Last week T-Nation published the final article of my Inside the Muscles series. This series is the first of its kind; it charted the EMG activity of a bunch of different exercises on various muscles and parts of muscles. Last week’s article was titled Best Ab Exercises. In case you haven’t read the series, here are the links:
Inside the Muscles
Best Shoulder and Traps Exercises
Best Chest and Triceps Exercises
Best Back and Biceps Exercises
Best Leg, Glute, and Calf Exercises
Best Ab Exercises
Since EMG measures the nervous system’s intent to fire the muscles, which theoretically should be directly related to muscular tension, it’s very important to perform exercises that work the muscles best. Quite often the exercises that work the muscles best are big, basic exercises like squats (quads), deadlifts, (hamstrings), and chin ups (lats). However, through the use of EMG we find that certain muscles require more innovative exercises like hip thrusts (glutes) and weighted planks (abs) to maximally target the muscles. Sometimes we need to ignore EMG and just focus on sound Biomechanics; some lifts may be very beneficial in teaching coordination and core-control even though their levels of EMG activity may not be very impressive. In this article I’d like to show you my favorite abdominal/core exercises.
Human Loaded Front Plank
Although not included in my recent article, last year I conducted an EMG experiment with an extensive variety of ab exercises and found that the ultimate ab and oblique exercise was the weighted front plank. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of high-rep training. I have nothing against high-reppers, I just hate feeling the burn. To me, heavy singles are the cat’s pajamas. Much of my innovative approach to training stems from the fact that I can’t stand doing sets of 10 reps or more or performing sustained isometrics for longer than 20 seconds. Because of this hatred, I often create ways to make exercises more challenging. I did this with the hip thrust, which is just a glute bridge with extra weight and extra range of motion, and I did this with the plank by adding weight in the form of another human being directly over the low back.
Yes, that’s Madonna playing in the background. Deal with it! This should go without saying, but it is critical that one uses proper form and begins at the simplest variation before attempting this exercise. Proper form involves controlling the lumbar spine and preventing the low back from being pulled downward into extension (arching). Start off with a basic front plank, and once you master it begin adding weight gradually in the form of plates. You’ll need a partner to put plates onto your back. When a couple of 45 lb plates is no longer challenging for you, it’s time to move up to a human being.
In the video above I perform a 23-second isohold with my 220 lb training-partner named Rob on my back. I could probably work my way up to a minute within a month or so if I really wanted to but I guess it’s just not that important to me at this time as I feel that my core is “strong enough.”
Band Anti-Rotary Hold
I sometimes have to laugh at our industry. We often just “do what we’re told” without putting any thought into the matter. Brilliant physical therapist John Pallof created the “Pallof press” or “anti-extension press” many years ago. Why is it that we can hold a front plank (anti-extension) or side plank (anti-lateral flexion) for extended time but we aren’t allowed to do the same isometric-style with anti-rotation training?
I prefer the band or cable anti-rotary hold to the Pallof press. I believe it works the muscles much harder since they can’t rest! Start off with the Pallof press, but when you master it move onto the band anti-rotary hold and don’t be afraid to move out really far when using bands. If you’re a strong guy like me you can move way out and challenge your core very hard with this movement. It may not appear like it, but this exercise is absolutely brutal! It makes people want to puke it’s so hard.
Negative Standing Ab-Wheel Rollout
Start off with the basic front plank. When that gets easy, move onto the stability ball rollout or TRX fallout. As soon as that gets easy, move onto the ab wheel rollout from the knees. And when that gets easy, it’s time to give the negative standing ab-wheel rollout a try. I’m not strong enough to perform a concentric repetition from the standing position but I can get an excellent eccentric repetition in without allowing my lumbar spine to enter into extension.
Barbell Suitcase Isometric Hold
The barbell suitcase hold is the ultimate anti-lateral flexion exercise. It’s also a great grip exercise once you get really strong. If you’re not very strong, you can just use a dumbbell. But once you outgrow the dumbbells, you must move on to a barbell. I’ve used 185 lbs for this movement in the past.
Weighted Dead Bugs
Dead bugs are an awesome exercise, just like planks side planks, glute bridges, and bird dogs. However, all of these exercises have one inherent flaw; they’re too easy for advanced individuals. The remedy for this is simple. Once you master bodyweight add resistance in the form of ankle weights and dumbbells. In this video I’m using 10-lb ankle weights and 10-lb dumbbells. Don’t allow the lumbar spine to extend or flex.
Cable Chops and Lifts
Chops and lifts are kickass exercises that integrate a ton of muscle and help the entire body to become more coordinated. They work large, global muscles while realy challenging core muscles such as the glute medius, upper glute maximus, adductors, multifidi, external obliques, and internal obliques.
Here is a quote from Gray Cook, the physical therapist/strength coach who really brought these movements to the forefront of the strength training industry:
Chopping and lifting can be used as corrective exercise, core conditioning, or generalized strengthening. Many use the chop and lift as a complete upper body program while others use it to complement the big pushing and pulling lifts. The moves are often hard to classify because they incorporate pushing and pulling. There is much more going on in a chop or lift than pushing and pulling though. Chopping and lifting is based on PNF patterns that are spiral and diagonal. When two hands are involved together in the same direction crossing the mid-line of the body in a downward or upward movement, it is called a chop or lift. -Gray Cook
There are many different ways to perform chops and lifts. Technically chops and lifts only include upward and downward diagonal patterns, but I feel like the pure rotational variations in the transverse plane have tremendous merit even though they aren’t multi-planar or true “chops and lifts.” Similarly, you’re supposed to chop to the bottom knee or rear leg and lift to the upward knee or front leg (if using a half-kneeling or staggered inline stance), but rules were always made to be broken. Here are some ways to tinker with the exercises:
1. Tall Kneeling (On Both Knees)
2. Half Kneeling Front Leg Inside (On One Knee)
3. Half Kneeling Front Leg Outside (On One Knee)
4. Parallel Stance (Both Feet Parallel With Another in an Athletic Stance)
5. Inline Stance Front Leg Inside (One Leg in Front of the Other)
6. Inline Stance Front Leg Outside (One Leg in Front of the Other)
7. Single Leg (I Don’t Like this Option)
1. High to Low (Chop)
2. Low to High (Lift)
3. Straight Across (Rotation Press)
1. Facing Perpendicular to the Cable
2. Facing at a 45 Degree Angle Away from the Cable
3. Facing the Cable Column
4. Facing Away from the Cable Column
1. Dual Rope Handles (Rope Folded in Half)
2. Long Rope Handle
3. Core Bar attached to Cable (Nick Tumminello’s ingenious invention – seriously, check it out!)
4. Cook Bar attached to Cable (Gray Cook’s bar)
5. JC Bands (Juan Carlos Santana’s Bands)
6. Gray Cook Bands
7. Plate Loaded Core Bar (I like the cable version better for chops & lifts)
8. Medicine Balls (I like the dynamic method where you throw the ball, not where you hold onto it throughout the movements)
9. Towel (Looped Through Caribiner)
1. Sequential Pull then Press Straight Out Without Crossing Midline of Body
2. Sequential Pull then Press While Crossing Midline of Body
3. Flowing Movement (My Favorite)
As you may know I used to teach high school mathematics. The way you figure out the number of total combinations possible is to multiply the number of combinations in each category together. So 7 x 3 x 4 x 9 x 3 = 2,268 different combinations of chop & lift movements!
Another thing I often find humorous in our industry is how ever trainer/coach who uploads Youtube videos demonstrates exercise form with super-light weight while looking like a robot. While I realize that this is often necessary to teach beginners proper form so they don’t screw it up, strong people tend to use more weight and be less “robot-looking” with their form once they figure out the movement and learn where to move and where to stay tight. For this reason, I uploaded the following three videos to show how I perform chop and lift movements with substantial weight. As I said before, I like lifting heavy. I often hear how chops and lifts are “precision-movements” that shouldn’t be loaded up heavy. I don’t tend to listen to this advice, as I load everything up heavy! My form is not nearly as strict as what you often see online but I’m using a lot of resistance and still controlling the weight. I prefer to perform the exercises this way as opposed to going really light and staying super-strict. Quid pro quo; everyone has their own preference.
Half Kneeling Cable Chop
Half Kneeling Cable Lift
Parallel Stance Cable Rotation
If you perform this workout, you might find yourself looking just like John Romaniello!
Hope you enjoyed the article!
Read Full Post »