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The do your damn abs post

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Friends and followers of my Danger Method programs notice I toss in the "abs" directive 2-3 times a week and give some brief notes on the topic but otherwise leave it as an exercise to the exerciser to figure out what to do. This may lead one to the impression that direct ab work isn't important. Which is totes the wrong thing to be impressing. I generally attempt to rectify this by offering the canned "just do your damn abs" response when asked about it. Admittedly still not the most actionable advice ever.
So in an effort to expand upon this immensely important topic and provide some direction and practical progressions I've decided to put together this little brain dump. The advice here should be semi rigorous in the sense that along with some hard work and common sense on your part it should take you from not knowing what an ab is or what you do with it to being pretty bulletproof in the area. And after a while you'll just be doing your damn abs after your main workouts and will be well on your way to success and Instagram fame. The advice here in isolation won't give you a rocking six pack but it can help. If you do happen to use some of this advice while you work on getting shredded as hell and end up with tens of IG followers from your sic ab selfies make sure to tag me because I dig that sort of shit. #fitspiration
Anyway, as this will be a semi rigorous dive into the subject I suggest any tl;dr types go ahead and skip the exposition and jump to the payoff in the actual progressions section in the next post.

First off, I'm not a gymnastics coach (who're really the folks to listen to for this) nor do I worry a ton about hitting specific benchmarks within specific time frames. I'm much more about doing the appropriate things at the appropriate times for however long it takes to gain proficiency before moving to the next harder thing. Additionally the goal here is really to progress to a solid base to support continued success in the barbell lifts - and team/field sports/life. As such there won't be any more advanced stuff like levers and flags. There are more efficient programs/progressions out there that also go into the more advanced things (see: Gymnastics Bodies, et al) so if that interests you invest your time and money in those resources.
These are approaches I've picked up and developed over the years from other coaches, including super rad gymnastic coaches, that seem to work well developing field, strength, and recreational athletes of all kinds. Again, I'm not building gymnasts but these methods should provide a decent base for that if that's where you want to take things.
Pedants also note I'm not getting into the "what's core anyway" durbate here. This post is specifically talking about abs, which are a part of the core. I may use the terms abs and core interchangeably here even though the latter is technically a misnomer in certain contexts. #dealwithit

Progressive training
Decent core training really hinges on properly ordering training goals and sufficiently addressing them before moving onto bigger and better things. Life, sport, and more advanced training all involve dealing with various dynamic forces. From a biomechanical perspective these forces reduce to four main forces which our core is responsible for dealing with at and around the spine. These forces are compression, tension, torque, and shear. Digging into the fine grain details on each of these forces is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say our main goal in ab training to help develop our anterior core so it can play its part in properly resisting and translating these forces about the spine. 
Phase 1: Obtaining good position and resisting force
Thus the first goal of systematic ab training is really all about getting into good positions and resisting forces that are trying to break us out of them. We need to train and strengthen the abs to help us hold strong, healthy positions against these different forces. For our purposes there are two main classes of exercise we need to address: anti-rotation and anti-flexion/extension. 
Phase 2: Generating and transferring dynamic force
Once we've strengthened our basic positions and can resist ever increasing static forces without breaking out of position we begin to add dynamic forces into the mix. Dynamic forces are basically forces that change over time, as they do in pretty much everything that isn't a static hold aka movement. Every movement involves generating, translating, or otherwise dealing with dynamic forces to some degree. 
These forces are as a rule greater than those involved in statics and that's why we need to make sure we've properly addressed the resisting patterns before we can jump into actual movement. 
Phase 3: Dealing with progressively larger forces
Really a sort of extension of phase 2 but once reached, this is really where we live for most of our training careers. At this point we can both resist and generate substantial force without losing position and are ready for more advanced progressions. Things like weighted statics, plyometrics, and progressively loaded exercises become the staples. 
Progression models
Now we need to outline some basic progression models to utilize while attacking these goals. I use a few primary models which involve modulating different variables to make things harder over time - following the principle of progressive overload. These basic variables being, time (statics), sets, reps, load, exercise selection, and density (attempting to do more work in less time).
Model 1: Basic time overload progression
Our number one tool for progressing static holds. There's really no minimal requirement for how long you can hold something to start. If it's hard to hold a basic position for more than 30 seconds I recommend the use of rest pause sets where you attempt to hold the position for as long as possible, rest for 10-15 seconds, then resume holding the position again for as long as possible. Try to build to 3 sets of 90 second rest pause sets where you accumulate 90 seconds holding the position taking as many 10-15 second breaks as needed (but no more) along the way. Take 1 minute rest between sets. 
Once you can do that you should start attempting to do full minute holds until you can do 3-5 60 second holds with 60 seconds rest in between. At this point you have a few options.:
  • Increase the working sets to 90 seconds and then two minutes
  • If you're still working a basic exercise you can switch to a more difficult one
  • If it's a loadable exercise add/increase external load

When considering option one building to 90 seconds is generally worthwhile but going for the full two minutes is generally a little overkill for our purposes. The beauty of progression is that once you've built some skill diving into the second and third options you can regress back and do the more basic holds seemingly forever. Huzzah progress. 
If you choose the second or third option you just restart the time progression and build to 3-5 sets of 60-120 seconds with 60 seconds rest in the same fashion as before. 

Model 2: Basic sets/reps/load overload progression
The basic progression model for actual movements as opposed to holds. Here the goal is to start with an exercise that can be completed for at least 3 sets of 8 reps - with rest periods in the 45-60 second range. If you can't do a basic exercise for this many reps you may need to spend a little more time working the holds but if it's really close you can also utiliize rest pause sets. Once you can complete a full 3x8 in a workout you attempt to complete sets of 10 until you can do a full 3x10. (If time allows you can also add a forth or fifth set but it's not required and while beneficial probably crosses into some diminishing return territory)
You follow the same progression until you can complete a full 3 (or more) sets of 12 in a workout. Once you can do that you add or increase the load (if it's a loadable exercise) or switch to a harder exercise and start again with the goal of hitting 3x8. Again, you can also add sets one at a time and try to build to 4 or 5 sets of 12 before increasing load or changing exercises if you prefer.
Model 3: 350 Base building approach
This is a little more advanced progression which lends itself mostly to the easier loadable exercises and is an example of escalating density. It's my favorite base progression for hyperextensions but it can also be applied to things like situps and leg lifts. Here we fix the volume at 50 reps and attempt to complete them in as few sets as possible with the goal to finish all 50 reps in three sets. Once we can do that we increase the load and start again.

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Eat. Sleep. High bar squat. | Strength is a skill, refine it.
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Looking for a strength program? Check out The Danger Method and remember to do your damn abs

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Actual progressions
Now that we sort of understand our progressive training goals and models it's time to pick some exercises, plug them into some progression models and actually get to work. The first order of business is figuring out where you are progression-wise. Generally I just start everyone at the beginning and let them cruise through the basics really fast even if it's mostly busy work. Sometimes more experienced lifters will be really solid in a lot of places but have pretty glaring weaknesses (I'm looking at you anti-rotation) once they actually try some of this stuff.
Step 1: Finding good position and resisting small forces
As one might expect the goal of step 1 is to address phase 1 which involves utilizing statics and some helper movements to strengthen our ability to hold positions against external forces. Some of the foundational stuff here is similar to (or directly stolen from) FMS type movement screens and can be hard for a person to assess on their own. Go through the movements and do your best to feel what's going on.
Self assessment is a very valuable tool in its own right as if you work alone or with friends who aren't qualified coaches you need to be able to accurately self assess everything you do. I call this dialing into the process and am always urging folks to think internally and feel what's going on, whether they're squatting 550lb or rolling around on the floor. This skill, like all others, can be trained and by starting small not only will you reap the benefits commensurate to building a solid base, you'll also have a fine tuned self assessment machine. Reviewing video and posting to the form check boards can be invaluable too. 
Initial workouts
In the first few workouts we're really working on some baseline self assessment and movement prep. Again, I recommend just starting at the beginning even if it feels like a waste of time and just spending a few minutes going through the basic exercises/progressions and tuning into the process.If you're more advanced these can be snuck into warmups and cooldowns. If you are a beginner these can still be used in your warmups and cooldowns but they may be sufficiently challenging for the first few workouts that you may not need to progress very far beyond the first few basic progressions to get a good workout in.
Progression 1.1: Quadruped spinal position and resisting patterns
We start on all fours and begin dialing into the process. First we spend a few minutes working through cats & camels then progress to bird dogs and its variants. Work through the bird dog progressions and make sure you do at least a couple sets of 8-10 reps at each progression detailed both in text and links below. Once you've mastered the basic bird dog and can almost do them in your sleep start messing with the rotary stability test and see if you can keep it all together during this surprisingly challenging test. 
Exercise 1: 

 - More of a warmup and lesson in kinesthetic awareness (required for self assessment) than an actual progression. We start from the quadruped position and explore our spinal ROM. First take a minute to find neutral and note the feel. Work a few sets of 8 reps with a 3-5 second pause at each end range position (fully extended and flexed). Also note these end positions represent anterior and posterior pelvic tilt respectively. You should also pay attention to breathing here and I like to see big belly (diaphragmatic) breaths as we go into extension and good, full exhales as we push into flexion.
  • Variant: From my experience with Somatics I picked up a similar exercise which you perform lying on your back. You again focus on breathing in big belly breaths as you go into extension and full, deep exhales as you slowly (the key) push your low back into the ground (towards flexion). The lesson here is the slow release of the spinal extensors should be controlled and smooth. Pay attention to any jerkiness or inability to control the slow release of these muscles. If you have any sort of low back pain this is a very valuable practice and can be worked as a sort of meditative relaxation. For more info look into Somatics or ask me for more details. 

Exercise 2:

 progression- Really the first dip into the force resistance patterns. Building to full bird dogs is really its own progression. From the same quadruped position you make sure you can find and keep neutral as you extend first your arms, then your legs, then simultaneously extending both contralaterally. This is a great all around exercise as in the process of staying neutral and squared up we're resisting both rotational and flexion/extension forces.
  • Variant:
     - ripped from the FMS this both a great screen and all around core builder. In addition to resisting all the forces attendant to the bird dog, it also has pretty hefty balance requirement. Basically it's a bird dog but instead of extending the opposite (contralateral) arm and leg, you attempt to extend them on the same side (ipsilateral). 

Exercise 3: 

 - I'm mostly talking about what's going on at 1:58 of the video where the demonstrator is working on maintaining a squared up, neutral plank position at the top of a pushup while bringing his hands across his body. We progress these with the sets/reps progression until we can easily do 3 sets of 12.
Progression 1.2: Basic body positions
After hitting the quadruped exercises flip over and get ready to drill the basic body positions we'll use as a touchstone in almost everything we do in the gym. These positions are derived from the basic gymnastic positions which form what we sometimes call correct body lines. These positions are the hollow and arch. Arches are really more of a posterior core thing but the body is one piece and it doesn't really make sense to address the hollow and not the arch. #continuedealingwithit
Exercise 1: 
- Really doesn't need much more explaining. Get into this position and use holds and the time overload progression (model 1) to make it bulletprooof.
Exercise 2:
- Same as the hollow holds.


Workouts in phase 1

At this phase we don't yet have tons on the plate so you should be able to work all of these progressions in one session in about 20 minutes. Start with cats & camels to warmup/review and move quickly into your bird dog progressions. Get those sets in then move into the hollow and arch holds. If you can manage it you can even save more time by super setting the holds. Wrap up with the core stability planks.
Passing Step/Phase 1
Once you've got a good handle on these basic exercises and progressions it's time to start thinking about addressing phase two. Here're some good metrics to meet before advancing:

  • Can perform the rotational stability test on both sides without major breakdowns in form or asymmetry side to side
  • Can do 3 sets of 12 repetitions per side on the core stability plank, again without any major breaks
  • Can complete 3-5 sets of 60s holds for both the hollow and arch holds

That's it. If you can do that congratulations, you've earned your four year old gymnast badge! From here you can begin focusing on step 2. I recommend not writing off these exercises completely but instead continue hitting them as movement prep and as viable options for deload/easy/active recovery days. You can never be too good at the basics.

Step 2: Generating and transfering dynamic forces
Welcome to phase 2. We're now ready to start dealing with dynamic forces in our fancy and strong positions. We still include some statics here which may not technically qualify as dynamic forces but they're harder progressions from the phase 1 curriculum and it makes sense to develop them along with some of the foundational dynamic exercises. 
Progression 2.1: Multi-position Pallof pressing
The best introduction to dynamic anti-rotation I've found. These can be performed in tons of ways using different forms of resistance - namely, bands and cable machines.

Exercise 1:
 variants - I start from the tall kneeling position but all the other variations should be exploited for fun and profit. They can also be done
. Progress these using the sets/reps/load progression (model 2) and get comfortable with most of the other variants before attempting the half kneeling version as that is the hardest in my experience.
Progression 2.2: Planks
Here's that silly static again. The plank is ubiquitous for a reason. Its value really never runs out and it will continue paying off well into phase 3 when you're able to do dumb things like
if you're so inclined. Alas we have to start somewhere and that is the basic bodyweight plank. I normally work planks and side planks at the same time via supersets. Side planks are an example of dealing with lateral flexion forces, which we never talked about but it's not really important. Just do them for the same reason we do all the other statics. 
Exercise 1:
- Pay attention to positioning and build this up with the time progression model until you can do at least 3 sets of 60 second holds with 60s rest. 
Exercise 2:
- Same deal.
Superset notes
There are a lot of ways to superset these and we can build pretty good progressions this way. The basic super set is to perform each plank (normal, and each side) for 60s (or wherever you are on the time progression) with 60 seconds of rest in between each, making sure to cycle through each position at least three times. As you improve you can start limiting the rest between versions until you can hole all three positions for 60 seconds with no rest between. Here you'd rest for about a minute after the three minute work set. This is another example of increasing workout density.
Progression 2.3: Holding body positions through dynamic movements
We're back to dynamic movements. To get our feet wet we're going to work on generating motion while maintaining solid hollow and arch positioning. 
Exercise 1: 
, and 
 - Pretty self explanatory. Make sure you can bust out a few sets of 25 of all of these without much trouble and add it to the toolbox.
Exercise 2:
- Video pretty much covers it. Max out the basic 350 progression
Exercise 3:
- Yeah, not technically abs but is core and needed for the next thing, so deal. Start with the contralateral versions a la bird dogs then build the full version.
Exercise 4:
- aka hollow to arch rolls by boring people. Really hammer once you've got hollow rocks and supermans on lock down. Try to max out the 350 progression (10 in each direction/set). 
Progression 2.4: Larger amplitude movements
We've gone a pretty long way and still really haven't seen something as easy as your basic situp. Well fret no more, we're finally there. I know situps have gotten a bad rap and I tend to agree that they're overused in general but they're still a good strengthening exercise to master. Our phase 3 progressions keep the volume down and thus minimize the deleterious effects that are mostly related to overuse.
Exercise 1: Situps - Start with the
 and work the now familiar sets/reps/load progression model first. Then tackle the 350 base building progression. Once you've done that start playing with some of the common variants:
. These versions help take the hip flexors out of the movement and thus they are harder. Master all of them through the initial 350 base building progression. 
I like to be a little picky on the execution of the basic situp. I prefer to see them executed without losing the hollow position at the bottom. This means keeping the shoulders just off the ground and not losing neutral at the low back. You know you lose neutral if your low back pulls off the ground. Done correctly you should be able to stay on tension and keep your low back firmly pressed into the floor throughout the exercise. For this reason I'm not a fan of abmat situps or other variations that promote or
losing this tension and position.
This is my personal preference and while it's supported by sound (yet admittedly conservative) reasoning you probably won't die if you need to pursue these variants for whatever reason (you're a fitness competitor). My basic advice in this case to master all the normal situps in the way I propose before tackling these more advanced versions (which would be somewhere in phase 3 if I cared).
Exercise 2:
- Start with knee raises (also demo'd in the vid) and progress the set/reps progression until you can do 3 sets of 12. Then master the leg lift all the way through the 350 base building progression.
Exercise 3:
- Sir Mix-a-lot approved and not sure you need to know more than that really. Again we're working the oft neglected lateral stability. I find these help especially with overhead lifts like the jerk. Focus on staying squared up as you do these and don't rotate or collapse the hips in either direction, which should be cake because you've mastered everything else to this point, right? Progress these with the basic sets/reps/load model for a bit then switch to the 350 base building model and keep hammerin' those obliques son.


Workouts in phase 2

In phase two we really have to pick and choose goals for individual workouts as there's too much to address to hit it all every session. Normally I'll break things up and alternate thusly:


Movement prep (all workouts)- cats & camels, bird dogs 3-5 minutes


Workout A:

  1. Pallof press progression
  2. One or two exercises from the body position progression (2.3) 
  3. One or two exercises from the larger amplitude progression (2.4) 

Workout B:

  1. Pallof press progression
  2. Plank progression
  3. One or two exercises from the larger amplitude progression (2.4) 

Just make sure you're covering all your bases and hitting all the exercises within the progressions.

Passing Step/Phase 2
Now you're getting somewhere. Use these metrics to decide when you're ready to tackle the many and varied challenges that await you in phase 3.

  • Have competence in all the Pallof press variants and can complete 3 sets of 12 from the half kneeling position with non trivial resistance.
  • Can complete 3 sets of 60s holds for all three basic plank positions separately. Bonus: can complete them all in superset fashion with 0 rest between positions.
  • Can complete 3 sets of 20 leg raises, flutter kicks, and scissor kicks.
  • Can complete base 350 progression for hollow rocks.
  • Can complete base 350 progression for supermans.
  • Can complete 3 sets of 10/direction alligators.
  • Can complete base 350 progression for regular situps, butterfly situps, and straight leg situps.
  • Can complete base 350 progression for hanging leg raises.
  • Can complete base 350 progression for side bends with non trivial resistance.

Pat yourself on the back, grab some water and start planning the Instragram posts because now you're ready to really ramp things up and go after them Fight Club abs everyone talks about

Step 3: The promise land
Now you know what's up, you've been doing your damn abs for a bit and sleep easy in the knowledge you've covered your bases. Here's where exercise selection really opens up and we can go on for eons listing all of them. That being the case I'm going to continue my theme of sticking to things I use day to day that I've determined to have value.
At this point in the process you should be able to evaluate an exercise and determine whether or not it's a. appropriate for your skill level and b. worth your time. This is really the phase where your broader goals become the main driver for exercise selection and how far you push certain things. With that in mind this section won't really follow the same structure as the last steps. Instead we'll look at some options for the different classes of ab work we've been discussing.
Rotational work
My main money maker in this category is the
. I always introduce things on their own to build proficiency but this exercise is mostly a good second exercise in a superset (more on these later). For the initial exposures I progress the basic sets/reps model and get to 3-5 sets of 12/side. I don't go crazy on the loads with this and generally stick to medium weight med/slam balls. The most anyone will ever use is a 25kg plate, which is maybe overkill but we've got followers to keep interested at this point. 
I don't do too much landmine work but it's a fine option for more rotational variety so put it in the toolbox and work some progressions if you have access to one. 
If we're working with field athletes I'll also start working in the rotational medball throws. Digging into these is beyond the scope but if this is up your alley you'll be well prepared for it.
Flexion/Extension/lateral flexion work
Finally the everything else bin. Again I'm sticking to my main staples here but this is really where things get out of control variety wise. To reiterate previous advice, just use your brain k?


Weighted planks - Exactly what it sounds like. I like to make sure we can hit the 3 sets of 60s holds at a given weight before increasing. This should help prevent you from being this guy.


L-sits - Both from parallettes (if available) and hanging. Work those time progressions.


- For my money the holy grail of situps for weightlifters and strength athletes of all kinds. Again I like to think about staying on tension and not losing the hollow on the bottom of the reps. Progress these with the sets/reps/load progression and if you ever make it past 60kg for 4x12 let me know because I want to come visit you and rub that glorious rectus abdominis of yours and also give you your award because you've officially won exercising. 


- Self explanatory. A very versatile and challenging exercise when done right. Done right basically meaning holding your hollow position. If you can't complete a full rollout with good form you probably messed up somewhere along the way and you should regress to something easier until you're ready. We also do them with barbells, both empty and with bumpers. The empty bar version is pretty tough and you'll want to make sure the collars actually spin on whatever bar you're using. In addition to the basic sets/reps progression you can also add load in the same fashion as a weighted plank, and increase the difficulty by doing them from your feet so you can become
. Developing the rollout from the feet is tons easier if you use ramp progressions but I'm sick of googling so you know what to do.


Over/under hand medball throws - Outside the scope same as the rotational throws but I use these a lot for everyone. Mostly near the end of warmups for sessions I really want to make sure the nervous system is on and firing. I don't progress the weight or reps on these much but instead go after high quality of movement and speed. A few sets of 6-8 at fast weights is fine.


Unilateral GHD DB press - A little bit of an oddball exercise but it's really hard and a fun variation. I only do these with a single DB and alternate arms as the "bench press" version tips a little further into the benefit not worth the goofiness scale. 


There are a ton of useful KB exercises out there including the much vaunted getup. It's a cool exercise and can be a pain to learn to do correctly but if you've worked your progressions you should be able to pick it up pretty fast. Chops, windmills and even swings can be considered decent core work. 


I also like to use various loaded carries when we have time or we're looking to keep things fresh. Your standard farmers walks, yolk walks, and suitcase carries apply here. Go for either time or distance. Unilaterally loaded lunges (hold a DB/KB in one hand) are good. I also consider overhead walks and lunges abs so think on that. One of the most gnarly things I've ever done to my core involved 245lb overhead yoke walks which really can't be adequately characterized outside of trying them. Suffice it to say the core requirements were large.


Wrapping up

So that should about cover your average (even your decent) lifter's ab needs. I'm going to stop writing now so you can stop reading (as if anyone made it this far) and go do your damn abs already.

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Eat. Sleep. High bar squat. | Strength is a skill, refine it.
Follow my Weightlifting team's antics: Instagram | Facebook | Youtube
Looking for a strength program? Check out The Danger Method and remember to do your damn abs

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Good day Sir.


Started this today, i've given it its own day (maybe 2) as part of my "rest" day. It was a bit of an eye opener.


Cats and camels - Fairly straight forward, they're not really taxing as you hint at.

Bird dogs - Harder than i thought, but got easier once i got used to the feeling of them. Managed 3x8 fairly competently (i think) in the end.

Hollow body holds - weak here. 1min, 30s, 40s, supersetted with:

Arch holds - 40s, 40s, 1min. I attribute the improved performance at the end to being more warmed up. I tweaked my lower back last week.

Core stability planks - again, harder than they look but did manage 3x12


Gonna stick with phase 1 for a week or 2 at least i think.


Thanks for the routine

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