I think we can universally agree that everyone wants a tight, nice set of abs and a slim, muscular waistline, whether they admit it or not. And why not? Nothing improves the shape of your body or overall appearance faster than reducing the size of your waist. When you reduce your waistline, it makes your shoulders and lats appear wider, giving better V-taper. It makes the arms, pecs, and legs look bigger. People associate a small, tight stomach and jewel-like abs with youth, athleticism, well-being, and sexual appeal.
When someone asks you to show your muscles you flex your biceps. When they ask you how hard and cut and good condition you are in, you show them your abs. Great abs really impress people, perhaps because they are so rare. If you want to stand out in a crowd, having great abs will do that for you. When you are at the beach, who do you think impresses people most, the guy with 16 inch muscular arms, with wide shoulders and good V-taper, and a tight muscular waistline, or some bulked up bodybuilder with 20 inch arms, a plus 50 inch chest, huge thighs and a pot belly and abs barely perceptible? Which person would be regarded as being in good shape? That’s right, the guy with the jewel-like abs. Of course, if fatso dropped 25 or 30 pounds, and developed good abs, and got hard and cut, he would become the center of attention.
Unfortunately, most people neglect their abs. The one muscle group that would improve their physiques the most and they don’t even bother training the abs. Or they don’t give abdominal training a priority, and they don’t train abs with the kind of volume or intensity they train other muscle groups, such as the arms, legs, pecs, delts and back. When they do any ab training it’s a few measly, half-hearted sets of crunches or leg raises thrown in at the end of the workout. Is it any wonder they don’t have good abs. It is silly to train the pecs, delts, arms, lats and thighs for an hour per workout, and then devote only three minutes to ab training. If you want good abs, you must train them as hard as any other muscle group.
There are other benefits to having good abs besides improving your appearance. Ab training is also a key to good health. All ab exercises have a toning effect on the internal organs, which results in internal well-being. As well, ab training affects the muscular structure of the entire body. When doing ab exercises the whole body is in constant state of muscular tension, which helps to harden the physique. It’s like a form of isometric exercise.
As well, ab training improves digestion, which helps to break down foods better so they are better absorbed and assimilated better. Elimination is improved so you are more regular. It’s hard to train with any intensity when you are constipated. Other benefits to ab training comes from improving posture. When the abdominal muscles weaken the organs sag forward and out of position. This is a condition known as prolapsis. Prolapsis throws the hips and spine forward, causing spinal and lower back pain. Building strong abs prevents prolapsis and alleviates lower back pain. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If your abs are weak, you will not be able to use as much weight on squats, deadlifts, bent rows, power cleans, and even barbell and dumbbell curls, limiting your ultimate mass and leaving you open to injury.
From an appearance point of view, having a small, tight, muscular waistline and jewel-like abs is the key to a quality physique, especially for competitive bodybuilders. Personally, I think having jewel-like abs are the most impressive and beautiful muscles of the body. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the same thing. He said, “I think a beautifully developed midsection is the most immediately impressive part of the male physique.” Bob Kennedy and Vince Gironda shared that opinion. Vince said “sharp, well-built abdominals are worth a king’s ransom.” Bob Kennedy said “Having a hot waist is of top importance if you want a hot body.”
The best bodybuilders have the classic X-frame structure—a small waist, wide lats and shoulders, and flaring, muscular thighs. Sergio Oliva, Brian Buchanan, Frank Zane, Lee Haney, Lee Labrada, Samir Bannout, Flex Wheeler, Paul Dillet, Ronnie Coleman, Dexter Jackson, Dennis Wolf, Phil Heath, and Anja Langer, Juliette Bergman, Linda Murray and Cory Everson come to mind.
No other muscle group makes your physique look so impressive or finished. It can literally transform your physique! Suddenly your shoulders look wider, your V-taper improves, and your pecs, arms, delts, lats, and thighs look bigger. Vince Gironda called this “creating an illusion of more width and size.” If you can reduce your waistline by one inch, your shoulders automatically look one inch wider. Reduce the waist two inches and the shoulders look two inches wider! On the other hand, if you can increase your shoulder width by one inch you make your waist look one inch smaller. Adding two inches to your shoulders makes your waist look two inches smaller. Put the two together, reducing your waist while developing your shoulders (especially the side or medial deltoids), then you really create the illusion of more width!
Your whole physique sparkles when you have razor-sharp abs because abs are a barometer on your physical condition, instantly telling them what kind of shape you are in. The condition of your abs indicates how low your body fat levels are. You can’t have ripped abs, while the rest of your physique is smooth. You can’t have a ripped body and have smooth abs. When your abs are in shape, so is the rest of your physique. If you are competing at a contest, it lets the judges know you’ve done your homework and you are competing to win. Being a focal point of the body, the eyes are drawn to the center of the body first. If you abs are hard, fat-free, and sharply delineated, the initial impression is of the judges is you are in great shape and worthy of their consideration for first place. But if your abs are smooth and heavy, judges initial impression is “what is fatso doing on stage wasting our time.” You are history from the moment you walk onstage.
Well,” you might say, “I don’t want to get the abs of a professional bodybuilder, I just want to lose my pot belly (in Canada we call it “Molson Muscle,” in reference to Canada’s famous Molson beer brewery). One hundred situps a day for a month ought to do it.” If you are thinking along those lines, you’re doomed to fail before you begin. Working just one area of the body will not dissipate much fat from your waistline, at least not very much. Good abs cannot be built by exercise alone. It’s a combination or synergism of special ab exercise, intense weight-training, a proper diet, and some aerobic activity, fat burning supplements, and, in special cases, for obese people, thyroid drugs and Clenbuterol will let you create a muscular waist and good abs.
Don’t believe ab exercise alone will give you good abs? Bob Kennedy once was sent a photograph of a man named Alan Jones, who at the time had set a new Guinness World Record for performing 27,000 consecutive situps (now the record is over 70,000). You would think anyone who could perform 27,000 consecutive situps would have abs that put Flex Wheeler or Dexter Jackson to shame, but being a bit on the pudgy side, Alan did not have any visible abdominal development. Not a single ridge or line. The picture was shown in Bob Kennedy’s Ultra Ripped Abs book.
Now obviously to have performed 27,000 situps non-stop, Jones had great abdominal strength and endurance. I’m sure under all that flab he had good abdominal development, but until he dieted to burn off the fat, his abs would not show. The old adage is true: You train to build muscle but you diet to lose fat. Jones lack of abdominals indicates you cannot spot reduce, and that you need to lose fat all over your body.
Due to genetic differences, we all lose stored body fat from different areas of our body’s at different rates. This is something beyond our control. If you are a skinny ectomorph who has trouble building muscle mass, you might find it very easy to develop abs because you are so lean. Chubby endormorph’s are going to store a lot of fat on their upper thighs, glutes, hips, and abs. Muscular mesomorph’s might be in-between the ectomorph and the endomorph, and have some fat on their abs, but due to fast metabolisms they can lose that fat fairly quickly once they train their abs, start a good diet, and begin to do daily aerobics.
The Bodybuilding Paradox/Enigma
Bodybuilders in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s did not do aerobics (besides chasing girls at the beach). And yet some of these bodybuilders got very hard and cut, with fantastic ab development. How could this be? Doctors said weight-training was not good for heavy and obese people for weight loss because it did not burn enough calories. Today most personal trainers and bodybuilding experts say aerobics are a must do (Chris Aceto is the exception).
Now we know that the more muscle you develop, the faster your metabolism becomes. Competitive bodybuilders have so much muscle mass they are burning calories just watching TV, sitting at a computer, or lying in bed. Muscle is biologically active. It takes energy to sustain it, while fat is mostly just insulation. That’s why the bodybuilders of the past got so cut without doing any aerobics.
John Parillo once told me that if a 400 pound obese person came to him to help them lose weight, he would tell them to first gain five pounds. Of course, they would say, “I’m 400 pounds. I don’t want to gain five pounds!” But John would explain to them he wanted them to gain five pounds of muscle. This would increase their metabolisms, helping them to shed weight. In fact, for every pound of muscle you build, it helps to shed three to five pounds of fat! Obese people have so little muscle mass that their metabolic rates are very low. In order to speed up their metabolic rates they need to build muscle. For them intense weight-training to build muscle is a must. This is a hard idea to sell too many people, but it is the truth.
Years ago I had a personal training client named Linda. Linda had allowed her bodyweight to balloon up to 250 pounds. Through hard training in the gym, running five miles a day, and going on a low calorie diet, she managed to get her weight down to 175 pounds. Then she stalled there for several months. She called me to see if I could help her achieve her goal of being less than 150 pounds.
I met with Linda and she told me about her running and training she was doing, and her diet. Right off the bat, her diet put up red signals. She was trying to starve her weight off by eating only 800 calories a day. When you go on very low calorie diets the body thinks it is being starved and starts to store body fat as a survival mechanism (we’ve all seen the terrible ads on TV from charitable agencies raising money for children in Third World countries, little kids who are starving but with swollen stomachs). Along with running five miles a day and weight-training five times a week, she was exhausted. I told her to triple her calories so she would have more energy to train and to speed up her metabolism. Linda thought she was going to balloon back up over 200 pounds but the first week she lost nine pounds of bodyweight!
Believe it or not, eating is a calorie burner. Every time you eat you burn about 88 calories. If you eat six small meals a day, as opposed to three large ones, you can burn almost 500 calories. This is significant because each pound of fat is 3500 calories. If you eat 500 calories less than is needed to maintain your bodyweight, you should, in theory, lose one pound of bodyweight a week. Barry Sears, author of The Zone said “eating is a hormonal event.” If you consume too many carbohydrates insulin levels can spike, causing you to store body fat. Many bodybuilders do not understand that many foods thought to be “healthy” can be the reason why you have a trouble shedding fat. Food such as rice cakes and white potatoes have a greater glycemic index that ice cream! Any food that scores high in the glycemic index can cause insulin spikes that shuttles fat to fat stores. If your diet in high in simple carbs—sugar, candy, soda, pies, pastry, cookies, as well as fresh juice and too many pieces of fruit can spike insulin levels and increase fat storage.
Just remember that losing body fat is a marathon, not a sprint. Many people try to lose ten pounds of fat in a week by going on very low calorie diets but they are just slowing their metabolic rates, making losing fat much more difficult. Be patient. One pound of body fat a week doesn’t sound like much but in six months that’s 26 pounds and in one year 52 pounds. If you do daily aerobics to burn calories you might be able to bump that up to two pounds a week. But that is a maximum amount. Any more than that and you’re probably dieting off muscle, as well as fat, slowing your metabolic rate.
Set small, realistic goals. Don’t say I want abs like Flex Wheeler or Phil Heath in two months, because that will just discourage you when it doesn’t happen. In regards to training, build your reps slowly. Try to add one rep on each exercise each time you train abs.
Don’t Use Genetics as a Reason to Fail:
Many people use poor genetics as an excuse for their fatty waistlines. You’ve probably heard some of the excuse yourself. “I have thick skin and lots of baby fat like my mother,” or “All the Jones have big butts and fat stomachs,” or “My father is fat and I have his genes.” Okay, if both your parents are obese chances are you have a weight problem. But it doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Dave Draper, 1965 IFBB Mr. America, 1966 IFBB Mr. Universe and 1968 IFBB Mr. World, had endomorphic tendencies in his somatotype, yet by avoiding certain foods and by hard training he made himself a champion. It won’t be easy and will require a lot of work but you can lose bodyweight and body fat through intelligent weight-training, a good diet, daily aerobics, and fat burners and other supplements.
Waist Bands and Heat Belts
What about waist bands and heat belts? Do they help to speed up fat loss? I know I am going to catch hell from some bodybuilding authority, and I don’t have any scientific evidence to support my claims, but in my experience they do speed up fat loss from the waistline, including the hips and lower back because of the sweating they induce. Fat cells hold water and if you sweat that water out, you will lose fat faster. If your abs are bloated it is an indication you’re storing a lot of water around the waist. Sweating out this water will reduce the size of your waistline. But keep in mind you have to reduce sugars and sodium in the diet to prevent water retention.
And actually, sweating off water aside, there are other reasons to wear a heat belt when training. For one thing they keep the lower back warm and gives good support to the lower back—especially when used in conjunction with a good leather training belt—when doing squats, deadlifts power cleans, bent rows, and even barbell curls and behind-the-neck presses and dumbbell presses. It reduces risk of injury. As well, they provide a massaging action to the abs when doing ab exercises and most back and leg exercises. So say what you will about heat belts, I like them. But they work best when used with intense ab training, a good diet, and aerobics and weigh-training.
High Reps or Low Reps — What Works Best?
Zabo Koszewski—who won more “Best Abs” awards at the AAU Mr. America contest than any other bodybuilder ever—believed that when it comes to training abs, high reps are a must. Zabo would begin each daily workout with 1000 Roman Chair situps, which took him an hour to do. He did this six times a week and over his lifetime, he must have done ten million situps! Four-time NABBA Mr. Universe champ Bill Pearl also liked to do 800 to 1000 reps a day for abs when contest training, as did Frank Zane. Former top female bodybuilder Candy Csencsits used to do 2000 reps of ab training a day!
The second school of thought says the abs are a muscle like any other muscle group and should be trained for three or four sets per exercise, 8 to 10 reps a set. The abs are to be trained three or four times a week. Mike Mentzer, Lee Labrada, and Vince Gironda are of this school of thought. They believed you trained the abs to develop muscle, and then you diet off the fat, along with daily aerobics. Mike, Vince and Lee all have excellent abs, so this method does work too.
I have found that most pro bodybuilders actually do higher reps than eight to ten reps. I would say 30 reps per set per exercise would be an average; for some 50 reps a set. Being of ectomorphic/mesomorphic somatotype, I find losing fat around my waist relatively easy, so I don’t think it is necessary to do 1000 reps a day to develop great abs. I’m not denying it works—clearly it does–and if you’ve got the guts and fortitude to do it go for it. I just question if it is necessary.
Weighted or Unweighted Abdominal Exercises?
Back in the 1940’s to the 1970’s, you might have gone into a gym and seen a top bodybuilder doing situps with a 50 pound plate behind his head, but now it’s rare to see a top bodybuilder doing crunches or knee-ins or knee-ups with weights. Using heavy weights builds mass to your abdominals, which is the last thing you want. It also limits reps, and encourages poor form. You might see a top bodybuilder using light weights when doing leg raises, knee-ups and knee-ins, which are all lower ab exercises. It’s not a problem overdeveloping or thickening the lower abs so using five or ten pounds is not a problem.
There are always exceptions to the rules. When Tom Platz was competing back in the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s he often did high incline situps (80 degrees) while holding two 45 pounds plates at this chest. Tom would do high incline situps with 90 pounds for ten minutes non-stop! Back in the 1940’s many top bodybuilders, such as 1945 AAU Mr. America champ Clancy Ross, would do side bends with a 100 pound dumbbell for 20 reps to reduce his waistline. Leo Stern, 1946 AAU Mr. California, used to do side bends with a 70 pound dumbbell for 70 reps to reduce his waistline. Both Ross and Stern were ecto-mesomorphs, and so they didn’t have to worry about overdeveloping the obliques. Today bodybuilders are told never to develop the obliques and to avoid exercises that develop them.
Skinny ectormorph’s do not have to worry about overdeveloping the obliques, but endomorphs with a lot of fat around their waists should not do any direct weighted oblique work at all. It all depends on your somatotype. Fatty endomorphs should do only trimming, non-weight exercises for their obliques, and go on a good weight-training routine to develop muscle mass to speed up their metabolisms, and follow a good diet and daily aerobics. Weightless side bends gives the obliques and love handles much needed work. Simply stand tall with your feet about a foot apart. Lean to your right and slide your right hand down the outside of your thigh. Then do the same for the other side. When you lean to the side, pause to tense and contract the oblique. Start with 20 reps per side and work up to 100 reps per side.
IFBB Mr. Universe Mohamed Makkawy, twice runner-up at the Mr. Olympia contest, did what he called “front bends” to work only the front part of the obliques and not the sides. Front bends makes the front obliques stand out and show more ridges, especially under the posing lights. Here’s how to do front bends. Hold a moderate dumbbell in your right hand, while your other hand is on the left thigh, not at the sides as in side bends. Slide the left hand down your left thigh, while leaning forward to contract the right front obligue. Shoot for 15 to 30 reps, then switch hands and train the other front oblique. Do three or four sets, resting only as long as it takes to do the reps on one side.
Situps Versus Crunches—Do Situps and Leg Raises Work?
For the last 40 years bodybuilders have been told to not do situps and to do crunches instead, which are a kind of partial situp. Situps, we are told, works the hip flexors and ilopsoas too much and not enough the abs. I guess someone forgot to tell Tom Platz’s abdominals when he did 90 pound high incline situps for ten minutes non-stop. He had superb abs. Roman chair situps are also said to work the hip flexors and ilopsoas too much. I guess someone told Zabo Koszewski’s abs that rule. He couldn’t have won all those “best ab” awards if they didn’t work. And doing 1000 reps of Roman chair situps daily didn’t harm Arnold Schwarzenegger’s abdominals when he was winning all his Mr. Olympia titles.
Again, I know I am going to catch hell from other bodybuilding experts, but back in the 1970’s I used to superset high incline situps with high incline straight leg raises and I had fantastic abs! I would superset the two exercises for three supersets, just shooting for maximum reps each set, until I felt a deep burn in my abs. Situps and leg raises worked for me, that I can say. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s Franco Columbu used to superset high incline situps with high incline leg raises, like me, and he had fantastic abs. He would do four sets of 30 reps for both exercises.
A great way to do weighted leg raises or knee-ins is to wear Iron boots. Another way to do weighed leg raises or knee-ins is to take an 18 piece of rope and tie the ends together. Put the rope through a five or ten pound, and the looped ends put on your feet, so you can do weighted leg raises or lying knee-ins. When doing lying leg raises or lying knee-ins hold a five pound dumbbell between your feet. Do as many reps as possible and when you hit failure, drop the dumbbell and rep out till failure again.
Bruce Randall, 1959 Pro NABBA Mr. Universe champ, bulked up to 401 pounds from 203 pounds over about an 18 month period by eating massive amounts of food, over 25, 000 calories a day (and drinking five gallons of milk a day). Tired of all the eating, and the cost, Randall’s went on a low fat, low calorie diet to shed bodyweight. As a 1956 New Year’s resolution he decided to do 5,000 situps a day for an entire week, or 75,000 situps, which he feels greatly reduced the size of his waistline from 58 ½ inches down to 33 inches. At the 1959 Mr. Universe contest he weighed 222 pounds, and he was very cut and hard, with jewel-like abs. Oddly, he had no stretch marks from the extreme weight gain and no lose skin when he dieted down in weight to compete.
To Stretch the Abs or Not
This is a controversial topic. Some bodybuilders believe you should never stretch the abs, while others say should. You have to know how your body responds to ab exercises and ab training. All you can do is experiment and find out what works best for you. Again, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Exercises such as crunches contract the abs, while exercises such as hanging knee-ups and hanging leg raises tend to stretch the abs each repetition. In an article in MuscleMag Ray Stern, former bodybuilder and professional wrestler, said bodybuilders should never do ab exercises that stretch the abs. Vince Gironda believe that too.
But former top IFBB pro Milos Sarcev in an article in MuscleMag said if people just did crunches and knee-ins, it would build up the abs and thicken them. Milos said, “Anyone who seen my abs knows they are deeply separated between the blocks (the rows of his abs). In order to make this gap deeper, you have to stretch the abs. So my philosophy is to do only those exercises that stretch my abs in order to achieve that look.”
Milos liked hanging leg raises from a chinning bar. He felt you can get a greater stretch by keeping the legs straight. He also liked knee-ups from a chinning bar. Milos said that not only did these two exercises stretch his abs, it will also work the long satorius muscle of the inner thighs. Milos believed three to five sets of 50 reps before a contest increased the separation between his rectus muscles and kept his waist small and tight.
Another exercise Milos liked because it gave his abs a stretch was cable rope crunches with a weight. When the pull of the weight returns overhead, the abs are stretched. At the bottom of the range of motion the abs contract. You get both stretch and contraction “which was fantastic,” said Milos. “By stretching the abs and then contracting them, you can give the abs a good workout with relatively low reps and sets. My ab workout takes only ten minutes.”
One exercise that stretches the abs is the Weider Ab Wheel rollouts. The rollouts works by stretching your abs or your obliques, if you roll to the side as you go forward. Begin the bracing your core, the wheel under your chest. Then roll forward as far as you can without letting your hips sag. Pause to contract the abs, and return to the starting position.
Another exercise that stretches the abs is the kettlebell pullover. Bend your knees and keep the bottoms of your feet touching. Hold the sides of the kettlebell and lift the kettlebell overhead, doing a pullover. Stop about six to eight inches from the floor. Hold the kettlebell for 30 seconds in this positon. You should feel a hard stretch in the abs. One 30 reps is one rep. Shoot for three to five reps. Not only will this exercise stretch your abs, it will strengthen your core. Even cross-bench dumbbell pullovers and straight-arm barbell pullovers will stretch your abs to some degree.
Upper and Lower Ab Exercises
I once read an article on ab training by IFBB pro John Hnatyschak that when he did any ab exercise, whether it was a lower ab exercise and an upper ab exercise, that he felt the entire abs working. He couldn’t feel only the lower abs or the upper abs. Most people are not like that. Most people feel three-quarters situps, Jack Knife situps, crunches, and Roman Chair situps works mostly upper abs, while leg raises, knee-ins (bent leg raises), knee-ups hanging from a chinning bar worked the lower abs more. For obliques I recommend broomstick twists, seated broomstick twists, light side bends, and front bends Makkawy-style.
I’m not going to force any abdominal exercise on you. Do the ones you like the best and which allows you to work your abs the hardest, allows you to achieve a hard contraction each rep, without undue strain to the neck, lower back. Everyone is different. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. For example, I find it difficult to do Roman chair situps. After 30 reps or so my lower back starts to hurt. I get much better results with crunches, knee-ins and knee-ups so why should I do something that hurts my lower back? You, on the other hand, might love Roman chair situps like Zabo Koszewski.
Common Ab Training Mistakes
Ab exercises may seem simple to perform but many recreational bodybuilders make many mistakes. They use the wrong form, do the wrong exercises for their structure and somatotype, they do their reps to slowly or quickly, they fail to get a contraction in their abs each repetition, they fail to keep constant-tension on their abs, and they don’t train the abs as intensely as they should or do as many sets as they should. The goal on all sets of abdominal exercises is to achieve contraction each rep to achieve a deep ache and burn in the abs each set. Let’s address some of these mistakes individually.
The Wrong Kinds of Exercise
Okay, it sounds like I am changing my opinion, but for most people, crunches and lying bent knee-ins and knee-ups works the abs better than situps and straight-leg raises. If you do situps if possible do them on a slanted situp board, the steeper the angle the better. As well, only go back two-thirds to keep tension on the abs throughout the set. Many experts claim the standard situp works the hip flexors, the iliopsoas and the lower back too much and the abs not enough. Do whatever you can to get a hard contraction in the abs each rep, and you maintain constant-tension on the abdominals. If you do leg raises, never just let the legs drop down. Fight gravity all the way down. Stop the feet a couple of inches from the floor. If you can do leg raises or knee-ups on a high incline bench, you get a much greater range of motion. Bring the knees into your waist and contract the abs hard. Don’t worry about how many reps you do. Just go until the abs burn out, be that in 10 reps or 50 reps.
Lack of Intensity and Failing to Keep Constant-tension on the Abs and Failing to Get a Contraction Each Rep: I’m lumping these three factors together. I’ve already touched on each of them previously. To me these are the keys to good ab training. You have to feel a deep ache and burn in the reps in order to develop them. Yes, you can mindlessly do your sets and reps without maintaining constant-tension or getting a contraction each reps, or without getting a deep ache and burn in the abs, but that defeats the point about ab training completely. Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame, used to say “make each rep as hard as you can, not as easy as you can by cheating and using momentum and inertia.” It’s better to do 15 or 20 sets of abs properly than do a 100 in poor form. Take each set until failure and don’t stop when the ache and the burning begins. Gut it out and train through the pain. Get a contraction each rep. Come up on crunches or knee-ins or knee-ups and squeeze the abs hard, then lower slowly.
Keep in mind why you are going through all the pain and discomfort. See in your mind’s eye your abs tight and sharply delineated. Every day after your morning shower hit a few ab poses and see how you are coming along. As your abs get better and better, it should excite you to train your abs even harder! Wow, I’m getting results. That should make you happy.
Extended Sets and Forced Reps: To work your abs harder extend your sets, and have your training partner help you do some forced reps and some negatives. When you hit failure, have him or her lift your body up so you can slowly lower it down. This can be done on three-quarters situps, crunches and Roman chair situps. On knee-ins, leg raises and knee-ups, they can lift your legs up so you can slowly lower down. This will greatly increase training intensity. You don’t have to do it on every set, but on the last set of each exercise, why not?
Here’s another tip for training the abs more intensely, especially if you train at home and not at a commercial gym. Buy yourself a Weider Body Shaper (one of those gizmos with ropes and pulleys that hook over a doorknob and is attached to your feet). Do as many leg raises as you can. When you hit failure pull on the pulley’s and lift your legs up with your arms, and then slowly lower the legs down. Using the Body Shaper you can literally do 10 or 15 negative-only repetitions, which will work your abs into the ground. Try it with iron boots on your feet. This really works the lower abs very hard.
The Wrong Speed of Movement
This is a touchy point. Many advanced bodybuilders feel they can work their abs better by increasing the speed of their reps. For the average recreational bodybuilder, I would suggest you do your reps at medium speed. Too quick reps can lead to poor form and cheating. Advanced bodybuilders know how to increase rep speed to make the abs work harder. The novice and intermediate bodybuilder lacks this skill, so they should do their reps slower and with more control and concentration, otherwise their form suffers and they forget to contract the abs each rep. Get into a comfortable rhythm when doing your ab exercises. Go as fast as you can while maintaining good form. If your form suffers, slow down and do your reps with more concentration.
Both Serge Nubret and Chuck Sipes (1959 IFBB Mr. America, 1961 IFBB Mr. Universe, and 1968 IFBB Mr. World), believed training their abs as fast as they could while maintaining constant-tension on their abs. I think the average recreational bodybuilder should do their reps slower. Slower means proper form, a better contraction, and less reps are necessary to create a deep ache and burn in the abs. I’m not saying to take 10 seconds to do a rep, more like three or four seconds.
To prove my point, remember back in high school when you were tested to see how many situps you could do in a minute? Everyone tried to do one a second or 60 in a minute, but what I remember was the whiplash I felt in my neck and my lower back hurting after doing the stupid stunt. I was moving fast but my abs probably didn’t get worked that hard as momentum did most of the work.
Resting too Long Between Sets
I believe the only way to train the abs is vigorously. You can’t train the abs vigorously and intensely resting five minutes between sets. You want to try to make your ab workout almost an aerobic one, one that gets you sweating profusely. It’s for this reason that I believe all bodybuilders should do supersets, trisets or giant sets when training abs. Let’s face it, at the best of times ab training can be boring and tedious. Plus it can be damn uncomfortable (crunches can make my neck hurt). Why prolong the agony? Just do it fast and get it over with in less than 10 minutes. Don’t drag it out for an hour. Former top IFBB pro Laura Creavalle used to do four exercises in giant set style with almost no rest periods to get a deep ache and burn in her abs, and Laura had incredible abs and intercostals.
I recommend you choose one or two exercises for the upper abs and one or two exercises for the lower abs, plus broomstick twists. Keep the reps in the 15 to 30 range on all exercises except the broomstick twists, which can be done for 50 to 100 reps. Also so a set of hyperextensions to work the back of the waist, and to give the abs some antagonistic work. When your lower back gets strong enough, hold a barbell plate at your chest to increase resistance. Do three or four trisets or giant sets. Beginners can do two or three trisets or giant sets, while intermediates can be three or four trisets or giants. Advanced bodybuilders can do five trisets or more giant sets.
Here’s a sample giant set routine:
Hanging knee-up 2-5 sets of maximum reps
Crunches 2-5 sets of maximum reps
Seated bent-leg knee-ins 2-5 sets of maximum reps
Twists 2-5 sets of 50 to 100 reps
Hyperextensions 2-5 sets of 15 to 25 reps.
Routine B giant set:
Incline bench bent leg raises 2-5 sets of maximum reps
High incline twisting situps 2-5 sets of maximum reps
Crunches 2-5 sets of maximum reps
Twists 2-5 sets of 50 to 100 reps
Hyperextensions 2-5 sets of 15 to 25 reps
Take no rest between exercises and only one minute between giant sets. These routines are just examples. Obviously, if you have certain ab exercises you can’t do or have ab exercises you prefer, than by all means do them. Ab training can be boring, so change exercises frequently to keep your interest up. This makes ab training more fun and interesting.
One exercise you might want to add to your giant set is stomach vacuums, a Vince Gironda exercise. Many people have never even heard of stomach vacuums but both Frank Zane and Franco Columbu did them a lot before contests. One of Frank’s signature pose was the stomach vacuum. He would place his hands behind his head and suck in his stomach until it looked like he had no stomach at all. His lats would flare out, his pecs would bunch up, and his finger-like serratus muscles stood out like carved mahogany. It was very impressive to see.
Franco would devote several minutes of stomach vacuums several times a day, and said they helped reduce the size of his waistline. The great thing about stomach vacuums is can do them when driving a car, working at a computer, or sitting in a chair watching TV. Just suck in your stomach as much as possible and hold for at least 10 seconds. Do stomach vacuums throughout the day and it will definitely help reduce your waistline.
The way Vince Gironda recommended doing stomach vacuums, was standing by a high bench (a lying leg curl machine or a hyperextension bench will do nicely) bent over, with your fingertips on the bench. The knees should be bent. Your upper back should be humped or rounded over. Place your chin on your chest and then draw your abs in as far as possible. Really suck that stomach in as much as possible. It helps to feel as though you are drawing the anus upwards too. Hold for a count of 10 seconds, and repeat three or four times. Not only will stomach vacuums reduce the size of your waist, it will help you develop better control of your abs if you are a competitive bodybuilder.
Vince had a second exercise that involved stomach vacuums he called “the hip roll.” This exercise is best done on a wide table but the floor will do in a crunch (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). Place the legs in a frog position and crossed. The hands are on the floor, and the chin is always on the chest. Now suck the abs in as much as possible and hold for 10 seconds. Allow the head and shoulders to roll forward. It’s kind of like a crunch with a stomach vacuum combined.
Actually, almost all ab exercises should involve stomach vacuums. This rule applies whether you are doing crunches or three-quarter situps, leg raises, knee-ins, knee-ups or any ab exercise. Never do any ab exercise with the abs pushed out. Some people will push their guts out as far as possible as a joke. Bob Kennedy used to constantly remind readers of MuscleMag not to push their abs out. Pushing the abs out stretches the abdominal wall, like a guy with a big pot belly. Once the abs are pushed out beyond its limits, it will never snap back to normal again. Frank Zane used to wear his six inch belt backwards to prevent his abs from being pushed out when doing squats.
Some of you may think you know all you need to know about doing twists. Put a broomstick on your shoulders and twist side-to-side, right? You can do twists that way, and not that it’s a bad exercise (anything is better than nothing, but there is a more optimal way of doing broomstick twists. The kind of twisting I recommend you do was made famous by the great Serge Nubret, runner-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1975 Mr. Olympia in South Africa, and 1976 Pro NABBA Mr. Universe champ. Nubret had a very small waistline and fabulous abdominals and intercostals, with massive pecs, arms and delts. The combination was mind-blowing. He claimed that by doing 1000 reps a day of his style of twisting (five sets of 200 reps, which is six thousand twists a week!) reduced his waist by one-quarter of an inch a year for over five years.
Here’s how Nubret did his twists. Stand with a broomstick across your shoulders, but low, on the back of your shoulders near your rear delts and upper traps. Your feet should be about 15 inches apart. Next lean back about 15 or 20 degrees so your hips are thrust forward. You might feel a stretch on the thighs as you do this. Imagine your lower body is in a barrel of cement, so your legs and hips cannot move. Finally, feel as though your head is in a vice and cannot move. Now suck in your waist vacuum-style, and twist vigorously from side-to-side. Since your head and legs and hips don’t move, this style of twisting puts stress mostly on the abdominals, while toning the obliques and intercostals.
I discovered this exercise while watching TV in my Lazy-boy chair. This definitely the lazy man’s way of doing crunches. With your feet on the foot rests, simply lean forward and crunch I crunch my abs as hard as I can. I find it helps if I place my fingertips on my abs as I do the crunches really helps me feel my abs working better. If you place your fingertips high on your abs, that’s where you will feel the abs working. If you place the fingertips in the middle abs, that’s where you feel the abs working. If you place your fingertips on the bottom of your abs, you will find the lower abs working. If you place your fingertips of one hand on the obliques, and you lean to the side, you feel them working. The great thing about Lazy-boy crunches you can do them while watching TV. You can do a set every couple of minutes, for all long as you want. And I like them because I feel no strain in my neck or lower back. Do five or six sets of maximum reps. Just go until fatigue forces the set to end.
Under working the abs is as common as dirt in bodybuilding. To get great abs you need to train them as regularly and as intensely as any muscle group. This is especially true of bodybuilder older than 40. As they say, the first things to go on an older bodybuilder is the legs and the abs. If your abs are poor I suggest you make them a priority and to set aside ten or fifteen minutes three or four times a week. This is a minimum. Bodybuilders such as Zabo Koszewski, Bill Pearl and Frank Zane trained abs six times a week, a 1000 reps a day, which took almost an hour. One year Arnold Schwarzenegger joined up with Zabo and did 1000 reps of Roman chair situps to begin his workouts, and his abs came up dramatically that year.
Many pro bodybuilders do not do any ab work in the off-season and they go to town on them before contests. Other’s do a minimum of two or three abs workouts a week to maintain some ab development. Prior to a contest, it’s a different ball game. Then they are trying to bring out the ridges as much as they can. Then it’s five or six ab workouts a week, along with twice a day aerobics. Many pro bodybuilders can literally transform their mid-sections in 8 to 12 weeks, as they drop bodyweight to get into contest condition. Another thing many pros do is stop all ab training two or three days before their contest so they can better flex and contract their abs at the contest. They usually stop training quads three or four days before for the same reason. Another thing pros do is practice their ab-thigh poses and most muscular poses. They learn to better control and flex their abs this way.
I said at the beginning of this article that you train to develop muscle and you diet to burn fat off. You will not lose fat from around your waist by exercise alone. You can weigh-train to build muscle to elevate your metabolic rate, and you can do cardio to help burn calories and fat, but none of it will work if you do not follow the right diet. To lose body fat you must cut down on trans fats and sugars and junk food. You won’t get a wasp-like mid-section eating Big Macs and French fries and milk shakes all the time. Yes, you must cut back or eliminate all those foods you love: pizza, ice cream, chocolate, candy, soft drinks, pies, cookies, cake and pastries.
You stores body fat whenever your caloric intake exceeds your energy output. You must reverse this situation and burn more calories than you consume so you can lose those fat deposits around your waist. Eating clean and eliminating junk food will go a long way to improving your waistline and your overall appearance. Yes, it takes will power and sacrifice, but you can have cheat day once a week; twice if you’re ectomorphic.
Eat lean meats like flank steak, fresh fruits, raw vegetables and salads, lots of chicken or turkey breasts, tuna in water, skim milk, cottage cheese, whole grain rice and baked potatoes or yams, along with whole wheat or rye bread. If you know a certain food causes you to add fat, than cut it from your diet. Personally, I find I get cut when I eat a lot of protein and “good” fats, and not so many carbohydrates. Other people might do better on more carbs and less protein. As well, try to eat six small meals a day, as opposed to three large ones.
Another diet that really helps to burn fat is the High Fat Diet, created by Dr. Mauro DiPasquale. If somebody came to me and said, “Greg, I have to lose 10 pounds of fats in two weeks or I will be killed,” the High Fat Diet is the diet I would recommend they use to save their life. It sounds wrong, that eating fat can cause fat loss, but medically, it makes sense. Your body burns glycogen as fuel, which comes from carbohydrates. Your muscles, your liver and your brain all have large amounts of glycogen to function. If you’ve ever watched a marathon run and seen some guy weaving back and forth like a drunken sailor until they collapse to the ground, then that is someone who has used up the glycogen in his muscles, liver and brain. If you don’t eat any carbs, your body has to find an alternative fuel source. That source is body fat and the protein and fat you eat with your meals.
The problem with the High Fat Diet is it’s a very boring diet to follow. You can eat all the protein and fat you want but you can only consume 30 grams or less of carbs a day. Breakfast can be a pound of bacon and 15 whole eggs if you want. Lunch and dinner are more meat or poultry, and more eggs. You can eat tuna, and hard cheese, but hardly any carbs. You can’t drink milk but you drink cream (zero carbs) and eat butter. Even some protein powders may have too many carbs.
Thirty grams of carbs a day is not even a few sticks of celery and a few leafs of cabbage. Get yourself a carb counter booklet. One cup of broccoli is only 4.6 grams of carbs. One cup of cauliflower is just 4.9 grams of carbs. One cup of cabbage is only 7.88 carbs. If you plan it properly you can eat quite a lot of carb foods, if not actual amounts of carbs. If you consume more than 30 grams of carbs a day then all you’ll do is get fatter, because your body has sufficient glycogen plus you’re eating all this protein and fat.
Also, the first three days on the High Fat Diet you feel like hell because your body is used to using glycogen for energy, not fat. Once you get into the fourth day, and your body makes the transition from using fat rather than glycogen, your energy levels will return to normal, but I won’t kid you, the first three days are rough.
After several weeks on the High Fat Diet, you will definitely shed many pounds of fat. However, every time you go shopping for groceries and you look at all the fruits, vegetables, bread, and ice cream and pastries, you will have the most terrible urge to eat some carbs. For this reason, Mauro DiPasquale altered the High Fat diet. Now it’s five days of all the protein and fat you can eat, with no carbs (or only 30 grams), and then two days (Saturday and Sunday) when you can eat all the carbs you want. So you don’t have to crazy lusting for carbs for weeks on end.
I am not what I call an authority on aerobics as I have not done a lot because I can get very hard and cut without doing them. Skinny ectomorphs may not need to do any aerobics at all. For chubby endomorphs they are a must. How much you do is determined how much fat you need to burn off. If you are more than 50 pounds overweight, then probably then you should be doing at least 30 minutes a day, five or six times a week. Some people might lose better doing aerobics twice a day. Mesomorphs will find they need to do aerobics several times a week. If they are a competitive bodybuilder than they may need to bump it up to 30 minutes a day six times a week, and they last few weeks before a contest, bump it up to 30 minutes twice a day, six times a week.
What kind of aerobics you do is up to you. If you enjoy certain aerobic activities, such as riding your bike, inline skating, or jogging and/or running, speed walking, than do them. If you do your aerobics mostly at a gym, than do Stair Master, or treadmill walking with the machine set at a high angle. You can ride the bike, or do rowing. Some people find they enjoy their aerobic activities if they do several aerobic activities in the same workout. So you could, for example, ride the bike for 10 minutes, than do the Stair Master for 10 minutes and finish with 10 minutes of rowing or treadmill walking, rather than 30 minutes of one aerobic activity. It’s certainly less boring.
One activity you might want to avoid is swimming. I once saw a doctor on TV who did a study of swimming and weight loss. He found that people who swam to lose body fat actually gained bodyweight and fat. He theorized that the body when in cool water reacts to protect the body, adding body fat as insulation. Robert Kennedy, believe that too much swimming could smooth you out, and wrote about it in one of his many fine books. I wonder how well done this study was done, because when you see competitive swimmers on TV most of them are very lean and muscular and they spend hours in the pool every day.
Fat Burning Supplements
Fat burners have been all the rage since the 1990’s. Every major supplement company says their fat burners are the best. They major companies all make good fat burners, although I never use them. I have a confession to make. In my entire life I have never been on a fat loss diet. Not once. Since I took up bodybuilding at age 15 in 1968, I have struggled to gain size, mass and bodyweight. I have been mostly on “see-food” diets, eating all the food I want. When I was a teenager and a young man in his 20’s, I had a hard time putting any size on despite how much food I ate. I have never really needed fat burners, because I have never been a competitive bodybuilder.
I got quite ill with colitis, a disease of the large bowel, when I was 22 and in my third year of University, and over the next nine and one half years, I spent more than a year and a quarter in the hospital. Every time I went into Toronto’s St. Michael’s hospital weighing 190 or 195 pounds, seven or seven and a half weeks later I would come out weighing 120 pounds or less. In 1983 I went into the hospital weighing 200 pounds and eight weeks later I was down to only 110 pounds. Yeah, 90 pounds in eight weeks even though I was getting over 4500 calories and 150 grams of protein a day from a feeding tube in my chest, as well as my sparse meals (three times a day I would eat a small bowel of Jelly and drink a cup of Chicken broth).
As well, even though I had received 32 blood transfusions in eight weeks, I was told I was still six units below normal. My gastroenterologist, Dr. Terry Moore, came into my room on Wednesday, August 1, 1983—a day I won’t forget–and told me if I didn’t have my large bowel removed the next day, I would definitely bleed to death by the weekend, probably by Saturday. He didn’t say maybe or probably, he said definitely. He was I had less than four days to live. So the bowel had to come out, after fighting like hell for over nine years to keep it. I had the same procedure as Mike Francois when he became ill with colitis. I now live with an internal pouch, made out of my small intestine. I had 11 hours of surgery over a nine month period in order to have the internal pouch, and not a colostomy bag, which I dreaded with a passion.
So becoming ill with colitis ended any hopes I had of becoming a competitive bodybuilder, plus, being honest, I didn’t have the genetics in the legs to be a good competitive bodybuilder. The biggest I ever got was 210 pounds at six per cent body fat, at a height of 5’ 11 inches. I’ve always had a weird metabolism, in that the larger and heavier I get, the more muscular I become. Ninety nine per cent of people are not that way. They gain fat as they gain weight. I gain almost all muscle for some reason, although not a lot.
My friend Roger Stewart, former top NPC competitor, got cut and ripped eating two pounds of red meat daily and a gallon of ice cream or pure cream a day. Carbs like rice and baked potatoes just smoothed him out. Never assume you are like somebody else. You might be like Roger Stewart, and all those chicken breasts, egg whites, tuna in water, rice, baked potatoes, could be the reason you can’t get cut. You might be better off eating two pounds of red meat and gallon of ice cream a day. You have to experiment and find what works best for you.
Anyway, back to fat burners. Yes, many of them work well (like the Lean Body Fat Burners) and will help you to speed up fat loss. Just don’t go crazy and take them too much because you will definitely get the jitters and will have trouble sleeping at night.
Vince Gironda used to recommend certain supplements that sped up the fat burning process. One supplement he really believed in was kelp tablets, which are high in iodine and which helps the thyroid gland to function better. He recommended five to 10 kelp tablets at each meal (five or six times a day). Vince also advocated the use of lipotropics such as choline, inositol, and methionine. He found these supplements helped get rid of stubborn areas of fat. He also believed in digestive enzymes and hydro chloric acid (HCL) before all meals to aid in digestion. I have found taking a probiotic two or three times a day helps improve the health of the gut, and aids in better digestion and absorption on nutrients.
Remember that anything that helps increase muscle mass will increase your metabolic rate. If you wish to remain natural, branch chain amino acids, amino acids, and desiccated liver tablet will help you build more muscle so you can lose more fat. Vince Gironda was big on hormone precursors such as raw eggs, raw cream and protein drinks, along with large amounts of vitamins and minerals, especially B-complex, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A and D, zinc, wheat germ or tri-germ oils, plus raw glandulars.
A Vince Gironda trick to increase protein and help develop more muscle mass was to take five desiccated liver tablets and five amino acid tablets every two hours from the time you get up until you go to bed. Before bed take Arginine tablet with Orthinine tablets, five to ten of each to elevate GH levels.
The diet that Vince Gironda recommended to shed body fat is similar to Dr. Mauro DiPasquale’s High Fat Diet. Breakfast was a dozen raw eggs, along with a protein drink of raw cream and Rheo Blair’s milk and egg protein powder. Lunch was a pound of lean hamburger, with a mixed green salad or raw vegetables. Dinner was one to two pounds of lean steak, and steamed vegetables and cottage cheese. When Vince almost won the Mr. USA contest he was on a steak and egg diet for nine months. Every fourth day he would have one meal with some carbs.
Grapefruit Juice, Wine Vinegar, Lecithin and B-6
Back in the 1970’s Mohammed Ali went on a grapefruit diet to lose fat before one of his big fights. Everyone went, “Grapefruit, what a joke! Ha, ha.” But Ali had the last laugh. Yes, eating grapefruit and drinking grapefruit juice before meals does increase fat burning. It’s from the bitter narigan in the flowers and rinds. Grapefruit juice increases the thermogenic effects of caffeine.
Grapefruit juice is potent stuff. Grapefruit juice enhances the levels of many drugs because of interactions with metabolic enzymes in the liver. It even enhances the effects of benzodiazepines like Xanex and Lorazepam. Grapefruit juice increases the levels of Seldane in the blood so much it can lead to serious cardiac arrthyhmias. In some cases it can increase blood levels of some drugs by 100 per cent! Dr. Jay Cohen wrote about this is his book How to Make Medicine Safe. Since grapefruit juice increases the effects of estrogen in post menstrual women, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did the same for those taking anabolic steroids, Growth Hormone, thyroid drugs, and Clenbuterol. That’s just speculation of my part, but an educated guess too.
What about wine vinegar and B-6 and lecithin? Back in the 1970’s it was all the rage. I don’t have any scientific proof wine vinegar and lecithin increased fat loss, but there is much anecdotal evidence that it does help. I think part of the reason wine vinegar does work is from increasing hydrochloric acid (HCL), which improves digestion. I suggest you put one or two tablespoons of wine vinegar into your glass of grapefruit juice (which will taste terrible, I admit). What harm could it do?
Wine vinegar is so cheap it’s worth a try. Try one of two tablespoons in a glass of grapefruit juice, with 50 mg to 100 mg of caffeine. Caffeine by itself is a potent fat burner. Taking it before a workout makes you more alert and intense, and increases the strength of muscular contraction. Caffeine causes fat loss by mobilizing fatty acids which are used as fuel. Using these supplements can be a shortcut to a smaller, tighter waistline.
To Sum Up
To sum up, it’s the synergism of intense weight-training, intense ab training, a good diet, aerobics, and fat burning supplements and drugs that work together as a whole to speed up fat loss and developing great, fat-free abdominals and intercostals.
If you follow a good weight-training routine to maximize muscle mass, and you follow a good ab routine, along with daily aerobics and fat burning supplements, you should, in time, develop a midsection you can be proud of. Ab training can be hard work, but when you look in the mirror with you shirt off and can see a hard six pack, you know all the hard work was worth the time and effort. So work hard and get the abs you want. And don’t give up until you get ‘em.
About The Author
Greg Zulak has been working in the bodybuilding industry for well over 30 years now. He has written over 700 articles published since he began free-lance writing for Bob Kennedy in 1982. His articles have been published in MuscleMag, IronMan, Flex, Muscle & Fitness and Muscular Development. Many of my articles have been published in 19 different language around the world–even Japanese.
He’s currently in the midst of writing about what’s been going on with him for the past 14 years and he is giving away his latest eBook on Lat Training via his website: www.GregZulak.com.