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Ultimate Abdominal Training Programme

Why don’t you step into my office for a second and give me the truth.  As interested as you are in health and fitness, as enjoyable and satisfying as it may be for you to run quickly or lift an impressively heavy weight, the real reason why most of you read my regular personal training column here at AskMen is because you want to look good naked. Sharp clothes and a good patter may bring confidence, but there is nothing, and I mean nothing, like the security of knowing that you actually look even better out of your clothes rather than in them.  If the wares that you can display are tight, taught, and trained then your confidence is sky high.

Because the eyes are drawn instinctively to the centre of the body it comes as no surprise that the key physical component to looking good naked (or at least the key component that it isn’t at God’s mercy in the genetic endowment lottery) is having a well developed set of abdominals.  An impressive six pack sets you apart from the beefed up puddings we inevitably find waddling around every gym in the country, and indicate the strength, speed and leanness that is the hallmark of every notable body ranging from the likes of Brad Pitt and Daniel Craig right through to the young Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding pomp. In fact, if you want an interesting lesson in the oft-debated “ideal physique”, you can do no better than look at the most physically awe-inspiring body I myself have ever witnessed – Michelangelo’s sculpture of David: 


Although to the modern eye, the David sculpture may not be the most heavily muscled or even “ripped” physique in existence, the proportions are perfect and the midsection musculature notably developed from top to bottom, from the intercostals, right down to the obliques.  As a personal trainer I am aware that this is the proportion if physique that most of my personal training clients are aiming for.

An Abdominal Anatomy Lesson

Although we commonly refer to them as “nice abs”, any one of you who has strived to develop an outstanding six pack will appreciate that it takes far more than doing a few sets of crunches tagged onto the end of your workout.

First of all the abs aren’t merely the “abs”. A great looking (and physically strong) midsection comprises of the rectus abdominis (the six pack muscles) that is responsible for flexing the lumbar spine and depressing the ribcage; the external obliques (the muscles that sit just over the iliac crest) that compress the abdomen and that the contraction of one side only bends the trunk laterally to the contracted side whilst rotating it to the opposite side; and the external intercostals (the muscles that sit over the lower borders of the ribs) that stabilise the ribcage during any trunk movement.

An appreciation of abdominal anatomy should help you to construct the right training programme to achieve maximum development.  What makes a well defined and developed midsection look so impressive is that there is a lot of visual stimulus for the eye to be drawn to, so my experience has proven time and again that working abs from a multitude of angles is always the best way to go for maximum results in minimum time.

Quick Fix Six-Packs

Normally, I make a point of stressing that success in the gym and with a personal trainer is all about paying your dues, and doing everything right time after time. Well just for once I am going to appeal to the quick fix merchants amongst you and reveal that it takes just 6 weeks of intensive training to develop your abdominal muscles to their full potential. Yes that’s right. Six weeks is all it takes. That isn’t a typo.

Now I should make myself clear, that is six weeks of gut busting (pardon the pun) all out effort where you train your abs 3 times a week for 20 minutes at a time with an intensity that would make Michael Phelps wince. But if you think about it, that is only 6 hours work for a lifetime of rippling abdominal development. After that your basic weight training movements such as squats, dips and chin ups should provide more than enough stimulus to maintain your new found midsection muscles.

And how do you achieve this miraculous feat?  Not by doing 1000’s of sit ups that’s for sure! Contrary to popular belief (one still put out there by many misguided personal trainers) the abdominals are composed primarily of fast-twitch muscle fibres, which means that they have the potential to grow quickly and respond best to rep ranges in the 8-12 bracket with a total time under tension (individual set duration) of 30-40 seconds. What works best then is to pick a series of midsection exercises (7-10 different movements) with resistance that allows for a 30-40 second set duration and then move from exercise to exercise in one giant set, resting for 15-30 seconds between sets, and 2 minutes between each individual giant set for a total of 3 giant sets.

Six-Pack Programme

The following is an example of a highly effective abdominal training programme that I myself used for a recent photo shoot. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and this programme that I am about to give you produced the photo below of my own midsection:

Nick Mitchell Abs

Hanging Garhammer Raises – 25 reps/1010 tempo (1 second down/0 seconds pause at the bottom of the movement/1 second up/0 second pause at the top of the movement).
Hang from a chin-up bar and then raise your legs so that they are parallel to the floor. Then and only then do you start the exercise by curling the trunk up.  Yes, this will be a limited range of motion, but that’s why you do high reps in order to keep the time under tension within the appropriate parameters. The better you become at this exercise the straighter you should have your legs. Top athletes of mine perform 50 straight legged hanging Garhammer raises in succession!

Weighted Crunches on a Swiss Ball – 10 reps/2012 tempo
While lying on a Swiss Ball and holding a dumbbell on your chest, curl yourself up. Ensure that you place the ball under your lumbar region (between the hips and the rib cage basically).

Decline Leg Raises – 10 reps/4010 tempo
Lie on your back on a decline board and then raise your legs until they are perpendicular to your body then shoot your hips up to form a bow shape from head to toe. Slowly lower your body staying as rigid as possible.

Praying Mantis – 10 reps/4010 tempo
Kneeling on the floor, place your forearms in front of you and parallel to each other across a Swiss Ball. Draw your tummy button inward and slowly roll forward whilst keeping a  neutral spine. Go as deep as you can whilst keeping perfect spinal alignment. The key point with this exercise is to roll forward as far as possible without losing your original back angle. If your lower back starts to sink down at all then you’ve gone too far.

Medicine Ball Curl Ups – 15 reps/10X0 tempo (“x” means explosive!)
Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor. Have a partner throw a medicine ball into your hands as you curl downwards, and as you curl (quickly!) upwards simultaneously throw the ball back to him.

Prone Jack Knife on a Swiss Ball – 10 reps/2011 tempo
Place your hands on the floor with your feet on a Swiss ball in a regular push up position. Draw your knees into your chest whilst trying to limit spinal movement. Think of drawing your hips up towards your knees.

Incline Russian twist – 15 reps/2010 tempo
Sit in an incline sit-up bench and do a half sit-up so that your lower back is off the board. You must strive to maintain that position during the whole exercise. Then rotate your torso from side to side. The arms are fully stretched out in front of you and they should move — only the trunk is mobile. Really dig deep and try for the longest range of motion possible.

Low Pulley Reverse Crunches – 10 reps/2012 tempo
Attach a looped rope or weight belt to the low end of a cable pulley. Lie on your back in front of the machine and hook your legs through the loop. Ensure that your knees are bent and that the loop is resting securely on your lower thighs. It also helps if you try to place hands under your glutes.
Exhale, pulling your knees toward your chest as you contract your abs. Keep your spine flat to ensure the lower abs are doing most of the lifting

Eccentric Leg Raises – 15 reps/10X0 tempo
Perform regular leg raises but at the top of the movement have a partner explosively push your feet downwards and towards the floor. Do I have to tell you that you must resist this manfully? And yes, by this stage you should be feeling weak, in burning pain, and be ready to curse me and my descendants for at least the next three generations. Especially when you realise that you have 2 more of these giant sets to go…

Abdominal Cheat Sheet

Here are a few pointers to aid in isolating the upper abs so that the hips and other associated muscles don’t take over, as so often happens with regular sit-up type movements.
1) Adopt a convex posture and place the chin on chest – this preloads the abdominals making them work more effectively and harder.
2) Turn the feet in and push your big toes together – this neutralises the psoas and adductor muscles ensuring that you correctly emphasise the abdominal muscles themselves.
3) Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth as this activates the abdominal muscles.
The same principles hold true for lower abdominal exercises except that a flat spine position should be adopted.

“You can’t flex fat”.

Awh, you knew this one was coming. All the stomach muscles in the world are utterly useless at impressing unless they can be seen.  Ditch the doughnuts and cheese sandwiches, and be prepared to exert self-control. There is no substitute for discipline, especially if you really do want to look good naked.

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