Why Your Abs Aren’t All That … Yet

A hundred crunches twice a week, week after week, month after month, and … nothing. If this is you, well, first of all, take heart in the fact that you’re not alone. Lots of guys approach abs the wrong way. Which comes to our second point: You’re probably approaching abs the wrong way. But again, don’t despair. We’ve got the fix, and we’re sharing it with you.

What You’re Doing Wrong

Several things, truthfully. The main one is you’re not giving your abs enough variety -- specifically, not enough ab muscle fiber recruitment. “You need to train your abs in all planes and in combination with a bunch of other exercises to achieve full development,” explains Mike Wunsch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the director of fitness at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Secondly, and related to the above, your abs program needs to be a core workout. Most people put all their focus on the upper abs, but that’s only part of the core puzzle. Wunsch puts his clients through a series of exercises that include not only extension and flexion, but also rotations. As a result, the entire core gets worked. And he never waits until the end of the workout to do core work. “We do it right after the warm-up, so it’s the first high-intensity move you do. If popping abs are what you want, it must be a high priority.”

Finally, you’re not hitting your abs often enough. Abs are not like other muscles that need to be worked only twice a week, maximum, for solid development. For those abs to show, says Wunsch, you need to use his program four times a week, alternating the exercises with each ab-workout day.

Wunsch’s Program for Making Your Abs All That

Perform two core moves per workout, supersetting the moves. In other words, do the second exercise right after the first, then rest. Do two to four sets, with 30-second rests between each superset. (Beginners should start with two sets.)

Alternate workout A with workout B for each day you do abs, and make sure you get a day of rest for the core between the first two and last two workouts. Example: Monday is A, Tuesday B, Wednesday off, Thursday A, Friday B.

And remember: Do the core routine after the warm-up (i.e., before the rest of your workout).

Workout A
Plank Saw, eight to 12 reps

Dumbbell Russian Twists, eight reps to each side

Workout B
Dumbbell Farmers Walk, 25 to 40 feet

Prone Cobra, 10 reps with a five-second pause

Exercise descriptions
Plank Saw:
Get into a standard plank position. (Lie face-down with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, forearms underneath your chest and flat on the ground. Prop yourself up to form a bridge using your toes and forearms. Maintain a flat back and do not allow your hips to sag toward the ground.) Your toes should be on top of two plastic plates or something similar (paper plates, 5-pound weight plates, etc.) that will slide. To execute the saw, slide your body backward and then forward, like a saw, so the angle between your forearms and upper arms goes from about 135 degrees to about 45 degrees.

Dumbbell Russian Twists: Start seated on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees, heels in contact with the ground. Hold a dumbbell or weight plate straight out in front of you (with arms slightly bent at the elbows), then lean back until you feel the abs engage to stabilize your body. Rotate as far as possible to your right and touch the DB or plate to the ground behind you. Make sure you rotate your entire torso and are not just reaching around with your arms. After touching, forcefully change directions and move the load to the other side.

Dumbbell Farmers Walk: Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells, with the heels of your hands facing your hips, and walk about 25 feet (go farther each week) without putting them down. Take short, choppy steps when walking -- especially the first few steps. This allows you to conserve energy and stay balanced during your stride. Once you pick up momentum, you can take longer strides, but it’s almost always easier to maintain control with short, choppy steps.

Prone Cobra: Begin by lying face-down on the floor with your arms beside your hips and your palms facing up. Activate your core muscles by drawing your abs toward your spine and squeezing your butt. Slowly exhale and lift your chest off the floor and your arms up and backward toward your hips. Rotate your thumbs toward the ceiling as you carry out the movement. Pause at the top of the movement for five seconds. Then return to the starting position.

What Comes First: Build Muscle or Shed Fat?

You want to get rid of the flab. You also want to put on muscle. But you know that you can’t optimally (or even remotely) do both at the same time. So what plan should you embark on first?

The answer depends entirely on 1) your honest assessment of what you look like now, and 2) what you hope to look like in the not-too-distant future. Says Mike Wunsch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the director of fitness at Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif.: “Every guy wants abs and arms” -- meaning cut abs and big arms. But, he adds, that’s like wanting to look like the chiseled bodybuilder … on the day of competition. “Ronnie Coleman doesn’t look like that 99 percent of the time,” he explains. “He’s usually 30 pounds heavier, having built up a ton of muscle before he goes into his cutting phase and then dehydrating just before the contest.”

Determine Your Goal

What you want to do is develop a sustainable physique that you can live with day in and day out. Take a look at yourself in the mirror: Do you have a decent amount of muscle but too much fat? Or are you pretty defined but lack any real muscle?

Once you’ve determined your goal, the next step is to embark on a fitness-and-nutrition plan that will change your shape accordingly. “If you have respectable strength, go right into a cutting program,” says Wunsch. “If you’ve got a six-pack but want to get bigger, you’re going to have to put on some fat along with that new muscle.” He gives an example of a 6-foot guy who’s a ripped 160, but who would rather be a ripped 190. To get there, he’s going to have to be a softer-looking 200 first.

First, Eat Right

If your goal is to get lean,
says Michael J. Sokol, a personal trainer recognized by the American Council on Exercise and owner of One-on-One Fitness in Chicago and Scottsdale, Ariz., you should consume six smaller balanced meals/snacks every two to three hours per day. Each one should contain protein (eggs, nuts, lean meat, fish, tuna, cottage cheese), quality, low-glycemic carbohydrates (wheat-berry bread, sweet potatoes, wheat pasta, fruit, brown/wild rice, steel-cut oats), dark veggies and plenty of water.

If your goal is to pack on the muscle, Wunsch advises getting at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Those six meals per day must be sizable, and one should include a post-workout whey protein recovery shake. While you don’t need to eat as “clean” (lower in fat, no junk) as those trying to get lean, you should still aim for nutrient-dense calories (e.g., a free-range, grass-fed hamburger with a whole baked potato, rather than a Whopper with fries). Just don’t skip those workouts -- with all that food, your body will be generating both muscle and fat, and intense workouts will ensure that much of it is the hard stuff.

Now: Build Strength or Burn Fat

Strength-building
is all about hoisting heavy weights approximately three workouts a week. A good approach is to do a push day (chest, shoulder and triceps), a pull day (back and biceps) and a leg day. Emphasize major compound moves (involving more than one muscle group), such as bench presses, incline presses, military presses and triceps presses on push days; pull-ups, deadlifts, back rows and straight bar curls on pull days; and squats, lunges and calf presses on leg days. Keep your reps below 10 per exercise, and rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets.

Meanwhile, says Wunsch, do zero cardio. “Aerobic conditioning has a negative influence on muscle gain,” he says. “You don’t want to tax the lean body mass that you’re trying to add.”

Wunsch’s fat-burning program is actually not that different, but everything is done at a quicker pace and with a higher rep range. While you’ll still do three workouts a week, the breakdown will be chest/back, shoulders/arms, and legs, which more freely allows you to superset exercises. For example, if you’re doing three supersets of push-ups/deadlifts, you’ll do the two exercises back-to-back (one superset) and rest 45 seconds between each superset. Aim to get at least 15 reps per exercise, per superset.

So, what about the cardio? Surprisingly, Wunsch doesn’t advocate standard cardio for fat loss either. “Running or biking is not what works best,” he says. “Look at the research.” Instead, you need to activate as many muscle fibers as possible with strength training to create a metabolic effect, and when you do any kind of fast movement, it should be done as equally timed intervals, such as sprints or heavy rope-jumping -- 20 seconds on, 20 seconds off -- for 10 to 20 minutes only.

Finally, whichever program you’re on, make sure to include some core conditioning. “Remember, your core is not for your six-pack,” says Wunsch. “It’s for resisting movement in your low spine and transferring energy from your upper body to your lower, and vice versa.” In other words, ditch the isolated crunches and go for total core moves, like ball roll-outs and planks.

Ronnie Coleman Photo by www.localfitness.com.au

7 Lessons Learned As a Trainer

I like to think I know it all when it comes to training. After all, I’ve been a workout fanatic for 25 years and was certified as a trainer (NSCA-CPT) in 2004. My clients depend on me to know what the best program is for them and what their results will be. But the truth is, my recommendations have evolved over time, as I’ve experimented with my own workout routines and noticed certain things in the field (and in the gyms).

I can’t guarantee my advice won’t keep evolving, but for right now, these are the seven most significant lessons I’ve learned over the years. Incorporating them into my own workouts has made a world of difference. I hope they can do the same for you.

1. Abandon the straight set.
Life is too short to do a set of exercises, rest for 30 seconds to a minute, repeat the set, rest, repeat. You’re much better off coupling that exercise with one or two more exercises for different muscle groups. This allows you to: 1) use your time more efficiently; 2) burn more calories; 3) stimulate more muscle fibers in the body; and 4) have a more interesting workout.

This is the favored approach of NBA athletes because it keeps their muscles in top gear during the season and saves time. A “combination set” might involve using a squat rack to do 10 pull-ups, then 10 squats, then 10 chest presses, then 10 stiff-leg deadlifts, with nary any rest in between -- then resting 30 seconds before repeating two to three times.

2. Lose the old-school training routine.
In related news, the standard old “chest/shoulder/triceps” and “back/biceps” workouts should be dead and buried. Both your shoulders and triceps are already too pre-exhausted from blasting your chest to get an effective workout. The same goes for the “back/biceps” routine. Instead, go with a routine that works your agonist and antagonist muscles -- for example, chest/back on Day 1, quads/hams on Day 2 and biceps/triceps and shoulders on Day 3.

3. Cheap dumbbells beat any machine.
If you value your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints, and want to access the deepest fibers in your muscles, use dumbbells instead of machines. The average exercise machine locks your joints into a prescribed motion pattern that might not be natural for your body. It also removes the requirement to balance the weight and thus takes away one of the beneficial aspects of weightlifting.

For even more total body benefit, switch out that bench for a Swiss ball -- for DB bench presses, for example, and even the DB back row.

4. Do abs early and often.
Abs used to get worked like all other muscles, two or three times a week. The problem is that they’re not like other muscles: They’re mostly fast-twitch and thus, recover very quickly, so you can work them practically every day. And if you’re like most men and it’s the muscle group you care about most, you should do them at the beginning of your workout to make sure you train them effectively.

5. Stop isolating your abs.
If you’re still doing crunches and sit-ups for your abs, it’s time for an upgrade. First, start calling it your “core” routine and invite other muscles into the mix. Your goal now is to: 1) develop the entire midsection, including all parts of your abs as well as the lower back; and 2) create the powerhouse that will both improve performance in any sport and keep you from injury.

Do moves like burpees, mountain climbers and supermans that hit a lot of muscles, with the core at the center of it all.

6. More is not better.
We’re still in the age of “no pain, no gain,” but as this recent compressed NBA season demonstrated, too much exertion too often can result in injury. Plenty of guys still think they have to live in the gym for two hours a day and do an insane number of sets and reps in order to grow muscle. Those kinds of workouts are really only appropriate for steroid users, to be honest. For strength training, your workout should never go beyond 45 minutes to an hour.

7. Bodyweight moves can be enough -- for more muscle and less fat.

Common wisdom used to be that weights were essential to build a muscular physique. That has changed big time. The guys in the popular exercise DVD series “Insanity” prove that bodyweight moves can be all you need to both build muscle and get lean. In other words, gym memberships that give you access to all that expensive equipment aren’t necessary for muscle, and intensive cardio isn’t crucial for fat-burning. A workout composed of pull-ups, push-ups, jumping exercises, core moves, speed maneuvers and a big mixture of all that can give you a seriously athletic body.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/P_Wei

12 Minutes to Explosive Strength

“What’s the most important athletic trait in nearly every sport? The ability to explode.”

So says trainer Rob McClanaghan -- and he should know. He trains NBA 2011 MVP Derrick Rose as well as NBA All-Star Russell Westbrook -- both among the fittest athletes in any sport. McClanaghan goes on to explain that stamina, strength and general speed are all very important, but sheer explosiveness is often what separates the great players from the good ones.

There’s also a sweet side benefit to working on this trait. The explosive muscles are what make your physique look truly impressive -- and it works both ways, for you can only become explosive once your body becomes lean and muscular. The explosive muscles are essentially your type II muscle fibers (which give your body its shape), as opposed to the type I fibers (which are produced by endurance activities like running or cycling). Type II muscle fibers are the reason sprinters, wide receivers, volleyball players and basketball players all look so chiseled.

According to McClanaghan, basketball requires a lot of physique-enhancing (i.e., type II–developing) movements. “Going forward, laterally and backward, as well as jumping in different directions -- that’s basketball. And that’s why these guys are so fit: because their muscles are being developed from every angle, with explosive movements.” Don’t play basketball? Not to worry, says McClanaghan. “You can get all the same benefits in your own workout.”

12 Minutes to Explosive Takeoff
McClanaghan recommends doing the following 12-minute speed workout three or four times a week, after a warm-up but before your strength-training workout, or even before your standard cardio. Move from one exercise to the next, pausing only to catch your breath. The ideal place for this workout is a grass field or a basketball court, though it can be modified for a smaller place. Do each move for approximately 20-30 seconds.

  1. High Knee: Stand upright and sprint by bringing your knees up high toward your chest as quickly as possible, combining with an alternating arm action.
  2. Butt Kick: Same as above, yet the heels of your feet should hit your butt on each stride. Legs should move quickly, but you shouldn’t move over too much distance.
  3. Carioca: Move laterally, shoulders square and facing forward while feet cross over each other quickly.
  4. Skip, Touch Inside Heel: Produce high skips and touch the inside heel of the front skipping leg with the opposite hand on each stride.
  5. Forward Skip With Arm Circles: Skip while doing forward arm circles and then backward arm circles.
  6. Frankenstein: March forward with each leg swinging straight up while opposite straight arm hits the toe.
  7. Spiderman: Bang out some push-ups, but bring one knee to your elbow after each rep. Switch legs after each push-up.
  8. Inch Worm: Keep your legs straight, bend over at the waist, and touch the floor so your body forms a V. With your toes still, inch your hands forward until your body is stretched out, then inch your feet forward until your body is back at the V. Repeat.
  9. Bear Crawl: Walk 15-20 feet forward and then backward like a bear, with back parallel to the ground, legs bent and arms partly bent.
  10. Ski Jump: Stand on one leg, do a quarter squat and explode in the air toward the other leg. Land on the other leg, load in the same way and then spring back. Go back and forth.
  11. Backpedal: Run backward fast, with the balls of your feet touching the ground as often as possible.
  12. Backward stride sprint: Sprint backward, with each leg taking full strides (so the heel of each leg nearly hits your butt) and staying on the balls of your feet.
  13. Single Leg Jump: Jump forward on one leg for 20 feet, then switch legs.
  14. Every Two Steps, Cut: Run forward, then plant the outside foot and cut in the opposite direction every two strides.
  15. Line Jump: Jump laterally over a line as fast as possible, back and forth, on both feet. Try to minimize the amount of time your feet are on the ground.
  16. Gallop: Gallop forward with one leg taking the lead for 20 feet, then switch to the other leg.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/isitsharp

Get a Jump on Your Fitness with Plyometrics

Elite athletes know plyometrics. Simply put, they know it improves athletic performance by making them quicker and more explosive. Once used in a small percentage of athletic programs, plyometrics are now an integral part of the elite athlete’s regimen, with everyone from Drew Brees to Kevin Durant to Tiger Woods swearing by them.

But the average gym-goer, no matter how fit, probably doesn’t fully understand them. While a plyo program has tremendous value, it is a highly specialized fitness activity that needs to be done in tandem with an overall strengthening program, and it needs to be done right.

The Basics
“Plyometrics capitalizes on strength,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) Gregory Haff, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at West Virginia University who coaches Olympic weightlifters. In other words, make sure you have a strong base before embarking on a plyo program, especially in your legs, hips and core. If you’re doing plenty of power exercises like squats, lunges, leg presses, stiff-legged dead lifts, leg curls and core moves, then you’re ready.

For the beginner, Haff recommends doing plyos twice a week for 80-100 jumps (do cardio and weights on two to three other days). Your plyo program will consist of a 10- to 20-minute warm-up and only about 10 minutes of plyos. Haff advises a four-to-six week program before a sport season (not during one). If you’re not playing a sport, simply cycle in a month of plyometrics every three to four months.

Why So Limited?
According to Haff, fatigue cuts down your ability to engage the strength-shortening cycle, or SSC, which is what plyometrics is all about.

Any explosive movement involves the two phases of muscular contraction: the eccentric phase (muscle lengthening under tension) followed by the concentric phases (muscle being shortened). A pre-stretch of the muscle lengthens it and creates tension that can be used to increase the concentric contraction, which must immediately follow, or else the tension goes away as heat. Take, for example, the quick countermovement before jumping, when you rapidly switch from descending to ascending. The faster the muscle is stretched eccentrically, the greater the force on the subsequent concentric phase. In other words, the shortest amount of time spent on the ground (amortization) during a jump results in the greatest jumping performance.

Tire your muscles and you’ll lengthen the amortization, which then decreases the effectiveness of the plyometric exercise.

The Warm-up
Complete a dynamic 10- to 20-minute warm-up prior to plyos: high-knee walking, heels-to-butt walking, skipping, walking lunges, shuffling sideways, carioca (moving sideways in a grapevine movement of step, step behind, step in front), running backward with heels hitting butt, rope skipping, and finally dynamic stretches (neck rotations, shoulder rolls, arm rotations, trunk twists, hip rotations, knee rolls, ankle rotations and leg swings).

The Program
The following program was provided by Jim Radcliffe, CSCS, strength coach at the University of Oregon. Use a flat, cushioned surface, and rest for 30 to 60 seconds between each set.

Exercise

# Reps

# Sets

1. Pogo

10

3

2. Squat jump

4 to 6 (first 2 weeks); then 6 to 8

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

3. Rocket jump

4 to 6

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

4. Star jump

4 to 6

2 (first 2 weeks) to 3

5. Galloping

10

3

6. Fast skipping

10

3

Pogo: Take upright stance with knees slightly bent, chest out and shoulders back. Jump straight up by projecting hips upward for height, using only lower portion of legs; you’ll resemble a pogo stick, with knees staying slightly bent throughout exercise. With arms bent at 90 degrees, swing them up for each jump to assist. Upon each takeoff, keep toes pointed up (instead of down).

Squat jump: Take relaxed, upright stance with feet about shoulder-width apart. Interlock fingers, and place palms against back of head. Flex downward to half-squat position, then immediately explode upward as high as possible, extending hips, knees and ankles to maximum length as quickly as you can. For first two weeks, pause between each jump.

Rocket jump: Take relaxed, upright stance with feet about shoulder-width apart. Slightly flex arms, and hold them close to body. Flex downward to half-squat position, then immediately explode upward as high as possible, extending whole body (including arms) vertically.

Star jump: Same as rocket jump, except extend limbs outward in all four directions away from body, arms pointed at 10 and 2 o’clock and legs at 7 and 5 o’clock.

Galloping: (For this and the following exercise, you'll need access to a large, open space.) Assume a standing position with one leg in front of the other. Gallop like a horse by pushing off with back leg and foot, and continue to keep same leg behind hips while maintaining other leg in forward position. One foot will always come off the ground before the other. Keep ankle locked to emphasize spring-loaded landing and takeoff. Switch position of legs after 10 gallops.

Fast skipping: Assume a relaxed standing position with one leg slightly forward. Skip as quickly as possible, maintaining close contact with the ground and eliminating air time.