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The Toughest Ab Exercise You’ve Never Done

August 10, 2012 04:40 PM

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"Any exercise that is completely safe usually is useless to build strength"
- Louie Simmons, Westside Barbell Founder.
It’s a completely different thing when you’re talking about ab work that translates into 500 pound squats and deadlifts and ab work that makes you feel confident at the beach or the pool party.
Very few know how critical really abs and obliques are in very heavy power and Olympic lifts, until they do them. Try squatting max efforts with weak abs and you’ll find yourself getting bent over like a melted cheese sandwich. The same with deadlifts. The abs and front panel must be seriously strong enough to resist the downward pull of the barbell and gravity in the squat, which is trying to crush your spine through your butt or trying to make sure that barbell never breaks the floor making you look very foolish indeed.
The abs hold you up, keep you from collapsing when heavy weights and big exercises are on the schedule and the exercises needed to train them to do so are no walk in the park.
I’m pretty familiar with ab work from every possible angle, and as an Elite level gymnast my abs got worked every single second of my daily five hour workouts. From the serious front back and sideways action on them in dynamic tumbling to the simultaneously static/dynamic work in the transverse plane of pommel horse circles to the insane demands on every inch of them in giant swings, L sits front levers and planches on rings.
Then a serious stint as a bodybuilder with the normal complement of crunches, legs raises of all kinds, cable work and tons of static work in the form of flexing and posing. None of which is a joke when you actually have to do it. Bodybuilders are judged most seriously on ab definition. If you don’t have it you’re not in shape, no matter how big your arms or chest are.
Then onto powerlifting, where I truly got my Ph.D in ab strengthening. As a disciple of Louie Simmons and his classic WSB system I learned from the Master himself (via weekly phone calls) just how critical a strong waist was- " A small waist is a weak waist"- Louie says frequently, and which exercises to do to get it. Again, these are not isolation exercises but full movements which use your hip flexors as well as the rectus abdominus. Situps, leg raises and side bends are done frequently and HEAVY. As in VERY Heavy - think 3-5 rep heavy.
Abs, like all special exercises in the WSB system are rotated on Max Effort days and we did straddle straight leg sit ups with 100 lb. plates at our forehead, straight leg situps with cable pulleys behind us, traditional bent knee situps on an incline bench as well as standing cable sit ups done to make sure we could activate the abs from the same posture we would be using in the squat and deadlift.
But the hardest, the toughest, the most demanding and productive ab move we ever did was the Decline Bench Zercher sit up. This is a KILLER from start to finish. And potentially VERY dangerous if you go back too far, or do it wrong, so get TWO side spotters to make sure things don’t get wonky.
Here’s a video clip on the basic setup.
While this gentlemen goes all the way back with an extended spine, I don’t recommend that. Stay in a flexed, hollow position at the start instead. Right away you’ll notice that the abs are "on" from the first second. Keep the chin tucked and sit forward on the sit bones of the pelvis.
Cradle the bar in the crook of your arms like a traditional Zercher squat or deadlift (I suggest long sleeves instead of a towel as per Pavel’s instructions) and take the bar off the rack.
(Plan your bench/bar logistics carefully as you don’t want to have to take the weight back further than absolutely necessary to get into the start position.)
From this position, lower back slowly to NO FURTHER THAN 45 DEGREES, then curl yourself back up, again keeping the chin tucked and the tongue against the roof of your mouth to help provide leverage for the muscles of the cervical flexors and tongue.
Use a weight you can do at least 5 reps with, as you are learning the movement, as you will note that there is not ONE point in the lift where the abs and obliques are not working intensely. Start to finish.
You don’t have to go back all the way, nor should you, as if you mess up and lose control that bar can roll right up your chest and say hello to your throat. Not a good way to end a workout.
You can work up to some heavy weights in this move and the 145+ the guy in the video has on the bar is not chopped liver. My best was 225 for a triple and my abs were sore for days. I used a straight weight progression starting with five’s and adding weight and trying to maintain fives until I hit a top end three rep set. Again, I only did a special exercise for 2-3 weeks in this system working for PRs before moving onto another exercise.
The heart of the WSB Max effort and special exercise method:
The combination of a static hold, a slow eccentric while STILL holding a static position followed by a strong concentric contraction makes the abs do everything except work dynamically and you won’t be lamenting that this isn’t in on the game too. Believe me.
These feel, and make the abs work, as closely as possible to what true max effort lifts demand of them in power squats and deadlifts.
If your back is wonky at all, and exercises that engage the hip flexors bother it, than this is NOT the exercise for you. And of course you should run through the gamut of traditional weighted sit ups, leg raises and side bends building up a solid foundation before moving into the more exotic exercises such as this - but if you’re bored with your ab workout, need to put some serious load on your midsection for your sport or Iron game competition, or just want to test your limits - try this gem of a sit up.
It makes sense to also pay some dues with a traditional Zercher squat off the rack as well before trying this variation of ab torture but it’s not a necessity.
Your view of ab training will never be the same again, I guarantee it, but Comrade, watch your grill…

Mark Reifkind, Master RKC
Owner - Girya Kettlebell Training, Master Russian Kettlebell Instructor.136 Hamilton Ave. Palo Alto Ca.
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