The journey of building muscles into a beautiful and symmetrical physique is filled with starts, restarts, doubling back, and entering unassigned territory you never expected to find yourself. This is not the sign of poor programming or unintelligent training. Building your body is not a linear progress; rather it is a duel between principles of specificity and variability. We struggle to find and apply the most precise stimulus to certain muscles, but then we have to change that stimulus in just a few short weeks. It’s like searching for a treasure that’s always moving.
Perform these exercises in a circuit fashion or in straight sets, but complete them in the order listed here, which begins with the movements that are the least stable and thus place the highest neurological load on the body.
Exercise Sets Reps
1. Lateral Ball Shuffle 3 6 reps
2. Alligator Crawl 3 30 feet
3. Stir The Pot 4 60 seconds
4. Bottoms-Up Carry 4 20 yards*
5. Pallof Press 4 12-15*
6. Lying Twist 3 12-15
7. Lower-Abs Blaster 4 15-20
* switch sides each set
“We are an adaptive being that is always trying to maintain homeostasis. What comes with that is the body is really good at adapting to stimulus. It is always trying to make that stimulus easier,” says strength coach and kinesiologist Brian Richardson, MS, CPL2, NASM-PES, the co-owner of Dynamic Fitness in Temecula, California. “That in itself is an exercise model. That is where you get your whole periodization system of four- to six-week cycles based on the principles of adaptation.”
The abdominals are a particularly elusive target, and unfortunately one that is prone to stagnation in training. The trunk is made to side flex, front flex, go into extension, rotate, and generally move in 360 degrees across all planes of movement. Stimulating your abs is like learning to fly a helicopter, compared to training your biceps, which is more like driving a monorail.
Additionally, the muscles of the abdominal wall are made up of both fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers. This means that you have to pay attention to all variables, including reps, load, tempos, and rest periods. And the mix of those fiber types can vary from athlete to athlete.
“Based on genetics alone, muscles can be very different. They don’t always fit in this pretty little picture,” Richardson says. “The muscles of the glutes and legs are usually fast-twitch, but look at Kenyan marathoners; they probably have more slow-twitch fibers in their lower body. That’s why it’s always smart to mix it up. At some point, you are going to get what you think you need and other times you are going get what you think you don’t need, but that might be what actually creates that adaptation.”
Bodybuilders talk about tie-ins in the obliques and the trunk and pubic area, and about the quest for creating symmetry. But there are genetics at work there. The abdominals can be prone to hypertrophy, but guys whose core muscles are predominantly slow-twitch won’t develop a lot of size in their abs, while guys who have blocky waists might be more prone to it. Ultimately, though, a widely varied core training program is your best bet for a sculpted, mobile, and injury-free midsection.
“It’s important to train all of these movement patterns to minimize risk of injury, but to also give a physique athlete that natural flexibility and athletic look onstage,” Richardson says. “You don’t want that stiff muscle-bound look that often comes from training in just one plane or from a limited movement pattern.” IM
1. Lateral Ball Shuffle
Begin by lying faceup on an exercise ball, with your arms out to the sides and palms facing upward. Your knees should be bent approximately 90 degrees. Slowly shuffle your feet laterally until one shoulder and one hip migrate off of the ball. Contract your core to remain stationary and balanced on the ball with your shoulders squared to the ceiling. Pause for approximately three seconds, then repeat to the other side for the allotted repetitions.
2. Alligator Crawl
On a section of indoor turf or smooth flooring, get into a push-up position with your feet on a 25-pound weight plate. Make sure the side of the plate with the lip is facing up and the flat side is facedown. Take a deep breath, flex the muscles in your core, and squeeze your glutes. Without lifting your feet, and keeping your abdominals activated throughout, walk forward with your hands, using your toes to drag the plate behind you.
3. Stir The Pot
From a kneeling position, place your forearms on an exercise ball in front of you. Come off your knees and onto the balls of your feet and into a plank position with your body forming a straight line from your head to your heels. Your abs should be braced, your glutes engaged, your elbows under your shoulders, and you should have neutral spine alignment. Initiate the movement by slowly moving your forearms forward and then into a clockwise circular motion for the prescribed amount of time. Reverse the direction of the circle for the next set.
4. Bottoms-Up Carry
Grasp a kettlebell by the handle and curl it so it’s upside down. Keep your elbow bent and just below shoulder height. Hold your hand close to your chin (or slightly in front of your chin for an extra challenge), and do not allow the elbow to flare out to the side. Keep your trunk braced and your posture tall. Maintain this position as you walk with slow and deliberate steps for the prescribed distance. Be sure to perform the movement on both sides.
5. Pallof Press
Stand perpendicular to a cable stack machine, with a D-handle set to sternum height. Set your feet shoulder-width apart and grip the handle with two hands. With your knees slightly bent, start with both hands tightly gripping the handle and tucked closely to your chest. Slowly extend both arms forward in a pressing motion. The end of the motion will look as if you are holding a gun at a shooting range. Other variations include holding the press for 20 seconds or more, or pressing overhead rather than straight forward.
6. Lying Twist
Lie on your back with your arms straight out to the sides, legs straight up in the air, and toes pointed at the ceiling. Your hip, shoulder blades, and back of your head should remain in contact with the ground throughout the movement. Lower your legs all the way to one side until they lightly touch the ground. Take a breath and tighten your abdominals. Slowly bring them up in an arcing motion across your body and all the way to the other side until they lightly touch the ground. Repeat for reps.
7. Lower-Abs Blaster
Lie flat on your back with your knees slightly bent. If necessary, hold onto a post or a kettlebell behind your head for stability. Lift both legs straight up in the air so that they are at a 90-degree angle and perpendicular to the floor. Lower your legs to a 70-degree angle and hold for a second. Lift your legs back to 90 degrees and, once there, raise your hips off the ground, pushing your feet toward the sky. During the raise, your hips should rise slightly off the ground.