Yes it’s time for yet another “abs article” ladies and gentlemen! Only this time, I’m going on a different path. This isn’t some sort of new age advanced training method. This is old school six pack carving abdominal training! Before we jump in, we have to first do a little house keeping. It’s time to discard a few things so we can focus on what’s most important towards your goal of lean and ripped six pack abs.
To start off, this is not an article about core training, core strengthening or actually core anything. This is 100% about abs. Yes, your abs are part of your core, but only part. And yes you can’t really work your abs without bringing the rest of your core into play. However, you can work your core without doing much for your abs. So, core training isn’t necessarily about abs and vice-versa.
Second, we have to again acknowledge that there’s not a core movement or abdominal exercise on earth that can make your waist smaller. When muscle is worked it either stays the same size or it grows. If you’re looking to shrink your belly or get rid of your muffin top then don’t worry about doing a special abdominal workout to get your abs to show. Go after the fat with a sensible diet plan so your stronger abs can be seen rather than remain hidden under a layer of fat.
Lastly, strong abs (and a strong core as well) is not the be all and end all to your health and fitness goals. Your abs are no more important than any other part of your body. You can have the world’s strongest core and abs, but if your legs are weak you’re still going to be a slow runner.
The same goes for back pain. There are 101 reasons you may have back pain but weak abdominals probably just makes up a fraction of those reasons. If your back pain is due to weak abs, then yes this will help. However if your pain has little to nothing to do with weak abs then no amount of abdominal training will help. If you have back pain, do what’s best and get a diagnosis from a health care professional to see what is wrong.
Whew! Okay, now that we have that covered let’s get to work. The first key to working your abs is to recognize the value in really working your abs. The abdominals are just like any other muscle group and they respond well to heavy work as opposed to light work. So in order to work your abs, you’re going to be focusing on some of the hardest and most intense abdominal exercises imaginable.
I’m not going to talk much about exercises that require a lot of stability. Sure, the plank and other various core stabilization techniques are fine but we’re talking about going all out with maximum effort on the abdominal wall. Balance disks are fun and all but they won’t work your abs like these exercises.
The abs are composed of muscle fibers that run in a particular direction (vertically in this case). This means those fibers (and thus the muscle as a whole) is designed to contract and produce force along the direction of those fibers. The workload on the abdominal muscle group is greatest with concentric and eccentric action when flexing the body forwards along the sagital plane. In other words, you’re going to do a lot of full body bending and flexing. You can probably guess where I’m going with our exercises of choice. You got it, sit-ups and leg raises!
This isn’t about twisting, crunching rotating, or holding a position. I’m taking stretching your entire body out as much as possible and then curling up into as compact a position as you can. This sort of activity ensures the maximum range of motion and muscular activation of your abdominal wall which is essential towards working your abs as hard as possible. A lot of attention is focused towards working the all important posterior chain. We use deadlifts, glute-ham developers (GHDs) and kettlebells swings.
But what about the anterior chain? It’s not really used much as a connected motion these days. You have exercises for your chest, your grip, your quads and your hips. But what about using it all at once? This is where the sit-up and leg raises shine. With sit-ups, your lower body is anchored and your upper body moves. With leg raises, your upper body is anchored and your lower body moves. In either case, the entire front side of your body is activated with the exercise. The key is to do these exercises, not just to work the abs but the entire anterior chain. This means moving with tension in the quads, hips, abs, and even the chest and shoulders. Sometimes people will try to take their hips or legs out of the picture when doing sit-ups or leg raises. I say, let’s get everything involved as much as possible.
If we can effectively work the lower back with a posterior chain exercise, why can’t we work the abs with an anterior chain exercise? The biggest reason some people avoid the hips or legs is because they feel those areas work more than the abs. It doesn’t feel like an abdominal exercise when the hip flexors are burning. Feeling it in the hips is good though. When you work a compound movement, you’ll feel it the most in your weakest links. It’s these weak links that can be like an anchor when you’re trying to get stronger. They hold back your potential to strengthen any of the muscles along your chain. So if your hips are talking to you then keep at it! Work those hips and they will get stronger. Then the next weakest link in your chain will develop and so on. Once the entire chain is getting stronger you’ll be able to work the heck out of the entire chain including that abdominal wall.
Lastly, the activation of the anterior chain is enhanced by how you go about your sit-ups and leg raises. With sit-ups, it’s very helpful if you don’t “sit up”. Instead, work on pulling your upper body upwards with your lower body. This is much easier to do if you’re on some sort of sit-up bench. When your legs are locked into position you can really put a lot of emphasis on trying to pull yourself upwards with your lower body.
The same can be said for leg raises. Start by hanging from a bar or a set of ab straps. Then act like you’re trying to pull your arms and upper body towards your legs. The motion of bending in half will still look about the same, but when you pull yourself up with your legs or arms you’ll feel a completely different muscle activation pattern.
On a final note, your piriformis muscle in your hips connects to the lumbar region of your spine. This muscle kind of serves as a cross between your anterior and posterior chain. When the rest of the muscles in the anterior chain are weak or tired, you may feel a pull on your lower back as your periformis takes on the brunt of your work load. When this happens it’s time to stop the set and rest a bit. It’s okay if you didn’t get a burning feeling in your abs since they still did some work. Give it time and be patient. With practice your anterior chain will strengthen and you won’t feel that pull on your lower back.
So to quickly recap:
- Make sure your body fat levels are low enough to show muscle tone.
- Don’t rely on stability and isometric exercises to condition your abdominal wall.
- Sit-ups and leg raises make up the bulk of an effective abdominal workout.
- Focus on using your entire anterior chain to maximize strength and power.
Simply applying these basic ideas will set your abdominal training apart from everyone else by a long shot. Best of all, it requires minimal equipment, time and energy.