Nothing beats a good set of abs. And I don’t just mean a six-pack. I’m talking about the entire midsection, from the slender finger muscles of the serratus and intercostals that run between the ribs to the V-shape muscles of the external obliques that point suggestively below the waistline. Think Brad Pitt in Fight Club. (ok girls, get your minds out of the gutter and concentrate ) Even on ladies, a firm midsection with an hourglass figure and that sexy abdominal line running down to the belly sends a strong message of vitality, power and health.
Obviously, we should all already know that a hard, flat midsection is built in the kitchen. No matter how hard or smart you train your abs, if you have a layer of fat covering them, nobody is going to see your hard work. Whilst we’re on the subject of abdominal fat, understand that you can’t spot reduce your way to killer abs. In other words, performing crunches will not make you lose weight on your stomach, just the same way as doing bicep-curls won’t give you ripped arms – your body is much cleverer than that. Although a subject for another article, each body has its own favourite body fat stores where the most fat tends to accumulate and these are usually the most stubborn reserves. When it comes to abs, this can be bad news for the guys as the belly is usually the place us men store fat. Good news for the ladies though.
When most people think of ab training they generally think of endless crunches and sit-ups and not much else, right? Well, I’m here to tell you that all of that is unnecessary and even counter-productive to a sexy midsection. That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t perform these movements, but that they are merely a tool in your ab training toolbox and should be used sparingly. Your abdominal muscles respond to the same stimulus as your other muscles, yet for some reason when it comes to abs people seem to think that they need to be trained differently for endless repetitions. Train your abs using the same set & rep scheme that you’re using for the rest of your workouts and you should be ok. Too much ab training can also ruin your waistline, especially the hourglass figure of a woman. What often happens is that the muscles surrounding the waist area can thicken over time and reduce the natural curves, giving the body a more straight-up-and-down appearance. Men can perhaps get away with this more than ladies but even a lot of bodybuilders will shy away from direct ab training in fear of losing their narrow waist and V-taper.
I’m against performing any weighted side bends. Back when I first started out training, I used to do a lot of heavy weighted side bends to train the external obliques. The result – what looked like a small tumour above each hip bone. This totally ruined the aesthetic appeal that finely sculpted obliques should have. A better exercise choice for this area is the side plank. I also recommend that you do regular planks too.
An often overlooked area of abdominal training is the transverse abdominus. This muscle lies underneath your other abdominal muscles and acts like a corset, compressing and supporting the abdomen. You may have noticed that some people manage to have a low body fat level and a good six-pack, but the whole ab area is distended with the belly tending to stick out a bit. When the transverse muscle is well trained, it can actually reduce the waistline by drawing in the abdominals and giving a flatter appearance to the stomach. A great exercise for the transverse abdominus is the vacuum. Another reason for this pot belly effect could be lordosis, or excessive arching of the lower back. The knock-on effect of this is a slightly protruding belly. I’ll go into postural analysis in another article, but a simply remedy for this is to stretch out the hip-flexors and work on activating the glute muscles properly.
Another school of thought is that the abdominals get plenty of stimulus from other compound total body lifts. In fact, it has been proven that the highest abdominal activation comes from performing lifts like the Squat and Deadlift along with the Olympic lifts and their variations. Be careful with the Deadlift thought. Whilst I love this exercise, it can have a tendency to thicken the waistline. It’s a great exercise for overall strength though so it shouldn’t be totally excluded just on account of aesthetics. Also, any overhead lift performed whilst standing, like a standing shoulder press, will place a lot of stress on the abs just to stabilise the weight overhead. Of course you need to be doing these exercises in the first place to reap the ab benefits – if most of your training is based on isolation movements and movements sitting down you might need to perform more direct ab work than would otherwise be neccessary.
One of the best ways to sexy abs is any form of martial arts or boxing. Think Bruce Lee – you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of abdominal development anywhere. Martial artists have known for a long time that the centre of your body is where most of your power for striking and kicking is developed. Punching or kicking also adds a great rotational element to the movement which gives plenty of work to the obliques. The ‘kia’ noise that martial artists make or the forcing-out-of-air noise that a boxer makes when they strike also works the transverse abdominus very well. This has the effect of tightening up the whole midsection and increasing striking power. If fighting isn’t your thing, you can always mimic these rotational movements using a medicine ball or cable machine.
The take home message from all of this is to realise that your abs do far more than flex the trunk (like a crunch) and that we don’t need to perform endless repetitions of the same movement pattern to get sexy abs. They also stabilise and rotate our trunk and our training should reflect this.
So what are you waiting for? Get planking already!