Best bodyweight exercises for abs

L-sit gymnastic rings
Doing L-sit on the beach at Ngapali. Myanmar(Burma)

Oh the famous abs… So many hopeful aspirees, so many teachers and so few victorious in their quest.

What I’ll share of course is the easy, no work all magic pill that transforms your sexy curvy stomach into a flat, tight 6-pack. You’ll only have to work once a year for 3 seconds, so that your awesome well trained attention, do not miss any cat-videos or talent shows.

Kidding aside – this post won’t give you overnight 6-pack or maybe even ever get you near, that’s all on your court. What I’ll describe for you is my philosophy of ab-training. Boiled down to a couple of hard and somewhat advanced exercises that has been my favorites for the past several years.

DSC_0842_2As you of course should not take advice on how to quit smoking by a chain-smoker, I’ve included a couple of pictures of myself, just to let you come to your own conclusions as to whether I walk the walk or not. Further more you can probably find one or two very recent pictures on my Instagram account.

Having had a 6 pack for the last probably 6 years I think I have developed some sense of what it takes to achieve it – and no unfortunately my 6 year old photos does not include me with long hair or a newspaper to validate the claim, but I can provide ‘em – your choice to trust me or not.

6-packs are as you probably know primarily made in the kitchen, but diet is a complex topic for another day. (Please let me know if you want to know anything specific.) But yes I said “primarily” – not “solely”. They are a function of size and body fat percentage, so you can basically manipulate anyone of them to a degree. Low bodyfat is the main factor, but the size of your abs will determine how low you need to go before they are visible.

So what NOT to do. Don’t train your abs everyday – yes there are stories of people who did this and can show results to match – but it’s just not the best approach. Train hard, then REST- Allow your muscles to rebuild and become stronger, otherwise you are only breaking down and not rebuilding.

Don’t do crazy 50-100 rep sets of sit ups or crunches. Train your abs as you would with your chest or arm – and if you are doing 50-100 rep sets for those… – just don’t. Use weight to keep your reps low or choose a more demanding ab exercise. I don’t believe I have ever done reps past 10 repetitions. But yeah 5-15 would be the target rep-range.

First exercise I will highlight is static. It’s the exercise that I do on the first picture of this post, commonly known as the L-sit. Doing it on rings of course is a lot more demanding and adds much more strain on arms and shoulders as stabilizers, so wait with those. If my target of the exercise was abs alone, I myself would not even use rings, as they would make my arm and shoulders tired way before my abs. L-sit on rings for me is more a transition when doing ring-routines – for core ab work I would do L-sits on the floor, parallettes or between chairs.

So that is where you will start. As a beginner I would start between chairs or similar platforms. Press the surface as hard as you can with your hands, which should force your shoulders down and then contract your abs as hard as possible. If you cannot keep you legs straight, then start with them bent and work from there. You should feel the strain primarily in your abs, it is possible to feel a burn in anything from your hips to legs, but then you are not doing it right, experiment until you feel the burn primarily in the abs. Let’s say you can hold the position for a maximum of 20 seconds, then do 5 sets of 10-15 second holds and try adding 5 seconds every couple of weeks. Your goal is to hold a perfect L-sit for 60 seconds!

The second exercise I will highlight is rather advanced – but delivers bang for the buck like nothing else once you have mastered it. It’s the famous dragon flag or body lever. It is quite hard to find videos of people doing them correctly, but this guy pretty much nails them:

What you should notice is that he keeps his body straight or slightly over arched at all times. Even just a slight kip in the hip will dramatically decrease the difficulty and thereby the effect. Think of leading with your hips and not with your toes and keep a straight or slightly over arched body. But be careful, this exercise is extremely demanding and can cause quite a bit of pain in your lower back if you are not strong enough. I would recommend doing slow negatives until you are strong enough to begin pulling yourself back up. If you have a good solid 20-30 second L-sit you should be able to start working on these as well. Again if you get very advanced, then add ankle-weights instead of hammering out 15-20 reps.

These two exercises are stables of my ab-training. Ab-rollouts, hanging leg raises in stall bars, v-ups etc. find their way as well, but I honestly believe that my ab strength and size are primarily down to those two exercises.

So to summarize. Train your abs 2-3 times a week, train them hard and heavy, just like chest or arms, use progression and finally and most importantly fix your diet!


Downsides of bodyweight routines: back muscles

I originally planned to write a single post on some of the downsides of bodyweight routines, but as I started collecting notes and writing I realised that it was probably better to write individual posts, each focusing on areas where bodyweight routines seems to be inferior or at least needs some attention to compete with good ol’ weight training.

Having done individually exclusive bodyweight, bodybuilding and to some extend strength routines – I feel I have gained some quite useful knowledge on the strength and weaknesses of each. In this post I will focus on areas where bodyweight routines can fall short on back training. They are little tweaks but can really make a big difference.

On paper bodyweight routines can look like they give pretty good bang for the buck as far as back training goes. There is usually quite a lot of pull-up variations and for the advanced bodyweight athlete there may additionally be levers and strict muscle-ups. But in my experience there are two areas where they seem to fall short.

First is horizontal rowing to get some good volume for your upper back. I know you can do feet supported rows in rings, on bars etc. but my experience is that your arms seems to get tired before your back muscles gets a real good beating. If you’re more advanced you can even try your luck with front lever-rows. They are incredibly hard, but again they seem to activate more supportive muscles that gets tired before your back really gives up. You’ll end up breaking good form before you really hit the back muscles.

Your lats can certainly get a good workout with bodyweight exercises, but your upper back will most certainly be underdeveloped. So in order to pull(pun intended) yourself out of this compromised state add some heavy rowing to your routine. This can be bent over rows, cable rows, dumbbell rows or whatever – just go heavy on those and high volume to make up for what most bodyweight routines ends up being; rather front dominant.

The second area where bodyweight routines fall kind of short is your lower back. You can do hypers and in a lot of the static levers you need to keep your entire core tight, but if you want a bulletproof back I would seriously consider doing some deadlifts. Deadlifts should in my opinion be a stable of just about any bodyweight routine. They tick so many of the boxes where bodyweight routines seems to fall short. They hit the upper back, as I mentioned as a weak-point earlier. They hit the lower back and they hit your legs once you start pulling some serious weights. They won’t hit your legs as squats, but if you’re seriously into bodyweight training and want to do advanced stuff – then the last thing you want is really heavy legs. But this is not the same as to say that you should not work them at all. Get a knowledgeable individual to show you the right technique and then start pulling from the ground!

Deadlifts can further more act as a measuring tool for something that can be a bit hard with bodyweight – a measure of progress. You can add good old progression on the deadlift to measure whether you are going in the right direction or not. I know it won’t say anything about your ability to perform bodyweight exercises but it will tell you whether you are getting stronger, are close to a burnout or are stagnating. Just program it with something real simple as Wendlers 5/3/1 for instance.

From my own experience the upper back is certainly the place where I lost most of my muscle mass when I did exclusive bodyweight routines. It is one of the things I keep telling people when they ask me for input on their bodyweight routines. And generally people needs to up their pulling whether we talk bodyweight or old school weights. There is a clear tendency to focus more on the front – which of course you can see more easily in the mirror – than the rear. The average lifter would probably be better off with a 2:1 ratio on exercise selection, in favor of pulling instead of pushing.

There are way more impressive fronts than rears – be the guy/girl who stands out in the crowd.