Abdominal Training for the Power Athlete
By Steven Morris
The other day I had to suffer the great indignity of paying for a day pass at a commercial gym. Lifting in a commercial place isn’t all that bad. It can actually be good from time to time to expose you to new equipment or just get a change of scenery. However, paying $10.00 or more for the pleasure of being stared at while I lift is disturbing. Plus, I get to see other trainers and coaches do their thing…
Oh, the sick feeling I get when I see trainers leading athletes through an abdominal workout. The endless crunches, the leg raises, the flutter kicks (people seriously still do those?). It’s typically either a super skinny young athlete or sometimes a bigger guy like a lineman being trained by some twerpy trainer who looks like he doesn’t lift anything heavier than his shirt. As an athlete, you need strong, functional abs. No, I didn’t say go off and do any of that “functional training” bull crap like standing on a Bosu ball holding your plums. You need to train the abs hard and heavy. Ya know…with like weights and stuff.
All this garbage that trainers tell you to do with the endless reps of crunches is a complete waste of time. You only have so much time to put into the weight room and wasting it on crap exercises will kill your results.
Ab training is important for both preventing back injuries and stopping strength leakage. If you have strong legs and a strong upper body but your abs are as weak as a malnourished kitten, you will leak power like crazy.
Standing cable crunch
As athletes, we perform standing up, so why do so many magazines only recommend exercises performed while lying down? Usually, they will tell you that this is done in some half-ass attempt to “isolate” the abs, but this is lunacy. The abs don’t need to be isolated. They function as a stabilizer in most athletic functions. And trying to take the hip flexors out of all ab training movements is asking for trouble. Sure, if you’re after only aesthetics, then isolating is a good idea at times. However, always isolating can be problematic. The hip flexors and abs were designed to work together, so they should be trained together most of the time! Louie Simmons put it best—“Train your abs standing and why not? When you lift, wrestle, or play ball, you are standing.”
A perfect exercise to involve the abs in a dynamic fashion while standing is the standing cable crunch. This exercise can also be done with bands. Simply attach a rope or strap to a lat pull-machine, walk out a step or so, and bend forward forcefully. Return to the top slowly, flex, and explode down. Change attachments and foot placements to change the exercise.
Try 3–5 sets of 5–10 reps. This is best. Don’t be afraid to really put some weight on the stack.
This is simple but brutally effective. Most athletes spend the majority of their time training the abs but neglect the obliques. If you really want to lift big (or knock people on their asses), then you need to train the obliques just as hard as the rest of the mid-section.
This lift works best with a Farmers Walk bar so that you don’t have to overextend when lifting a regular bar off the ground. If you don’t have Farmer’s bars, set the bar up at just below the knee in the rack. Stand to the side of the bar, grip it in the middle, and deadlift it. You have to keep your entire mid-section ultra tight the entire time! Keep the reps low (under three) and do multiple sets. Once you get comfortable, start adding weight.
Most of you have probably never done this lift before. The pitch fork lift (sometimes called the shovel lift) is true functional training. It works the obliques as hard as any other movement I’ve ever come across. The pitch fork lift comes from Steve Justa, author of Rock, Iron, Steel. He developed the exercise after getting a job bailing hay and found that all the traditional training he was doing wasn’t helping one bit. After a few weeks of doing the shovel lift, Justa was tossing the hay around like an old pro.
The shovel is pretty easy to set up and perform. Load one end of an Olympic bar. Next, grab the unloaded end with one hand and place the other hand at about the mid-point of the bar. Bend the knees and position yourself sideways at the hip. Lift the loaded end of the bar just as you would when shoveling dirt. You can make the movement much harder by then turning a bit to the side as if “dumping” the dirt out of the shovel.
Return to the starting point and repeat. It will help if you lockout your arm furthest from the loaded end and “press” it down, levering the weight up. If you’ve been having trouble with falling forward in the squat or haven’t been able to properly push out against your belt when squatting or deadlifting, this movement will push your PRs to new heights. The internal pressure that is needed to stabilize during this exercise will really teach you how to properly push out on your belt.
Keep the reps low, under six, and go for 3–6 sets.
Shovel lift, start position
Shovel lift, end position
Weighted sit-ups with stone trainer
Weighted sit-ups are old school and effective. But they can be a real pain once you get past using 90 lbs. To circumvent this problem, simply load the weight on to the stone trainer. It’ll keep the weights nice and in place so you can worry about performing the exercise rather than an errant 45 smackin’ you in your grill piece.
Keep the weight high on the chest, or hold it slightly off the chest to increase the difficulty. If possible, lock the back of your ankles onto something stable like the edge of a platform, against a band, or have your partner hold them. This is basically a Janda style sit-up so you can be sure that the majority of the stress is placed on your abs.
Go heavy. Pile the weights on as long as you are keeping your form.
Ah, the bent press…the oldest of old school movements. Makes one think of Saxon and Sandow. No one does bent presses anymore. Probably because they’re hard. Why do these when you can do those stupid side crunches? However, a bent press will turn your “core” into a corset of steel…or something like that.
You can use a bar, one kettlebell, or one dumbbell for these. Shoulder the weight, lean to the side, press the weight, and then slowly stand upright and repeat. Keep your arm locked out, your abs tight, and your back as flat as possible. Don’t twist!
Go with 3–5 sets of 3–5 reps.
If your gym has one of those weighted crunch machines, take advantage of it and use it from time to time. The problem is if you are even above average strength, you’ll max out the weight stack quickly. But these can work in a pinch, especially if you don’t feel like setting up a more complicated exercise.
If you have strong abs, you’ll have to go higher reps. Go with a traditional 3–4 sets of 10 or more reps.
Full contact twist
Years ago, I learned about this exercise in one of Pavel Tsatsouline’s books. It is an excellent movement for the obliques and abs. Forget standing on a Swiss ball. The full contact twist is functional ab training! I’ve found that this exercise not only strengthens the abs but also helps with the ability to “pop” the hips. Several softball players found themselves hitting bombs a few weeks after adding these to their programs. Fighters and those who like to throw the occasional punch will find this exercise quite helpful as well. And, of course, football players could always use some extra hip power.
Don’t twist the back while doing this movement. It should be a smooth motion. Lower the weight under control and then flex and rotate back to the other side. Again, 3–5 by 5–10 seems to work best. Add weight slowly. The majority of form problems I’ve seen have come from adding too much weight too quickly.
Kneeling cable/band crunch
This is similar to the standing version, but it helps eliminate relying on the hips and neglecting the abs. You can do this with a cable or a band looped over the top of a power rack. If using bands, it’s helpful to use D-handles, a triceps rope, or Spud’s towel strap to make the movement smoother and more efficient.
The main problem I’ve found with this movement is that once you start piling the weight on the cable stack, it can actually lift you off the ground. It helps to have a partner hold you down. One of my football players, Mike Jenk, can do reps with a black band doubled. I’ve never seen him miss a lift forward.
This lift is best used for low to medium reps. Change handles often to always keep things new.
I’ve seen a few well-known strength coaches proclaim that ab training, once past the beginning stages, is useless. Anyone who’s attempted a new max in the deadlift or squat knows that’s complete crap. At a minimum, train the abs three times per week but preferably in every training session. Your midsection can never be too strong. Whether your goal is to put up PRs in the gym or to pancake a fellow lineman, you must train your abs heavy and often!
Steven Morris is a personal trainer and strength coach in the Philadelphia and South Jersey areas and owner of Explosive Football Training. He has been lifting weights for over 15 years and has been helping people achieve their fitness and strength goals for over a decade. You can learn more about his methods and download free training reports at www.explosivefootballtraining.com. Check out his new training manual at www.explosivefootballmanual.com.
Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at www.EliteFTS.com.
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