by Fred Koch, P-SCE T-Nation
This is not another “core” routine or crunch workout. This is about effective, real-world ab training for a bulletproof midsection.
Why should we train the abs any differently than any other muscle? Why not use heavy weights through a full range of motion? That’s right, heavy weight for ab work.
Full Extension, Full Contraction
Genetics and diet notwithstanding, the reason most lifters never get an impressive six-pack is that they never really train the muscles.
Let’s look at what the abdominals do. The dominant ab muscles consist of the external obliques, rectus abdominus, and internal obliques, and are attached from the rib cage to the pelvis.
You’ve heard all that before, but what you may not have heard is that the abdominals’ full range of motion is to bend the spine from full extension to full contraction.
Stand up and arch your back by bending all the way back – see how far back you can bend the spine? The abs start working from this far back.
Notice the stretch you’re getting? When you lie down on the flat floor to do your crunches or any other ab exercise, you shorten this motion by almost 50%, thereby missing half the range of motion of your abs. That’s mistake number one – poor exercise selection.
Burn Doesn’t Mean a Thing
The second mistake folks make is judging an ab exercises by whether they get “the burn.” Well, for this purpose, the burn is meaningless.
For example, stand with your back against a wall and squat down until your legs are bent at 90 degrees, as if you were in the bottom part of a squat. Now hold it for 45 seconds.
Sure, you’re getting a great burn in your quads, but I doubt you’d consider this to be a good exercise for building your quads. It’s the same with all these burn exercises for abs.
Forget Isometrics for Abs
While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the latest craze in ab training: isometrics.
Powerlifters have used isometrics for years to overcome sticking points. An example is setting the pins in the power rack to block the concentric portion of the bench press at the lifter’s sticking point and then holding it for 10 seconds. Very effective – in that application.
Some years ago, it was shown that the core had a stability factor that could be helped with isometrics. That’s reasonable, but suddenly there were entire routines made up of isometric exercises and even the resurrection of the old ab roller.
Look at the ab roller movement, specifically the range of motion – does the spine ever bend, or is it just a long lever where the abs are the weak point? Sure, it delivers a great burn, but is it an effective ab exercise? Maybe not.
How to Correctly Train the Abs
So if the burn is meaningless, is there an effective way to judge the efficacy of an ab exercise? There sure is. I’ll use the high-pulley crunch to explain how to analyze an exercise to determine if it does in fact accomplish what you want it to.
We’ve already established that the ab muscles bend the spine and the full range of motion is from full extension to full contraction. As you can see from the video below, this popular exercise doesn’t fit the bill – not just for the basic range of motion, but when you add weight it turns into yet another hip flexor exercise with an ab isometric thrown in.
By using the preacher curl bench to support the back, we can fix the range of motion problem and suddenly have a highly effective ab exercise. It all comes down to understanding exactly how the muscles work.
For correct abdominal extension and flexion, we need a device that allows the low back to fully extend the abs while supporting the movement as the abs contract. The best two I’ve found are the curved-back weighted ab bench and a simple tool called the Ab Mat.
The main exercises for the abs are:
Curved-back weighted ab bench crunch
High-pulley crunch with preacher bench
Ab Mat sit-up
The number of reps you do during the work sets of an exercise have different effects on the body, which has to do with the energy system used.
If you work in the 3-5 rep range, you’ll make the muscles harder and stronger, not necessarily bigger. If you do 6-20 reps, though, you’re working in the ideal hypertrophy range.
The same thing applies when working the abs through a full range of motion – stay between 6 and 20 reps and you’ll finally experience what the term “six-pack” is all about. However, if you just want hard, tight abs, do your sets for 3-5 perfect reps.
Here’s the routine. The logic is simple: focus on all three abdominal muscles in a compound movement and then work the sections individually.
So a sample workout would be 4 sets of the curved back ab bench crunch or Ab Mat, then 2-3 sets for the internal obliques and external obliques, followed by some transverse abdominus work for 3 sets.
Let’s go through it one by one. Here’s some videos to help you along using the curved back ab bench (notice the full stretch of the spine).
It begins with the crunch:
Now target the external and internal obliques (do 2-3 sets):
Next some external obliques twists (do 2-3 sets):
Next, the low ab internal oblique crunch (do 2 sets):
And finally, hop on the decline ab bench and do some low ab twists (do 2 sets):
Serious Routine, Serious Abs
As you can see, this routine is as serious as your typical chest or back routine, and for good reason. Strong abs play a huge role in building a powerful body and symmetrical physique.
Leave the “burn” to the aerobics’ crowd!