The Evolution of Ab Training
by Chris Shugart
Ah, the elusive art of abs. These days, the "lift shirt and crunch" has replaced flexed biceps as the choice method for proving that you are, indeed, a studly man-beast. Despite this latest "muscle of the moment" craze, Americans are getting fatter. Want to know the secret reason? Okay, I'll tell you...but this is just between you and me, deal?
The fitness industry is to blame.
Yes, the very people who're supposed to be helping you develop abs of ATS-34 steel are largely responsible for the growing pudginess of the general population. Why? Cash money, baby.
Think about it, if the fitness Gestapo told everyone the real way to develop a chiseled sixer, they wouldn't make any money selling plastic gadgets, idiotic diets, and shitty workout videos! See, abs really don't need to cost you three easy payments of $29.95 plus shipping and handling.
As bodybuilders and athletes, you probably already knew this. We know that the number-one ab exercise of all time is diet. It's not really the five minutes a day spent on the Tummy Terminator that helps, it's the diet plan mentioned in microscopic print at the bottom of the screen.
Instead of making this a diet article, however, I suggest that you read through our Previous Issues section and check out the T-Dawg, ABCDE, Anabolic, or Get-Big diets. Pick the one that most suits your needs.
I'd like to focus here on what could be the next generation of ab exercises and training theories from two innovative strength experts: Pavel Tsatsouline and (a fellow that you may have heard of) Charles Poliquin.
The Evil Russian Cometh
Many of you may not be familiar with Pavel Tsatsouline. That's because he's spent a great deal of his life training the elite members of Spetsnaz, the Soviet special forces. I first became aware of him through the martial arts community, many of whom are going gaga over his style of flexibility training.
Pavel has many interesting theories about strength and conditioning. But one thing that always impresses me about him is that I've usually never heard of half of the exercises which he writes about! Here are a few of his ideas about ab training and a handful of fresh exercises for you to try tomorrow at the gym.
Many of Pavel's theories revolve around the Davis Law, which basically states that the contraction of a muscle will also set off a contraction of the adjacent muscles. To test the Davis Law, make a fist and flex the wrist very hard. Although there's no movement in the elbow joint, your biceps will also tense up.
While training the abdominals, the hip flexors also fire — even with the basic crunch, which is believed by many to isolate the abs and solve the problems created by sit-ups. Wrong, says Pavel. The crunch is as worthless as the latest ab widget and "belongs on the junk pile of history next to Communism."
The best way to isolate and train the abdominal muscles is to use Janda sit-ups. Professor Vladimir Janda, MD of Czechoslovakia, rehabilitation consultant for the World Health Organization, developed this exercise to relax the hip flexors and eliminate stress to the back, thus countering the Davis Law.
Although Pavel ridicules ab-training devices in his books, he's developed his own gadget to simulate Janda sit-ups (he jokingly says that he's become a "capitalist running dog"). The device isn't yet available, but that's okay — it's easy to perform anyway, as long as you have a partner.
Assume the standard bent-knee crunch position while your partner holds your legs just below the calves. This hand position is the secret to Janda sit-ups. Your feet should remain in contact with the floor at all times during the movement, and the knees should be flexed no more than 90 degrees. Fold you hands across your chest, inhale, and slowly sit up while applying steady pressure against your partner's hands with your legs.
Stop when the tension in the abs is about to drop off (around halfway up) and exhale at the top of the movement. Inhale again and lower yourself all the way to the floor, pushing against your partner's hands the whole time. Relax for a second, then repeat.
According to Joseph Horrigan, DC of the Soft Tissue Center in Los Angeles, being able to just do two or three Janda sit-ups is considered good. However, you can start holding a plate across your chest for extra loading as you get better.
Pavel is a big believer in practical strength and power. In fact, he often teases bodybuilders for being all show and no go. His ab program first involves isolation (using Janda sit-ups) and then integration, (drills designed to teach the core muscles to work as a team and protect the spine). Function precedes structure. Pavel uses a variety of ab exercises, including Swiss ball crunches, in his program. But here I'll focus on some of the lesser-known integration movements.
Jackknife Push-Ups on the "Evil Wheel"
You've seen these little wheel gizmos at Wal-Mart. They look like lawnmower wheels with bicycle handles shoved through them. The packaging usually shows a smiling aerobics instructor-looking chick in a convenient doggy-style position.
I blew these devices off for years because, well, they were usually sitting right beside the pink dumbbells and the solar suits! Don't make this mistake. These little bastards are vicious, effective, and a favorite of the Soviet special forces. You can also use a barbell loaded with 25s if you don't want to lay out $10 on a wheel (you cheap bastard, you).
Get down on your knees, Bob Paris style, and grab the wheel in your hands. Inhale, round the back maximally, and tuck in your butt and chin. Your hips should be vertical, and your back shouldn't be arched. The butt should never be sticking out backward.
Slowly roll all of the way down until your chest just grazes the floor. Without resting, pull yourself back up, keeping your arms straight and your back rounded. If you can't come up, just do the eccentric (lowing part) of the movement until you get stronger.
If you're really (and I do mean really) strong, you can try the advanced version in which you don't touch your knees to the floor. Instead, stay up on your feet. I tested about 25 high school and college athletes on this movement, and only one was able to perform this advanced version. Consequently, this athlete is considered to be the best high school fullback in the area and starts for varsity as a sophomore. Can you say "free college?"
Full-Contact Twists (Punch Like a Mule)
According to Pavel, most twisting movements that target the obliques are useless and dangerous. Instead, use full contact twists, thus named because they help martial artists and boxers develop punching power (only about 20% of a boxer's punching power comes from the arm, pec, and shoulder — the rest is initiated from the hip and midsection). These are also a favorite power exercise of shot-putters or, at least, Russian ones.
Load a barbell on one side and put the empty end in the corner, just as if you're going to perform old-school T-bar rows. Facing the bar, lift up and hold it in front of you with your fingers interlocked. The bar should be about 45 degrees from the floor. Keep your back and arms straight, and your knees bent.
Remaining upright and keeping your arms straight, inhale and turn the weight to one side while holding your breath. Don't lean over or away from the bar. Pivot on your toes at the same time to avoid shearing force on your knees.
Reverse the movement by tightening up your midsection and rotating your hips. Don't lift with your arms and shoulders, and don't exhale until you reach the top of the lift.
These are classic full-body exercises, but Pavel likes them because they train the obliques and the quadrotus lumborum (deep muscles on the sides of the lower spine which are very important for back health and injury prevention). And another plus, Russian babes really dig a well-developed quadrotus lumborum!
Stand beside a loaded Olympic barbell. Bend down and pick it up with one arm. There you go. Okay, it's a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
Most rules of good deadlift form apply to the one-armed version, as well. Just remember to raise your body evenly. Pavel recommends that you think of the movement as "pushing away from the floor" rather than just yanking up the bar. Also, don't think of lowering the bar — just sit back and let the weight take care of itself.
Do an equal number of sets for both sides. Avoid using any kind of strap or hook device, as one-armed deadlifts are also a great strengthener for grip and forearms. Note that if your goal is a shredded six-pack, Pavel recommends a ketogenic diet.
The Big Canadian's Take on Ab Training
Poliquin was one of the first training gurus to popularize low-rep ab work. The theory is simple. Slow-twitch fibers respond best to higher reps and low resistance. Fast-twitch fibers respond best to heavy resistance and, consequently, low reps.
You probably knew that, but did you know that the abdominals are composed primarily of fast-twitch fibers? In other words, if you're one of those "three sets of 100 crunches" types, then you've been doing it wrong or, at least, not optimally.
According to Charles, performing more than 15 reps per set for abs will probably reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. Instead, do three or four sets of 8-12 reps, using some type of resistance and a slower tempo that emphasizes the eccentric phase of the movement. If you're more advanced, you may want to perform as many as ten sets for abs, but keep the reps in the range of four to five.
Think about it, would you do 50-rep sets of biceps training? No, yet many people think nothing of getting on the floor and crunching their day away. This high-rep philosophy is probably left over from the spot-reducing myth. Remember Arnold talking about "whittling away" the fat with high reps? He was wrong — big, cut, and able to kick Satan's ass, but still wrong.
The trick here is twofold. First, you'll have to use resistance. Second, you'll need to use a full range of motion. While the Swiss ball has run into some recent criticism, it's still probably the best tool for ab training. The shape allows you to get a full range of motion, and the instability helps improve your balance, a must if you're an athlete trying to approve agility.
The two best Swiss ball movements are Swiss ball crunches and reverse crunches. Allow the shape of the ball to give you a good stretch at the bottom of the movement. Start with three sets of 10-12 reps, and work your way to ten sets of four heavy reps. Hold a dumbbell across the upper pecs for resistance. If you must, wrap it in a towel for comfort. Yes, people will call you a big girl, but ten sets with a 60-pound dumbbell across your chest can get uncomfortable.
1) Russians and Canadians know more than Americans about ab training.
2) Trying to develop a visible six-pack without a proper diet is like asking fitness babe Laura Selway to touch you on your naughty parts for a dollar — it just ain't gonna' work.
3) If you see an ad for an exercise device on television at 2am, it sucks.
4) If said device stores conveniently under your bed, only takes two minutes a day, and is advertised by Chrissy from "Three's Company," it really sucks.
5) High-rep ab training, for the most part, sucks. Go heavy or go home, and watch "Flex Appeal" — Kiana's new breasticles are quite lovely.
Lesson Learned After Trying the Above Exercises
If you can train abs every day, as many "experts" recommend, you just aren't doing it right! Expect extreme soreness if you've never performed these exercises. Lay off the "all you can gorge" buffet and throw a few of these new millennium ab exercises into your current program. By summer, your "beach muscles" will be ready for public display.
Feed Your Head
Pavel Tsatsouline's books are available at the Dragon Door website, along with many hard-to-find martial arts publications and videos. Charles Poliquin's books are available through the Amazon website.
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