This week, the below picture has received unusual levels of chatter amongst my immediate social training circles. Emma, the star of the shot, is for sure significantly defined – especially in the stomach region. This has led to: “how on earth does she get abs like that”-type questions. The answer (as with many good answers in my world) is not an easy one to answer in 20 seconds. Even in today’s blog, I won’t completely answer it, but I’ll attempt to give an insight…
Before I start, can I please lead off with the fact that Emma is unique. Not in a lovey-dovey way (I know, ever the sensitive one, me) but in a pure factual one. The beauty of fitness and the personal training world is that everyone gets different results from certain programmes and every programme gets different results (duh!?). Age, hormones, muscular make-up, work ethic, they all play a part but above all else so does… Nutrition…
For sure, Emma enjoys an Aperol Spritz or two, on occasion, and ice cream is lucky if it escapes her gaze. However (and this is a big HOWEVER), for 90% of each week, her nutritional intake consists of fresh veggies and natural proteins (eggs, fish and meats). And this has been the case for four or five years, since she really started training ‘seriously’.
To avoid writing a novel here today (as this content hits on a lot of topics central to this industry) I will endeavour (and probably fail miserably) to stick to the subject matter. But, needless to say, #absaremadeinthekitchen.
(Very) Basic Anatomy
It’s important to understand that in the abdominal region, there are more than just the ‘sixpack’ abs. As, without the surrounding muscles in the ‘core’, the sixpack simply can not flourish (i.e. engage, activate fully and look good in a fully balanced body). The sixpack as we know it, is the rectus abdominus. However, to gain a complete ‘look’ or more importantly a completely-balanced-strong-core, it should be fully balanced: the obliques (internal and external), the t.abs (transverse abdominals), erector spinae (lumbar muscles), hip flexors/ quads, serratus anterior and even the lower traps. Again though, please excuse Leo (as in Tolstoy, the great novelist) as he proceeds to achieve relative brevity with his first article in a while (embarassed emoji – never know which one that is…). So whilst it is important to see the abdominal region as a whole system, from the superficial to the deep postural muscles, let’s say for the sake of today that the term ‘abs’ is mainly focused on the anterior portion (i.e. the six pack… and everything surrounding it!).
The nine exercises I’ve chosen have been separated into bodyweight, lifts and cardio (or traditionally known as cardio exercises; for me, they are very much power-based).
So 3 bodyweight, 3 lifts, 3 cardio.
1. Pull-up (or chin-up)
This is the first on my list for a reason. It’s A.W.E.S.O.M.E. (Yep, that’s right. It spells awesome). Of course, we can’t all do it straight away. Progressions include table-top or inverted rows, negatives, banded pull-ups. When, however, you can get full extension to full pull and return twice, there’s no better feeling and hardly a better ab activation exercise, full-stop.
It’s a tough call between this and the bench press (and no girls, the bench press is not only for the guys!). Bench press is actually better in activating the serratus anterior and rectus abdominus than its bodyweight (and TRX) equivalent. What makes this exercise amazeballs is that it is, in effect, a plank (no, planks are not for sissies, but I’ve only a 9 exercise scope today, so cut me some slack!). Instability makes this exercise even harder, but only when it can be done at full range-of-motion with optimal glute and ab engagement (only then can you add TRX, Bosu ball and Swiss Ball additions. Swiss Ball clowns (of which I see far too many of you) take-note… a story for another day, but form over entertainment, always).
3. Knee Raises
This can be done hanging (hardest), on parallel bars or even in a TRX (aka the TRX jackknife or tuck). Either way, flexing the hips by raising the knees to the chin activates the abs hugely. If you manage to crunch the rib cage fully in the final portion of the movement, you can say “Hello” to your sixpack before you know it.
Ok, so you’re noticing a non-crunch based emphasis to this article. You are astute, I give you that. More later… When squatting, in order to activate those abs fully, two things are necessary: Depth (range-of-motion) and Heaviness (lifting as much as you can for the intended rep range). This way, you have to create optimal intra-abdominal pressure in order to (simply put) get back up again! So, the moral of the story, once your technique is sound and allows you to go as deep as possible (without tailbone-tucking), you should go heavier. And heavier. And heavier (and heavier). Oh, and heavier. But, don’t think about squatting off the bottom until you have created maximal intra-abdominal pressure and have re-organised your spine to press neutrally (hint: chin neutral). Going back again even, don’t even look at that bar until your spine is organised and braced accordingly.
The heavier you can go, the better those abs are forced to work, and work they will!
It was a toss-up between this and a power clean (or full squat clean). But they have something in common. You’re lifting a ‘dead weight’ (lightbulb moment: yep, deadlift = lifting a dead weight, don’t worry, it took me years to get that too… the penny drops!). Much like the squat above, technique (with a neutral spine) is the prerequisite to the good stuff: i.e. heavy weights and subsequent ab engagement. When you get this baby right though and fully focus on those tablets-of-which-there-are-six, fast-track abs will be calling your name.
6. Overhead Press
Be it kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell (or child; I have seen this done), this exercise demands your attention. As that weight goes overhead, get your chin down, lock in your glutes and voilà, hey presto, hello abs. Make it a single-legged version (such as the single-legged, single-armed dumbbell press; pictured) and… now we’re talking.
Ok, so we’re not all born like Usain. We don’t all have those perfect fast-twitch muscle fibres that would be a nice little perk about now. But… we all have something in our arsenal called ‘relative power’. Whatever you are doing, you can exert force which is “OK”, or you can exert maximal (I’m in a rage type) force. This goes for the (often up-lift) concentric phase in lifting weights but it also goes for when you are running, or sprinting.
- Start fast (although the below photo might not show as much, it’s relative when you’re running 1km intervals!)
- Stay low when accelerating (to generate maximum speed), count out ten strides without rising up
- Then lift up and start lifting the knees
- Drive the arms and keep lifting knees to flick out the toes (think ‘show pony’)
With this explosive knee drive and focusing on driving up with every stride, you’ll be surprised at how quickly those abs have to start working (once you get good, try out a tartan track, a beach or even shallow water). There is a massive added bonus of using the Phosphagen system (up to 5 seconds) and the anaerobic energy system (up to 2-3 minutes thereafter), which encourages maximal fat-burning potential when performed at max. The ideal length of time depends on repetitions and your ability to exert max power. Beginners would be aiming towards the 60-180 second mark (with a high work to rest ratio of around 2:1; thus resting for 30 seconds for every 60 seconds run). Experienced and/or powerful runners would do well to sprint at max for 30 seconds x 8 (with a 3:1 rest ratio, so 90 seconds rest).
I’ve cheated by combining kicking and boxing here. As with sprinting, the effectiveness depends on your skills and abilities to exert maximal relative power. When you let rip and totally land a full backside roundhouse, a jumping front-knee or a hook, there’s nothing better.
Linking your footwork, hip drive and force through your hands relies on… you guessed it, a tight core. Here though, you hit a cheeky bit of obliques, lumbar spine and t.abs all at the same time.
9. Alternating Waves (on the battle rope)
Last, but by no means, least. These babies are certainly the ‘golden child’ of fitness these days. The best per calorie-per-second fat burner, Instagram video friendly and let’s face it, very cool. For optimal ab engagement though, go for the alternating waves in a semi-squat. Torsion with optimal torque is the secret here, so go for hand height (think Daniel-san in ‘The Karate Kid’ when My Miyagi makes him painstakingly paint his epically huge fence; remember? no? Just me then) at optimal speed (or maximal relative power, as you now know it).
Other Ab Exercises (honourable mentions?)
Yes, there are literally thousands of ab exercises out there: Street workout dudes hitting ridiculous positions in ghetto-playgrounds, military types doing things that defy gravity and muppets performing quite frankly dangerous Swiss Ball exercises in our local gyms. Take it down a notch and you’ve got your QVC-latest ab contraption or those people who can still text whilst multiple crunching on the floor (hint: useless). Take it up a notch and there are some seriously excellent ab-centric moves (like an ab rollout and sprinter crunches for example). But the above 9 exercises are the base(s) from which all other (ab)awesomeness begins, due to their demand on the whole core.
The common denominator in the above exercises? Those 9 exercises demand glute engagement. Without glute engagement, we can’t engage the rest of the core effectively. To use the Emma example again, when she makes the occasional appearance at RunClub, people often ask how can she run so fast. The answer is not necessarily in endurance (but of course this helps!) but in the strength of her core. Yes she runs like the ‘Terminator’ but this is because she is like a brick in her abdominal region; allowing her to efficiently transfer her leg power into her body, without residual ‘wobble’. Strong runners (sprinters particularly) have a strong core.
The other common denominator in the above exercises? Many of the above exercises rely on a strong ‘plank position’. Actually tucking the hips under and performing a solid plank is easier said than done (hint: if you’re doing longer than 60 seconds on a plank, you’re doing it wrongly! Engage, damn it! Or you need to advance and stop showing off!). Sprints and knee raises rely on a forceful hip flexion (and a little trunk flexion in the knee raise, to really hit the spot). Kickboxing involves a lot of this too, with huge torsional forces too (if you kick hard that is!). The pull-up, the push-up, the overhead press, the deadlift, the squat and the alternating waves however are all effectively plank movements (with an added force demand; i.e. shoulder flexion for the pull-up). However, with all 9 exercises, above all, they work best when performed with maximal power and/ or maximal weight. The faster you sprint for example, the higher you lift those knees or the heavier the weight you squat or press; this adds more ‘stability stress’ to that ‘plank system’.
The abs (read: all muscles in the trunk area) perform thousands of small postural movements on a daily basis, thereby labelling them as ‘slow twitch’ movements. What your abs therefore need in order to adapt, is something beyond the norm. So, fast twitch, powerful contractions will do this. What muscles need to grow, regenerate and thus develop is STRESS. Real, fast-contraction effort creates micro-tears in the abdominal muscles, which in turn creates growth.
Which leads to me to my next point…
The guys (but mainly girls!) that lift heavy on a regular basis with me are the ones that tend to have leaner stomachs. Whilst I don’t have thousands of stats to make this statistically accurate, I do however connect the fact that the girls who lift “heavy” on a regular basis (7%) with the girls that have the leanest umbilical body fat readings (all but 2 of 15 leanest stomach readings lift the heaviest weights). Whilst this of course can be a tad misleading (the stronger girls were already; leaner, had higher lean muscle mass and were hormonally predisposed to be more testosterone/ growth hormones dominant, for example), I believe there is a big correlation with technique / confidence / weight chosen / ab definition / total body fat percentage (down to hormone profile – story for another day!).
I’m not pretending to be hiding THE secret here; there are literally thousands of exercises that are so effective for the abs: V-ups, TRX options, plank variations (side planks: the abs are multi-planar don’t forget and nothing better than a dynamic side plank to hit the ‘hidden areas’), mountain climbers (a huge honourable mention in the above 9, as these are by far the best pure-ab exercise)… the list goes on.
But if I was to disclose one ‘take-home secret’, I would encourage that the major compound exercises are done properly (see #1-6 above), with attention to posture and a consistent nutritional intake (with a few Aperols slipped in and a weekly ‘treat meal’). This is THE secret. Combined with regular (twice weekly minimum) attention to metabolic conditioning (aka cardio) efforts (including #7-9 would be “optimal”) will focus on not only building the muscles but stripping the body fat that lies on top. We’ve all got those muscles, my friend, some of us deeper than others, but they are there!
Going back to my first mention today, of Emma. She focuses mindfully on her abs and her glutes on EVERY. SINGLE. REP (and has a strange little ‘go’ switch that means she only really has one gear of full-on). So, regardless of nutritional compliance, focus on range-of-motion, intra-abdominal pressure, lifting as heavy as possible (whilst maintaining good tekkers) and focusing on each rep. Not much to ask, right?!
- Mindfulness on compound lifts (lunges, squats, push-ups, etc.): Everything is ab work if you treat it as such
- The core should be treated as a whole system and worked in all planes of movement (beyond the scope of today’s article)
- Apply maximal force and don’t be afraid to lift heavy (once you’re comfortable and your technique is sound)
- Visualise the muscles and engage on every part of every rep (every rep counts)
So next session, be sure to not ab-stain from those heavy weights (if that wasn’t already ab-undantly clear) and ab-ide by all the other ‘take-homes’, being ab-soultely sure to engage. And ab-racadabra, start saying “hello” to those ab-normally excellent stomach muscles (sorry, couldn’t help myself… tee-hee).
Until next time, Paddy (aka Leo, aka P.Dub)
p.s. Stay tuned, by ‘following’ my Facebook page for the next blog post or my Instagram page for the next workout. And please, if you like what you’re reading, share the love, by sharing on Facebook (or any means you like for that matter). Sharing is caring. Either way, stay close. Big(ger) things are coming…