By now, proper abdominal training should not be a mystery. The body of experience and scientific knowledge serve up powerful methods on a platter — yet they get lost in the Internet noise.
Perhaps a fashionable “list article” will catch your attention? With apologies to Rob Lawrence, who rightfully despises list articles as “snack food for the mind,” here is my list of ab dont’s:
1: Chasing the “Burn”
The “burn” is just a manifestation of mounting acidity produced when one is in the glycolytic energy pathway, the choice pathway for amateur coaches more interested in “smoking” their victims than in making them strong. Dr. Fred Hatfield famously quipped, “You like burn? — Light a match.”
High levels of tension are prerequisite for making a muscle stronger and the highest levels of it are available for less than thirty seconds — before the burn kicks in.
2: Not Focusing on the Contraction
Your muscle can contract in response to the load (feed-back) or to a command from your brain even in the absence of resistance (feed-forward). Examples of the former are the farmer’s carry and the double kettlebell front squat. Examples of the latter are, the double kettlebell clean, the hard-style sit-up, and power breathing. For maximal strength development both types of training are a must.
Bodybuilders got the feed-forward ab work figured out. They focus on the contraction rather than the reps — and have the abs to show for it. First Mr. Olympia Larry Scott, a master of “mind-muscle connection,” showed me some of his ab contraction techniques. His attention to detail and understanding of anatomy were impressive and his focus was extraordinary. Mr. Scott was the exact opposite of the clowns glued to their phones while doing crunches.
3: Not Using Enough Resistance
Feed-back training demands high external resistance. It can be a heavy weight or poor leverage.
Examples of the former include the full contact twist and the one-arm farmer carry. I am not including a weighted sit-up because it is a pain logistically. Getting a stack of 45-pound plates in place and then holding onto them is not something you want to do more than once. Examples of the latter are the dragon flag and the hanging leg raise.
4: Exclusively Isometric Training
Isometrics are very valuable and the role of planks, L-seats, and heavy lifts demanding a strong brace cannot be underestimated. However, experience has taught me that people who have not trained their abs dynamically, a stretch followed by a peak contraction, are not fully aware how to engage them 100% statically. (Of course, such training is not for the flexion intolerant.)
5: Not Making Every Exercise an Abdominal Exercise
An expertly performed heavy deadlift is an exercise in both feed-forward and feed-back tension. Engaging a solid brace before the pull is the former. Staying tight under a moving load is the latter.
Former Mr. Olympia Dr. Franco Columbu told me that because he hated direct abdominal work all he did for his abs was keeping them tight in all lifts. He ended up winning the “Best Abs” award and, more importantly, deadlifting over 700 pounds at a bodyweight of around 180.
The Ab Training Call to Action
There are many exercises to choose from for effective ab training. The key is to practice both feed-forward and feed-back tension and to say farewell to the “burn.” All of the StrongFirst curricula — kettlebell, bodyweight, and barbell — are obsessive about building strong abs. Consider the Total Tension Kettlebell Complex as an example.
You can always keep it Kettlebell Simple & Sinister. On the given plan the efforts are brief and intense — 10 reps per set in the swing and 1 in the get-up. The get-up has a dynamic spine flexion component that cramps your abbies the way the sit-up never could. Feed-forward tension is addressed through bracing and power breathing. Feed-back tension is taken care of once you persevere to reach at least the “simple” goal. When you wrestle a heavy kettlebell in a single-arm exercise, everything in your midsection cannot help lighting up like a Christmas tree.
Power to your abs!