If a trainer were to come to us and say he had a method of ab training that would reduce the waist size of anyone in three weeks, we'd ask him what he was selling and then kick him out the door. Luckily, Don Alessi was a fast talker and before we could introduce him to the sidewalk, he'd convinced us that he had some pretty nifty ideas. In fact, we realized we'd been missing something when it comes to ab training. We bet you are, too. Check it out.

Quick question – What part of your body just screams sex appeal when it's in great shape? That's right, the tibialis or front of your calf! Nothing makes the women come running like a buff tibialis! Okay, I'm kidding. These days you're not really considered to be in good shape unless you've got a great set of abs going.

There's nothing as prestigious as the look and feel of a carved midsection. In my opinion, the shape of your gut can also predict your fitness level more accurately than the psychic network. It's possible to ascertain a person's eating habits, joint fitness, and total body strength by the form and function of his abdominals.

In order to develop the six-pack, important fitness elements must synchronize. Sound nutritional habits and effective abdominal training are the keys to your success. Your qualifiers for the six-pack are: a body fat percentage of 12% or less, the ability to back squat your body weight, and an understanding of proper training. If you fall short of these prerequisites or have been discouraged in the past, don't fret, new research and a twist on your regular ab training will re-empower you.

The reason most people fail at developing the abs is due to a lack of basic understanding when it comes to anatomy and function. So let's take care of that right now with a quick refresher course. The abdominals consist of internal (inner) and external (outer) muscles. The outer muscles are the rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscles) and the external obliques. Lying on your back, the rectus flexes the spinal column forward 30 degrees. Any additional movement beyond 30 degrees is caused by the muscles that flex your hips. The external obliques primarily rotate the trunk.

The inner unit muscles are called the transversus abdominus and the lumbar multifidus. These inner muscles lie beneath the rectus abdominus and external obliques; they control breathing, posture and absolute body strength. Activation of these muscles will increase the tension in the thoraco-lumbar fascia and will increase intra-abdominal pressure. This means an increase in stability and back strength.

The payoff for strengthening the inner unit includes back pain relief, increased strength, and tightening of the waist. In fact, it's not uncommon for trainees to reduce the waistline one inch or more in three weeks! In personal training circles, strengthening the inner unit is a "magic bullet" and is the only instance where spot reduction is not only possible but also likely.

Suck It In!

The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. About fifteen years ago, doctors working with athletic trainers realized that athletes who trained while wearing lifting belts were more susceptible to lower back injuries. This was because many of these athletes didn't do any abdominal work. In turn, the coaching staff emphasized extensive inner abdominal work so that athletes wouldn't rely on the "crutch" of the belt.

The weight lifting belt impedes the deep abdominal breathing necessary for absolute strength development and doesn't allow the inner muscles to do their job. In the midsection, your weak link is likely the inner muscle unit. In fact, most trainees' outer muscles could sue the inner muscles for lack of support!

EMG research indicates that during normal function, the inner abdominal muscles must fire slightly before the outer muscles.(1) What does this mean? Training the outer, "primary" muscles without training the inner "support" muscles is a poor use of time and could "re-wire" your abs to misfire. This may cause a structural imbalance which often leads to back injury. If you're prone to lower back tightening or back spasms after a workout, then you need to work on the inner muscle unit. This also explains why a brawny bodybuilder can throw out his back while tying his sneakers.

The bodybuilders of Arnold's day knew the importance of the inner muscle unit; in fact they made a habit of displaying it in a pose they coined as the "vacuum pose." This pose is a great illustration of how to exercise the inner muscle unit. Simply sucking in your gut intensely and holding it until it burns can train the inner unit. Because the inner unit muscles attach from the pelvic floor to the lower spine, you'll feel a burn from front to back.

Innovative rehab specialist Paul Gagne and Yves Ethier have determined a better method of teaching yourself how to train the inner unit, though.(2) A biofeedback device like a drugstore blood pressure cuff is all you need. Simply lie on your back, legs extended, and place the cuff underneath the third lumbar vertebrae (directly under your belly button). Pump up the cuff to 40 mm of pressure and tighten the pressure release knob. Exhale as you draw your belly down toward the floor and hold it isometrically for 10 to 20 seconds.

As you're contracting, the pressure should increase from 40 mm to 60 mm on the dial. If it goes above 60 mm, then you're reverse tipping your pelvis and involving the rectus abdominus. Don't do this as it'll take away from the inner muscles isolation. You must also exhale from your belly and not your lungs. Most adults have a problem with this at first because we've learned to breath shallowly and in reverse order. If you inhale when you suck it in, then you're a backward breather. Another tip is to take quick breaths as you're holding the isometric contraction. With practice you can easily learn to breath and still maintain the contraction.

These muscles respond best to isometric contractions with longer time under tension (one to two minutes) and two to three sets per exercise. The inner muscles are slow-twitch, postural muscles and can be worked everyday without overdoing them. A sample exercise progression is as follows:

Week 1
Exercise: Vacuum contraction, lying* (described above)

Reps: 1

Sets: 3

Tempo: Hold 10-30 seconds

*The use of the blood pressure cuff during week 1 is optional. I recommend using it until you can feel the isolated "burn" of the inner muscle without tipping the pelvis.

Week 2
Exercise: Vacuum contraction (four point, horse stance**)

Reps: 1

Sets: 3

Tempo: Hold 30-90 seconds

**The horse stance is performed on the floor. The hands and knees support your body weight. The hands are positioned directly under the shoulders and the knees are placed under the buttocks about shoulder width apart. Arch the lower back and retract (drop) the shoulders.

Week 3
Exercise: Vacuum contraction (standing)

Reps: 1

Sets: 3

Tempo: Hold 2 minutes

Once you've graduated from this three week "rehabilitation program," you can start to incorporate the outer muscles again with regular ab work. Just fire the inner unit, as described above, before you flex your spinal column using traditional abdominal exercises. I'd also recommend additional work with a Swiss ball to provide functional strength and stability.

With this corrective abdominal routine you can have it all – the function, the support, and the washboard abs. Throw in some tibialis training and you'll have it made.


(1) "Therapeutic exercise for spinal segmental stabilization in low back pain." Jull, Richardson, Hodges & Hides.

(2) "Optimal Abdominal Training" Yves Etheir, & Paul Gagne