If you can combine shape and mass, you’ve got a winning combination. People seem to want to divide bodybuilders into those with good shape and those who are brutal freaks. Why can’t we have freaks with shape? If anyone can attain that, there is no question he will be the best bodybuilder on stage. Just take a look at Peter Molnar and you’ll see.
A common attitude among many bodybuilders and fitness professionals is that "bigger is better". Armed with that philosophy, giants with poor shape and unpleasing lines have been winning shows. Nobody is going to confuse them with aesthetic physiques that won contests in earlier eras. These guys are respected due to their sheer size and huge body parts.
At the end of the day, however, abs are the one body part a competitive bodybuilder doesn’t want big. Why? Too-thick abs tend to spoil overall appearance. Small, tight, well-defined abs give the illusion of far better symmetry. This is why I don’t train abs in the same manner that I train other body parts. I don’t actually want to stimulate muscle growth in my abs. If anything, I want to overtrain my abs to etch in definition and gain more control.
Real World Comparison
Let’s say I trained chest three times a week and did 20 sets each time. I don’t think my chest would grow at all, but it should be ultra-cut and ultra-hard. My pecs would be over trained. That’s my intention with ab training. I don’t rely on progressive overload techniques, because I wouldn’t want to induce a lot of muscle growth. I prefer high intensity, high reps and very strict form. I want to keep my waist as tight, compact and separated as possible.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to thicken your abdominals. If you need to pack on midsection size, use the same training principles you apply to other body parts. You could even use my routine, although you would have to increase the resistance and rest longer between sets. When building mass for any body part, including abdominals, the ideal rep range is 8-12. For working on symmetry or carving detail, that number can go up significantly.
I actually started training abs at the age of 10, when I first got involved in bodybuilding through judo. At the time, I trained with my father, who was also teaching me judo. By the time I started bodybuilding, my abs were already well developed. From that point on, I never need to train abs offseason because I didn’t want them to grow.
To be honest, I’ve trained abs only leading up to competition. Unlike so many other body part-training approaches, ab training doesn’t require a lot of specialization and variety. There is one exception; the intercostals. If you want intercostals to pop out clearly, you need to apply a lot of concerted flexing during training. Watching how some of the pros control their intercostals can be an amazing sight.
When you first try to isolate and contract your intercostals, its very difficult. Only later on in my career did I get the hang of it. The great thing about ab movements is that any one of them can be altered slightly during the rep so that the stress can be redirected to a different area of the midsection. In a crunch, for example, you can raise your body and, if you focus enough, you can isolate your upper abs. Or you can consciously focus on the intercostals by slightly twisting your torso to one side, bringing one of your shoulders to the opposite knee. Slight adjustments such as these, coupled with mental focus and a good mind-to-muscle connection, can make an outstanding difference in development of your abs.
The bottom line here is simple; I use my mind a lot in ab training. Central to all successful crunches and leg raises is the need to shorten the distance between the sternum and the pelvic girdle. When you shorten the distance, you effectively isolate the rectus abdominis and are therefore able to contract it in the process. You can actually feel the muscles working, burning deeply, when you successfully shorten the distance.
Ian Harrison's Ab Work-Out
I usually start off working my upper abs, concentrating on the three rows of abdominal muscles above the bellybutton. I start by either doing flat lying crunches (on the floor) or using a crunch machine.
Pre-contest, I keep my reps high - between 20 and 30 – for a super burn. I make sure to keep tension on my abs at all times throughout the short range of motion – I don’t rest at either the top or bottom of the rep. When doing flat crunches, you should keep your lower back pressed firmly against the floor, while actually moving the upper torso, arc-like, towards the pelvic girdle. I like the crunch machine because it allows me to do reps very slowly.
For beginner or intermediate, the crunch machine is particularly exceptional, because it allows you to add resistance, thus keeping the reps in the muscle growing range.
Hanging Leg Raises:
After crunches, I work on my lower abs. I want to avoid the bloated look you can get by overdeveloping that area. Hanging from a chinning bar, I lift my leg to each side as well as the front to effectively hit the intercostals.
In all, I do a total of 30 reps of hanging leg raises: 10 each to the right, left, and front. I prefer to bend my knees because my legs are so heavy; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to focus on isolating and contracting, the appropriate muscles because my body would be swinging all over the place.
If your legs aren’t very large, you should consider doing the straight leg version until you find the training groove before moving onto more sophisticated applications.
Next, I work on my obliques, for which I do a lot of twisting movements, usually on a decline bench in mid crunch position with a broom handle behind my back. I keep my body at an angle of about 90 degrees to the bench. I remain at that angle throughout, twisting back and forth, while keeping tension on the front and lower abdominals.
I make sure to squeeze both obliques every time I do a twist. I don’t advise twisting more than 30 degrees on either side. I see a lot of guys twisting as far as possible, but that can cause a shearing effect on the spinal disk. I get quite a rhythm going at a steady pace, but I don’t go too fast.
I don’t count reps; I actually go by the clock. I do 5 minutes at time with a minute’s rest in between for 3 sets. If this movement aggravates your lower back, try substituting side bends.
One-Arm Cable Crunches:
I’ve recently added this movement to my workout to greater isolate my intercostals. After grasping a rope attached to a high pulley (I keep my arms straight), I lean into the side of the pulley and simultaneously bring my arm down to the side of my thigh, making sure I only use my intercostal muscles in the process. By using a light weight on the stack, I can really feel my intercostals working. Seeing these muscles work is very difficult if your condition isn’t near contest shape, but using a light weight and going very slowly really isolates them. Contract hard at the bottom and stretch out at the top.
AB Giant Set:
To shock my abdominals into growth, I used to do a lot of giant sets. Even though I have cut back tremendously on ab giant sets, I will sometimes still do them, depending on how I feel.
My giant set for abs begins with knee-ups. Ill start off of the end of a flat bench, bringing my knees to my chest for about 30 reps. After that I immediately drop to the floor and do a set of crunches with my knees and legs over the bench, again keeping constant tension in my abs. Next, I’ll hang my legs straight off the end of a bench and pull them into my chest at about a 45-degree angle. My final movement in the giant set will be twists. Then I start all over again.
This fast-paced workout shortens the time in between sets so that the abs don’t have any rest.
Just Starting Out?
Beginners should stick to the basic exercises: crunches and hanging leg raises. Do three sets of each for 15 reps each set. To increase resistance, hold a plate on the upper portion of your chest for crunches. Your abs will grow with these heavy basic movements, but your hard work may not show until you diet down.