Chisel Your Middle

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“I want to be able to bench twice my bodyweight.” “I want to do 20 pull-ups.” “I want to run a six-minute mile.”

As a gym rat, you are likely a dedicated goal-setter. You know setting targets focuses you on the end result you desire, and they help you formulate a strong plan of attack. To bench twice your bodyweight, for example, you’d set up a progressive strength program that emphasizes your chest as well as supporting groups like the delts and triceps. You’d manipulate training variables along the way, aiming for more volume, higher intensity and greater weight loads because you know that this approach is what it takes to reach your goal.

So why don’t you apply that kind of programming to your abs? Everyone who heads to the gym wants to have eye-popping abs, yet most routines are forged as an afterthought — a few high-rep sets with three to four exercises tacked to the end of your regular workout. What kind of results do you expect with such a lackadaisical approach?

If you’re ready to get serious about your midsection meltdown, this eight-week program will have you pay the same level of attention to your midsection as you would any other lagging bodypart. It’s progressive in nature, taking away the possibility that your abs would be lulled to sleep by yet another carbon-copied routine. Each week, your abs-only workouts will get noticeably more difficult — you’ll reduce your rest periods, add exercises and/or add weight to some moves — leaving you sapped and sore but setting you up for a newly minted sixer.

Jim Ryno, CPT, owner of LIFT Studios, a private personal-training facility in New Jersey, designed the plan for M&P. To him, the key for those looking to get that cover-model look to their abs is to train them with the same vigor as you would any other showcase bodypart. “It’s time to stop with endless reps for abs,” Ryno says. “It’s like doing long, slow, boring cardio, and it’s less effective. You need to start training abs like you would other muscle groups for maximum results.”

ABSOLUTE EFFORT

This workout plan eliminates the tendency for you to train abs after you’ve trained other bodyparts. For eight weeks, you’ll train abs separately three times per week, allowing you to pour the lion’s share of your energy and focus into these workouts. Because the volume per workout is relatively low and your abs tend to recover quicker than most bodyparts, overtraining isn’t really a concern. Don’t worry if you’re sore — research shows that training sore muscles has no adverse effect on performance.

One of the key intensity factors for this program is that the exercises listed are to be performed in sequence, with no rest between (i.e., circuit style). You’ll only rest after you’ve performed all the exercises, and never for longer than 90 seconds. This will capitalize on the natural endurance of your midsection’s musculature and will burn more calories during your workout.

The exercises are also arranged so you work your midsection from its weakest point to its strongest — that means lower abs first. “Generally, our lower abs are the weakest because the hip flexors are almost always used in assisting them,” Ryno says. “In this plan, you’ll train lower abs first, then obliques and core, then upper abs last.”

You’ll also be using more resistance than is prescribed for abs typically. One of the biggest “problems” with abs — at least when it comes to developing them — is that they are so resilient and you can do a lot of reps. But think about this: You generally wouldn’t get under a barbell and perform 100 reps of bench presses; instead, you would load the bar with a challenging weight that causes failure at, say, eight to 10 reps. That will be the case here, too — you’ll add weight to some exercises to force your abs to work harder. As with any other exercise for any other muscle group, however, be sure to select a weight that takes you to failure at the stated rep range. If you hit the listed number of reps and can keep going, add more weight next time. Conversely, if you’re not able to complete the set as prescribed, lower the weight a bit.

All those factors coalesce under one driving tenet of the plan, one we mentioned earlier: progression. Each week, you will take your abs to a new level by demanding more of them. Condensed rest periods, additional circuits, exercises, reps and weight ensure that the overload on your abs is steadily increased over the eight weeks. The result of all that hard work? A deeply chiseled set of abs that are stronger inside and out … which will make every rep worth the extra effort.

(For instructions on particular exercises, scroll to the bottom.)

MAXIMUM BURN

If you want a six-pack, there’s no way around it, at least in this program — you’ll need to do some cardio after every ab routine. The reason for this is simple: You could get that lean, shredded look even faster if you do things in this sequence. “The abs program will strengthen and define the midsection, while the cardio exercise and clean diet will help melt away body fat,” Jim Ryno, CPT, says.

Shockingly, some research now suggests that spot reduction — preferentially burning body fat from one area of your body — may not be as much of a myth as once thought. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Physiology found that subjects mobilized more subcutaneous fat from their thighs after a high-rep set of leg extensions. The applied rationale is that if you follow a high-volume bodypart workout (like the ones presented here) with a good cardio-induced sweat, you could be using more belly fat for fuel than you normally would.

Follow each workout with a high-intensity interval training session. This type of cardio has been shown to maintain more muscle mass while extending your postworkout calorie burn. The first four weeks will call for a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio — you’ll sprint 30 seconds, then spend a minute doing a slower pace, which is sometimes referred to as active recovery. The final four weeks, you’ll up the intensity, alternating 30-second sprints with 30-second slow jogs (brisk walks are acceptable) for the allotted time.

Weeks 1-4

2 minute warm-up, then:

1 minute slow jog

30-second sprint

Do jog and sprinting sequence 10 times

17 MINUTES TOTAL

Weeks 5-8

2 minute warm-up, then:

30-second slow jog

30-second sprint

Do jog and sprinting sequence 15 times

17 MINUTES TOTAL

V-Sit with Med Ball Twist
The Move: Sit on the floor with a medicine ball, your feet out in front of you, knees slightly bent, ankles together. Lean back so that your torso is 30 to 45 degrees to the floor, and raise your ankles 6 to 12 inches off the floor. Holding the medicine ball out at near full extension in front of your face, twist to one side as far as you can and pause briefly before returning to the center. Twist to the other side and repeat for reps. Once to each side equals one rep.

Intensity boost: Raise your feet higher off the floor and/or use a heavier medicine ball.

Weighted Decline Sit-Up
The Move: Set an adjustable bench to 30 degrees. Hook your feet under the pads and lie back holding a weight plate behind your head. Inhale deeply and crunch your torso toward the ceiling, exhaling as you pass the midpoint.

Intensity boost: Increase the decline of the bench and/or use a heavier weight plate.

Bicycle Crunch
The Move: Lie flat on your back with your hands lightly touching your head. Raise your feet 6 to 12 inches off the floor. Curl up as high as you can, bringing your shoulder blades off the floor, simultaneously trying to bring your right elbow across your body toward your left knee. Squeeze hard and return to the start. Alternate sides, pausing briefly between reps.

Intensity boost: Introduce a medicine ball and/or pause longer at peak contraction or between reps.

Hanging Leg Raise
The Move: Grasp an overhead bar with a pronated (palms-forward) grip, wrapping your thumbs around the bar. Keeping your legs together, allow them to hang straight down beneath you. Keeping your legs straight, raise them up directly in front of you until they’re just above parallel to the floor. Hold as long as possible, then slowly lower your legs back to the start position and repeat.

Intensity boost: Hold a medicine ball between your knees or ankles (shown).

Side Bridge
The Move: Lie on your side with your forearm on the floor under your shoulder and your feet stacked together. Contract your glutes and abs. Push your hip off the floor, creating a straight line from your ankle to your shoulder and keeping your head in line with your spine.

Intensity boost: Place your feet up on a bench (shown), have a partner press lightly on your side for the duration of your set, or continue on to complete muscle failure.

Incline Reverse Crunch
The Move:Set an adjustable bench to 30 degrees and lie back with your head near the foot pads and your feet on the floor. Reach back over your head and grasp the apparatus for support and raise your feet off the floor, ankles together, knees bent 90 degrees. Contract your lower abs to roll your pelvis up off the bench. Pause at the top for a count and slowly return your glutes back to the bench.

Intensity boost: Increase the angle of the bench, add weight and/or hold a medicine ball between your knees.