Six pack abs, flat stomach, strong core... when a client walks in the door, these are just a few of the “big” ones that they’re seeking. But what do you do if that client tells you he has tried every abdominal exercise in the book and he wants you to teach him something new?
You’re going to look him right in the eye and tell him you’ve got exactly what he is looking for! These three ab exercises, using only very simple equipment, will hit your clients' abs in ways they’ve never felt before.
Each exercise targets one of the three major planes of movement (sagittal, frontal and transverse) for a true total abdominal workout. To fully develop the core, you MUST work the core musculature in all three major planes. Standard crunches and leg raises? They only work one!
Exercise #1 – Inverse Crunches (Sagittal Plane)
The first exercise is going to target the abs in the sagittal plane. The standard crunch works the body in the sagittal plane. It basically divides your body in half, left and right. When you crunch up, you’re moving in the sagittal plane.
The inverse crunch is one of the most powerful “low equipment” exercises you can do. It takes the weight of your entire lower body and places it directly on the abdominals in a crunching movement rather than a leg raise movement. It’ll have your clients’ abs burning on the very first rep!
For this exercise, you will need a pole or a similar solid vertical surface. A door frame or solid table leg will work. I will use a pole as the example. Lie on your back and brace one shoulder against the pole. Grasp the back side of the pole with both hands about 18 inches up and grip it hard.
To get into the start position, raise your legs up off the floor and slightly bend at your knees and hips (see Figure 1). Lock them into this position. Your lower back should be flat on the floor at this point or very close to it.
For this exercise, you are going to be doing a movement similar to a crunch but reversed. I’ll explain. The major difference with this exercise is that, instead of raising your shoulders up off the ground to bring your rib cage closer to your pelvis (the anatomical description for the way the standard crunch is performed), you're instead going to be locking down your shoulders and bringing your pelvis up towards your rib cage, similar to a leg raise but placing more tension on the entire rectus abdominus wall.
Why is this effective? What weighs more, your shoulder girdle or your entire lower body? THAT is why it's more effective. There is more resistance!
Let's start the movement. Get into the start position mentioned above. Now pull forward and down hard with your arms. Since your upper body is locked down and your lower body isn't, this will raise your entire lower body off the floor (see Figure 2). This should not be viewed like a leg raise. Visualize that you're trying to pull the pole down and forward. Since the pole won't move, your lower body comes up. The pivot point for this exercise is your upper back/bottom of rib cage area, not the hips as in a regular leg raise. As you bring the lower body up, exhale through pursed lips.
Bring the legs all the way up as high as you can, squeezing the abs hard (see Figure 3). Now lower very slowly, fighting against gravity as it pulls your legs back down. Stop the lowering phase just before your lower back touches the floor. Be sure you don't let your lower back go flat on the floor between reps to keep up the most tension. Reverse the direction by pulling on the pole again and bringing the lower body back up.
This exercise hits the abs from a very different direction and with very different tension. It's something you will most likely never have felt before! Switch which shoulder is braced against the pole on your next set.
Adjusting the Difficulty
The difficulty of this exercise can be adjusted in several ways. You can adjust the difficulty by moving your hands closer down to your shoulders, making the exercise harder (see Figure 4). The higher you place your hands on the pole (as long as your elbows aren't straight), the easier the exercise will be as your abs will have greater leverage.
You can also adjust the amount of resistance your abs must work against by changing how much your knees and hips are bent. If you bring your knees up towards your chest, there is not as much resistance further out from the body, and the exercise will be easier (see Figure 5). The straighter your legs and hips, the harder the exercise will be. If you're adventurous, you can even try this exercise with ankle weights on!
Exercise #2 – Side Ab Push Ups (Frontal Plane)
The side abdominal wall and obliques are often worked using exercises such as dumbbell side bends. But these have a tendency to put painful torque on the lower back because the obliques are forced to work in isolation rather than as a unit with the rest of the core musculature, which is how they’re meant to work. When you think about it, how often is a client going to lean directly to the side in the frontal plane and pick up a heavy object beside them?
The frontal plane splits your body front and back. If you stand and bend your body directly to the side, you’re moving in the frontal plane.
Side ab push ups, by contrast, work the obliques and entire side abdominal wall in a VERY functional manner in the frontal plane. The entire core is engaged and stabilized while the obliques perform the work. This keeps lower back strain to a minimum while still directly working the side abdominal musculature.
Sit on your left side on the floor (with your left hip on the floor) with your left hand propping up your body, fingers pointing directly in line with your body (see Figure 6). Keep your left arm straight and locked. Your legs should be extended straight down. Your body will be bent sideways at the waist, like you're about to push yourself up to get up. Your feet should be together, legs straight. If you like, you can brace your feet against a solid object like a wall or machine. Place your right hand on your lower left rib cage. This will help you to feel exactly how the abs are contracting as you do the exercise and help you make sure you're doing it right.
Now, using side abdominal contraction, raise your hips directly up in the air until you've come up as high as you can (it will look like a sideways pike position - see Figure 7), using your right hand to feel for that ab contraction. Squeeze the side abs HARD at the top, holding for several seconds (see Figure 8), and then lower your body slowly. At the bottom, try to keep your hip off the ground to get a good stretch on the side abs. You can rest your hip on the floor between reps if you need to.
Make sure you are on your side as much as possible throughout the movement. Some forward bending is natural due to abdominal function in that area. Try to imagine that you're also pushing up with your arm to get the strongest effect on the abs. Lean your head down towards the floor as you come up.
Because this exercise operates in what is most likely an unfamiliar plane of movement (frontal) for most people, keep a close eye on form and tell your client to let you know if any strain is felt in the lower back. This exercise really tightens the entire side ab wall effectively. It's practical, functional and requires zero equipment.
Exercise #3 – Two Dumbbell Ball Twists (Transverse Plane)
The third and final exercise is going to attack the rotational aspect of the abs, working the core musculature in the transverse plane. The transverse plane basically splits your body upper and lower. When a magician saws a person in half, they “cut” them in a transverse plane. Movements in the transverse plane are generally rotational.
Here’s the best part. Rotational ab movements with resistance have the greatest potential of any of the major ab movements to tighten the waist. Think about it this way: if you had a tenser (ACE) bandage and wanted to use it to make your waist appear smaller, you’d wrap it AROUND your waist. You wouldn’t try and connect it to your rib cage and pelvis. Rotational exercises work these deep, rotational muscles to form a natural corset around the waist.
For this exercise, you will need two dumbbells and a Swiss Ball. A smaller sized ball is better for this exercise, though any ball will work.
Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet fairly wide apart. You'll need a good base of support for this exercise so that you don't roll off to the side of the ball. Hold two dumbbells of equal weight at arms length directly above you (see Figure 9). Keep them pushed together while doing this exercise (if they're separated, they'll move around more, making the exercise less efficient so be sure to keep them pressed tightly together). Start with fairly light dumbbells the first time you try this movement.
Now, keeping your head facing directly up/forward and your hips horizontal, lower both of the dumbbells slowly and under complete control down to the left (see Figure 10). Hold your breath and tighten up your midsection as you come down to the fully twisted position. Prepare to push hard against the ground with your left foot to maintain your balance.
Your left arm is going to bend to about 90 degrees at the elbow as you lower the dumbbells to the side while your right arm should stay perfectly straight (see Figure 11). Your upper body should stay in the same position on the ball - no rolling to the opposite side to compensate for the weight to the side. This torque is what makes the exercise so valuable. Bending your lower arm is CRITICAL to keeping your torso in the same position on the ball.
There are a few reasons we use two dumbbells instead of one. The first is that the separate dumbbells increase the instability of the exercise, increasing the activation of stabilizing muscles in the core. The second is that two separate dumbbells increases the shearing force going through the core area (the two sides are working separately). When you have only one, you don’t have nearly the same pushing/pulling requirement on the rotational muscles of the abs. Try it with one dumbbell for a few reps, and you’ll feel the difference immediately.
Since you're using two separate dumbbells, it's going to create a very different stress on the entire abdominal area than anything you've experienced before.
When you're at the bottom, your upper left arm will be contacting the surface of the ball (don't let it rest or lose tension at this point!). Reverse the direction by simultaneously pulling with your right side abs and pushing with your left side abs (see Figures 12 and 13). The right arm movement is similar to a rear delt lateral while the left arm movement is similar to a dumbbell press.
Remember to keep the dumbbells pushed together tightly! The opposing tension in the abs really puts a lot of torque across the whole area. Be very sure you're not just pushing with the bottom arm but that you're also pulling with the top arm.
Be sure not to bounce out of the bottom, but try to feel a stretch in the right side as you start the change of direction. This is NOT a ballistic exercise. It should be performed slowly and under control at all times.
If your clients have any lower back pain issues, this exercise does put limited tension on the lower back because of the rotation. If you do try it with them, go very light and take it very slowly. Working the rotational muscles of the core can actually help reduce back pain by taking up some of the stress that is normally put on the lower back when the supporting core muscles are weak.
These three exercises, taken together in single workout, will hit all three major planes of movement in the body: sagittal, frontal and transverse. Your client is going to get a complete abdominal workout unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before, and their results will have them singing your praises and coming back for more!
Perform three sets of each of these exercises for sets of six to 10 reps, depending on the resistance being used. This resistance is what is going to get them results... not endless sets of high rep crunches!