It’s time to get to the part you’ve all been waiting for: the rectus abdominis, or “six-pack” (or 8 or 10-pack). Truth is, assuming diet and cardio are on point, there is no secret to developing a flawless six-pack, provided you consistently execute a core training formula that incorporates all of the other components we’ve discussed up to this point. More often than not, lack of attention to either the obliques, “lower abs” or the transverse abdominis are to blame for less than perfect results in your frontal armor. In fact, it’s safe to say that anyone with at least a minimal interest in having abs will always hit the rectus abdominis (RA). Lack of attention there isn’t the problem.

Looking at the anatomy of the RA, it’s actually one muscle sectioned off into segments, the visibility of which determines your “Pack Level.” Two, four, six and even eight or 10-pack abs can be sported by the same person in any given period of time, depending on their conditioning (and to some extent, their genetics). The more effective and consistent the RA is trained, the denser and firmer the muscle tissue. And, the lower your body fat and excess water, the thinner the layer covering your RA segments. These two factors combined can elevate or diminish the visibility of your muscle segments.

Since I am not the nutrition guru of the Lifestyle and Strength team, I’d like to focus more on the execution of RA movements for proper conditioning, as that can have a significant impact on how the muscles develop and determine your overall results. You might think “a sit up is a sit up… a crunch is crunch.” Actually, there are some tell-tale signs of improper or imbalanced execution of RA exercises. For instance, you ever notice that in some people, some of the pairs of segments are more pronounced than others. That typically suggests two execution errors: 1) hinging at the hip while performing exercises; or 2) concentrating on a limited range of motion.

As we addressed in our discussion about training the lower RA (“lower abs”), when you hinge at the hip, the hip flexors carry the load, thus minimizing the involvement of the lower segments. Only the upper segments bare any significant resistance, and thus develop disproportionately. Same is true when you have a limited range of motion. Resistance is limited to the working segment. Two conditions lead us to fall into these traps: 1) too much weight for what the actual strength of our entire RA really is; 2) lack of attention to form in the full range of motion. I can’t suggest what the appropriate weight for your strength is, as we’re all individuals. However, we can take a look at your form as an indication of suitability of weight.

When training the RA, in the back of my mind I think to myself: “Strike like a scorpion.” It may seem silly, but it gives me a very clear visual of how I want to curl my torso, one pair of segments of the RA at a time, just like a scorpion curls its tail. This way, I almost guarantee that every segment will be activated and stimulated. If I’m not able to perform the movement this way, then I know my weight is too heavy.

Let’s apply this technique to a standard kneeling cable crunch. If I employ this method, once I have the weight supported by my body, I should be able to lock my hips in place, and curl down and inward, bring my face toward my knees as if in a kneeling fetal position. If I have to shift my hips and glutes back as I come down, the weight is too heavy and my hip flexors are executing the first part of the lift. And, since I want equally proportioned RA segments, I have to be willing to let go of my ego and reduce my weight. Besides, when it comes to abs, it doesn’t matter how much I can lift. The only thing that matters is how much it LOOKS like I can lift.

This principal of execution is true with any exercise with which you’re introducing weight for increased intensity. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to watch guys jump on things like the Roman chair, (which they’ve weighted down to keep it from lifting off the floor when they swing back) and have a buddy hand them several plates. There’s some serious hip flexing going on, but the abs haven’t been invited to the party. It’s actually a good idea for all of us to give a nod to the title of this series, “Back to the Basics,” and try some of the weighted exercises we’ve been using for some time now in their purest form: body weight with perfect form. You may find them to be more effective than we thought.

Take this week of core training and focus on how you’re executing your movements. What muscle is doing the work? Are you a scorpion? Next week, we’ll continue this line of thought with a discussion of muscle contractions. Are you training for ab muscle creation or core endurance?

Michael Anderson
CPT NCSF, IFBB Physique Pro

Happy Lifting!

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