The Road to Ab-Ville

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Q: I’ve been an avid reader for a while now and know that you’d rather stick pins in your eyes than do ’crunches’ or some such for your abz. That said, I was interested to know your thoughts about exercises that train the mid-section for show as much go? Assuming you have your bodyfat down to single digits, what’s the optimal road to Ab-ville?

A: Well for starters, people need to understand that they’re not as lean as they think they are. Almost always, people drastically under-estimate what their actual body fat percentage is. It’s amazing to me how many guys are walking around claiming their at 6-8% body fat (which is magazine cover conditioning mind you), yet can’t even see one ab, let alone an entire six pack.

Similarly, this is on par with how every gym has that guy who’s struggling with 225 lbs on the bar, claiming he used to rep out 400 lbs on the bench press…….without warming up……….back in high school. You know, before that nagging shoulder injury he suffered during the 1983 state football championship, where he scored 18 touchdowns (nine rushing, five passing, and four receiving), and was given his very own bald eagle by Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, put an end to everything.

All kidding aside, even if one’s goal is purely aesthetics, and they really do have single digit body fat (read, they don’t), and they could give a rats ass about how much weight they’re lifting, I still wouldn’t have them do any crunches.

Can sit-ups and/or crunches help someone attain a six pack? Maybe, but at what expense? I mean, Dr. Stuart McGill (who’s basically the world’s ninja when it comes to lower back stuff) has routinely shown that repeated flexion is the mechanism for disc herniation.

Not many people realize this, but every crunch – or sit-up for that matter – you do places 3300 N (roughly 760 lbs) of compressive load on the lumbar spine. To use a great analogy given by Mike Boyle, it’s like taking a credit card and bending it back and forth – over, and over, and over, and over again. Soon, it’s going to break in half. That’s your spine every time you do a crunch or sit-up on a SWISS ball, Bender ball, or any other infomercial you see being advertised at two in the morning.

Of course, there ARE safe(r) ways to perform a crunch, but given that most people butcher them anyways, I just think the risk far outweighs the reward.

What’s more, when discussing the ramifications that hundreds (sometimes even thousands) of repetitions of crunches per day has on things such as neck pain, shoulder health, and more importantly, posture – it’s hard for me to make a case to advocate that people implement crunches and sit-ups into their programming.

That said, here’s what I would suggest (assuming one is already at single digit bodyfat)

1. Be honest with yourself. Are you really single digit body fat? I’ve heard numbers thrown around, but I feel that if you’re around 10%, you should be able to clearly see a six pack. If not, you need to get less fat.

2. The leaner you are, the harder it is to get leaner. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t differentiate between you trying to get girls to want to hang out with you, and starving. That’s why it’s so much harder to go from 10-6% body fat, than it is to go from 20-10% body fat. I could go into detail about beta and alpha-2 adreno-receptors, hormone sensitive lipase, T3-T4, and how all these different hormones come into play when it comes to losing those last few lbs of stubborn body fat, but luckily someone a lot smarter than myself already wrote an entire book on the topic. I HIGHLY suggest you check it out.

3. Separate your ab training into four different categories (ala Mike Robertson), and hit one movement per training session:

Anti-Extension: med ball work, barbell roll-out/ab wheel variations

Anti-Lateral Flexion: off-set farmer carries, suitcase deadlifts, waiter carries, etc

Anti-Rotation (Rotary) Training: Pallof press variations, chops/lifts (split stance, tall kneeling, standing), etc

Hip Flexion w/ Neutral Spine: jackknifes, etc.

4. Lift heavy stuff. It sounds cliche, but those who make it a point to lift something heavy each session, tend to have a pretty nice set of STRONG abs. Ditch the leg curls, leg extensions, leg presses, lat pulldowns, and pec deck- the world would be a better place without them. Instead, start each session with either a heavy squat variation (front squats ideally), deadlift variation, or chin-up variation. Thank me later.

5. Improving your conditioning probably wouldn’t hurt either. I’ve never met a body composition issue that couldn’t be solved without a day of 400M tempo runs and/or a day (or two) of Airdyne bike intervals. And, for the record, if you don’t hate life after doing either of the two, you’re not going nearly hard enough.

It’s hard to say without knowing the full picture, of course, what someone needs to do in order to really dial it in and get those abs to pop. Nevertheless, I feel the points made above would be a good place to start for just about anyone looking for that road to ab-vile. Have any tips yourself? Leave them in the comment section below….

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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