Exploding Fitness Myths: why we avoid endless ab exercise
Ab Exercise: Beltless squats and deadlifts create strong, defined abs, invisible abs, if obscured by body fat
The ‘ab plate’ runs from solar plexus to crotch. An ab exercise such as the crunch contracts the top two rows of abs. Leg raises contract the pelvis and lower abs. Heavy barbell squats and deadlifts dig a deeper, more extensive muscular inroad, causing the entire ab plate plus external oblique muscles, serratus, intercostals, erectors, lower lats, the entire circle of torso muscles, to maximally contract.
Some myths die hard. Every ab exercise tool or device you have ever seen advertised on TV wants you to believe that abdominal exercise will melt off the fat that obscures your ripped six-pack. This myth cannot be killed. Just last night I saw an ad for a device “guaranteed” to give you “the fat-free waistline you’ve always desired.” And all that is needed, once you purchase their device, was “three, 10-minute sessions per week!” We were discrediting this schlock back in the 1980s when the first wave of “ab buster” devices hit the airwaves.
The title and subtitle of this article tells you everything you need to know about our approach towards abdominal training: we do not bother doing crunches or leg raises, or any direct ab exercise because our abs are strong as hell, highly developed, and athletically functional. The problem is not building bigger, stronger ab muscles, we got ‘em. The problem is melting away the body fat that obscures viewing our strong, developed abs, abs that we already have.
A layer of body fat obscures our otherwise defined abs from view. Abdominal exercise, at best, builds and strengthens the muscles of the abdominal region. Ab exercise does not, cannot, preferentially melt off the fat that lies atop the abdominals.
Spot reducing is a myth that falsely asserts you can magically melt body fat off a region of your choosing. Getting ripped abs is not about endless ab exercise; getting ripped is about the skillful balancing of precision nutritionand intense exercise, primarily aerobic exercise, exercise that jacks up the heart rate and spikes the metabolism.
The body is forced into burning body fat by denying it carbohydrate. The fat-burning mode has a narrow menu of acceptable food/fuel choices. Reduce portion sizes, clean up food content, remove or radically reduce insulin-spiking carb food and drink, do a lot of cardio, lift weights. But be aware that fat-burning is not a result of resistance exercise, fat-burning occurs in response to regular cardio and, above all else, disciplined, precision nutrition.
To get shredded abs, the solution is not adding hanging leg raises to your daily ab workout, the solution lies in getting control of your nutrition and using metabolism-spiking exercise to create a fat-burning caloric deficit. When carbs are exhausted, the body burns body fat.
The most beneficial form of exercise for the purposes of reducing body fat is not more twisting sit-ups, the most beneficial exercise is “fasted cardio,” aerobic exercise done on a near daily basis, upon arising, before ingesting any food or caloric drinks. Fasted cardio is SOP amongst elite bodybuilders seeking to strip off body fat.
It is unacceptable to simply starve. In doing so, starving, more lean muscle mass is destroyed than body fat melted. When the athlete crash diets, the body will preferentially eat its own muscle tissue (muscle cannibalism) to spare precious body fat, the body’s last line of defense against real or perceived starvation.
Muscle mass need be retained while attaining maximum leanness. There is no procedure or tactic humans can invoke to force the body to draw down body fat from a region of their choosing. That is pure biological hubris. The athlete creates the prerequisite conditions that force the body to drain its stored body fat. This is done through the coordinated juggling of exercise and nutrition. Once the necessary prerequisites are established and put into play, the body decides what region, what fat depot, to draw down stored body fat.
Old school bodybuilders erroneously thought direct ab work resulted in ripped abs. The more ab work you did, the more ripped your waistline would become. Bill Pearl would do 15-20 minutes of abs before each of his six weekly lifting sessions. Frank Zane, thrice Olympia, would do 500 to 1,000 reps of abs six days a week. Retrospectively speaking, this was a colossal waste of time. The caloric expenditure associated with conventional ab exercise is wildly overestimated. Any calories burned doing even 1,000 daily ab reps could easily be undone by eating a Big Mac and order of fries on the car ride home from the gym.
The biological reality is that there is zero relationship between ab exercise and obtaining ripped abs. Ripped abs appear when a man’s body fat percentile dips down, to 10%, or less. If you are holding a 20% body fat percentile, you can do sit-ups, crunches, leg raises, broom handle twists and hanging frog kicks, from dawn to dusk and you will never see defined abs.
We all have six-pack abs every bit as defined as Frank Zane on his best day. We all have crisp serratus and anatomy-chart intercostals. We can be shed our love handles and saddlebags – but this a matter of reducing body fat, which is dependent on the expert combining of precision nutrition with sweaty aerobic exercise.
Once ab exercise is shorn of the myth of spot reducing, what should be the true goal of ab training? The ab training goal is the same progressive resistance training goal as for any other muscle: build and strengthen the muscle or muscle group targeted. Period. Build and strengthen.
If you want to build and strengthen the abdominals get really good at squats and deadlifts done without wearing a weightlifting belt.
The deadlift is a massive, weighted, reverse sit-up - only way more intense and way more efficient and effective. A heavy deadlift forces the deadlifter to uncoil, to open, to expand compressed abs. The depth and degree of measurable contractions created by deadlifts (and ultra-deep hi-bar beltless back squats) are off the charts when compared to the contractions caused by puny ab isolation exercises. The abs and erectors must work together to lock out a limit deadlift or keep a limit squat from collapsing you forward. The depth of ab inroad created by squats and deadlifts is unobtainable by conventional abdominal isolation exercises.
Another fantastic ab strengthener is the high bar squat done without a lifting belt. The idea is to perch the squat bar high on the traps, purposefully precarious. Squat ultra-deep with a wide stance and upright torso. “Pull yourself down” on the squat descent. Bottom out and come erect ramrod straight. The abdominals must contract through every inch of the controlled squat descent and contract even harder of the explosive ascent.
Each beltless deadlift or hi-bar back squat rep forces abs to stabilize a massive payload that wants to pull the deadlifter downward or force the squatter forward. The entire waist region, upper and lower abs, spinal erectors, external oblique muscles, lower lats, all contract mightily and fight against a poundage wanting to destabilize the lifter. To stabilize the torso abs, obliques, and erectors, the muscle circle, must act as a unified whole.
None of our lifters waste time doing direct ab work. A man with a 400-pound, no belt, ultra-deep squat, a man with a 400-pound, no belt, deadlift, will have super strong abs, maximally built and maximally strengthened abs. They have attained the ab goal of resistance training.
If you are a possessor of strong, rock-hard, athletically functional ab muscles, and if you want to see those amazing ab muscles, melt away the body fat that obscures abs from view. The fat must be dissolved without cannibalizing existing muscle, a razor’s edge proposition.
Liberate yourself from the horror of endless, mindless, fruitless ab exercise, stop laboring under a delusional myth. Want real results? Redirect time previously spent doing endless ab exercises towards fasted cardio and tightened-up eating. Settle in for 2-3 months. Some mythologic bubbles need repeated puncturing.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.