Principles to Stay in Shape All Year - Easy Rules to Follow

Staying in Shape

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A lot of websites seem to focus heavily on ab workouts only when summer is nearing and there are still enough dreary months remaining before the sun makes its welcome appearance. Sadly, this practice sets up a belief that having a lean, chiseled midsection is a seasonal affair that one ought not to worry about until the thermometer hits 60F or above.

For some areas around the country that mindset means being in shape for only four months of the year, so the kind of shape a person can create is limited by constant weight fluctuations and unsteady workout regimens.

People who read the many preseason abdominal articles and get the impression that ab-training and general conditioning are seasonal concerns think getting flabby is okay when no one is going to see what you look like under your clothes. This unhealthy attitude not only limits what people are able to accomplish, but also limits what they can consistently hold onto. It also fosters the belief that you can get into good shape one day and let it all go to hell the next - a risky process for the heart.

In America we have enough problems with portion control, knowledge about how to eat and what's healthy vs. unhealthy, let alone with the concepts of discipline and consistency. When websites publish articles about getting into great shape for summer or baring your midriff in 12 weeks, they are in effect saying to readers: Don't worry. You can lose it and get it back again in a short time, so you may as well blow your diet until next spring!

This line of reasoning may sound hypocritical coming from someone like me, since I work with clients who regularly do this kind of up-and-down cycling between contest and off-season weight. However, a lot of the pros are now beginning to see the wisdom in staying closer to their contest weight. I won't tell you the weight gains of 50 to 80 pounds are gone for good, but I think fluctuations of 25 to 30 pounds are becoming more common. For a 240-pound contest physique that's a pretty good sign.

I'm not prepared to give you a specific workout this month or a surefire way to build great abs or a chiseling program to end all chiseling programs. You can find good ab workouts all over the internet without my reinventing the wheel. But I do want to address some issues that the standard ab workout might not cover. In keeping with this month's theme - how to keep your abs visible all year long - I'm going to cover some concepts that will help you far more than an actual routine would. Your routine is important, of course, but it should be determined, supported and maintained by a few essential elements to keep what you have worked hard to build.

Structural Architecture

The abdominal region is made up of specific areas that are responsible for different core tasks; therefore, any workout you do needs to target the region and the task it performs structurally and functionally. If you know that general core work, requiring the central part of the abdominal region (the rectus abdominis), stabilizes the back and entire trunk, you'll realize this foundation work that encourages stability is very important. Knowing that lateral movement of the midsection and trunk requires strong obliques, serratus and intercostal muscles points up the importance of doing work that reinforces these areas.

Our physical architecture in the area of the midsection requires workouts that preserve the structure, strengthen it, and create functionality. Think of your body and body core as a building that must be strong, yet needs to be able to sway and move to handle a constantly changing workload.


As important as structure, diet is critical to the appearance of being in shape. What better bodypart to shout "I'm in shape!" than the abdominals? But getting there isn't about workouts at all. It's about good, old-fashioned controlled, regimented eating habits.

Since we can't actually see our abs, they are all but a moot issue when covered by fat. Fat is the enemy of all muscle because it masks our hard work and genetic structure. That's why following a diet that promotes low bodyfat is so important.

Diet isn't just a means to obliterate fat on the abdominal region. It's also a way to maintain enough low bodyfat to create a quality appearance. You look much leaner when you have kept bodyfat off for a certain period of time. If you ever dieted down for a competition in just 8 to 10 weeks, making weight in the nick of time to step onstage, and then took your time over 18 weeks to prepare for another competition, you know your body looks a whole lot different. Losing bodyfat and maintaining that condition within 5 pounds for any length of time makes the abs look sharper, more detailed and harder. Try it and you'll see for yourself.

Variety of Training

Variety is said to be the spice of life, but it's also the lifeblood of abdominal work. What makes the difference between a good midsection and a great one is not so much your training style as how many exercises you do, how often, and in what combinations. Those complex abs consist of a multitude of interlocking parts that come together like a geometrically shaped jigsaw puzzle. The way they interact is an expression of function and stabilization. To serve each part well, variety is absolutely crucial to the continuing function and improvement of the region.

Change your exercises often and always have at least one exercise for each area of the abs in each workout. For instance, include a hanging leg raise for the lower abs, and bring your legs up to the side for a variation to hit the obliques. Do regular crunches, and use a few twisting variations where your knees drop to the sides of your body so that you can focus on your serratus and intercostal muscles. Remember, you need to work the upper rectus abdominis, the lower abdominals, the obliques, serratus and intercostals every time you train.

Amend Those Imbalances

Too often I see people in the gym doing the same exercises over and over, creating progressively greater strength in one area while reinforcing weaknesses in other areas. Of course, we all like to go with a winner, and when we have a bodypart - or part of a body-part - that becomes great through training, we want to continue to train that muscle to see it grow even more. However, if its growth is at the expense of the surrounding parts, that concentration doesn't make much sense.

Training this way creates imbalances that are hard to overcome and can actually open you up to injury. If you have bulging upper abs (the classic washboard) but the muscles that lace into the central ab region are weak and don't support it, lateral movements could injure the back, core, rib cage or hip structure. Working to rebalance the whole core region by always addressing weaknesses first in a workout heads off trouble and creates a more complete picture.

Lower Back

How many bodybuilders do you know who continually complain about their lower back? These folks often blame their weakness on the heavy lifts during leg sessions. That explanation may be legitimate, but I think the problem has more to do with not tending to the lower back in terms of strength and support. Naturally, doing squats in good form helps the lower back develop and become better able to support the spine and itself, but doing a little extra work to ensure its stability helps too.

If you understand the architecture and function of the abs, you'll see the logic in suggesting complementary lower-back work in an ab article. Working the abs without working the low back can spell trouble and invite injury. In fact, building great strength in the front of the body creates automatic weakness and susceptibility to injury in the back portion of the core. You want to always include hyperextensions when you do ab work so that you never forget to keep your lower back as strong as your abs. Remember this advice and you'll never have to deal with an injury from imbalance.

Workout Configuration

You should always train abs in multi set fashion, and preferably with little rest. That's because the abs re-oxygenate themselves fairly rapidly, and are ready to go again much faster than other muscles, despite how much lactic acid you may feel in a particular area after a set. Typically, the abs recover within about 15 seconds, so giant sets and supersets are ideal. That means at least two or three exercises back to back to back without any rest. Many people do four to five exercises without taking a rest and then pause for one to two minutes after each giant set. This method is very effective because it taxes the abs continually until all sections are exhausted. So pour on the steam and keep the heat up during workouts!


Just as the intensity of continuous effort within a session is best for getting the most mileage out of ab-training, training the abdominals frequently is equally important. You cannot overtrain the abs - unless you feel a protracted soreness that just won't go away. Likely, though, that discomfort will disappear once you get your abdominal region in better shape overall. Don't worry about making your abs look stringy. That simply won't happen. Their fullness is a function of diet, not training. Train your abs at least four times per week, particularly if you are dieting and trying for a rock-hard midsection that is detailed to the max.

Stretch Your Abs

Stretching is one tool most bodybuilders never think of - at least not for their abs -but stretching out the entire ab region is a great way to get more detail and allow more range of motion in each section. Do a lot of elongation stretching to increase the space between individual muscles in the rectus abdominis (that turtle shell dead center). This way, when you train, you'll have a greater range of crunch motion, and the abs will begin to appear more defined.

Stretching also strengthens a muscle, and the abs are no exception. Sessions spent stretching can prevent injury too. Loosening the fascia that encapsulates and separates muscles can mean greater mobility and less chance of tightening during unpredictable or sudden movement, such as in a car accident, or when the core is pushed off balance in some way.

Specific abdominal routines may seem like the key to developing the abs you want, but the principles I've discussed here could be more important. Consider all of them, incorporate them into your workouts, and you'll be much closer to the kind of abdominal development you want.

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