Article written by Matt Mills
When it comes to strength sports, abdominal training has been somewhat controversial. One side believes that all you have to do are the big lifts to get all the abdominal training you need. There is no doubt that squats, press, and deadlifts heavily tax the abdominals, but like any other body part, they need direct training to some degree. In the sport of strongman, strong abs becomes even more important, as there is a greater risk of lower back injury during such heavy events.
The abdominals purpose during a lift is to brace the rest of your body to not move. Endless crunches will not get the results you are looking for, if you want to move heavy weights efficiently. For those of you who have ever done a heavy yoke or farmers walk, you will no doubt know what I mean. Now in the sport of Crossfit, situps on the abmat and on the GHR/GHD, etc must absolutely be trained as they will be in competitions. However, I am discussing exercises that will benefit the big lifts and moving events. The first time I did the yoke was in my second strongman contest, and for added difficulty it was a car yoke. For those of you who have tried the yoke, you can imagine how much harder a car yoke is. With the increased length of the car it creates much more instability then a regular yoke. My legs were more than strong enough to move the car but my abs completely broke down over and over. The next day it felt like I went 15 rounds with Rocky Balboa. Granted I had never done the yoke before, but it was obvious my abs were extremely weak. At the time I was doing a lot of sit ups, crunches, and other useless exercises, not knowing any better.
The exercises I am going to outline are going to make your abs work the way they are meant to through bracing your core not to move. Pressing a heavy log or circus dumbbell takes a lot more than upper and lower body strength to hold the weight for lockout. If your abdominals cannot support the weight, then it will become a weak point you must get stronger.
The ab wheel is usually on everyone’s top of the list for strengthening your core, but the exercise itself is almost always done completely wrong. When setting up, have your knees and toes together to better engage your abs. The hips must be down and in line with the rest of your body. There should be a straight line from your head right to your knees. This posture must be held throughout the movement, and this is where most people get it wrong. The butt will come up while rolling the wheel out, or when the wheel is pulled back in. Both will make the movement much easier than it should be. In the video below I demonstrate how to correct these mistakes, and what it should look like. Like most abdominal movements, I like to keep the reps high, at least 12 reps per set. When these become easy, you can try a weighted vest, add a band to the wheel, or if you really want to impress people, do them standing up.
The power wheel is a great investment for any gym, because there are a variety of exercises you can do with it. Not only can you put your feet in it like I am about to demonstrate, but it can also be used as an ab wheel. The power wheel walks, or sometimes called alligator walks, is essentially a moving plank. Place your feet in the wheel, and get in a push up position. Use the cue I demonstrated in the video where you pull your ribcage down to activate your abs better, and avoid your lower back sinking in. As you walk on your hands do your best to not let your hips rock at all. Keep your glutes as tight as possible to avoid any movement here. These can be a fairly advanced exercise, so make sure you master the ab wheel first before trying these. Once the hand walk is mastered, you can also add some difficulty to these. One of my favorites is adding pushups with each step, make sure you keep the elbows tucked in to your sides for the safety of your shoulders. Another extremely difficult variation is what we call the Caterpillar. Start in a pushup position and raise your hips as high as possible, then slowly walk your hands out without bending your knees. Another advanced variation is what I call caterpillars. With each step you will raise your hips high as possible contracting your abs hard at the top before lowering yourself and moving again. I like to cover at least 50 feet at a time for these exercises, and up to 100 if you are advanced.
For anyone that has seen Rocky IV, and if you haven’t stop, reading this and go watch it right now, you will remember the training montage in the barn when he is doing these. These are incredibly difficult, and place a lot of stress on the lower abs, which is very important to protect the lower back on heavy lifts. Lie on a sturdy bench, and grab the back of it with your hands. Start by raising your legs, and then your hips straight up in the air so they point to the ceiling. Now the hard part is lowering yourself under control. Lower yourself as far as possible while keeping your body as flat as a board, then raise yourself up to the top position, and repeat for reps. For repetitions here, I would do as many as possible. Starting out you will only be able to get a few, so keep working on them to do at least 10, and keep telling yourself “no pain”.
The body saw has been one of my favorites for years not because of how effective it is. I like doing these best with my feet in suspension loops, but if you don’t have you can always use furniture sliders or even paper plates. These can be done on your elbows in a plank position, or on your hands. Body saws on your hands will be much more challenging, so if you are new to the exercise, start on your forearms until you are ready to add difficulty. Think of your body as a hand saw (hence the name), you will be staying as rigid as possible, and push yourself away without moving your hands. Similar to the ab wheel, do not let your lower back sag as you will feel it here more rather than your abdominals. Again this exercise is very difficult, so do not push yourself away quickly. Moving just an inch at a time is perfectly fine when you are first starting out. How far you will be able to move will depend on how strong you are. Stop the movement just before you feel you abs will give out. One of my favorite variations of this exercise is to do simple holds when you push yourself away. These can be done for reps as in holding each rep for a few seconds before coming back, or holding for as long as you can.
The front lever hold is the most difficult of these exercises, so when you have mastered the others here, you will be ready. One thing I will say with all of the exercises in this article is that they all teach you how to protect your lower back, and how to tense up your entire body. Whenever you perform any squat, deadlift, press, weighted carry, etc., your entire body must be tight. Front levers will teach you how to be extremely tight, or you will not be able to hold them. Start by pulling yourself up on either a bar or a pair of gymnast rings, and tuck your knees into your chest. Having your knees tucked is the first progression of this exercise, but make sure your torso is completely parallel to the floor. Have a slight bend in your elbows and contract your lats, and abs hard. Once you can hold the tucked position without fail for 30 seconds you are ready to move on. The next progression is to put one leg out as this will make the lever much more difficult. I will generally do 4 sets on this, and alternate which leg I put out. A full front lever is to put both legs straight out, having your entire body parallel to the floor. This is incredibly difficult and something I can only hold for a few seconds at best. Make sure you have someone watch or video here because it is easy to raise up to high, or low making the exercise much easier than it should be.