So it is about this time of year when we become swamped with B*&L S*%T about how to get a six pack in time for the summer. I thought I would do my bit to cut through a lot of the crap and offer my top10 training tips for developing a strong and athletic midsection that you will be more than happy to show off this summer, no more muffin tops!
You may be surprised by some of my advice.
1. Join an adult gymnastics class or take up a combat sport - just take a look at your average fighter or gymnast, these guys have washboard stomachs and it has nothing to do with 1000's of sit ups and everything to do with the training and movements demands placed upon the 'core' whilst trying to flip, kick, throw and catch their way through workouts. 'The abdominals constantly engage to help stabilise the torso during almost all movements' (Staley) and the obliques are involved in torso twisting and lateral bending (side kicks, roundhouse kicks). Rectus abdominus is important during flexion of vertebral movements such as pulling opponents to floor in grappling arts such as judo and wrestling.
2. Get Lean - I see plenty of fat people that do sit ups and guess what they don't have a six pack (well they do but it's hidden underneath a layer of fat). If you want buffed abs drop your body fat percentage down to between 8-10%. Follow the programme I use with my clients to drop fat in just 4 weeks. It comprises of 1-2 strength movements (whole body exercises like squats), followed by 20mins of high intensity circuits using whole body movements (30s work, 5-10s recovery, 6-8 exercises), finished off with some intervals on running or rowing machine (3-5 min warm up, 24 reps of 20s work, 10s recovery followed by 3-5 mins cool down). Complete that 3 times per week on alternate days and on the other two days get some CV work in for 45-60mins. You also need to clean your diet up, 4-5 meals a day, plenty of water, reduced carbs and refined foods.
3. 100 is not a sensible rep range - why does everyone treat abdominal muscles differently to other muscles? If I asked you to give me 100 bicep curls you would tell me where to get off, why are the abs any different. Completing 1000's of reps every day will result in an injury and postural problems, not a rippling six pack. Your abs also need time to recover. Pick 3-4 exercises, I would choose a combination of the stabilisation exercises and rotation exercises described below. Complete 10-15 reps of each exercise or 30-60second holds if it's a stabilisation exercise. Repeat 3 times a week
4. High intensity interval training - circuit based strength training in your weekly programme is a great option. Follow a Tabata protocol designed by speed skating coach Dr. Izumi Tabata at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Japan you work 'eye balls out' for 20 seconds and then recover for 10 seconds. For your circuits and interval training you can also take some advice from French Sport Scientist Veronique Billat. Once again work 'eye balls out for 30s before dropping the pace to about 50% max for 30 seconds. Not only will your burn fat but you can expect to see big gains (10%) in your aerobic fitness in just 8 weeks. This will ensure you lay down lean muscle, increase your metabolism and help you to get lean (remember you need to be lean to see the six pack).
5. Stop wearing a weights belt - come on all it is doing is making your abs lazy, keeping your belly warm and keeping your fat gut under lock and key. Your 'core' muscles are designed to do a job so let them do it. Stop wearing the belt and let core musculature work hard to maintain a strong and stable torso. Given the pros and cons of wearing a weight belt Stuart McGill (back expert) does not recommend their use for healthy individuals during exercise because there are no additional protective benefits and chances are wearing a belt will give you the perception that you can lift more than you really can. The exception is for extreme athletic lifting for elite power lifters, not for someone looking to get a ripped six pack!
6. Stop using machines - do I really have to explain this one. Machines are like sleeping pills for muscles, the minute you sit into a leg press you can relax. Unload 100kg off the squat rack and it is a different story. Research shows high levels of activation of core musculature during structural lifts such as deadlift and squat when compared to traditional abdominal training methods. Researchers based in North Carolina (Trunk Muscle Activity during Stability Ball and Free Weight Exercises. Journal of strength and Conditioning Research 2008: 22 (1) 95-102) showed high levels of integrated electromyography (IEMG) activity from the rectus abdominus, external oblique, longissimus and multifidis when performing squats and deadlifts.
7. Become friends with the cable machine - the cable machine will give you a huge variety of abdominal exercises from woodhcops to rotational movements. I've taken these from another one of my American friends Robert Dos Remedios, they feature in his Men's Health Book - Power Training: Build Bigger Stronger Muscles Through Performance Based Conditioning (I even feature in the testimonials section of the book!)
1. Cable Push-Pull - Got to be my favourite and hits just about every muscle in the body. Stand between two cable stacks holding one handle in each hand with the cables set at waist height. Turn to your left so that your left hand arm is extended and your right hand is holding the handle at your chest. Your feet should be split front and back so your left foot is forward and your right foot is back. Pull with your left hand as you push with your right whilst rotating shoulders as far as possible. Switch sides and repeat. 10-15 reps each side.
2. Cable Reverse Woodchop - feet hip width, standing side on to a cable stack with the cable set at the lowest point. Bend your knees and flex at the hips to take hold of the handle, keeping your arms extended. From this position stand up whilst rotating and extending the arms to above your head in a diagonal pattern. 10-15 reps each side
3. Cable Rotating Crunch - use a rope attachment, with the cable set at its highest point and face the cable stack. With arms extended and body upright, pull the rope handles down to one side as you crunch down at the torso. 10-15 reps each side
8. Get hold a medicine ball - start slamming it into the floor or walls to get a 'functional' abdominal workout - Stand with feet about hip width apart and shoulders perpendicular to a wall or partner. Rotate to your left as far as possible and swing back to your right to throw the ball as hard as you can against the wall (or to your partner), as the ball comes back, catch it and decelerate the load as you rotate back to your left to start another throw.
9. Throw away your ab cradels and stability balls - come on, they don't bring anything to the party that can't be achieved with some traditional core exercises like planks, bridges. If I had to choose just two core exercises that gave me big bang for my buck I would go with the plank and side holds. Research has shown that these two stabilisation exercises result in far more recruitment of the core musculature than more traditional exercises like sit ups etc, with far less spinal loading (Axler and McGill, 1997, Med Sci Sports Ex 29 (6) 804-811). I also like them because the exercises are all about stabilisation which is a very important consideration.
The Plank is a static exercise for strengthening the abdominals, back and shoulders. Position yourself on your elbows and toes (elbows under your shoulders). Keep your ankle, hips and shoulders in line. Maintain your back, head and body in a neutral position. Think about squeezing your glutes together, tightening your abdominal muscles and pushing your chest away from the floor. This is a static position, so you don't move! Hold for 30-60 seconds.
2. Side Holds
Start by lying on your side, legs straight, feet stacked on top of each other. Support yourself on your elbow, keeping it in line below the shoulder, and place free hand on your hip. Balance on sides of feet (feet are stacked) , squeeze your glutes and tighten up through your stomach. Don't allow your hips to drop toward the ground. This is a static position, so you don't move! Hold for 30-60 seconds
10. Try bar roll outs - this is the daddy of core exercises and will push your core musculature to the extreme. All you need is a bar with some plates loaded at either end. From a kneeling position grab the bar with a shoulder width pronated grip and the bar close to your thighs. Push the bar forward, making sure you lead with the hands and follow with the hips. Roll out as far as possible, pause, contract your abdominals and pull with the arms to return to the starting position. Your arms remain fully extended throughout.