Six-packs. With many of my clients, that’s what it invariably comes down to as their ultimate goal. We want abs, as a culture. Our movie stars’ and athletes’ physiques are typically judged not by lean muscle mass, but by the leanness of their torso. It’s time to strip away the nonsense and discuss the honest, less-flashy title of this article – “How to Build a Powerful Set of Abs”.
- Train your abs like every other muscle – for strength. Focusing on endurance is good for stability but people often neglect strength.
- Doing hundreds of anything is a waste of time and effort. That same amount of time is better invested in a more difficult progression.
- Doing any plank variation for longer than 60 seconds is counterproductive. You are better off progressing to more difficult exercises.
- Train your core to resist motion in all directions – extension, lateral flexion, rotation, flexion.
- Excessive flexion (crunches) can lead to a rounded upper back but also disc damage.
- Train using resistance from all angles, but also against leverage (gymnastics) and under load (squats, deadlifts, and standing overhead presses).
Now, as always – nutrition is the key. Here is “how you get the abs you want” – you eat clean. #1 – Nothing processed or man-made. Watch your carb timing. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Then, layer strength training and conditioning onto the nutrition foundation that you have set. Dedicate part of each training session towards developing a powerful core.
The key word, is power. We (ladies and gentlemen both) want strong abs. A core that doesn’t just look pretty/sexy/whathaveyou, but can perform. That protects your back, whether you’re shoveling snow, lifting heavy in the gym, or simply showing off. And power is where most coaches, trainers, and exercisers – go wrong.
The Dragon Flag – made famous by Bruce Lee. An incredible test of strength, but also an amazing way to build your abs.
It’s well established that “progressive resistance” is the key to improving fitness – strength, power, speed, hypertrophy – you name it. However, most people neglect this component of their core training. I’ll be blunt – performing 100 situps, crunches, or side bends is a waste of time.
It may get you there, but it’s: 1- boring, 2 – takes too long, and 3 – research strongly suggests that repetitive, excessive flexion and/or rotation of the spine is harmful. (See work done by Dr. Stu McGill for more. I am aware of contradicting research but prefer not to take the risk).
Case in point – a 30-day Plank Challenge is making the internet rounds that culminates in a 5:00 plank. A 5:00 plank is a waste of time. Once my clients can hold an ideal plank for 60 seconds, they are immediately progressed to a variety of anti-extension exercises – typically rollout variations. Planks are a fantastic foundation, don’t get me wrong. But like the bodyweight squat – they get boring and ineffective very fast.
Here are my “core credentials” and the practical proof of my argument. I built my strength and physique by pursuing and mastering dragon flags, back levers, front levers, standing rollouts, heavy barbell rollouts, L-sits, weighted chin-ups, and strict hanging leg raises.
In fact, the pursuit of these feats of strength has been the key to my abdominal development. I started with a basic level of strength and stability. I then progressed to each feat of strength by gradually increasing the difficulty (progressive resistance) of my training.
Each of my clients trains in this way. As a result, I have seen many cases of back pain diminish while boosting performance on the squat and deadlift (note: if you are injured, see a doctor and therapist.) Their backs stay straight under load, while being powerfully braced. The stomach hardens, regardless of nutrition.
Their posture improves, rather than worsens as it does from excessive flexion (situps and crunches). We train for structural balance, stability, and power – resist movement in all directions while also training to withstand heavy loads and leverages.
To be clear – I did hundreds of situps daily as a cadet in college (required, unfortunately), with negligible changes to my abdominal strength or definition. Here’s why:
If your body is strong enough to do 100 crunches, how does doing another 100-200 benefit you further? Bench pressing the bar 100 times is similarly counterproductive to most goals. The key is this: If you must do situps, do difficult ones. Like this – for sets of 8-10. Notice – his back is relatively straight at all times.
This is the start of a full series on abdominal training. By the end of this series, I’ll have covered progressions for each category of core training, leading up to each “feat of strength”. Check back Monday for Part 2 of this series. In the future, this page will serve as the “cover page” with a link to each section.
I’ll cover, article by article:
- How to build a foundation – create a stable, strong core that reduces the risk of injury.
- Progressions and regressions for the plank, from bodyweight planks all the way up to standing abwheel rollouts.
- Innovative exercises that train the spine to resist rotation, while building strength in major muscle groups.
- How to progress towards one of my favorite gymnastic feats of strength – front levers
- Progressions and regressions for the Dragon Flag, starting with my favorite “sneaky” core exercise – dead bugs.