By Alexander Cortes | Photos by Robert Reiff
With spring comes panic. All winter, you’ve been eating, lifting heavy and focusing on building muscle — meaning you haven’t thought about your abs since September. Luckily, there’s still time left before your shirt comes off.
To do this right, you have to develop your abdominal muscles with biometric assets in mind. Forget upper, lower and obliques. We are talking about stability, strength and power. Developing these elements of fitness in your abs is actually a shortcut to your optimal summer physique. For instance, when you develop real power in your midsection, you’ll be able to handle heavier loads in the gym, which reaps the kind of definition that’ll show the world you’ve spent the spring months putting in some serious work.
The Trouble With Conventional Programs
Abdominals serve a variety of different purposes. They stabilize, flex, extend, rotate and brace your spine. Most ab programming, however, is constructed at random and lacks any kind of progression. Would you try to build your biceps by curling only 20-pound dumbbells for six months? No, you wouldn’t, and it’s a major training fallacy to think you can develop an impressive midsection by doing the same exercises every week for endless reps. When you only train your abs in one range of motion, you’re leaving far too much strength, hypertrophy and definition on the table.
To make real improvements, you need to increase the degree of difficulty of the ab movements you’re capable of performing. The hardness and tonicity of any muscle is determined by that muscle’s strength. Although your abs can’t continuously grow, they can continuously get stronger. This means you’ll have greater definition and deeper cuts when you diet down. To make this happen, though, the continuum of movements you do for your abs must get more difficult and demand more strength. At the same time, it’s crucial to maximize the effectiveness of the movements you’re performing.
The muscles in your midsection are capable of handling a large volume of work, and they adapt rapidly to training stimulus, so rotating exercises will help negate any chance of a plateau occurring. Along with this, you’ll keep progressing your exercises to get stronger each week, meaning you’ll finish this program with significantly stronger and tighter abs.
Over the course of this eight-week program, you’ll train your abs three times a week, rotating exercises every two weeks. There’s a reason behind changing the exercises so frequently. This is a fully periodized regimen that starts out with basic stabilization strength and progresses to highly advanced core movements that will shred your midsection from the inside out. Instead of staying strictly bodybuilding-centric or veering into the “functional” end of things, we’re combining the best of both into a comprehensive program.
8 Weeks + 4 Phases = 6-Pack
Over the next two weeks, you’ll learn to activate, stabilize and brace. You can’t get to the sexy stuff if you don’t start with the basics, and these first two weeks will set the stage for the work to come. Your first six ab sessions may not look difficult on paper, but if you’ve never focused on these three skills before, you’re in for a painful ride. Understand that until you master these movements, you’ve got nowhere to progress.
Concentrate on executing these moves with total control, focusing on the mind-muscle connection in your abs. Don’t rush, and don’t let your body positioning get sloppy. These movements should look easy to anyone watching you, but your abs should remain rock-solid throughout.
During the next two weeks, you’ll build on the mind-muscle connection and bracing you learned in Phase One to begin training the whole length of your rectus abdominis. These muscles give shape to your six-pack and serve three purposes: flexing the spine forward, keeping it from hyperextending backward and helping to control rotation.
To accomplish this, we’re hitting you with stability ball pike roll-outs and rolling planks. The roll-outs will work your abs from top to bottom, and the rolling planks will hit your obliques and transverse abdominis (your “deep core”). If you’ve never done rolling planks before, you’ll likely be shocked at how quickly your obliques tire. This is important because the practice of bracing against rotation will lead you into the more explosive weighted movements in the next phase, ensuring you have the coordination to perform them.
Your next six ab workouts will introduce some explosive rotational movements to further develop the oblique and rotational strength you built in Phase Two. At this point, you’ll have begun to develop the kind of core and ab strength that’ll enable you to make some serious moves toward an actual six-pack. After these two weeks, you’ll feel a significant difference in your core strength, and you’ll see these differences in the mirror, too.
You’ve already mastered the basic movements using your bodyweight. Now you’ll apply that strength into dynamically moving weight with the landmine rotation. We’re also prescribing super-strict hanging leg raises to speed up the emergence of your six-pack. While it’s true that the rectus abdominis is one muscle, it’s possible to stress specific parts of that muscle — and with hanging leg raises, we’re going after your lower abs.
For this final segment, we’ll take your dynamic strength from Phase Three, along with your relative bodyweight strength, and apply both toward the most difficult variations of the program.
For your core, you’ll be doing overhead single-arm farmer’s walks. These require top-to-bottom core stiffness while also working your shoulders, lats and glutes to stabilize a load. For your abs, we’re giving you arguably the hardest ab exercise of all — the dragon flag. This move will take everything you have, from every inch of your midsection, to execute properly.
Single-Arm Farmer’s Walk
Using a dumbbell that weighs approximately a quarter to a third of your bodyweight, grasp the handle with a closed grip, flex your lats and opposing obliques hard, and walk forward. Your posture should be as upright as possible with no lean. If the weight pulls you to the side, it’s too heavy. Walk for the designated length with perfect posture, then switch hands and come back.
TIP: Make a fist with your opposite hand and pull down with your opposite lat and shoulder to keep your body aligned as you walk.
Stir The Pot
With your hands together, assume a plank position with your forearms on a large stability ball and your feet on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Flex your glutes and abs, and shift your forearms forward and back, pressing into the ball throughout and keeping the rest of your body rigid. To perform circles, initiate by shifting your arms forward, then circle them to the right or the left.
TIP: Increase the diameter of the circles only as far as you can control your body.
Stability Ball Pike to Roll-Out
Assume a medium-width pushup position with your feet together on a stability ball. Your hips should remain level with your shoulders, with no collapse in your lower back. Initiate the pike by raising your hips as high as you can over your shoulders and bringing your feet forward on the ball. Then lower them back down and extend your arms to shift your hips backward into the roll-out. Roll backward only as far as you can go without collapsing your lower back. When you roll forward into the start position, you’ve done one rep.
TIP: Externally rotate your arms (make a motion as if you’re screwing your hands into the ground so that your elbows are facing behind you) and grip the floor hard. This will activate your lats with your abs, enabling you to raise your hips higher and roll back farther.
Hanging Leg Raise
Grasp an overhead bar with one hand, contracting that lat, then grab the bar with your other hand, tightening that lat, too. Your lats and shoulder girdle should be locked down, as opposed to being in a dead hang. From here, internally rotate your legs, point your toes in, and squeeze your thighs together. With this built-up tension, raise your feet as high as you can toward your head, maintaining total control the entire time.
TIP: Imagine pulling the bar toward your body while lengthening your legs away from your body.
Start in a three-point position on the floor, with your feet together and your forearms parallel to each other under your shoulders. Roll all the way to the right side, stacking your feet and aligning your upper arm with your shoulder. That’s one rep. Next, roll to the left side, transitioning through the center position as you go. Complete all reps on both sides.
TIP: As you roll to each side, focus on contracting your abs and obliques as you line up your upper arms with your shoulders. This will help you balance and take some of the stress off your front deltoid and rotator cuff.
If your gym doesn’t have a landmine unit, place an unloaded barbell in a corner. Load the other end with the appropriate weight and assume an athletic stance with your feet slightly outside your shoulders, facing either right or left. Pick up the barbell and hold it with a clasped grip, with the fingers of both hands interlocked. The barbell should tilt upward at a 45-degree angle next to your outside hip. Explosively rotate your body 180-degrees to the opposite side, then immediately rotate back for the designated number of reps. You should feel this contraction through your abs and hips, and not in your upper body.
TIP: “Chamber” your obliques by firing them first during the movement, then using them to decelerate and fire again as you rotate back and forth.
Lie faceup on a bench or on the floor with a sturdy headrest or crossbar to hold behind your head. Starting with your legs slightly elevated, raise your entire body off the ground as vertically as possible. Once you’ve gone as far as you can, slowly lower your body only as far as you can control it. Don’t expect a lot of reps out of this move at first. It is one of the most difficult ab movements in existence.
TIP: Flexing your glutes hard during each rep will help keep your torso from breaking at the hips.
Single-Arm Overhead Farmer’s Walk
Using a dumbbell that weighs at least a quarter of your bodyweight — with the goal of working up to half of your bodyweight — military press the dumbbell overhead using either a pronated or neutral grip and walk forward for the prescribe distance, then switch hands and come back.
TIP: Visualize pulling your shoulder down toward your hip and using your lat to support the weight. This will increase your overhead endurance.