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Ab-session: Midsection Madness For a More Complete Physique

The whole process can make you mean and irritable, and that can cause you to give up.

If I had to pick one bodypart that epitomizes fitness and muscularity, it would be the abdominal muscles. They're the one muscle group that lets everyone know you're in top shape. Of course, low bodyfat is a must if you want that etched six-pack, but it all begins with developing your abs. The bodybuilding world has provided several outstanding examples of great abdominal development. Mohammed Makkawy of Egypt and Thierry Pastel of France had the most outstanding abs in the 1970s and '80s. On today's competitive scene, Ahmad Haidar, Darrem Charles and Dexter Jackson are known for their incredible midsections. You have many different options for training your abs. Some people believe in doing hundreds of crunches every single day. Others recommend training abs as you would any other bodypart, using heavy weights and low reps. Which is the right training method?In order to completely develop your abs, you have to train all parts of the muscle group with the right amount of intensity and resistance. Start by dividing your abs into four sections: 

1) Upper abs 
2) Lower abs 
3) External obliques
4) Serratus magnus

Upper Abs
Incline situps.
 This is an old-school exercise, but it's one of the best for developing the total abdominal region'upper abs and external obliques. Those who regularly perform only crunches for their abs will be surprised by how difficult this exercise is.

Although the standard full situp can place a lot of stress on the waist and actually make your waistline bigger, you can modify it to work only the abs and keep the waist nice and small. Performing situps on an incline board emphasizes the abs. The higher the setting, the more difficult the exercise. Keep your knees sharply bent to take the strain off your lower back.

Begin the exercise at the top, with your hands by the sides of your head and your elbows pointing forward. Holding your hands tightly behind your head usually leads to strained neck muscles. Lower your upper body very slowly, keeping your torso crunched forward. When your lower back touches the incline board, return to the starting position, crunching your abs all the way up.

If you perform this exercise correctly'slow tempo, continuous tension'it should be very difficult to get more than 50 reps per set. I don't believe in holding extra weight during incline situps because of the tendency for the lower obliques to take over and become developed. Better to keep constant tension on your abs by slowing the movement and crunching hard on each and every rep. Shoot for three sets of 30 to 50 reps.

Crunches. This seems to be the favorite ab exercise of today's generation. You lie on the ground, and then raise your shoulders off the ground, crunching in the direction of your waist. You use a very limited movement'a modified situp performed without your actually sitting up. The short range of movement isolates the upper abdominals and develops that area of the muscle without involving the obliques or thickening the waist.

Doing crunches on the floor with your feet flat on the ground may be an effective movement for beginners, but there are other variations that are much more difficult. I like to do crunches while lying on a flat bench, positioning myself so my head and shoulders are actually off the bench. That enables me to achieve a superior stretch in my abs by increasing the range of motion. I keep my elbows pointed forward and avoid pulling too much on the back of my head and straining the muscles in the back of my neck. I also keep my feet in the air with my legs bent at a 45 degree angle, which helps to keep continuous tension on the abs.

When crunches become too easy, you can add resistance by holding a plate behind your head. Since crunches isolate the upper abs, greater resistance in the form of added weight will only translate into thicker abdominals, not a thicker waist. One very effective method is to do as many reps as possible while holding a 10- or 25-pound plate, and then drop the weight and continue until you hit failure.

If you have access to an Ab Bench, you could substitute sets of Ab Bench crunches, since they're essentially the same movement. Because of the rounded low-back pad, the Ab Bench gives you greater extension, similar to the effect you get when you hang your head and shoulders off the bench for crunches, but it's much more comfortable. The increased range of motion leads to a greater contraction of the abdominals in the finish, or contracted, position. Three sets of 20 to 40 reps should be just what those upper abs are looking for.

Kneeling cable crunches. This is another short-range movement that's perfect for building the upper abs. Kneel on the floor in front of a pulley machine, and grab a rope attachment connected to an overhead cable. Keeping your chin on your chest and your upper body crunched forward with your elbows close to your head, contract your abs as you bring your elbows to the floor.

The machine enables you to add resistance, while the short range of motion limits the stress placed on your waistline and focuses on the all-important abs. The key to success with kneeling cable crunches is to keep the range of motion limited to where you feel the tension in your abs. You don't want to use a full extension on this exercise because you risk thickening your waist. Do three sets with a weight that allows you to get 15 to 20 reps.

Lower Abs

Hanging knee raises. This is the best exercise for the lower abs. Hang from a chinup bar with your legs straight. Slowly bring your knees to your chest and feel the contraction in your lower abs. Lower your legs slowly, keeping the tension on the abs before bringing your knees back up to your chest for the next rep. Try to avoid building momentum, which will cause your body to sway with each rep. Keep your upper body straight, and focus on raising only your knees.

The exaggerated stretch on the lower-abdominal muscles in the bottom position is what makes this exercise so great. You can also try bringing your straight legs up'without bending at the knees. That makes the exercise much more difficult. Although it can be slightly more stressful to the lower back, it's very effective, if you can get the hang of it (no pun intended). Jay Cutler and Milos Sarcev are two champion bodybuilders who use the hanging leg raise consistently. One look at their abdominal development should verify its effectiveness. Do three sets of 30 to 40 reps.

Incline knee raises. Set an incline bench at a steep angle and position yourself on the bench so your head is at the top of the incline. Holding onto the top of the bench, raise your knees to your chest, squeezing your lower abs at the top. Lower your legs very slowly and extend them until they're straight at the bottom before immediately bringing them up for the next repetition.

Unlike hanging knee raises, on which I occasionally keep my legs straight for variety, I always perform the incline version with my legs bent. Keeping the legs straight seems to put too much stress on my lower back. Three sets of 25 to 35 reps should do the trick on these.

Vertical leg raises. These are similar to hanging knee raises, but you don't have to hang off a chinning bar. You perform them on a vertical leg-raise chair, which you'll find in most gyms and fitness centers. It enables you to support your upper body by resting your forearms on the arm pads and your upper body on the back support. You bring your legs up to waist level before slowly lowering them to the starting position. Keep your legs slightly straight when performing these.

Vertical leg raises are somewhat easier than the hanging variety, since the upper body is supported by the equipment; however, the added support allows for more concentrated focus on the lower abdominals. It's a good idea to end your ab routine with this exercise, when your abs are already exhausted. Do three sets of 20 to 30 reps.

Reverse crunches. This exercise is rarely used by bodybuilders, but it was a favorite of Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. It's a great movement for isolating and developing the lower abs, although it does require strong abs and lots of concentration to perform it correctly.

Lie on an exercise bench with your legs raised off the bench and your knees bent, and hold onto the bench near your head to support your body and focus the movement on your lower abs. Raise your hips off the bench while keeping your upper body stabilized. Your hips should come up and slightly toward your shoulders to fully contract the lower area of your abdominals. Slowly lower your hips back to the bench before performing another repetition. Don't let your body relax until you complete the set, as that will keep constant tension on your lower abs. If you have a bad lower back, you should stay away from this movement because it requires a lot of strength in that area to do it correctly. Do two to three sets of 25 to 30 reps.

External Obliques
These are the muscles that cover the ribs. They're located on each side of the abdominal wall and, when fully developed, add dimension and muscularity to the overall six-pack. Robby Robinson and Shawn Ray have outstanding external obliques. Although developing your upper external obliques will go a long way toward improving the overall look of your midsection, you must always be careful not to overdevelop the lower obliques that tie into your waistline. Building them will make your waist bigger and ruin the V-taper that all bodybuilders covet.

Many of the exercises for the upper and lower abs also affect the external obliques. In particular, I really feel them working when I'm doing incline situps, kneeling cable crunches and incline knee raises; however, there are a few exercises that target the external obliques directly.

Alternate crunches. These directly hit the external obliques due to the angle of the movement. Lie on the floor with your legs draped over a bench to stabilize your upper body. Place one hand over the area of the muscle that you're going to work and the other hand behind your head, and bring that elbow up in the direction of the opposite knee. If you're raising your right elbow to your left knee, you should feel the contraction in the upper-right obliques.

Complete all the repetitions for one side before moving on to the other. Come up slowly and hold the contracted position for a second or two before going back down. Although you're raising your elbow toward the opposite knee, your upper body should not actually come off the ground except for a small area of your shoulder and upper back. Most of the effectiveness of the exercise comes from twisting your torso in just the right way to target the upper obliques.

Aim for 20 to 25 reps per side for maximum oblique development. Because this is a crunch exercise, there's no need to be concerned about developing the obliques around your waist, since that part of your body is stabilized on the floor. Shoot for two to three sets of 25 reps.

Twisting hanging knee raises. To hit the obliques from another angle, try this exercise. Hang from a chinning bar as you would for standard hanging knee raises, but twist your knees to one side in order to contract your obliques. Bring your knees back to the starting position and then bring them up to the other side for the next rep to work the opposite side.

Perform these very slowly to feel the contraction in the correct area. It's easy to get caught up in the tempo of the exercise and begin swinging your body in order to complete each rep, but that will take away from the movement's effectiveness. Better to go slowly and feel each rep in order to fully develop your upper obliques. Two to three sets of 15 to 20 reps for each side will build thick Shawn Ray'style obliques to showcase those abs.

Serratus Magnus
These muscles are located beneath and to the side of the lower pecs. They're short, thick muscles that are clearly visible when your arms are raised overhead, and they're developed by any type of pullover exercise. Although not exactly part of the abdominal region, the serratus muscles add to the overall look of the six-pack when combined with the external obliques and abs.

Dumbbell pullovers. I usually do these at the end of my chest workout. They're great for developing the upper-inner pecs and expanding the ribcage, but they also thicken the serratus.

Lie across an exercise bench holding a single dumbbell with both hands. Keeping your hips low, take a deep breath and slowly lower the dumbbell until it reaches the level of the bench. Pause for a second, and then bring the dumbbell back up until it's directly over your chest. Try to get three sets of dumbbell pullovers for 10 to 12 reps.

Straight-arm pulldowns. This is another great exercise for developing the serratus muscles. Many bodybuilders prefer to do it at the end of their lat routines for a final pump. It's also great for isolating the lats, as it's one of those rare back exercises that doesn't involve the biceps muscles.

To properly perform the straight-arm pulldown, stand in front of a pulldown machine and grab the bar with a grip that's slightly wider than shoulder width. Maintaining a semistraight arm position, with your elbows slightly bent, pull the bar down from the top position until it touches your thighs. Flex your lats in the bottom position before bringing the bar back to the top for a good stretch. Two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps at the end of your back workout will pump up your lats and build your serratus.

Get Lean Without Getting Mean!
Getting lean so you can see your abs doesn't have to turn you into a candidate for the Most Irritable Person on Earth award. Unless you're preparing for the Mr. Olympia and 100 grand is on the line, it's not worth it'or even necessary'to offend your friends and ruin relationships just to get a six-pack. The truth is, it's actually easy to get lean'and stay there. I make my living by being in 'shootable' condition year-round, and I've pretty much mastered the art of getting lean without getting mean.

Most people think you have to put yourself through a torturous diet, kill yourself with endless workouts and/or use the next magic supplement to get a shredded physique. Actually, getting in top shape is more about consistency and attention to detail. Sure, you've got to eat right and train smart, and many great supplements can help you reach your goals, but you don't have to go crazy.

Here are five easy things you can do to get leaner:

1) Drink a gallon of water each day. You know you should, but do you do it? I'm talking water'not coffee, not soda, not milk, not juice. Replace all those with H2O and marvel at the results. Drinking water removes toxins and pollutants and improves your body's ability to metabolize fat. And if you can manage to down 1 1/2 gallons a day, that's even better.

2) Eat whole natural foods. My friend William Smith of INTRAFITT warns against consuming too many 'secondary nutrition' items such as protein powders and MRPs. There's definitely a place for those supplements, but try to balance your intake with natural foods like vegetables, meats, oils, eggs and whole grains.

3) Eat portionally correct meals. The best way to eliminate diet confusion is to eat meals every three to four hours that consist of a portion of carbohydrate, a portion of protein and a portion of fat. Use your hand to determine portion sizes: carbs should equal the size of your clenched fist; proteins should be about the size of your palm, and fats should be no larger than the tip of your thumb from the knuckle up.

4) Reach your target heart rate. Cardio is key to staying lean. To make sure you're getting the desired results from your cardio program, do yourself a favor and buy a good heart rate monitor'and use it!

5) Don't overtrain. Less is more when it comes to time in the gym. When people brag and say, 'I just trained for two hours, man!' I think to myself, 'You were there about 1 1/2 hours too long!' I weight train one bodypart per day, and I'm finished in 30 minutes (with a partner). On cardio days I add another hour. Remember, recovery is important if you want your body to respond to your workouts.

That's all pretty basic stuff, but people trick themselves into thinking that it won't work. They get anxious and think that they've got to diet harder or exercise more. They forget the bigger picture and don't realize that being overzealous can actually work against them. Strict diets turn into binges. Hard training can lead to exhaustion or, even worse, to injury. The whole process can make you mean and irritable, and that can cause you to give up.

It doesn't have to be that way. Train smart, eat right, follow my five rules and being lean will be routine! 

The Routines
Now it's time to put the exercises together to fully develop your complete abdominal region. Whether you're a beginning, intermediate or advanced bodybuilder, you need to train your upper abs, lower abs, external obliques and serratus muscles.

Beginning Routine
Upper abs
Incline situps 3 x 30-40
Lower abs
Incline knee raises 3 x 30-40
Dumbbell pullovers 2-3 x 10-12
Do the first two exercises twice a week. Perform the pullovers at the end of your chest workout.

Intermediate Routine 1
Upper abs
Bench crunches
or Ab Bench
crunches 3 x 40-50
Lower abs
Hanging knee raises 3 x 20-30
Kneeling cable 
crunches 2-3 x 20-30
Dumbbell pullovers 
(at the end of your chest 
workout) 2-3 x 10-12

Intermediate Routine 2
Upper abs
Incline situps 3 x 40-50
Lower abs
Incline knee raises 3 x 30-40
Hanging twisting
knee raises 2-3 x 15-20
Serratusv Straight-arm lat pulldowns 
(at end of your lat 
workout) 2-3 x 10-12
For the intermediate routines, you can also add an external oblique exercise.

Advanced Routine 1
Upper abs
Incline situps 3 x 40-50
Lower abs
Incline knee raises 3 x 30-40
crunches 3 x 20-30
Lower abs
Vertical leg raises 3 x 20-30
Dumbbell pullovers 
(at end of your chest 
routine) 2-3 x 10-12

Advanced Routine 2
Upper abs
Crunches on bench 3 x 40-50
Lower abs
Hanging leg raises 3 x 30-40
Kneeling cable
crunches 3 x 15-20
Lower abs
Incline knee raises 3 x 20-30
Straight-arm lat pulldowns 
(at end of your lat 
routine) 2-3 x 10-12

Editor's note: Champion drug-free bodybuilder John Hansen is the '98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. He can design a training and diet program specifically for you. Visit his newly designed Web site at for more information. You can write to him at John@Natural or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. IM

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