By Andre Newcomb
Let’s get real about what ab exercise can and cannot do
Ab exercise reality check:
High repetition abdominal exercise will not and cannot create the ripped, fat-free, delineated washboard waistline that is the trademark of a true bodybuilder. When it comes to leaning out and getting a “six-pack,” diet and aerobic exercise are far more important than abdominal exercises. In the Parrillo approach, disciplined dieting is far and away the single most critical element in obtaining the coveted fat-free waistline. When you combine a Parrillo-style nutritional plan with intense and consistent cardio, the body is forced into using body fat for fuel. Back in the days of abdominal ignorance, the widely held and unchallenged belief was that ab exercises burned away the body fat that lay atop the abs, obscuring them from view. The solution, based on a faulty premise, was to do high volume ab work. Ab work would burn fat off the ab muscles. In 1970, a pro bodybuilder would typically spend an hour a day working abs, believing ab exercise was “defining” their waists – the credit for their improving waist clarity was actually attributable to the fish-and-water, zero carb diets most of them followed. Olympia winners like Frank Zane and Chris Dickerson used to do 1,000 reps in the Roman Chair sit-up six days a week. And that was not all they did and they were not alone: when the crunch craze hit in the 1990s, trainers would routinely recommend clients perform hundreds of reps per session, daily, in order to “melt off the gut fat.” Now we know better: ab exercise cannot and will not magically melt body fat. Spot reducing was, is and ever shall be, a myth.
Abdominal muscles deserve their fair share of training. We treat them like other muscles and muscle groups; no need to hundreds and thousands of reps, Parrillo ab training works the abs by breaking the abs region into sections and using a variety of isolative movements. Parrillo presents trainees with a broad spectrum of innovative abdominal exercises; these varied ab movements are kept in heavy rotation: ab variety keeps ab training fresh and vibrant. Beginner bodybuilders typically fall into the trap of doing one or two favored ab exercises (that invariably attack the upper abs exclusively) while ignoring the other ¾ of the muscles that make up the entirety of the ab region. The solution is to understand ab physiology and train the abs using tremendous variety. Learn precision muscle targeting; the goal is to isolate and work separate and distinct ab “zones:” We need make the mind/muscle connection on every rep of every set of ab work.
Use as a warm-up:
Bodybuilding legend Bill Pearl had an interesting and highly applicable approach towards abs and ab training: do them first, use ab training as a warm-up for the rest of the body. Bill explained that like most bodybuilders, he saved ab training until the end of the training session and used it as a cool down. The problem was he kept blowing off the abs when the session was done. Something would always seem to come up that pulled him out of the gym and back into “real life” before his abs were done. He got a brainstorm and began doing them at the start of every session. This way he made sure the abs got done. He discovered ab work made for a terrific warm-up for the rest of the body. 15 minutes of high intensity ab work made for an excellent warm-up regardless the muscle being worked. Ab work raises core muscle temperature and eases the bodybuilder into the super high-intensity hardcore weight training session. Tear a page from Pearl’s book and do abs first, this ensures they get done and serves as a fabulous warm-up. Abs are muscles and need to be trained like any other muscles. Abs, like forearms and calves, have a greater fiber density and respond best to moderate reps to high rep and more frequency. Off-season bodybuilders should train abs three times a week. Competing bodybuilders and competitive athletes might train abs every single day. Sessions can be done in 10-15 minutes, using high-intensity non-stop giant set strategies that compress the amount of exercise done in a short time.
Think outside the box:
Every abdominal exercise should be selected to target a specific region of the abs. The optimal ab routine includes an exercise apiece for upper abs, lower abs, left oblique/serratus/intercostal, and right oblique/serratus/intercostal. You would be amazed how many bodybuilders ab routines consists of nothing but crunches. While a case could be made that crunches are an acceptable upper ab exercise, there is no way crunches offer the slightest stimulation to the other 4/5 of the ab region. John Parrillo is the muscle-targeting expert and has devised a whole series of innovative and overlooked ab exercises – each exercise has a specific technique and each is designed to isolate and maximally stimulate a specific region of the ab muscle complex.
- Hanging frog kick or leg raises – done with straps: Perhaps the best of all lower ab exercises is to hang from a pull-up bar and perform frog kicks, i.e. drawing the knees upward to the chest. The more difficult version is the hanging leg raise. Parrillo has his bodybuilders wear lifting straps that attach to the chin bar. The straps secure the grip, allowing for many extra reps. More reps equate to better results.
- Roman Chair sit-ups: If you can find a Roman Chair device, experiment with this amazing exercise. The “pre-stretch” is incredibly beneficial and the sit-up can be done with or without a twist. This exercise hits upper and lower abs. come erect on an angle and isolate the oblique. Make sure that you don’t turn this into a thigh exercise; if you flex the thighs you “assist” the sit-up; keep the thighs relaxed and use the abs alone to pull you erect from the low point.
- Russian bar rotation: this exercise isolates the side muscles with great specificity. Place one end of an Olympic barbell in a low corner where two walls meet. Pick up the other end (while facing it) and push the empty barbell overhead with both hands. Holding one end of the bar overhead with both hands and spread feet, bend as far as you can to the right and then left in a slow, deliberate arch. Do this movement right and the oblique muscles scream in real time.
- Leg raises with “below torso” heel touches: leg raises isolate the lower abs. Beginners should do their leg raises lying on the floor. Intermediate and advanced bodybuilders should perform leg raises on a bench; this will allow the legs to dip below the level of the torso. Leg raises done on a bench allows for a “pre-stretch” that makes this exercise all the more intense and effective.
- Overhead cable crunch with twists: a Parrillo favorite, this exercise isolates the hard-to-isolate serratus and intercostal muscles. Technique is critical; from the kneeling position, sitting beneath an overhead pulley, crunch down on the left side, return upright, then crunch down on the right side. Make sure you feel the contraction in the armpit region on each side. Slow rep speed enhances the isolation. Exhale on the down crunch.
- The little wheel of death: the little wheel has a handle coming out of each side. Kneel down, hold each handle and roll outward. Done right, this is one of the few ab exercises that works the front ab plate from crotch to solar plexus. The trick is to lower down slow until your nose is barely above the floor. Lower down slow, rise up as fast as possible. A strong man can do 10 perfect reps. Watch out for a collapse that results in a nose-plant on the floor.
- Toe Pulls on the lying leg curl: this is a lower ab exercise that is virtually unknown and unheard of: lay back face up, looking at the ceiling on a lying leg curl machine. Hook your toes under the leg curl pad and pull it towards your chest. This is amazingly difficult and zeroes in on the lower abs. Pull, don’t jerk, to get the weight started, lower slowly. Excruciatingly effective!
- Deadlifts: deadlifts as an ab exercise? Indeed, as Parrillo points out, a proper deadlift is a “reverse sit-up.” Use a “conventional” (not sumo) deadlift stance and keep the barbell tight to the body. When it comes to strengthening abs, deadlifts are without peer. This is a far superior ab exercise than say, “broomstick twists” or the dangerous “weighted sit-up holding a plate.” Stiff leg deadlift variations are also tremendous ab stimulators.
Variety is the spice of life:
We have shared but a few of the offbeat ab exercises in the Parrillo arsenal. Sets, reps and frequency are pretty straightforward: most elite ab trainers like to perform “giant sets.” A giant set is 3-6 ab exercises done one after the other and without pause. When you complete a cycle of ab exercises, rest, and then do 2-3 more giant set cycles. Reps would vary on each exercise. Most in-shape bodybuilders can perform 2-3 cycles inside of 15 minutes. What a great way to start a weight training session. Three ab sessions per week in the off-season is sufficient. Prior to a competition or during a lean-out phase, the bodybuilder will want to perform abs daily. The giant set approach is optimal for time efficiency – if you were to do the same exercises in “straight set” fashion it would take 2-3 times as long to complete the same amount of work.
The optimal strategy for getting ripped abs is to tighten up on the nutrition and radically increase the amount of cardio. There is no point in deciding to get ripped abs without deciding to get serious about nutrition. All the ab work in the world (and endless cardio) CANNOT overcome bad nutrition! Square up the nutrition; weight training is done regularly, ab exercise is included and done first, with variety, intensity and imagination. There is another trick of the bodybuilding trade that is widely used by competitive bodybuilders: as soon as you awake (and before breakfast) perform a high intensity aerobic session. Glycogen is carbohydrate broken down in the body and the body’s favored fuel. Upon awaking, glycogen (coming off a 6-8 hour sleep/fast) is at its lowest level. If a high intensity cardio session is undertaken before fueling up on carbs, the cardio exercise will burn through whatever residual glycogen is left and then, when glycogen is exhausted, begin using the body’s second favorite fuel: stored body fat. This fat-burning tactic is why competitive bodybuilders nationwide are seen in gyms in the early morning hitting cardio. Expropriate it to dramatically accelerate fat burning.
What we’ve learned:
To recap: those seeking to obtain a crisp, delineated, shredded waistline need to first and foremost get onto a Parrillo nutritional program. The second order of business is to mount a serious cardio effort. Smart trainers perform pre-breakfast cardio to amp up the fat burning. John Parrillo will have competitive bodybuilders prepping for a contest to add a second cardio session later in the day. Ab training should be used as a warm-up for hardcore weight training. Seek out new ab exercises that hit all the individualized regions of the abs; be inventive with the selection and creative in creating ab routines. Periodically rotate ab exercises to keep it fresh and exciting. Hold this course for six weeks and watch as the six-pack and obliques emerge from beneath the slowly melting layer of fat that lies atop the abs. This is the classical Parrillo prescription and it never fails to deliver results for those disciplined enough and diligent enough to implement this strategy in its beautiful entirety.