by Daniel Schou
A PEN AND BARBELL ARTICLE ON HOW TO DEVELOP AESTHETICALLY PLEASING ABS
3 abs exercises that will help you achieve chiseled abs
Abs: The holy grail of working out
The abs. I’m sure they have practical duties to perform. I’m quite certain they provide tons of functionality. Most probably we rely on them in all sorts of both obvious and less obvious ways. And I’m also sure it would be possible to list dozens of benefits linked to the possession of a strong and well-trained core. All this, however, is of subordinate interest here on PenandBarbell.com. This article will not focus on abs – this aesthetically glorious muscle group – because of its practical importance, but because of the fact that a well-chiseled washboard, in most people’s minds, is the ultimate proof of being in shape. If one is interested in the aesthetic quality of one’s physique it is hard, if not to say impossible, to give the abs anything but the outmost attention.
Everybody wants a six-pack, be it men or women, young or old, elite gym rats or the occasional gym tourist – they are all in pursuit of this holy grail of working out: the chiseled and visibly pleasing abs.
At Penandbarbell.com the ideal is to maintain chiseled and strong abs the whole year round.
There are no short-cuts to great abs
It is often said that a good six-pack is made in the kitchen. And yes, nutrition plays a major part in developing visibly satisfactory abs, this really should go without saying. If your body fat percentage is too high it won’t matter much what you do in the gym. This being said, however, I am a firm believer in the value of direct abs-work at the gym. At times it has seen fashionable to hold the opposite opinion: that great abs can be achieved through working out the rest of the body and that direct abs-work is more or less unnecessary. I do not believe so. I am convinced that the abs obey the same fundamental laws of physics as all the other muscle groups. To truly develop they need to be strained and put under pressure on a regular basis.
Cutting down via a well-planned diet can of course go a long way in helping you make the best of what you already got, but if you want your abs to really glimmer with quality you will have to dedicate yourself to putting in a sufficient amount of direct abs work. The abs constitutes a large part of your body. When a man takes his shirt of the abs immediately, in the eyes of most spectators, becomes the predominant aspect of his physique. Yet, in spite of this, and even though this is, as already stated above, one of the most craved after and celebrated muscle groups, the amount of work that is being put in remains, for most gym-goers, relatively low, in comparison, for example, with the pecs, the arms or the shoulders. It is not hard to find guys at the gym that are willing to devote a whole session to any of those mentioned groups, but you might have to look much further if you are to find someone dedicating a full 40 minutes of intense workout to the abs.
It is thus clear that we are looking at a contradiction between what people want and what they do. Great abs are at the top of the wishing lists, but the amount of work that is being invested most often doesn’t even come close to that which is granted to other muscle groups. The reasons for this contradiction aren´t easy to pin-down with certainty. I will speculate, though, that one explanation could be that a hard abs-workout is rather unflattering when compared to, for example, a pecs-workout. The muscles you are tormenting doesn’t actually show (unless you work out at the gym with a naked torso, which, of course, would be, in any gentleman’s mind, an unforgivable breach of etiquette). Another reason, I will argue, for the above mentioned contradiction, could be the fact that a good abs-workout actually hurts. The burn and the strain are (if you are doing it right and putting in the required amount of focus and engagement) noticeably worse than when you train any other muscle group. A good abs workout demands that you are willing to leave your comfort zone. And for really good results you have to do this every time you work your abs, throughout every exercise and throughout every set. There really aren´t any short-cuts to great abs.
In general people do not lend the abs the kind of attention that they should. The abs is a complex muscle group that offers great diversity in its training.
3 favorites out of many
I feel that the nutritional cutting down-aspect of good abs often get too much of the attention. The fact remains: it is muscles we are talking about. It is a muscle group that can be developed and molded and formed, just like any other muscle group. Sure, you can diet your way to visible abs, but in my opinion a truly impressive physique cannot rely solely upon a strict food regime. Trying to achieve good looking abs through dieting alone will often take its toll on the rest of the body. The Pen and Barbell ideal is much more powerful than that. We do not want to just be able to display a decent 4-pack or 6-pack – we want that washboard to pulsate with athletic ability and visible strength. We want a truly impressive core that is accompanied by sculpted shoulders, a mountain-peaked biceps and a sun-blocking V-shape. Furthermore, we want to possess these different qualities the whole year round. We do not spend our life either bulking or cutting – the chiseled abs is to be a natural and always present attribute of our physique.
One of the most appealing aspects of training the abs is the many different exercises that are available. There is no need to ever get bored or to ever let the abs routine stagnate. There is always stuff to be done, things to be tried out. It would be easy to formulate two entirely different abs workout routines, consisting of up to 5 different exercises each, for a total of 10 different exercises, which would all have their benefits.
The following three exercises stand out as my favorites. Even though I like to vary my abs-training, these can be likened to the corner stones of my routine.
The abs, as anyone with decent powers of observation will have noticed, is a complex muscle group that consists of different parts. With these three exercises you go a long way in meeting the demands that this complexity is putting on you in terms of variety and planning.
I Hanging feet-to-the-bar leg lifts
This is one of the toughest abs exercises there is. This is one of the toughest exercises there is, period. In fact, it belongs to that group of exercises which not everyone will be able to perform from day 1 at the gym. If you are one of those, don’t let it get you down-hearted – instead meet the challenge and stick with it, because it will be worth it.
This is a great exercise for the entire abs, but most especially it targets the middle and the lower abs.
Why I like it
The already mentioned fact that it targets the lower abs. In my opinion the lower abs should always get extra attention. They are harder to develop for most people. (One of the reasons for this is that they don’t get as much “bonus work”, either at the gym or in life in general, as does the upper abs.)
It brings a special sense of accomplishment when mastered, in the same way as other advanced body-weight exercises, such as chin-ups. It is your body-weight that are being fought and conquered here. There is something grand about that notion.
The fact that it is not easy. As it has been said: nothing easy is worth doing.
It is one of those exercises where strength progress is acutely manifested. When you are able to perform one more rep than ever before – there is true beauty in that feeling. This, of course, goes for almost all exercises, but to me the feelings of grandeur are extra tangible in exercises like this one, where it is your body weight that is being defeated, which means that not only your strength, but also tour relative strength, in proportion to your size, has increased.
It gives good all-round training. The assisting muscles are many. Your grip, for example, gets strengthened.
It is time-effective in comparison to most other abs exercises, a benefit that is closely connected to another one: this exercise invites low reps-training. As stated above, I feel one should treat the abs like any other muscle - and let’s face it, most often you do not perform 100 reps of a biceps or pecs exercise, do you? No, you want to hit the abs hard and with lower reps, preferably not any higher than 15 per set. Why? Because you want to build your abs, not just increase their stamina. This means that you cannot be content with bursting out high-reps only, which is what many abs-exercises are inviting you to do.
Variations of this exercise
Finish your sets off with half reps. In other words; when you cannot muster any more feet to the bar-reps, content yourself with regular leg lifts.
In turn, when regular leg lifts gets too heavy, add some extra burn through the performing of some knee raises, allowing your legs to bent, just pulling your knees up as high as you have the strength to do.
The two variations here mentioned are excellent exercises in themselves. If you find it hard to perform to-the-bar-reps, these variations are good starting out-exercises that will, in time, strengthen you in a manner that allows you to develop your routine and perform the more advanced to the bar-reps.
Another way to vary this exercise is to play around with the tempo in which you perform your repetitions. Mix explosive (but, always, controlled) reps with slow motion ones – and then mix it all up even further with abs workouts where you do not count reps at all, during the performance of any the exercises, but instead focus on just making it burn as much as you can stand.
Dieting alone will not bring sufficent development to the abs. You have to target them with low reps and a lot of commitment if you are to achieve muscular growth.
II Myotatic crunches performed on Bosu ball
The glory days of the standard traditional crunch are long gone. In these days of planks-mania and core-obsession the old solid crunch has gone from being most people’s only choice (I know, it hardly seems plausible in 2015, but you’ll have to take my word for it – there actually was a time when this ultra-simple and, at best, half-effective exercise totally dominated the average gym-goer’s abs routines) to being frowned upon as an amateur’s choice.
No. Fret not. I am not about to try and enliven that dinosaur. What I am talking about here is a totally different kind of animal: the myotatic crunch, performed on a Bosu ball. This is an exercise which will, when properly mastered, lead to noticeable results, especially when it comes to the middle and upper abs. I wouldn’t hesitate in claiming that 10 of these crunches are more worth than a hundred traditional half crunches.
Yes. that’s right. I just called the traditional crunch “half”. The traditional crunch is actually only half a crunch, when compared to the myotatic ones that are performed on the bosu ball with the arms stretched behind your head. Therein lays the difference: the stretch. This exercise allows maximum stretch, which, in accordance to the principles of good muscle training, allows for maximum tension at the other end of the movement. This is a well-established connection: the more stretch, the harder the contraction.
The myotatic crunch allows a good stretch, which in turn allows a good contraction, which means good results (after you have first lived through the burn and the pain). That is one of the reasons this exercise stands out among the many options available when it comes to composing your abs routine. Another advantage that is present in the choice of the myotatic crunch is the way that those stretched-out arms will put extra strain on your torso and abs. If you have seen the myotatic crunch performed without ever having tried it yourself you’ll be amazed when you first give it a shot: the weight of your own limbs makes an incredible difference that has to be experienced to be believed. This exercise really forces your abs to work when they are ordered to bring your arms and hands straight up (in a position similar to that of a diver), with your biceps pressed against your ears, reaching an almost – but not entirely - sitting position, pointing towards the roof, where you pause, just before you hit the straight line.
Pay extra attention to the upper position. Make sure you freeze your movement there, for a second or two. Use that pause to really squeeze the muscles involved, before you slowly decend once more towards the floor behind you.
The Myotatic crunch, when mastered, lead to noticeable results. It is a valuable tool for anyone wishing to sculpt the abs and turn his or hers body into a piece of art.
Why I like it
Just as the to-the-bar leg raises already discussed the myotatic crunch is truly time-effective. It allows for a low reps effort that is hard to accomplish in most other abs exercises. This is a muscle builder and a strength contributor, not a toner. And that is what we want when we go about creating the piece of art that people poorer for words (or maybe just more humble) succumb to calling our abs.
The burn. In this exercise the burning sensation will not leave any room for doubts as to what muscles are being targeting. For me there is no other abs exercise that guarantees the same immediate feeling of being in contact with the muscles of the abdominals.
Variations of the myotatic crunch
When you can perform 5 sets of 10 with short rests (half a minute or less) in between it is time to grab a weight. Perform the exercise in exactly the same manner, but do it holding a weight in your hands. Trust me, it doesn’t have to be big; a couple of kilos will be sufficient to breathe new life into the exercise.
Before I move on to the third recommended abs exercise I want to stress my opinion that this exercise is ideally performed on a Bosu ball – not on a full Pilates ball. The reason for this is that I don’t think either focus or energy should be spilled on balance or multi-tasking when working your abs. Today it is fashionable to perform so called “functional” exercises and movements that challenge all these things at once: coordination, balance, strength, etcetera. I do not endorse this trend. I do not believe in it. It doesn’t, in my opinion, lead to the best results. I believe – no, I am utterly convinced – that one only get really good at what one does. I trust in exercises that allows maximum intention, maximum engagement and maximum effort. If you want multi-tasking, go play some badminton or take up triathlon. If you want a chiseled, visibly impressive physique, then go to the gym and devote yourself to exercises that allows for precision.
If you want an impressive physique then devote yourself to exercises that allows for precision and high intensity.
III Dynamic side planks
Before you let that yawn reach its full potential let me be clear: we are not talking about a static I’m-bored-to-death-plank here. Just as the favored crunch above lacked any resemblance to the traditional equivalent, the plank here in question doesn´t have anything to do with what we all have come to know as “planks”. It is, in fact, not a plank exercise, since it is dynamic and moving. The association to dead wood doesn’t apply. I only stick with the name because that is what it is being universally called and because it makes it easy for those unfamiliar with it to envision how it is done. But before I elaborate on why I have chosen to include this exercise as one of my top 3 abs exercises, I cannot help but to lend a few more words to the subject of planks in general.
Planks. The last few years it has become the average man’s go to-choice when it comes to training the abs. Personally I feel that for a heavy man it is far from the best choice of abs exercise. I wouldn´t even place it in the top 10 of abs exercises. I don t consider it worthless. Not totally worthless, at least. But I do think that the exposure of and PR in favor of these exercises are, in proportion to what can actually be accomplished with them, way too excessive.
The variations of planks are seemingly endless. We have all seen them – and some of us have also tried them all (if we didn’t fall asleep during the fifth or sixth “variation” of this boring and literally static exercise).
If the plank was half the magic it has been let on to be, then really we should all be performing static biceps curls, static bench presses and static dead lifts. Luckily those “variations” doesn´t seem to have gotten a grip on the fitness community as of yet…
I am not against experimenting. And I do realize that different people can have different goals with their workouts. Maybe you feel that static strength is attractive and something worth pursuing. If so, then by all means go and get it. But if your goal is to attain the visible and chiseled abs that lends to a truly statuesque impression, then planks won´t suffice. None of the best abs are built solely on this kind of static strain (if the owner in question doesn’t happen to be someone genetically gifted with extremely good abs). The abs need dynamic work in order to develop, just as any other muscle
Why I like the dynamic side planks
This is an exercise which helps you in developing a good overall-all feeling for your body. It borders on movement training.
It targets a large part of your body – the sides of your torso – that gets very little direct attention in most people’s routine, including my own.
It helps in targeting and developing the serratus. Above I have already called the abs muscles the ultimate shape-shower, but if one takes it a step further and zooms in on the different parts of the abs, the serratus really stands out as a most exclusive muscle. If you are muscular you can display good upper abs even when your body fat percentage is rather high - bodybuilders that are really lacking in overall aesthetics can still display a kind of six pack, be it bloated and less than satisfactory, but still, undeniably a six pack – but for the serratus to be really visible requires you to be in great shape. Defined and clearly visible serratus muscles makes for a truly statuesque and chiseled look. They are difference between looking “only” rather healthy and being top notch.
There are no short-cuts to good looking abs. A good abs workout is demanding.
I’m not going to list any variations for this exercise. I do not want to contribute to the ever-growing stack of plank variations. There is no need to further fuel the making up of variations of variations of variations of planks. The world does not need more of that stuff. Just perform your dynamic side planks with intensity and full engagement and you will feel the burn that promises long term results.
Visible abs is the ultimate symbol of shape. Great abs means you re in shape in most people’s opinion. A low body fat percentage is of the essence - but it is not all. My favorite abs exercises are hanging feet-to-the-bar leg raises, myotatic crunches performed on a Bosu ball and dynamic side planks. These 3 exercises together will make for an excellent and all-rounded abs workout routine where both the lower and upper abs muscles get targeted, as well as the sides of your torso, including the serratus.
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