A strong set of abdominal muscles is necessary for peak athletic performance. You need a functional midsection to ensure stability when you receive a blow; to transfer the power between your upper and lower body; and to have a good balance. Plus, having well-developed abs will make you popular with the ladies... if you're into that sort of thing.
As a strength coach I'm obviously more interested in the performance-enhancing facet of a strong set of abs. However, for some odd reason, my athletes all seem to want abs purely for aesthetic reasons. Well, it's understandable since they're mostly hockey players and hockey players are the biggest babehounds I've ever seen (oh, the stories I heard last summer...). But I'm sure that all you T-mag readers are mature enough to fully appreciate the performance enhancing impact of abdominal training.
To satisfy both desires, my need for performance enhancement and my athletes' desire to look purdy, I've designed a special abdominal training circuit. The objective of this circuit is to develop all the muscles in the abdominal wall and to improve trunk function.
It's a real killer and my athletes have actually called it the hardest session of the week.
The concept is simple: I selected 5 excellent abdominal exercises and created a circuit with them. You do one set of each exercise without any rest. Once you complete a full circuit, you rest 1 minute (no more) and start another circuit.
If you're able to complete two circuits, start a third one. Then, add a fourth. Keep adding cirtuits in this manner. When you're unable to complete the required number of reps for each exercise in the circuit (in good form), or if you start vomiting, you stop your workout.
The Dreaded Five
1 – Incline praying mantis
This exercise is a fantastic way of developing the whole abdominal wall, along with its capacity to stabilise the trunk. I like to perform the exercise while kneeling on an incline board as it really kills the abs. The key point is to roll out forward as far as possible on a Swiss Ball without losing your original back angle. In other words, if your lower back starts to "sink down," you've gone too far! Aim for 8-12 reps in this exercise. If it's too easy, do it while standing on the end of an incline board.
2 – Incline Russian twist
I don't like regular Russian twists as I don't feel they're that effective. However, I find this variation to be extremely effective (and painful!). Anchor yourself on an incline board (or roman chair). Then do a half sit-up so that your lower back is not in contact with the board. You keep that position during the whole exercise. The execution is simple: rotate your torso form side to side. The arms are fully stretched out in front of you and they don't move – only the trunk is mobile. Try for the longest range of motion possible. You do 8-12 reps per side, or 8-12 full rotations.
3 – Gagné's cyclone
I named this exercise after Paul Gagné. To the best of my knowledge he invented this exercise. I'll let the illustration speak for itself, as it's pretty clear. Any attempt to explain it with words might make it more complicated than it really is! Just keep in mind that it's a side bend/Russian twist combo. Once again, aim for 8-12 reps per side.
4 – Loaded crunch on Swiss ball
While lying on a Swiss Ball and holding a dumbbell on your chest, curl yourself up. Hold the contraction for 2-3 seconds at the top of each repetition. Select a load that will allow you to do 8-12 reps in good form. Note the placement of the ball in relation to the back (Too many trainees put the ball under their upper back or shoulders, so they just end up leaning forward and allowing gravity to do a large portion of the work.)
5 – Partial dragon flag
This is a killer and a great way to develop static strength in the abdominal muscles. Lie down on a bench (hold yourself with you hands). Raise your legs with the knees bent. In one motion straighten the knees and lift your lower back off the bench. Then lower your extended legs while keeping the lower back lifted as long as possible. The goal is to perform 8-12 reps. I'll caution you, this is excessively hard (especially if you lower the legs slowly, which you should), so beginners might want to use a simple leg raise instead of the partial dragon flag.
The Circuit Illustrated
Optimally you want to be able to do one additional circuit every 1 or 2 weeks. Of course, this won't always be possible. However, it's good to set high goals for yourself. Once you're able to complete 15 - 20 circuits, you'll have a trunk of steel (at the start few will do more than 4-5 good circuits).
You must use challenging resistance, though! Use a load that makes doing 8-12 reps very hard! Sure, the circuits are easy if you use little resistance, but you must push yourself! That also means using a slow tempo for the exercises. And don't jerk up and down! Make the drill harder, not easier.
This will all be easier if you keep the goal in mind, which is to optimise your athletic skill... or to be able to lift up your shirt and attract babes, whichever the case may be.