Ab Training 101: Training for Aesthetics

As mentioned in the first article of this series, the “abs” are some of the most coveted muscles to have and a popular characteristic of what would be considered a fit physique. Again, here’s a big secret for everyone. You ALL have abs. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be able to stand let alone sit up straight without falling backwards. If you did not read the first article on ab training which goes into great detail on the muscles of the abdomen and their functions, I suggest you go back and check it out here.

Now on to how to train your abdominals in regards to bodybuilding, body composition, etc. Let me start off by saying a common phrase I first heard from IFBB Pro Men’s Physique competitor, Steve Cook. According to Steve, “Abs are made in the kitchen.” I have always told my clients this phrase any time they ask about abs. If your diet does not reflect one of a healthy lifestyle, no amount of crunches or hanging legs raises is going to help you see your abdominals. In order to have a visible rectus abdominus, you need to have a low percentage of body fat. If you have diet consisting of foods that lead to an increased amount of body fat, it’s no wonder you can not see your abs. It’s simple, you cannot out train a bad diet.

Let’s assume you are eating clean to begin with and you have established a relatively low level of body fat and are wanting to further develop your abdomen through specific training. There is a lot of information out there about all these different ab machines, exercises, training techniques, and most of it is hoopla. Not that those trainers on the internet do not know what they are talking about (some of them certainly don’t), beginning to train the abdomen is much simpler than it’s made out to be.

If you are just starting to train the abdominals directly, a good place to start would be to throw about 3-5 sets of ab specific training at the end of your workouts, 3-5 times a week. A simple ab finisher could look like this…

3-5 Rounds:

25 Crunches

10 Hanging Leg/Knee Raises (or 25 Reverse Crunches)

This basic workout inspired by Arnold’s own beginning ab workouts, trains both the upper abs that insert into the rib cage, and the lower abs that insert into the pubic bone. Many people often only do crunches for endless amounts of reps. Essentially half of the rectus abdominus is being left untrained! A basic ab finisher should train both the upper and lower end of the abdominals.

Once you have trained your abs consistently for about 4-8 weeks, it is time to introduce new movements that also train the oblique muscles as well as an increase in ab training volume. The ab twist/seated twist/broomstick twist is a great exercise I picked up when researching training techniques from three-time Mr. Olympia, Frank Zane. As mentioned in the previous article, Frank Zane had absolutely amazing abs. It is noted he would do 1,000 reps of ab exercises when training for the Mr. Olympia competition! The ab twist as I call them is not an exercise designed to build up the obliques like a weighted crunch would for the upper abdominals, but more so to tone and tighten the obliques to add to the small waist illusion. Frank Zane trained his obliques so hard with twisting exercises that his obliques nearly “disappeared”. Training and developing well constructed and developed abdominals requires hitting all sides of the abdomen with different stimulus and ranges of motion.

frank-zane-posing.jpg The next progression for ab training would be up your minimum for ab finishers to five days a week like they did in the 70’s. Often times, Arnold, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, Ken Waller, and the gang would perform ab exercises at the beginning of their workout as a warm up (more on that later) as well as at night five days a week. An intermediate level ab routine could look like this…

Monday, Wednesday, & Friday:

3-5 Rounds:

25 Weighted Crunches

10 Hanging Leg Raises

Tuesday, Thurs, & Saturday*

*If you regularly train on Saturday

3-5 Rounds:

25 Reverse Crunches

25 Ab Twists (Each Side)

After another 4-8 weeks of consistent ab training in this fashion, it is time to introduce a new stimulus. More volume. The abdominal muscles respond incredibly well to volume when prescribed correctly. I mentioned before how people will attempt to create better abs by doing hundreds upon hundreds of crunches and not see any results. If that is the only ab exercises they are doing, the muscles of the abdomen will adapt and not be changed or affected by the repetitive stimulus they are given.

During the Golden Era of bodybuilding, many famous bodybuilders would use ab training as a warm up. This technique is still used today, but is rarely seen. I personally read about Arnold warming up every workout with 500 reps of Roman Chair Sit Ups, as well as specific ab training at night, but never gave it much thought until recently. During the last training cycle before the 2017 GrapplingX Brazilian Jiu Jitsu NorCal Championships, I began doing some simple ab work during my warm ups and before my heavy squats. After two weeks I saw an incredible difference. My abs were thicker, my waist was slightly smaller, and my lower abs were more defined than they were during the 2016 Tahoe Show! These “warm up” abs were also paired with my nightly ab routine that I do 4-5 times a week. Keeping the awesome results I saw in mind, I am continuing to train my abs during the warm up of my workout even during this bulking phase I am currently in. The goal is to develop them so much that even when I am at the peak of my bulk with some expected bodyfat gain, they are still relatively visible. When it’s time for the cut back down, they should in turn look better than ever.

Once you have gone through the first two sample ab workouts listed above, and you’re looking for something new, or want found that your ab training is growing stale, I highly suggest you take note of the bodybuilders of the Golden Era and do ab training both as part of your warm up and at the end of your workout or a night. It is a great way to increase the volume of your ab training as well as hit all parts of the abdomen without keeping you in the gym forever. 15 minutes in the morning, and 15-20 minutes at night has been my recent formula when training my abdominals for aesthetics. When I was training for the 2016 Tahoe Show, I would perform about 100-300 reps of weighted crunches and about 50 ab wheels every night before bed. Cory Gregory is most famously noted for his #Squateveryday, or #Squatlife training methods, although he also does weighted crunches and ab wheels almost every night before bed. His abs are self labeled, “bricks” that are similar to Zane’s ab development.

Taking from Arnold, Zane, and Cory Gregory, this is my current ab routine that has helped me develop my abs during my preparation for the 2017 GrapplingX BJJ tournament (I know you don’t need perfectly sculpted abs for jiu jitsu, but I still enjoy training to maintain my physique as well as train specifically for sport). The results of this ab training yielded results for my abdominal area even better than those at the 2016 Tahoe Show!

AM Ab Training: 6 times a week before each workout mixed in with the warm up.

3 Rounds:

15 Back Ext

5 Bodyweight GHR

10 Hanging Straight Leg Raises

25 Ab Twists (each side)

PM Ab Training: 4-6 times a week either right when I get home from Jiu Jitsu, or before I go to bed.

3-5 Rounds*:

30 Weighted Crunches w/ a 25lb plate

10 Ab Wheels

*Sometimes I will throw in an additional ab exercises to changed things up a bit. For example, reverse crunches following the ab wheels for 30 reps.

Stayed tuned for the next and final article in this series, Ab Training 101: Training for Performance. To have abdominals that look great is one thing, but having an abdomen that is both strong, stable, and sturdy is another. This upcoming article will focus on how the abdominals brace the spine and different methods of training to strengthen the midsection.

Ab Training 101: Part 1

The “abs” are often one of the most desired muscle groups to “have” when people begin to think about summer or fat loss. I will let you all in on a little secret and inform you that you ALL have abs. Everyone was born with the rectus abdominus muscle group, although some may have theirs more pronounced and revealing than others. That’s okay! Not everyone needs a six pack! Depending on what type of athlete you are and what your current goals are and what your body type is, chasing a six pack may not be the best thing for you at this stage in your fitness/athletic career. When people think of “abs”/core they traditionally think of a 6/8-pack, although the core includes many other muscles deep under one’s rectus abdominus as well as the lateral and posterior sides of the body (the back). Given that this blog caters also towards the sport of bodybuilding and people who want to change their physique along with athletes looking to enhance performance, I will address both groups. Part one of this series will be a short introduction to the abdominal muscles, their functions, locations, and different ranges of motion. The second article will address how to train your abdominal muscles for aesthetics, a.k.a, how to get a six pack. The third and final article will primarily focus on training the abs and midsection for performance in sport.

 

What Muscles Make Up the “Abs”/Core?

The main muscles of the abdomen include the rectus abdominus, the external obliques, and the intercostals. They are located on the frontal plane of the torso and run from the bottom of the chest and mid rib cage, down to the pelvis. These are the superficial muscles of the abdomen that you can see when someone is in incredible shape at a very low percentage of body fat. Some of the internal muscles of the midsection include, the transverse abdominus, the internal obliques, diaphragm, and the spinal erectors. These muscles in conjunction with one another help brace the spine, flex the torso in global flexion (bending over or “crunching”) and extend the torso in global extension (bending backwards or arching the back).

Rectus Abdominus (Image 1.A):

The rectus abdominis originates at the base of pelvis in the pubis, and inserts into the cartilage of the fifth, sixth, and seventh ribs. It’s main function is to contract and flex the spinal column, drawing it toward the pelvis. The rectus abdominus muscle is what people often call a “6-pack” or “8-pack” if their are in very good condition and have a low percentage of body fat.

External Obliques (Image 1.B):

The external obliques (obliquus externus abdominis) are located on either side of the torso originating at the lower ribs and inserting at the side of the pelvis. Their main function is to assist the rectus abdominus in flexing to spinal column forward as well as rotate the spinal column in a neutral, flexed, and/or extended position.

Intercostals (Image 1.C):

The intercostals are two thin planes are muscle and tendon that populate the space between the ribs. Their main function is to lift the ribs as well as contract and draw them together.

Transverse Abdominus (Image 1.D):

The transverse abdominus is located deep underneath the obliques and wraps entirely the spine. It’s main function is to properly brace and protect the spine in both a neutral, flexed, and/or extended position both unloaded (bodyweight movements) and loaded (weighted movements).

Internal Obliques (Image 1.E):

The internal obliques are located underneath the external obliques on either side. It’s main function is to support the abdominal wall, helps create pressure in the torso during forced respiration, and also assist other muscles of the midsection in rotation of the spine.

Diaphragm (Image 1.F):

The diaphragm is located underneath the ribs and is a large sheet of muscle that assist in respiration as well as separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.

Spinal Erectors (Image 1.G):

The spinal erectors are located on the posterior (back side) of the torso and run from the lumbar region of the back through the thoracic region and into the cervical region. Their main function is to assist in global extension of the spinal column, as well as bracing the spine.

 

Why Do We Need to Train All Sides of Our Midsection?

The body does not just function in any one plane of movement. When it comes to abdominal training, often times people will only train the front of their midsection, leaving the sides, and back completely untouched. Sure, the sides and lower posterior muscles of the midsection get stimulus from exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and overhead work while standing by assisting with balance and bracing during the exercise. Although, if someone is training only their rectus abdominus in hopes for a six pack, they can often create imbalances that could lead to injury. The same idea applies to sport as well. Depending on the sport, the front of the abdominal region may experience a lot of load and stimulus from being in global flexion, while the muscles of the lower back are not being stimulated to achieve eliminate muscular imbalances.

In sport, our bodies are moving in many directions. Very rarely do athletes move in a completely linear plane. In a sport like wrestling or jiujitsu, the body is often twisting, arching, and bending in many positions while under load from their opponent. When an athlete like a wrestler or a jiujitsu athlete has a strong rectus abdominus from the endless amount of crunches they do at the end of their workout, they can perform well in movements involving global flexion. Any time they need to move into global extension, such as lifting their opponent off their feet from a takedown, their spinal erectors, and transverse abdominus often have a hard time bracing the spine properly. This leaves the athlete very susceptible to injury. Take a sport like powerlifting for example, where the spine needs to be maximally braced by the muscles surrounding it to be protected and produce the maximum amount of force in a lift. In an exercise like the deadlift, if the spine is not braced the athlete risks slipping a disk in the vertebrae, and leaking force production and strength through poor technique. 

image

In a sport like bodybuilding, having well trained abs is a must. The quality of a bodybuilding competitors abdominal region is a reflection of how well they dieted and conditioned during prep, as well as how well they were able to train their abs to take a particular shape and look on stage. Not just the “8 pack”, but all sides of the abdominals. According to Arnold Schwarzenegger in his book, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, he refers to the abs at the, “…visual center of the body.” (Schwarzenegger & Dobbins, 1998). When viewing the human physique, they are naturally drawn to the abdominal area of the body. The shoulders and feet act as the points in an “X” shape across the body with the abs lying in the intersection. Well trained and displayed abs in bodybuilding are signs or being in well conditioned as well as having dense and strong physique. The muscles in the sides and lower back of the midsection must also be trained to achieve a balanced look between the anterior and posterior sides of the body.

image Frank Zane trained the obliques with the use of exercises like the abs twist to make his external obliques almost, “disappear”. They were specifically trained and developed to be tight and lean, making his waist appearing very small compared to his wide lats and large shoulders, thus adding to the illusion of the “X” frame.

    The muscles of the midsection include more than what we can see from someone’s six pack and their purpose is more than just for doing crunches. The abdominal region is composed of many other muscles that for aesthetic purposes must be trained individually, as well as trained as a whole for improving athletic performance. In the next article, we will focus on how to train and develop one’s abdominal area for the sport of bodybuilding and/or physical appearance.

 

Muscles of the Abdomen:

 

Abs-Rectus-abdominis-muscle(Image 1.A)

external-obliques.jpg(Image 1.B)

intercostals(Image 1.C)

 

Transversus_abdominis(Image 1.D)

internal-obliques(Image 1.E)

diaphragm (Image 1.F)

Spinal Erectors.png(Image 1.G)

My Three Favorite Back Exercises for Grapplers

The following are my three personal favorite exercises to strengthen and develop the back for grappling athletes. Let me make clear that these exercises are my favorite. This does not mean they are the only exercises I do for back. I utilize many different exercises for back (a full list of exercises will be at the end of the article), but of all of them, these are my favorites and why.

Pull Ups:

Franco Pull Up

The pull up is the king and staple of old school body weight wrestling training. Not only does is help establish grip strength (which is a crucial component of wrestling and jiujitsu), it requires you to be strong with your own bodyweight. This is very important when you are competing with other athletes who are competing at the same weight as you. The exercise is simple. Hang on the bar with both arms lock out, then pull yourself up until your chin rises above the bar. Then lower yourself ALL the way down. There’s one correct pull up. Pull ups help develop the lats which make up the major vertical pulling muscles in your back. I know what you’re thinking, “When am I ever going to do a pull up in competition?” How about a snap down in wrestling? Since last i checked there was no “snap down” machine at the gym, pull ups are the next best developer of the muscles used to pull things down, and or close into your body. You can add these at the end of your workout, or if you have a pull up bar set up in your home, every time you walk by you can bust out 5-10 pull ups.

Sample Pull Up Finisher:

5 sets of sub max reps (if you can do 10 max, only do 7-8)

Deadlifts:

franco deadlift

If the squat is the greatest strength building exercise, deadlifts come in a close second. Deadlifts assist in strengthening your posterior chain (the chain of muscles running from the base of your neck, down to the bottom of your hamstrings). A strong posterior chain, traditionally means a safe back. When you’re in your wrestling stance, or in constant flexion having someone in your guard, or being in someone’s guard, having a strong posterior chain will protect your back. Deadlifts are also a great measure of strength. For grappling athletes, if you can deadlift 2x your bodyweight, and your opponent can only deadlift 1.5x his bodyweight, you are superiorly stronger. With all the lifting, throwing, and tossing in wrestling, the deadlift will help you handle your opponents with ease all while still being able to protect your spine. Take folkstyle wrestling for example. Say you start on top in referee’s position and your opponent is quick to stand up. If you want to pick him up and return him back to the mat, you need to lift him off balance and off the ground. The deadlift in all variations is just that movement. The practice of picking up objects (barbells, DB’s KB’s, atlas stones, sandbags, etc.) off the ground.

Sample Deadlift Workout:

One of the easiest ways to incorporate deadlifts into your strength training is a simple, 5×5 set up. Starting at one day a week, do five sets of five reps for deadlift and try to make each rep with perfect form, slowly adding weight each week. This works with both sumo and conventional stance.

Bent Over Barbell Rows:

Franco Bent Over Row

I should preface this by saying, any horizontal rowing motion is a fantastic exercise for the back in regards to grappling. Although, if I had to choose one, it would be the bent over row. The bent over row not only focuses on strengthening the muscles of your back responsible for pulling things to you in a horizontal plane, but also requires you to stay tight and in good position. This activates the muscles of the lower back isometrically (staying in a static position), and works the rowing muscles of the upper back, both eccentrically (lowering of the weight) and concentrically (actually lifting of the weight). Bent over Rows can be used with barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells, sand bags, etc. You can ever do them on a elevated surface to let the weights down even lower to get a stretch in the muscles during the eccentric portion of the lift. Not only is this exercise for back development, but also helps eliminate imbalances in the back. I see a lot of people do a lot of vertical pulling (pull ups, lat pull downs, etc.), and not enough horizontal pulling exercises. Imbalances in the body lead to injury and time away from rolling.

Sample Bent Over Row Workout:
Superset:

Any Chest Exercise: 4×6-8

Bent Over DB Row: 4×6-8

This can be thrown in at the beginning of a chest and back workout.

You can also apply the 5×5 method to the bent over Row to focus more on developing strength in the mid and upper back.

Current List of Back Exercises I’m Using Right Now:

Pull Ups (Use many different grips)

Deadlifts (Conventional and Sumo stance)

Goodmornings

Bent Over Rows (DB, KB, and Barbell Variations)

Banded Reverse Hypers

GHR (Weighted and Bodyweight)

45 Degree Back Extensions (Weighted and Bodyweight)

Seated Rows

1 Arm DB Rows

RDLs (DB’s, KB’s & Barbell Variations)