The biggest mistake I see beginners make with ab training is not doing too many isolation movements: it’s the failure to isolate the targeted muscle. Now, in most situations, this isn’t all that problematic. Let’s say you’re doing a curl, for example, and end up using a lot of front delt to control the negative because your elbows aren’t positioned properly. That’s probably not ideal in most cases, but it’s still a safe bet that you’re getting good biceps work in.
When it comes to abdominal training, however, it’s not unusual to see technique so egregious that the abs get virtually no stimulation at all. Instead, the hip flexors, neck, and lower back end up doing most of the work. That is problematic, because when overly tight or exhausted, those muscle groups frequently contribute to injury on the squat and deadlift.
To make matters worse, it’s really not easy to properly isolate the abs. It takes a lot of practice to find, maintain, and strengthen the positions required to do so. That practice is a worthwhile investment: when I finally fixed my ab training, my squat began to skyrocket, and I added close to 150 pounds to my 1RM in three months – after years of complete stagnation.
So, let’s take a look at how to start making your ab training more productive.
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How to Make Ab Training More Productive
Positioning is the single most important aspect of ab training. If you cannot maintain a neutral spinal position, you cannot properly train your abs, because the lower back will almost certainly remain engaged throughout any movement you perform. And again, it’s not easy. Finding a neutral spinal position is a multi-step process. Here is how I do it:
- First, I use my lower abs to pull my hips under my shoulders, just as I would in a hanging leg raise. I also squeeze my glutes. This prevents pelvic tilt and excessive engagement of the lower back.
- Second, I “bear down” with my upper abs just like in a regular crunch. As I do this, I avoid any rounding of my thoracic spine or mid-back.
- Finally, I inhale deep into my diaphragm and “push out” against my abs as if I were wearing an imaginary belt.
When done properly, you should feel like you have a wall of muscle supporting your entire core, from your hips to your rib cage. Don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t “click” right away; that’s entirely normal. Just be patient and keep practicing until you find a position that feels rock-solid.
You can watch this video for more tips:
5 Exercises for Training the Abs
Once you can find the proper position as described above, you can really train your abs productively using almost any common exercise.
However, there are a few in particular that I prefer for beginners, as my own go-to movements (the plank and the vacuum) require a fair bit of existing abdominal strength.
1. Leg Raise
I like this movement for two reasons. First, it helps to practice the first step of positioning described above (pulling the hips underneath the shoulders). Second, it lends itself to a great natural progression sequence for beginners:
- Start out by performing lying leg raises on the ground. Remember, you must maintain a neutral spine throughout the entire range of motion, so you probably won’t be able to lift your legs as high as you see in some videos. That’s okay. It can help to think about pushing your lower back into the floor to prevent cheating.
- Once you can perform a solid set of 10 with a full range of motion, you can add a twist to the end of the movement: while keeping your abs fully contracted and maintaining a neutral spine, pick your hips up off the floor as much as possible.
- After you have the more advanced lying version mastered, you can move on to V-ups or hanging leg raises.
2. Dead Bug
The plank is one of my favorite ab movements because it allows you to practice holding proper spinal alignment while unsupported – somewhat similar to what’s necessary in the squat or deadlift. However, if you’re not really comfortable in that position, chances are the plank isn’t your best bet. In that case, I prefer the dead bug, as you can use the floor itself as a cue to keep that back flat. Again, there’s a simple progression here:
- Begin by simply holding the dead bug in a static contraction.
- Once you can hold the position for a full 60 seconds, you can add in bicycle kicks to make the movement more demanding.
- When even that’s no longer a challenge, combine the bicycle kicks with alternating overhead reaches.
Eric Cressey demonstrates this progression here:
Other exercises I like…
3. Swiss ball crunch.
The Swiss ball is a great tool for ab training because it will help to prevent you from relying too heavily on the lower back or (even worse) the neck when performing crunches. If you try to do so, you’ll probably end up slipping off the ball!
4. Cuddle Sit-Up Machine.
The cuddle sit-up machine not only forces you into a good position from the start, but will also limit your range of motion according to your abdominal strength. It takes all the guesswork out of the picture.
5. Cable Crunch.
The upper abs can be pretty difficult to load on most movements, but the cable crunch is one exception. Plus, they worked for one of the greatest deadlifters of all time:
Why No Obliques?
I’m not a huge fan of oblique training. If you’re performing the squat and deadlift properly, and don’t have any underlying imbalances, you shouldn’t need a whole lot of oblique strength to demonstrate maximal strength. And thick obliques will create a wide-waisted aesthetic, which many would prefer to avoid.
However, if your sport involves a lot of twisting, turning, or unilateral work, you’d be well advised to include oblique training for injury prevention purposes.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.