As any fitness model will tell you, it’s the abdominal muscles that really sell a physique.
Bulging shoulders, tree trunk legs and brutal arms can be mighty impressive, but if you’re still carrying a spare tire around your waist, guess what? It deters from your appearance, virtually nullifying all the hard work. What to do?
Any devoted Student Fitness reader by now knows that ripped abs are gained by keeping your diet in check over a period of time. But what about hypertrophy? No one wants weak, puny abs, instead, that powerful, stuck-out look with ridges and crevices is what most people who train aspire to. Pro bodybuilder Adorthus Cherry wrote an interesting thing in one of his articles in Muscular Development – he only trains his abs pre-contest, and gives them a rest in the off season. This has good merit, as you can’t really see your abs while they’re covered with fat, and they do tend to grow pretty quickly for a lot of trainers. That’s because it’s easy to contract and isolate them, and if you go overboard, you can end up with a larger waist. For that very reason, I don’t add extra weight in my abdominal training.
People are really divided on this subject, but from personal experience, I’ve found out that you can very well have too much development in that area – to the point where even ripped abs stick out further than the chest. Also, I steer clear from oblique training and any sort of side crunches, but people who play competitive sports will surely disagree on this. To each his own. Aesthetically, the washboard, cheese grater look coupled with a tiny circumference is much more pleasing, but for functional training, you can’t beat a strong core. First off, I believe in striking a balance in your appearance. If you train the chest or shoulders once a week, why should you work the abs every other day or even more often? A lot has been said about the abs being “endurance” muscles, but that’s a big load of hooey.
All muscles in a body are composed of slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers, and this endurance talk probably stems from the fact that you can do a lot of crunches in a row after a while. But guess what? Your bodyweight doesn’t really put much stress on that area, and that’s why you can rep out a hundred crunches after a few weeks easily. If you worked your biceps with 5 lbs, and if you did a hundred repetitions, would they become “endurance” muscles, too?
Speaking of crunches, they’re kind of out. Just about everyone does them, they’re boring, they’re easy and they don’t really do justice to the bottom half of your midsection. For me, leg raises are the way to go. They work your entire abdominal area like nothing else. I like to keep reps in the 20-30 area and make the movement steady at a slower pace, two seconds up, one second pause and contract, two seconds down and one second pause and extend. The big thing is not to let them relax during a set, but instead to keep a constant tension.
Here are some tried and true variations of the leg raise.
1. Hanging leg raise.
Grip a chin bar and stop at a dead hang. From there, lift your femur but bend the knees, letting them travel all the way up to the chest. The flexion happens at the hip, and your pelvis should also rotate upwards. Remember to squeeze at the top and don’t swing around like a little monkey. Keep the body steady. An advanced version of this would be to extend the knees, which allows for greater tension but shortens the range of movement a bit. When your legs come back down, don’t let them travel past your back, as this results in swinging and you really shouldn’t let inertia do your work. This is a good exercise for those who possess a strong grip. If you don’t, work on it!
2. Lying leg raise.
Start by laying down on a mat, and don’t anchor your hands. Instead, they should be by your side, relaxed. The legs are kept straight the entire time, and rotating the pelvis ensures that you use your hip flexors less while the abs do most of the work. A great way to make this harder is to have a training partner push at your feet when they reach the top of the movement, forming a 90 degree angle with the torso. Do not let your feet touch the ground – this makes the abs relax.
3. Floor wipers.
Lie down on a bench and get in a starting position of the bench press. The weight on the bar shouldn’t be more than half of your bodyweight, your grip slightly wider than your shoulders. Legs are straight, and then you lift them upwards and diagonally and touch one of the plates on either side of the bar. Bigger plates result in a shorter range of motion. The key to this is balance. You lift the legs up to one side, lower them down and straight, back up but than touch the plate on the opposite end of the barbell. Keep the arms locked at the elbow and ensure that you’re not slipping off either side of the bench by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
4. The candle.
We used to do a lot of this in elementary school gym class. Lie down, arms at your sides, pushing at the floor. You lift your legs up, knees straight and locked, and then proceed to lift the lower back off the floor and your feet further up in the air. Reverse the movement, but remember to keep the feet off the ground.
5. Planted leg raise.
If you’re lacking in grip strength, this one is for you. Most gyms have proper benches for this type of movement, a pad for your back and two for your forearms with handy bars for gripping. If you’re not in luck, a pair of parallel bars will do, but you’ll have to remain holding yourself up with your arms locked. Kind of like you’re doing a dip, but instead you remain at the top of the dip movement and lift your legs up instead, until they’re parallel to the floor. Bend them at the knees if it suits you, then over time progress to keeping them straight. As always, avoid swinging and don’t let the feet go behind you at the bottom of the movement. You can combine this with the floor wipers and lift the legs up and to the left, then up and in front, then up to the right – this is all one big rep.
A couple of final points.
Abs are typically done at the end of a workout, like an afterthought. If you’re bent on improving your midsection, give them priority in your workout – the exercises are not very exhausting and can make for a great warm up. Also, don’t just go through the motions, instead, aim to feel each rep and go for the burn. As your mind-muscle connection improves, you’ll need to do fewer reps and the results will keep coming. A set/rep scheme for the abs should be, four to five sets of as much reps as you can manage in good form without excessive pain. Remember to breathe at all times, breathe in as you contract the muscles and breath out as they extend. Also, a strong lower back is important both for your posture, muscular balance and injury prevention. Deadlifts on your back workouts are great for this. These are opposing muscles and should ideally be the same in strength and endurance. And if your abs still ain’t showing, it’s time to implement two new exercises into your regimen – the lowering of the spoon and the pushing of the dinner plate - away.