 1 second down. The faster group burned 71 percent more calories and lifted 250 percent more weight than the superslow lifters.
The real expert says: “The best increases in strength are achieved by doing the up phase as rapidly as possible,” says Gary Hunter, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., the lead study author. “Lower the weight more slowly and under control.” There’s greater potential for growth during the lowering phase, and when you lower with control, there’s less chance of injury.
More Protein Builds More Muscle
To a point, sure. But put down the shake for a sec. Protein promotes the muscle-building process, called protein synthesis, “but you don’t need exorbitant amounts to do this,” says John Ivy, Ph.D., coauthor of Nutrient Timing.
If you’re working out hard, consuming more than 0.9 to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight is a waste. Excess protein breaks down into amino acids and nitrogen, which are either excreted or converted into carbohydrates and stored.
The real expert says: More important is when you consume protein, and that you have the right balance of carbohydrates with it. Have a postworkout shake of three parts carbohydrates and one part protein.
Eat a meal several hours later, and then reverse that ratio in your snack after another few hours, says Ivy. “This will keep protein synthesis going by maintaining high amino acid concentrations in the blood.”
Squats Kill Your Knees
And cotton swabs are dangerous when you push them too far into your ears. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re doing.
A recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that “open-chain” exercises—those in which a single joint is activated, such as the leg extension—are potentially more dangerous than closed-chain moves—those that engage multiple joints, such as the squat and the leg press.
The study found that leg extensions activate your quadriceps muscles slightly independently of each other, and just a 5-millisecond difference in activation causes uneven compression between the patella (kneecap) and thighbone, says Anki Stensdotter, the lead study author.
The real expert says: “The knee joint is controlled by the quadriceps and the hamstrings. Balanced muscle activity keeps the patella in place and appears to be more easily attained in closed-chain exercises,” says Stensdotter.
To squat safely, hold your back as upright as possible and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or at least as far as you can go without discomfort in your knees).
Try front squats if you find yourself leaning forward. Although it’s a more advanced move, the weight rests on the fronts of your shoulders, helping to keep your back upright, Stensdotter says.
Never Exercise a Sore Muscle
Before you skip that workout, determine how sore you really are. “If your muscle is sore to the touch or the soreness limits your range of motion, it’s best that you give the muscle at least another day of rest,” says Alan Mikesky, Ph.D., director of the human performance and biomechanics laboratory at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
In less severe instances, an “active rest” involving light aerobic activity and stretching, and even light lifting, can help alleviate some of the soreness. “Light activity stimulates bloodflow through the muscles, which removes waste products to help in the repair process,” says David Docherty, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Victoria in Canada.
The real expert says: If you’re not sore to the touch and you have your full range of motion, go to the gym. Start with 10 minutes of cycling, then exercise the achy muscle by performing no more than three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions using a weight that’s no heavier than 30 percent of your one-rep maximum, says Docherty.
Stretching Prevents Injuries
Maybe if you’re a figure skater. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed more than 350 studies and articles examining the relationship between stretching and injuries and concluded that stretching during a warmup has little effect on injury prevention.
“Stretching increases flexibility, but most injuries occur within the normal range of motion,” says Julie Gilchrist, M.D., one of the study’s researchers. “Stretching and warming up have just gone together for decades. It’s simply what’s done, and it hasn’t been approached through rigorous science.”
The real expert says: Warming up is what prevents injury, by slowly increasing your bloodflow and giving your muscles a chance to prepare for the upcoming activity. To this end, Dr. Gilchrist suggests a thorough warmup, as well as conditioning for your particular sport.
Of course, flexibility is a good thing. If you need to increase yours so it’s in the normal range (touching your toes without bending your knees, for instance), do your stretching when your muscles are already warm.
Use Swiss Balls, Not Benches
Don’t abandon your trusty bench for exercises like the chest press and shoulder press if your goal is strength and size. “The reason people are using the ball and getting gains is because they’re weak as kittens to begin with,” says Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S. You have to reduce the weight in order to press on a Swiss ball, and this means you get less out of the exercise, he says.
The real expert says: A Swiss ball is great for variety, but center your chest and shoulder routines on exercises that are performed on a stable surface, Ballantyne says. Then use the ball to work your abs.
Always Use Free Weights
Sometimes machines can build muscle better—for instance, when you need to isolate specific muscles after an injury, or when you’re too inexperienced to perform a free-weight exercise.
If you can’t complete a pullup, you won’t build your back muscles. So do lat pulldowns to develop strength in this range of motion, says Greg Haff, Ph.D., director of the strength research laboratory at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The real expert says: “Initially, novice athletes will see benefits with either machines or free weights, but as you become more trained, free weights should make up the major portion of your training program,” says Haff.
Free-weight exercises mimic athletic moves and generally activate more muscle mass. If you’re a seasoned lifter, free weights are your best tools to build strength or burn fat.
I’m frequently asked why I’m constantly developing new exercise techniques and don’t just stick to the basics. Often, I answer by repeating this classic quote from my good friend and fellow strength coach Martin Rooney. “If you want what other people don’t have, you have to do what other people don’t do.”
Insightful SOB, isn’t he?
The basics are great and should always be the foundation of your program, but there’s no reason you can’t combine the old with the new. My athletes always seem to get better results than what can normally be achieved with traditional methods, simply because I make a point of using some nontraditional training methods along with the basics.
In this installment of the Unconventional Workout series, I’m going to provide you with a step-by-step instruction guide to the latest and greatest abdominal training protocols that I use with my athletes at Performance U in Baltimore, MD.
Each of the exercises and training ideas featured in this article may be new to you, but they are part of my everyday training arsenal and have been battle-tested effective at keeping my athletes strong, stable, and free from back pain. Use them and I’m sure these techniques will do the same for you.
Regardless of whether you’re a bodybuilder trying to achieve an impressive six pack, an athlete looking to outperform the competition, or an exercise enthusiasts looking for some new ways to spice up your training and stay back injury free, these abdominal workouts will be just what the doctor ordered to get you the results you’re after!
Good Abs vs. Good Looking Abs
Just because you have good looking abs doesn’t mean you have good functioning abs, and accordingly, just because you don’t have good-looking abs, doesn’t mean that you don’t have good functioning abs. All the exercises featured here will help you build a stronger, better functioning set of abs.
As for showing off that six-pack? I’m sure you know by now that lean, ripped abs are built in the kitchen, not the weight room. Step away from your secret junk-food cupboard if you want a midsection that gets noticed.
To Train Abs or Not to Train Abs?
I’ve heard many coaches and weight lifting enthusiasts say, “Just do the big lifts (squat, deadlifts, etc.) and you don’t need to do any specific abdominal work.” Although I agree that there’s a tremendous amount of abdominal activity when performing these lifts, I disagree that’s all you need to do to maximize your abdominal performance or functional ability.
Put simply, the big lifts like squats and deadlifts are single-dimensional, sagital plane-dominant exercises. Your abdominals, like every other muscle in the body, function in all three planes of motion: sagital (linear), frontal (lateral), and transverse (rotary). Just doing the big lifts completely neglects strengthening the other two critical planes of motion.
To effectively strengthen the abdominals in all three planes of motion, some direct strengthening exercises performed at various angles such as the ones displayed in this article are required.
To Flex or Not to Flex the Spine?
Whether or not to use spinal flexion exercises is a common argument these days and one that I’ve been right in the center of. In truth, I’ve never used crunches or traditional sit-ups in any of my programs; I’ve always believed that a good training program uses exercises that reverse the sitting/slouching position. Exercise like crunches and sit-ups encourage it, which is why I don’t use them.
That said, the real issue is not with spinal flexion; it’s with high repetition spinal flexion or prolonged spinal flexion. Respected lower back guru Dr. Stuart McGill and many others have shown that spinal flexion and prolonged flexion to be common causes of disc-related injury.
If you have a healthy back and are under 40 years of age, then lower rep spinal flexion exercises can be performed safely and effectively. That said, after reading some of the new research like this study published in a recent Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, I’ve found myself using less flexion-based exercises, regardless of the age of the athlete or the rep range used.
This particular study used 1467 subjects to evaluate the effect that core stabilization training would have on the traditional sit-up test used by the Armed Forces. Of the 1476-subjects, 761 were placed into a core stabilization program, and 706 were placed into a sit-up program traditionally used to prepare soldiers for their physical fitness test.
The traditional exercise program group performed sit-ups, sit-ups with trunk rotations, and abdominal crunches. Those in the core stabilization exercise program performed a variety of stabilization exercises such as side-bridges, glute bridges, bird-dogs, woodchoppers, and abdominal crunch draw-ins.
In the end, both groups significantly improved their sit-up performance after 12-weeks, yet the sit up performance was not significantly different between the two groups; even though the core stabilization group never performed sit-ups in their training program! Of notable interest is that the core stabilization group demonstrated significant improvements in sit-up pass rate (5.6%) compared to the traditional sit-up training group’s 3.9%. The researchers concluded:
“Incorporating a core stabilization exercise program into Army physical training does not increase the risk of suboptimal performance on the Army’s fitness test and may offer a small benefit for improving sit up performance.”
(Effects of Sit-up Training versus Core Stabilization Exercises on Sit-up Performance by JD CHILDS, et al. – 2009, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
November 2009 – Volume 41 – Issue 11 – pp 2072-2083.)
Considering the results of this study, along with my training philosophy of reversing the sitting position/slouchy posture, I’ve focused my abdominal training programs on mostly spinal stabilization movements and use almost zero spinal flexion exercises. I do, however, make an exception for my bodybuilder clients that I’ll cover later in this article.
Unconventional Abdominal Workouts
Now that you have an understanding of my abdominal training philosophy, here’s a list of unconventional abdominal training exercises, Performance U style!
The exercises are divided into three sections: linear exercises, lateral/rotary stability exercises, and dynamic rotary exercises. In the program design portion of this article, I’ll discuss how to use all three types of abdominal exercises to ensure each abdominal workout is fully comprehensive.
Keep in mind this article is intended to provide you with new, unconventional exercises you’ve probably not yet seen before, so don’t complain when you don’t see your favorite high school gym class exercise included in the mix.
Linear Abdominal ExercisesMedicine Ball Rollout – I first displayed this exercise in my Big Lats article. Put simply, it’s the hardest abdominal rollout exercise variation I know of!
Linear (vertical) Pallof Press – This is inspired by the original Pallof Press exercise developed by John Pallof. I love the idea of the Pallof Press and don’t think it should be limited to just one plane of action, so I developed the Linear Pallof press. Think of this exercise as a kind of “standing ab rollout.”
Swiss Ball Pike – The non-stability ball haters may already be familiar with this exercise. If you’re not currently using this exercise, you should be, because it’s a great one.
When performing the Swiss Ball Pike: Initiate the movement from your abs. Keep you back straight, legs straight, and drive your hips to directly above your shoulders.
By the way, I’m sick of folks talking trash about the Swiss ball. It’s not the damn ball’s fault that there are folks out there who don’t know how to choose their exercises wisely. The Swiss ball is just a tool-so stop blaming the tool and start blaming the bigger tools who are using them inappropriately!
The Body Saw – This is one of my favorite abdominal plank progressions. I first learned the Body Saw exercise form the folks with TRX Suspension Training. Although I love using the TRX, I’ve developed my own version of the Body Saw exercise that doesn’t involve using the TRX because not everybody has access to one.
Lateral/ Rotary Stability Abdominal Exercises
The following are stability-oriented exercises, which involve controlling unwanted rotational and/or lateral motion, followed by dynamic rotary exercises.
Side Plank on Medicine Ball – this exercise is just a much tougher progression to the traditional elbow side plank. The added instability of the ball causes the muscles of your shoulder and abdominals to work harder to keep you in position. Be sure to keep your spine straight and your wrist directly underneath your shoulder.
Single-Arm Front Plank on Swiss Ball – This exercise is one of the toughest and most effective “core” exercises you’ll ever try! It’s a favorite among my combat athletes.
Turkish Get-Ups – Okay, most of you likely know that this isn’t what women in Istanbul wear for a night on the town. Regardless, I still don’t see this fantastic exercise used as often as I think it should be.
I’m sorry if I offend any members of the Kettlebell cult when I say you don’t need to be holding a Kettlebell to do Turkish get-ups. Holding a dumbbell is more comfortable and just as effective.
Angled Barbell Rainbows – Many lifters are familiar with the dynamic version of this exercise, but not as familiar with the static version. The static version is what I use most often because it builds the body awareness needed to control the spine when standing. To perform this exercise, you can use the Sorinex Land mine or place a barbell in the corner.
Lateral Pallof Press – Here’s another one of my tweaks of the Pallof Press concept. This one can be performed in a half-kneeling or standing position.
Dynamic Rotary Abdominal Exercises
Rotational exercises are crucial to sports performance because they develop and refine your ability to transfer and express force from one side of your body to the other. These movements are at the heart of true intelligent functional training.
Tight Rotations – the tight rotation exercise is my favorite rotary training movement because it closely mimics the actions of the abdominals when sprinting, punching, throwing, or changing directions at high speed. Your abs have to control the constant torque happening between your shoulders and hips moving in opposite directions while you move.
The tight rotation series enhances your ability to produce, reduce, and control rotary (torque) forces.
I use a three level progression for the tight rotation series. I spend about 2-4 weeks on each level before progressing to the next.
Each of the Rotations has an accompanying video on the right, so I’ll spare you a long, boring written description.
The Gladiator Twist – This is another one of those exercises that’s both fun and effective. The Gladiator Twist is based on the same principles as the Tight Rotation series. If this exercise doesn’t light up your abs, nothing will!
Medicine Ball Rotary Tosses – This is one of the best methods to train rotation apart from hitting and kicking a punching bag. If you have access to a med ball and a wall – along with the necessary space and understanding gym staff – give these three medicine ball rotary toss variations a shot. They’ll most certainly make you a rotary power beast!
Using these Ab Workouts in Your Program
Regardless of the training goal, I try to perform at least one of each of the three types of abdominal training exercises described above in each workout. That means performing at least one linear exercise, one lateral/rotary stability exercise, and one dynamic rotary exercise.
With that in mind, there are generally two ways in which I use these abdominal training methods with my clients, depending on whether the specific training goal is health and/or sports performance related, or more bodybuilding centered.
For General Health and Sports Performance – I find it best to follow Dr. Stuart McGill’s recommendations to train the abdominals more often while using lower loads for longer periods of time to increase muscular endurance of the abdominals.
Dr. McGill’s research has shown this method to be highly beneficial at enhancing sports performance and developing the stability needed to resist back injury and postural change.
When putting this strategy into practice with my athletes and exercise enthusiasts, I have them perform abdominal/core training exercises in-between sets of upper-body or lower-body exercises. This way, you make your workouts more productive by increasing the density. Here’s an example:
Day A – Upper-Body Push/Pull
1A) Horizontal Push
1B) Horizontal Pull
1C) Linear abs
2A) Vertical Push
2B) Vertical Pull
2C) Lateral/Rotary Stability
3C) Dynamic Rotary
Day B – Lower-Body Legs/Hips
1A) 2 Leg Hip Dominant
1B) Linear abs
2A) 1-Leg Knee Dominant
2B) Lateral/Rotary Stability
3B) Dynamic Rotary
For bodybuilding/physique enhancement goals – When it comes to ab training for my pro and amateur bodybuilders and figure competitors, I take a much different approach than I do with fitness/sports performance clients.
When training physique competitors, I recommend training the abdominals less often using heavier loads for short periods of time. I usually have my bodybuilders perform multiple abdominal exercises at the end of certain workouts or as a stand-alone “abs day” workout, depending on the person’s training split and personal preference.
I also admit that I go against my “no flexion” policy when working with physique athletes. Bodybuilders in particular need a significant amount of abdominal hypertrophy to look impressive on stage. I find using some trunk flexion exercises are needed to achieve this look, and therefore the risks of performing flexion exercises don’t outweigh the benefits to the bodybuilder.
Along with the exercises already described in this article, with bodybuilders I use a number of exercises using the Swiss Ball and (gasp!) the Bosu Ball.
Before you label me as a soy-chai-latte-sipping granola-head, keep in mind that the Bosu Ball, like the Swiss Ball, is just another tool in my toolbox. I have no special affinity for these implements; it’s simply a matter of selecting the right tool for the job. For these abdominal exercises, I find using the Swiss ball and Bosu creates a better, more effective workout due to the increased trunk range of motion.
These are all quite self-explanatory, so I’ll skip the drawn-out descriptions and just ask that you check out the photos on the right.
I also use straight leg sit-ups and reverse crunches as described in my How Strong Are Your Abs Really? article.
A typical abdominal workout for a bodybuilder would look like this:
Swiss Ball Crunch 2-3 x 8-12
Medicine Ball Abs Roll Out 2-3 x 45-60 seconds
Swiss Ball Side Crunch 2-3 x 8-12
Angled Barbell Rainbow 2-3 x 45-60 seconds
The folks at TMUSCLE had asked me to give you one unconventional abs workout and instead I hit you with a monster list of exercises and user-friendly programs that anyone can immediately apply. Delivering the latest and greatest training concepts is my business and business is good!
This article was not just meant to show you new exercises; it was also meant to inspire you to get creative, so don’t be afraid to modify an exercise to fit your needs and/or sporting demands. Remember, “If you want what others don’t have, you must do what others don’t do!”
Put these exercises into practice within your training sessions and tell us about your experience using them on the forum. Also, if you have any other unconventional abs exercise and workouts, share them with us on the comment forum.
Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions of Abdominal Training.
by John Paul Catanzaro
Whether you’re on the mean streets of Kansas City or Kandahar, if a kid runs up to you and asks to “see your muscles,” you can bet he or she likely expects you to hit some type of biceps pose.
The biceps are bodybuilding’s equivalent of the military’s stars and stripes. A developed set of guns are easy to spot, quick to evaluate, and usually command immediate attention from lifters and non-lifters alike.
But while cannonball biceps and horseshoe triceps look great in a tank top, the reality is that a chiseled midsection is the hallmark of the true champion. We all know that big arms can usually be obtained with a steady diet of heavy training, big eating, and dogged determination—just ask any Saturday night bar-star. But a thick set of pro-caliber washboard abs? That’s a whole other level of achievement.
The problem is, many bodybuilder’s just don’t know how their abs function, or how to train them effectively. If your “killer ab workout” consists of 50 crunches performed after your weekly leg workout, then strength coach and kinesiology guru John Paul Catanzaro has some much needed learnin’ for you to do.
More people are concerned about their midsection than any other body part. The core comprises roughly a third of the body, yet it never receives full attention in the gym. Sporting a great set of abs is high on anyone’s list. Hey, if the core is in shape, the whole body is in shape!
The “want” is there, but the “how” is another story. There exists much confusion on how to train the abdominals properly. This article will dispel many of the myths and misconceptions regarding abdominal training. As you read on, take note on how many of these core issues you have fallen prey to.
Myth # 1: Pressed-Heel Sit-Ups are the bomb as they eliminate hip flexor activation.
The Janda sit-up has recently resurfaced as an effective abdominal exercise minus the hip flexor activation. Janda thought he solved the problem of psoas activation by calling on the principle of reciprocal inhibition, which says that the nervous system, as a matter of efficiency, relaxes the muscles opposite the ones contracting.
The Janda sit-up was designed to inactivate the hip flexors by contracting the hamstrings and glutes. Janda thought he accomplished this by grasping subjects’ calves and having them pull back against his hands as they attempted to sit-up. The theory was, the hip flexors are inhibited by the contraction of the opposing knee-flexor hamstrings and the hip-extensor glutes. The end result, according to Dr. Janda, is true isolation of the abdominal muscles.
Well, according to Dr. Stuart McGill, a spinal biomechanist and professor at the University of Waterloo, the opposite actually occurs!
During the Janda (or pressed-heel) sit-up, contraction of the hamstrings causes hipextension, which means that even greater hip flexion (or psoas activation) is required to complete the movement. In addition, bent-knee sit-ups actually activate the psoas more than straight leg sit-ups! This was all confirmed through EMG analysis by Juker, et al., 1998.
Solution: Can the Jandas, bent knee sit-ups and other posas-dominant activities in favor of more effective protocols (see below).
Myth #2: Traditional abdominal exercises work the abs through a full range of motion.
Not true. The primary function of the abdominals is to flex the trunk from 45 degrees of extension to 30 degrees of flexion. Most abdominal exercises, however, are performed either on the floor or on a decline bench, which is less than half of the range of motion (ROM).
Solution: To get at your abs in a full ROM, perform pre-stretch crunches on either a Swiss ball or an AbMat.
If you’ve been toying with these movements for a while and don’t feel much benefit anymore, try what I call the Sicilian Crunch. (See the end of the article for instructions.) You must have a solid base of core training before attempting this advanced movement. It’s one of those “let’s play with the lever arm” type of exercises in which better leverage occurs during the weaker, concentric action and then all hell breaks loose during the stronger, eccentric action.
Unless you want to topple backward and send the Swiss ball flying into the juice bar, I’d suggest anchoring your feet under a sturdy support. Also, take advantage of the spherical nature of the Swiss ball or AbMat to achieve full range of motion.
Myth # 3: We are the Hollow Men!
The popular act of drawing in the navel or “sucking in your gut as if you’re putting on a tight pair of jeans” should definitely be abandoned; unless there’s a specific reason to do so (i.e., motor re-education) as it tends to detract the emphasis from other muscles.
It is necessary to keep the core tight without the aid of a belt, but overemphasis on the transversus abdominis (or TVA for short, which is basically the internal girdle that keeps your organs from spilling out) can negatively affect performance.
The advice to activate the deep abdominal wall was well intentioned, but unfortunately you can’t extrapolate information from a pathological population (i.e. low back-pain patients) and apply it to healthy individuals — it just doesn’t work that way!
I tried this approach with several clients early in my career. The report from most of them was that it felt uncomfortable, almost as if their lungs were being pushed out of their throat while squatting. The body doesn’t lie; if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it!
I remember Olympic strength coach Charles Poliquin once commenting on this practice. “Why rob the neural drive from the extensor chain by drawing in the navel?” he asked. It didn’t make sense to me, either.
Abdominal & lower back guru Dr. Stuart McGill recommends that you brace the abdominals — as if you’re about to accept a punch — but don’t suck ’em in if you want spinal stability. And after adopting this method with my own clients: no more complaints and performance started to improve.
Louie Simmons and Dave Tate of Westside Barbell (these guys are renowned for producing world-caliber strength athletes) have stated numerous times that if you want to increase core stability, do the opposite — push out your gut! Yet despite all the evidence against it, there are still coaches and personal trainers who continue to endorse abdominal hollowing on practically every movement. Ultimately, the decision is yours.
Solution: Don’t suck in you gut; brace your abs.
Myth #4: To breathe or not to breathe. Is there even a question?
Should you hold your breath throughout a set? Or should you inhale during the eccentric portion of a lift, and exhale during the concentric? Or is it the other way around? Do the rules change if you suffer from chronic halitosis?
Forget about it. I think strength coach Charles Staley put it best when he stated that we breathe quite well by instinct alone. Messing around with this could negatively affect performance.
I never discuss so-called “proper breathing” when demonstrating an exercise because, like Staley, I feel that it detracts concentration and will negatively affect performance. It’s hard enough trying to concentrate on technique, you just confuse people when you add special breathing instructions. Let it come naturally — you’ll see that they will naturally hold their breath when they exert themselves.
Both McGill and Siff agree that the common recommendation of exhaling upon exertion (or raising of the weight) and inhaling on the lowering is a mistake. Much like the discussion of the TVA and abdominal hollowing, Siff states that the “careful instruction as to the technique of a given exercise will automatically result in the body responding with the optimal muscle recruitment strategy throughout the duration of the movement.” This also applies to breathing. Let it occur naturally.
Solution: You have distractions in the gym; don’t let breathing be another one.
Better Results Requires a Better Ab Workout
So now that we know the most common myths and misconceptions associated with abdominal training, let’s get down to brass tacks and address what really matters.
Step 1: Get your upper and lower abs in order.
A classic argument is whether abdominals should be divided into upper and lower classifications. One camp says that they are one muscle — there is no such thing as an upper and lower part. However, research has shown that you can selectively recruit different segments of a muscle depending on the type of exercise you do, and how much weight is used.(Antonio, 2000)
The lower abdominals have the most complex recruitment patterns and are the weakest; whereas, the upper abdominals are much stronger and easier to train. Thus, perform your abdominal exercises in the following sequence:
1. Lower Abdominals
2. Obliques and Quadratus Lumborum
3. Upper Abdominals
Step 2: Take advantage of the abdominals’ role as stabilizers.
If you want to build a serious set of abdominals, routinely perform the following exercises and their variations: squats, deadlifts, chin-ups and standing military presses. These multi-joint movements require a strong contribution from the abdominals to stabilize the core, particularly when heavy loads are used. It is not uncommon to hear people complain of abdominal soreness a day or two after performing multiple sets with a decent weight of the chin-up or standing military press exercise — the pre-stretch will tap into fibers you never thought existed!
Your abdominals act as a natural girdle, or weight belt if you will, when performing all exercises, particularly squats and deadlifts. These muscles act as a bridge between your upper and lower body and are heavily recruited as stabilizers.
Isolation exercises like pullovers, curls, and even triceps pressdowns also require a good degree of core stability; however, the loads used are relatively low compared to the big 4 mentioned above. In fact, isolation becomes virtually impossible if large loads are used and, in many cases, the tension developed in the stabilizers will equal or even exceed that of the prime movers! So, you see, the abdominals can be trained quite effectively indirectly as stabilizers. The physiques of top Olympic weightlifters will attest to that.
Step 3: Train right for your fiber type.
If you’ve been doing tons of reps of wimpy little abdominal exercises like you’re auditioning for Caribbean workout, then it’s no wonder that you’re stuck in a rut. The abdominals are composed of primarily Type II or fast-twitch (FT) fibers. The Rectus Abdominus, the so-called “six-pack” muscle, is comprised of 54% FT fibers. (Colling, 1997) Here’s what I suggest to really tap into these high threshold fibers:
• pick big (i.e., multi-joint, compound) movements
• train in a full range of motion (get the prestretch)
• perform explosive concentric and slow eccentric actions
• do many sets of low reps using heavy loads
• make sure you get enough rest between sets
Putting It All Together—The Enlightened Man’s Ab Routine.
You get all that? Well, it was only three steps; so if I did lose you, it also likely takes you three hours to make minute rice. Next time try doubling your Power Drive® dosage before logging onto TMUSCLE.
Anyway, the following is a sample routine that will target your abdominals effectively and efficiently. No more 50 rep sets for you — it’s time to start training your core like the ferocious little fast twitch muscles they are.
A1) Lean-Away Chin-Ups 6 x 1-3 @ 5-0-X-0, 120 secs.
Add weight to chin/dip belt, clear chin at top, lean back as you come down by pushing the bar away and make sure to go all the way down at the bottom.
A2) Standing Military Press 6 x 1-3 @ 5-0-X-0, 120 secs.
Clean the weight up to your shoulders, stand with your legs straight (yes, that means knees locked) and arch your back slightly to maximize pre-stretch.
B1) Dragon Flag 4-6 x 4-6 @ 5-0-X-0, 90 secs.
This is similar to the move in Rocky IV, minus the ambience that training in a barn in Siberia can only provide. Yelling “Drago!” between reps adds to the training effect.
Lie on your back on the exercise bench. Your lower body should extend off the bench so that your entire body remains in a straight line. Bend your elbows over your head and grasp the sides of the bench with your hands. Your neck and spine should be aligned and you should be looking directly upward toward the ceiling.
Raise your entire lower body upward toward the ceiling. You can point your toes and keep both of your legs as straight as possible. When you reach a vertical position, do not extend your legs any farther. At this point they should be perpendicular to the ceiling and the floor.
Tense your abdominal muscles. Hold them this way while maintaining your elevated position. To stay balanced, your body will need your abs to remain very tight.
Lower your body back to its original position. To make the exercise harder, stop just short of allowing your lower body to touch the bench. Do not allow gravity to pull your body quickly back to the ground, but rather use your abdominal muscles to gently lower your legs.
For a video demonstration, please check the video at right.
B2) Sicilian Crunch 4-6 x 4-6 @ 5-0-X-0, 90 secs.
Laying supine on a Swiss ball, keep a dumbbell high on your chest as you crunch upward. At the top of the movement when you are sitting upright, extend your arms straight overhead with the dumbbell. Make sure that you have a good grip on it—if the dumbbell slips onto your head, it could ruin the set (and your haircut). Then, slowly control the movement downward.
Keep your arms slightly bent and in line with your torso while lowering. It should feel like every fiber of your abdominals is ripping apart! Enjoy that feeling as you perform five sets of 4-6 reps at a 5010 tempo (i.e., 5 seconds to lower, no pause at the bottom, 1 second to raise and no pause at the top), taking three minutes to rest in between each set. Try to keep the total time under tension below 40 seconds and really exaggerate the eccentric action in a slow, smooth, controlled manner.
If you would like to finish off with a couple of sets of Ab wheel rollouts for as many reps as possible, be my guest. Make sure to work the legs and back/hip extensors during another workout. Rolling out of bed the next day should offer an unpleasant surprise!
Nothing in strength training is engraved in stone, but if you want your abs to look like they were chiseled out of rock, be inquisitive. There exist far more myths and misconceptions about abdominal training than any other body part. To find the real answers, you must address the core issues!
Antonio, J. Nonuniform response of skeletal muscle to heavy resistance training: can bodybuilders induce regional hypertrophy? J. Strength Cond. Res. 14(1):102-113. 2000.
Askem, JV. The Romanian Deadlift.
Barron, J. Lessons from the Miracle Doctors – A Step-by-Step Guide to Optimum Health And Relief from Catastrophic Illness (E-book).
Casler, J. Abdominal Hollowing continues! Supertraining Group, 2003.
Chek, P. Benching and Breathing. Weight Training Posts (compiled by Tom Griffin), 1997.
Chek, P. Scientific core conditioning correspondence course. C.H.E.K. Institute. 1998.
Colling, R. Distribution of Human Muscle Fibre Type. Exercise Physiology 552, 1997.
Cresswell AG, Blake PL, Thorstensson A. The effect of an abdominal muscle training program on intra-abdominal pressure. Scand J Rehabil Med. 1994 Jun;26(2):79-86.
Goldenberg, L. Strength Training Q&A. Ironman Magazine. June 2000, Vol. 59, No. 6, pg. 150.
Juker D., McGill, S., Kropf P., & Steffen T. (1998) Quantitative intramuscular myoelectric activity of lumbar portions of psoas and the abdominal wall during a wide variety of tasks. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 30: 301-310
McGill, SM. Achieving Spine Stability: Blending Engineering And Clinical Approaches. 4th Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back Pain & Pelvic Pain. Montreal, Nov. 2001.
McGill, SM. Enhancing Low Back Health Through Stabilization Exercise.
McGill SM. Low back exercises: evidence for improving exercise regimens. Phys Ther. 1998 Jul;78(7):754-65. Review.
McGill, SM. Low Back Injury: Improving Prevention Strategies and Rehabilitation Approaches. Ontario Kinesiology Association Seminar, 2001.
Narloch JA, Brandstater ME. Influence of breathing technique on arterial blood pressure during heavy weight lifting. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1995 May;76(5):457-62.
O’Connor P, Sforzo GA, Frye P. Effect of breathing instruction on blood pressure responses during isometric exercise. Phys Ther. 1989 Sep;69(9):757-61.
Siff, MC. Abdominal Hollowing vs Lifting Practice. Supertraining Group, 2003.
Siff, MC. Breathing Technique. Supertraining Group, 2002.
Siff, MC., Verkhoshansky, YV. Supertraining 4th Edition. Denver, CO: Supertraining International, 1999.
Supertraining Forum (originally moderated by Dr. Mel Siff).
Zatsiorsky, VM. Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1995.
The Sicilian Crunch
Janda sit-up. The subject contracts the glutes & hamstrings by
pulling the ankles back against the wood platform.
If the core is in shape, the whole body is in shape!
The Dragon Flag.
About John Paul Catanzaro
John Paul Catanzaro, B.Sc., C.K., C.E.P., is a Certified Kinesiologist and Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private gym in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. For additional information, visit his website at www.BodyEssence.ca or call 905-780-9908.
Check out John Paul’s DVD, Warm-Up to Strength Training, for some powerful techniques to increase strength and improve performance. It has received a thumbs-up from many experts including Drs. Eric Serrano, Mark Lindsay, and Ken Kinakin as well as Olympic strength coach, Charles Poliquin. Visit www.StrengthWarmUp.comfor more details.
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Let’s imagine you have only two muscle groups. I’ll call them “core” and “peripheral.” Peripheral muscles are the ones further from the spine — lower arms, lower legs, upper arms, and to some extent, shoulders. Core muscles are the ones closest to the spine, the biggest . Think lats, quads, spinal erectors, chest, etc.
Core muscles are bigger; peripheral muscles smaller. Increases in core muscles make more difference and have greater impact on visual size and total bodyweight. These are the upsides. The downside (at least the downside to those who want instant gratification) is that prioritizing the core muscles isn’t going to give you the instant recognition you may believe you need.
Before I go any further, let’s clarify something. When I say “core,” I’m not talking about that over-rated bullshit involving irrelevant abdominal exercises and other stabilizer/control drills. Leave that to the brainless herd of sheep who don’t have a clue and don’t want to develop one. My definition of “core” is more likely to appeal to the old-world lifter than the new age, brain-dead personal trainer.
Most people who start weight training are looking for instant gratification. They want to experience the, “Golly, you have big arms” phenomenon as fast as possible, so they start out by prioritizing what I call the peripheral muscles. Or perhaps they do this because there’s less pain and effort involved? Either way, if you start there and don’t shift your focus to prioritizing the core muscles the majority of the time, you’ll never optimize your mass.
I’m not saying you can’t have periods of peripheral muscle focus, just that you need to spend more time prioritizing the core muscles. And I’m not going down that path of bullshit which suggests you need to increase your total body mass by “X” amount before you can add “Y” amount of upper arm mass.
What I’m saying is that, to maximize your total bodyweight, and more importantly, to develop the look that shows you obviously lift even when fully clothed, you’re going to need to respect the concept I’m discussing. To get that look of power, you need to focus your efforts on the core muscles. Period.