I've always had a rep for a streamlined and detailed midsection. Thus, I've consistently received how-to inquiries from those interested in duplicating my success at developing deep and complete abdominals. On
the other hand, I've also been regularly asked how I managed to make a mark in the sport, even though I was neither the biggest nor the best-conditioned athlete on stage. My answer to the second group is, of
course, what the first group recognizes: My deeply chiseled midsection gave me the appearance of being in better condition than some of the bodybuilders who technically out conditioned me in terms of bodyfat
percentage. Abdominals possess an almost-metaphysical power that transcends their specific role in the physique, in that dominant abs can make a bigger difference than dominant legs, arms, chest, or any other
In my early teens, I developed a great fascination with abdominals. My first sport was judo; I represented my native country Yugoslavia in competitions. In our training, we were put on rigorous routines with a medicine ball and other exercises, specifically to develop abdominal power.
The results got my attention. The training yielded not only functional improvements, but also dramatic visible improvements. That inspired me to become a student of abdominal science. Since then, I've amassed vast knowledge and keen insight into the hows and whys of abdominal training, a synopsis of which is presented here, in the form of the 10 most essential principles for achieving the best abs possible.
Understated but preeminent is the most difficult principle of all: intellectual intensity. Without it, you won't even be able to apply principle #1 from the following list. Master it, however, and you will startle yourself and your colleagues with your abdominal progress.
USE FULL RANGE OF MOTION. This is a universal principle for every muscle. Partial range of motion equals partial development; full range of motion equals full development.
HYPEREXTEND YOUR TORSO. Maximum extension of the torso is almost always assumed to be 180 degrees, but that's only partial extension of the rectus abdominis. Deepest stimulation of abdominal muscle fibers is achieved when you arch backward another 15 degrees. From that point, you get a much longer contraction and extended range of motion.
EMPLOY HEAVY WEIGHT AND LOW REPS. Abdominal muscles are white muscle fibers and need to be trained with maximum resistance for total fatigue in as short a time as possible. That point should be reached with never more than 12 repetitions and preferably no more than 10.
SQUEEZE. Don't lift. Apply continuous tension with peak contraction. I'm always amazed at the number of people who relax at some point in the movement, either during the negative, or eccentric, part or at the end of the contraction. The point of maximum contraction, in fact, is when they should apply maximum effort to intensify a peak contraction, squeezing the muscle all the more. Try that during hanging leg raises and crunches, and you will feel a tremendous burn in your abs. If I did not use peak contractions, I could do hundreds of reps without accomplishing my goal. Contract from the 15-degree hyperextension of the first repetition all the way to the end of the set. Tom Hanks said (in A League of Their Own) "There's no crying in baseball." Well, there's no relaxing in bodybuilding.
TRAIN EVERY ABDOMINAL MUSCLE. The most visible abdominal muscle is the rectus abdominis, but make sure you also train your obliques, serratus and intercostals by means of crossovers, twists and side movements, when performing leg raises, situps, crunches and reverse crunches. Those muscles are necessary to accentuate the rectus and, for that matter, your entire torso.
TRAIN YOUR UPPER AND LOWER RECTUS ABDOMINIS INDIVIDUALLY. Train the extremities of that muscle together, of course, but also train them individually. Situps emphasize the upper rectus, and hanging leg raises emphasize the lower rectus.
TRAIN ABDOMINALS FREQUENTLY. Abdominal muscles have an ability to recover rapidly, so train them three or four times a week, not once or twice, as for other muscle groups.
TRAIN FOR STRENGTH. The abdominal girdle is extremely important as a stabilizing muscle, so train it for strength, as well as for appearance. I've seen too many people having trouble doing bent rows, barbell curls, deadlifts, benches and, especially, squats, because their abs are weak. If your abdominal girdle is strong, you'll get more out of every exercise for every bodypart and your overall progress will be faster.
USE PROGRESSIVE INTENSITY. Every successive workout should be more intense than the last. Use more weight, or harder contractions, or shorter rest periods between sets, or all of these together.
TRY EVERY EXERCISE. Don't dismiss any exercise as inconsequential, and don't gullibly accept any exercise as indispensable, until you've tried them all. If you feel an exercise working, use it. If you don't feel it working, don't use it. For most people, the exercises I've mentioned in this article are the most productive, but, ultimately, you must judge for yourself. It's possible that some people cannot get an intense burn from hanging leg raises or situps, yet they can get one through the power of their will, or "imaginary" contractions, even while sitting in an easy chair and watching television. In that case, I'd recommend that they stay seated and work their tails off. That's the importance of the intellectual intensity, or focus, I mentioned earlier. Once you've perfected it, you might actually scare yourself with the effect it generates. Sometimes the burn becomes so fierce that you lie on the floor, knotted up in a fetal position, cramped with pain and whimpering like a baby. Now, that's a great workout.