A common belief in bodybuilding is that a beginner can make progress lifting rocks. This is not to offend the brutally huge strongmen you see on the MET-Rx World’s Strongest Men on ESPN who lift those 350-lb. Atlas Stones but is to emphasize the point that beginners can make progress on just about any program, using just about anything for resistance, even small Flinstone pebbles. But just because beginners can have success with minimal effort and nonspecific workouts, this doesn’t mean that their training protocol will also work for an experienced athlete, or for someone who wants to go even beyond a “slightly visible” 6-Pack!
If you’re in poor shape and wish to reach a fair level or if you are in fair shape and want to get in great shape, use exercises that challenge your muscles to reach new levels of strength.
Although abdominal training has always been a focal point in some exercise classes, the exercise selection is usually limited and includes only minimal crunches. Now, strict, slow crunches are effective, but after a time they may become non-productive and a wider array of exercises will be necessary to keep the lean muscle coming.
Your abdominals are just like any other muscle group, potentially more enduring perhaps, but nonetheless responsive to exercise progression.
As they do, you should try to include at least one of the exercises described herein into your personal training program two times a week. These exercises can be made more difficult, but I seldom advise more than 10 – 20 slow reps on any of them. You should increase the resistance with these exercises rather than the reps; and if you’re working hard enough, you should only perform 2-3 sets per exercise. I would also suggest that you not perform any single exercise for more than three weeks in a row, since well-conditioned muscles adapt quickly to any exercise, and this adaptation must be minimized.
ADVANCED REVERSE LEG RAISE
Unlike many abdominal exercises in which your lower body is anchored while your upper body moves, with this exercise your upper body is anchored and the lower body moves. Because your lower body probably weighs more than your upper body, this is a difficult exercise that can take a few weeks to master.
Lie face-up on a mat grasping something overhead or your arms flat at your sides. Pull your legs up so that they are at a right angle with your torso. (Theresa Hessler demonstrates at top of page.) This is your start position. Keep the position of your legs as consistent as possible. Now curl your hips up to the position shown in the second photo while exhaling. Your weight should be concentrated on your shoulders, not your neck. Slowly return to the start position while inhaling.
At first, you may only be able to lift your hips a few inches off the mat. As you become stronger, you can increase the resistance by performing the exercise on an incline. But be patient – again, this is a difficult exercise.
STATIC CRUNCH WITH SWISS BALL
One of the limitations of the regular crunch is that it is difficult to increase resistance without the use of expensive health club machines that provide resistance plates. But – this exercise, performed with a Swiss ball, will challenge even the strongest abs.
Lie on your back and bend your knees, placing a Swiss ball across your hips. With your hands on top of the ball and your body crunched forward as demonstrated, push your arms down as hard as possible for six seconds. The harder you push, the more the ball will resist you, giving your abs an intense stimulus. Exhale, relax for a few seconds, and then repeat.
ELEVATED WHEEL ROLL OUT
Exercise wheels have been around for 80 years and the continuing popularity of the concept is clear from the abundance of abdominal wheel devices sold on late-night infomercials. These abs wheel machines can cost you a couple hundred bucks, while a simple real exercise wheel might set you back only a $10-spot.
Elevate your lower body on a low box (preferably padded to protect your knees). This imparts better leverage to your arms and shoulders, an advantage that is especially important for women (usually women are proportionally weaker in the upper body than men). The correct start position is with your shoulders directly over the wheel and your abs pulled in and head down. Keep your shoulders in front of the wheel as long as possible. Inhale while rolling the wheel forward and exhale as you return to the start position. Arching your low back is wrong! This error occurs when the wheel is extended too far for your abdominal strength and performing the exercise like this can cause back injury and pain. You will be able to extend further out, as you get stronger – in fact; I have seen several athletes do this from a standing position!
This exercise will stretch many of the muscles responsible for posture that are sometimes tight and it strengthens those same muscles if they are weak. You may discover that when you first perform it, one side of your body is significantly stronger or tighter. For instance, a long-time discus thrower who has turned to his left for years, to initiate his throw, may have significantly stronger obliques on his left side.
The slight rotation will however, take some of the stress off your shoulders and help your balance.
Perform these just like the regular crunch as a slow curl, but curl your elbow to the opposite side of your body, lower slowly and then repeat with the opposite elbow to the opposite side of your body (hip). You can complete all your goal reps to one side and then switch elbows to the other side, rather than alternating, if you desire.
Muscles exert higher EMG tension when they are contracting eccentrically (lowering the resistance) versus raising it; but the problem with most exercises is that the amount of weight you can lower is limited by how much you can lift positively (concentric work). This exercise compensates for the problem by changing the leverage during the lowering (eccentric) phase of the exercise.
Start by placing your heels on a low bench and holding two light dumbbells (begin with 3 pounds). Place a rolled-up towel under your lower back to increase the range of motion of your upper abs. Point your toes. From this start position, raise your upper body to the position shown in the second photo. Breathe normally. Now press the weights overhead. Keeping your arms straight, press your heels hard into the bench, then lower your upper body and allow the weights to arc behind your head.
Lifting the dumbbells overhead changes leverage and pressing your heels into the bench makes a significant difference in the intensity of the exercise. Pressing your heels down dramatically increases the tension on your abdominals by relaxing your hip flexors.
NECK-SAVER SWISS BALL CRUNCH
Neck strain is a common complaint when performing crunches, often because those doing the exercises will clasp their fingers behind their neck and pull on their head, thereby stretching soft tissue and even ligaments. This exercise helps eliminate neck strain and ensures proper head positioning.
Lie face-up and place your lower legs on a Swiss ball. Extend your right arm overhead and bend your left arm at a 90-degree angle; then grasp the upper portion of your right arm so you form a cradle for your head. Flexing your toes and holding the ball in place by contracting your hamstrings, crunch forward to the finish position. In this position, increase the tension on your abs by attempting to pull the ball towards you with your hamstrings. Return to the start and exhale. Your rectus abdominus can flex only about 30 degrees (strictly), so when you perform this exercise it may not be necessary to lift your shoulders off the floor to achieve peak contraction. You can make the exercise more difficult by pulling harder with your hamstrings, maintaining peak contraction longer and by holding a weight in your free hand.
By including these exercises you’ll get your best abs and go beyond the 6-Pack. I’ll also guarantee you that they work a lot better than lifting 350-lb. Atlas Stones.
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