Attack those abdominals

Despite being a muscle group like any other, many people still train abs as if they were something unique and special – focusing on high-reps and often training them daily at the end of every workout. Why though? You wouldn’t train arms or chest this way, so where is the wisdom in training abs differently? It’s a myth.

In preparation for summer I’ve been upping the ante with abs and seeing great results – and from just two dedicated core days a week (on top of my swimming training). I train abs the same way I would train any other body part – hard and with plenty of recovery in between sessions. Here’s my current favourite routine:

  1. Start with an ab crunch machine, 2 sets on a light weight to warm up focusing on a full range of motion, followed by 3 sets of 10 – 15 reps on an increasingly heavy weight so that the last set is basically to failure.
  2. Using a high cable pulley with either a double-handed rope or a fixed angle bar, place a step platform a few feet away from the bottom of the cable system, and place a knee pad or soft mat on top of the step. Kneeling on the step, grab the handle, pull it to just behind your head and perform a full crunch motion, keeping the hips up high and finishing with the head below knee height almost touching the step. Repeat for 3 – 5 sets of 12-15 reps, with the weight set high enough that it’s just possible to complete each set with correct form. If your hips start sinking or you can’t crunch fully down then lower the weight.
  3. If possible, super-set the cable crunches with some cable side bends to target the obliques. Again perform 3 – 5 sets of 10 reps on each side. Take care to keep your back in line with your lower body (don’t bend forwards or back) and really try to feel the crunch each side.
  4. Using a mid-height cable pulley and single stirrup handle, perform some cable twists. Start with a low weight to get the correct technique and always focus on feeling the obliques and abdominals working throughout the exercise – keep the hips static and try to resist too much arm movement (keep the arms extended in front with the hands in line with the centre of the chest).
  5. On a matted floor area, repeat the following exercises 3 times, starting off with 6 reps each side and working up to 15 reps over time:
    1. In a plank position, raise your left foot and twist from the hips bringing the left foot over the right leg and touch the mat with your toes as far to the right of your right foot as you can, then return the left foot to its original position and repeat the same movement but with the right foot over the left.
    2. (Take a minute to rest your shoulders by stretching your arms out in front of you on the mat).
    3. In the same plank position, bring your left knee up and across your body towards the right elbow, touching it if you can but don’t worry if you can’t. Return the left foot to its original position and repeat with the right knee towards the left elbow.
    4. (Stretch the arms/shoulders again).
    5. Again in the plank position, perform a similar exercise as above but this time bringing your left knee to the left elbow, then right knee to right elbow – these are known as “mountain climbers”.

If that isn’t tough enough you can also incorporate some of these extra exercises:

  • Hanging leg raises.
  • Exercise ball crunches.
  • TRX crunches.
  • Decline bench crunches.

I find a key factor in getting a killer ab workout is making sure you really feel each rep and squeeze at the top of the motion for maximum effect. Unlike some muscle groups (chest, back etc.) it’s often possible to look like you’re doing the right movements but if you allow you body to make them easier (by letting other muscles help out or not fully contracting each rep) then your results will be limited.

If you’ve done a good job, sitting up in bed the next morning should be… interesting!