How I Train Abs
My friend Paul Carter once said that “traps are the new abs” and as a trap lover, I agree. But if you can have both, the world is an even better place!
Let’s look at it this way: I find that there is a strong correlation between both thick traps and a thick muscular mid-section. If you pull/deadlift/power clean heavy you should normally have big traps. If you squat, deadlift, do overhead work or the Olympic lifts heavy, you should have solid abs. And if on top of that you like to work hard on farmer’s walk, then you will build both again.
If you want to be strong you need thick abs. Look at Chris Duffin, who I think is the smartest man in the world of strength. The guy likely has the thickest muscular waist in the world; the man is a block of iron. Not surprising for a guy who deadlifts 1000lbs… for reps!
I also work with a lot of Crossfit competitors, some of whom compete at a very high level. A guy like Alex Vigneault certainly looks athletic but he doesn’t look super muscular, except for a midsection from Hell! The guy deadlifted over 600lbs, cleaned 380lbs, snatched 290lbs. His crazy midsection allows him to transfer a lot more force to the barbell.
My own abs are pretty good. Sadly (or happily), they are my best body part. Even when I’m not lean, we see them because they are really thick. I don’t have a choice since my torso is very long, so I need even more core strength to be decent in the big lifts.
Let me tell you one thing right off the bat, if you came here looking for a pretty and small waist, this isn’t the article for you! Because that’s not how I train abs. I train my midsection to be strong; to be a piece of iron connecting my upper and lower body so that it never is holding me back on my strength gains. It just so happens than when I’m lean, training that way makes my abs look pretty awesome!
Enough blabbering, let’s get to the info!
I Do Tons Of Overload Exercises That Challenge My Midsection
My three mentors in strength training are Charles Poliquin (the greatest training mind, period), Jean Boutet (the best strength coach nobody knows about) and Pierre Roy (one of the smartest pure strength guys in the world). All of them have something in common when it comes to training abs: they believe that nothing beats very heavy lifting on exercises where you are standing up to build a strong midsection.
And I agree, which is why my own training includes tons of the following:
– Zercher lifts (Zercher squats from pins from various depths)
– Zercher holds
– Anderson squats (squat from pins, from the bottom position)
– Partial squats with a ton of weight
– Overhead supports
– Pin pulls from various heights
Zercher squats from pins of various depths really fry your midsection. Especially at the moment you have to break inertia from a state of almost zero tension.
Zercher holds will KILL your midsection. I have never felt intra-abdominal pressure to the degree of what I feel on this movement. Basically, I do a quarter Zercher squat and hold the position for 6-9 seconds.
When you hold you must keep your abs super hard (imagine getting punched in the stomach) and squeeze your glutes as hard as humanly possible, if not, your lower back will take too much of the load. DO NOT lean back even one bit. It makes the exercise worthless but also makes it dangerous.
Note that I’m only using 365lbs in the video, which is a good weight for a small female (Bud Jeffries has done 1000lbs). In all fairness, I lifted 400lbs but only held it 3 seconds and started to blackout. But I did an hour of Anderson squats prior. My medium-term goal is to get to 500lbs which is acceptable for a decently strong guy.
Anderson squats are very humbling and tell you a lot about your hip function. Anderson squats are back squats from pins from the full squat position. Simply getting there is really hard if you have even average mobility.
And it is super hard to produce tension directly from there. And NO it is NOT like doing paused squats… it’s not even on the same planet! You must overcome inertia while going from pretty much zero tension to maximum tension. VERY hard to do!
I learned that my hip flexors are weak because I have a hard time creating tension from the bottom. But by the same token, this tells me that the exercise is great to build the muscles attaching to the hips, which is also an important part of “core strength”.
Heavy partial squats are something that was a huge part of my training when I competed in weightlifting. I always believed in them because of the very high systemic load placed on the body. While the lower body doesn’t work over the full range of motion, your midsection stabilizes the supramaximal load just the same.
As such, it’s a great way to build tons of strength there, while also getting used to the feeling of very heavy loads. I recently started using them again and they are already having a great impact on how my body feels, performs and looks.
Note that in the video I’m using a 90 degrees squat (knee angle of 90 deg.) but sometimes I go even higher than that (100-110 degrees) to use even more weight. At 90 degrees I have a good training effect on my quadriceps. At 110 degrees much less, but the impact on my midsection is even greater.
Overhead supports are another movement I really like. You put the safety pins high in the power rack. You set yourself up under the barbell and grab it (as if you just finished a press). Lock your elbows while you get into a quarter squat (the height of the pins should be that when you are grabbing the bar and the elbows are locked, you are in a quarter squat).
From there, while keeping your elbows locked you stand up and hold the position for 6-9 seconds. This is great to build serratus strength, shoulder stability and a strong midsection. Important to tense up your abs (imagine getting punched in the stomach) before you lift the weight.
Finally, I do lot of pin pulls from various heights (mostly from below the knees, but sometimes from above to go really heavy). I also really like yielding isometrics with big weights on these. For example, start with the bar at the knees, lift it 1” and hold the position 6-9 seconds. Great to builder lower and upper back static strength.
All my own training sessions include at least one of these, but normally 2 or 3.
Partial Overloads Build Strength, Loaded Carries Build Resiliency
Call me OCD but I like to give each tool its own purpose. I do not like using barbell lifts to build resiliency and endurance. To me, barbell work is meant to be heavy. And when it comes to midsection-specific work I’m the same way. I keep my barbell work heavy and with low reps. But to have a complete midsection, both functionally and visually speaking, you do need to build resiliency not only strength.
To do that my tool of choice is loaded carries. My two favorite ones being the farmer’s walk and Zercher carry with a strongman log. My own favorite training zone is 30-40 meters and it’s the one I use with most clients.
But I’ve used as long as 80-100 meters when endurance is my main goal. Normally I do the Zercher carry more often, but in phases where I have lots of Zercher lifts I stay with the farmer’s walk. I do one or the other once a week pretty much year-round, and when my focus is getting leaner I will do them 2 or 3 times a week.
Isolated Abdominal Work Is For The Mind-Muscle Connection
Well Thib, do you do any isolation exercises for your abs? Any crunches for example?
Yes, I do. But I see them mostly as a way to improve mind-muscle connection with my abs. Or in other words, the isolation exercises teach me to feel my abs better, sensitize them to being recruited and better at creating tension.
By themselves, I do not believe that they will give you a strong “core”. Their purpose for serious strength-minded trainees is to improve their skill at recruiting their abs so that they will fire more easily during the first two classes of exercises.
So, the way I train abs with isolation exercises represents what I’m trying to accomplish.
I will use isolation exercises for my abdominals for 3 weeks in a row. Then not at all for a while (4-6 weeks). During that 3 weeks “blitz” I train them at the end of each workout.
Training them at every workout serves two purposes for what I’m trying to accomplish:
- Muscle recruitment is a motor skill. And the key to skill acquisition is the frequency (not quantity) of practice. So, if you train them at every workout with a focused contraction (not just going through the movements) you will rapidly develop the skill to contract them and then you can work on building strength with the big lifts.
- Training a muscle while it’s still tender gives your more awareness of that muscle. Keep in mind that I’m not using isolation exercises to develop my abs (it will help but its not the goal) but to feel them more so that I can integrate them in my big lifts. So if you are training your abs at every workout you will sometimes feel them a bit tender or even sore, that makes you more aware of them and enhanced mind-muscle connection (enhanced feedback). Useful to learn to use these muscles.
Understand that improving muscle recruitment is a motor skill. And neurological adaptations peak at 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, you might still have some progression but it is very small and not worth the effort in my opinion. That’s why I see no reason to blitz abs for more than 3 weeks.
Yeah but not training your abs for 6 weeks (or more)… won’t that make you lose your abs?
Quite the contrary!
In fact, what improves my abs the most is not the isolated work, in fact the gains from these is almost insignificant. The real improvements come from my diligent work on the other 2 categories (heavy overloads and loaded carries) as well as my regular heavy lifting on squats, deadlifts and the Olympic lifts. The isolated work only serves the purpose of making those intense strategies more effective.
Now when it comes to isolated abs work I really don’t use many exercises. Trunk flexion is trunk flexion. I’m only trying to improve my capacity to recruit them so I do not use any fancy techniques or exercises. In fact, I only use two exercises:
The cable crunch and the Swiss ball crunch. On the cable crunch, I do both the seated and standing versions, normally as a mechanical drop set.
I’ll be honest 9 times out of 10 my direct abs work end up being a superset of:
A1. Seated cable crunches
A2. Standing cable crunches (same weight)
A3. Swiss ball crunches
Max reps, but trying to fail as early as possible via concentrated contractions.
2 min. rest
Do 3-4 sets.
This is pretty much always what I do, and has been what I’ve done for the past 5-6 years!
What I focus on is how I perform each rep. This is what is important since my only goal is to become more efficient at recruiting and tensing my abs.
Before I even start a rep, I contract my abs as hard as I can, imagine getting punched in the stomach (yeah I repeat it often, but it’s that important). When tension is established I curl my torso (it’s not a flexion, it’s a curl/rolling action). When I reach the end of the range of motion I once again tense my abs as hard as I can and return to the starting position. I do this on every single rep.
When I do isolated abs work my goal is not to use more weight or do more reps; it’s actually to try to fail with as little reps as possible: this indicates that I’m good at tensing my abs hard (so they fatigue sooner). If you must do 20, 30+ reps to feel your abs you suck at recruiting them, period!
Do You Do Planks?
I do standing loaded planks… I call them Zercher holds!
Planks might be good to retrain someone to properly use their midsection/glutes to stabilize/fixate their body. But once you can hold it with a perfect position for 30-45 seconds it won’t give you the benefits you will get from heavy loaded work and carries.
Do You Do Obliques Work Like Russian Twists Or Side Crunches?
No, never did, and if anything, my obliques are “too big” (at least for aesthetic purposes). The obliques work really hard to create intra-abdominal pressure. As such they will work at lot when doing overload work and heavy lifting.
I will do some ShouldeRok/Macebell swing or sledgehammer striking from time to time though.
Do You Do Vaccuums
I don’t do them personally. In fact my transversus abdominis is so strong that I actually can’t do vacuums as they hurt because they pull too hard! But I do use them with figure and bikini competitors as I think it might have a small effect on making the waist smaller. Nothing huge but in that sport every 1/16th of an inch matters. Personally, I want a thick, powerful, muscular midsection so vacuums would not be part of the answer even if I could do them.
Do You Do Pallof Presses?
I do single arm snatches with a barbell, does that count?
Seriously I have never done a single rep of Pallof press. I have never even considered it. Not that I don’t see why it could be useful, but I’ll refer to what I said about planks. It might be good to retrain how to use your core when it is not working properly. But besides that, I don’t see the value in spending training money on that exercise.
There You Go…
This is exactly how I train my abs to make them my best body part. I’ve pretty much always done it this way, at least for the past 15 years. There were stints where I did stop, when I was more into “bodybuilding” and didn’t do overloads, loaded carries and Olympic lifting. But surprisingly (or not) that’s the only time my abs weren’t that great!
I am not saying that you need to train exactly like I do, we are all at different points in our training career, but it might give you some ideas about how to approach your abs training.