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.

Having bodyweight goals with barbell routines

Handstand Parallettes

This is fifth part of a series of posts about going from bodybuilding/barbell training to bodyweight/gymnastics(BG), the first part is here, second part here, third here and fourth here.

So we arrive at integration. How to incorporate these more complicated movements into our existing barbell routine. This is where the fun begins, where critics and naysayers will get in line with admirers and most everyone who watches you train, will have an opinion. You are now separating yourself from the other gym-goers. This can be a fun experience, as some people are very impressed by the exercises you do; but it can also be a bit tiring when you, for the tenth time, try to explain to the meathead, which muscles this exercise is training, and if that succeeds, then follow it, by telling him why you do it. Focus on movements over specific muscles can make some people look completely disorientated. But the great thing in this world, is that both of you, can be on the perfectly right track, towards your goals. So no need to discuss which approach is superior.

As I briefly touched upon, in the last part, you would put the exercises that have the highest priority on your long term goals, at the start of your workout. This is not something that is unique for bodyweight/gymnastics(BG) hybrids, but rather a basic element of good programming. Start with the things which have the highest priority for you, whether this is a 250kg deadlift, a straight arm pike press, one arm HS or 100 meter sprint times. When both your body and mind are fresh, your performance will be superior and your ability to learn and adapt, is at its highest.

When I say start with, this of course means after, you have done your proper warm up. You can have a very generic warm up, you do each time, and you know, will get you warm. But I always strive to make the warm up, specifically aimed at the workout, I have that specific day. This means, that if I start my workout with for instance, standing overhead press and deadlift, before moving on to bodyweight exercises, my warm up, would be geared towards the barbell exercises, that I start with. Therefore in that case I would use a specific barbell warm up routine I have developed. If I would start of either in rings or doing some handstand press, then my warm up would consist of shoulder mobility and some shorter freestanding handstands(HS), just to get a feel of it, and get both my body and mind geared towards the exercises I have lined up.

Whatever your approach is, the takeaway point is; do some sort of warm up that is geared towards, what you are warming up to do. I could sit 10 min on a stationary bike and be “warm” when I am done, but I would probably still need some specific warm up sets before my freestanding HS would be consistent. Even though I have a super stable freestanding HS, I will still wobble and not feel totally in control, before my core is warm, wrists and shoulders have been stretched and I have had a few freestanding HS. If you are a beginner, this “problem” will magnify, so keep your preparation in mind.

Now to give a few specific examples on how I would go about integrating bodyweight/gymnastics(BG) into my workouts.

For 4 months, leading up to february this year my main goal was to increase my overhead strength, as I was part of a hand-to-hand act, that was due to be shown in february/march. My secondary goal was putting on some lost muscle mass to my back.

Having established these goals as primary, it was pretty easy for me to start my two weekly workouts with standing overhead press and deadlifts. I used wendlers 5/3/1 template for these two lifts in that period, with great results. Then following these lifts I would do some “maintenance” BG work with rings. Maintenance, because in that period, I did not push through, to come closer to having an iron cross or planche on rings, as this was not my primary focus, but I kept working on my straight arm strength(SAS) and ring skills, so my performance on these, did not delude that much.

Following that period I had 5,5 weeks of preparation for a crossfit competition, where I totally skipped BG, because my main goal at that point was CF; just to one more time, underline the fact, that your goals should dictate your workouts.

Now I am back to working on my BG goals, which are iron cross and straddle planche on rings, I will still keep standing overhead press, as this has just become one of my favorite barbell exercises, and makes my shoulders even stronger. As I am still an aesthetics-guy, deadlift might stay as well, but might be swapped at times, for some other good mass builder for the back, like pendlay rows or the like. Or maybe just changed slightly to snatch-grip deadlift, in order to put more stress on the upper back. But now, I will only do these barbell movements once a week, keeping the other training day pure BG, and I would consider splitting them; keeping standing overhead press in the start and deadlift at the end. My reasoning for doing this would be, that my performance on standing OH press will decline dramatically by being at the end, but my deadlift(with mass as opposed to strength as goal) will not suffer from being in the end.

The day that had the barbell movements, would then consist of BG movements that supplemented my iron cross and rings planche goal, but a little less demanding than the “pure” BG-day. This would be done by doing feet supported iron cross pull outs, instead of unsupported. It could be doing tuck ring planche training, instead of advanced ring planche. But just keeping in mind, that going all out several times a week, may lead to injuries as your joints and ligaments, may not be able to regenerate. I am not saying that this approach will keep you injury free, but having the thought in your head, may serve as a good pointer, steering you clear of some nasty surprises.

The second training day, would then be pure BG, and this focus would be right from the warm up. Doing shoulder mobility, making sure that my wrists were properly warm and flexible, then followed by some handstands.

Today I did L-sit – pressing as high as possible and then going from there to bent arm pike press to HS. I have reached a point where I can do these without going all-out, and they just make for an awesome bridge between warm up and the main exercises, as they work your core, your shoulders in full range of motion and your concentration, as you need to balance, while doing them. As soon as you are able to do these, either on parallettes or between some step boards, then have them as a stable part of your workouts. Your shoulders will thank you for doing so, and your press proficiency will skyrocket.

I followed those, by doing L-sit iron cross pull outs to advanced tuck planche. I knew that now my shoulders and entire body was ready for some serious beating. I do them by lowering as far as I am able to on the iron cross, then reversing and pressing/leaning into the advanced tuck planche. Apart from this being an awesome exercise as it works my two primary BG goals, the pure feeling of pressing through straight arms and moving your body around those straight arms, just makes you feel absolutely awesome – it suddenly feels like you are within ring-gymnast territory, in a way that bent arm ring movements are not able to replicate. SAS takes a long time to build, but the payback, makes it all worth it!

Today these were followed by L-hang to wide grip L-sit muscle up, then strict chest to bar wide grip pull ups, and finally snatch grip deadlift. Normally, I would have put something like wall planche push ups, in before the snatch grip deadlift, but running low on time, they were left out.

This was just some examples, to give a little insight, on how you could incorporate BG into your barbell routine. As I wrote this I actually thought about doing some more examples in the format of; if your goals are this and this, I would program like this etc. Then choose some of the most common goals like muscle ups, front and back lever, press handstands and the like. Now the idea is written down, and then I can consider doing it in the future.

Moving on from basics, starting on straight arm strength.

Planche leans

This is fourth part of a series of posts about going from bodybuilding/barbell training to bodyweight/gymnastics(BG), the first part is here, second part here and third here.

Now moving into the more advanced and fun parts of bodyweight/gymnastics(BG). Here you are no longer only looking for complementary exercises. You may still have aesthetics/bodybuilding rather high on your goals list, but they now also include some sort of BG movements. The picture above, is from a workshop I had, where I taught some CF instructors about gymnastic strength moves. The girl, is showing a perfect planche lean, which I will talk more about towards the end of this post.

A very common movement to have as a goal could be the muscle up. I wrote some key notes, about what will get you your first strict muscle up, here, there is no ground-breaking, one-step fix-it-all trick, in that post and if you ask me there should’nt be. There can be people very close to having their muscle ups, that by a few pointers, finally are able to obtain the movement. But my point is, and I cannot stress this enough; once you move past very basic BG movements there will be a learning curve. There will be exercises that you get the first time and some you may not get; even after a full year. But your focus from this point on should be:

Quality over quantity.

You are, for the great majority of exercises, now no longer only working with strength. You will need balance, you will need coordination, you will need courage; simply pushing on can for some movements be detrimental. You need to leave your ego at the door, which for many would be one of the best thing they ever did, to enhance the results of their training.

Giving the handstand(HS) as an example – I will do an entire post or two on handstands, later on – but if you in your training, has moved from wall to freestanding HS, and last time you were training, it came rather easy and you had quite a few good 2-3 sec freestanding HS. But this time you just keep falling over, not having the feel for it at all – then STOP. Go do something else, there is a time to push, and there is a time to abandon. If you learn your body that when the pressure get’s a little too hard on your fingers, then you let go and either pirouette, or roll forward out of your handstand, then this gets hardwired into your brain and you will be learning ”bad behaviors”. For everything skill-based; make sure you opt for quality.

With more advanced movements, comes also the issue of preparing your joints and ligaments for either more strain or working in completely new ranges of motion. They can be trained to be extremely strong, but they do not regenerate as fast muscles. One of the areas where this especially get’s important is on the issue of straight arm strength(SAS). SAS comes into play on things like front and back levers, straight arm planches and of course the manifestation of SAS – the iron cross.

I would love to be able to tell you, that within 4 weeks of doing this and this; you would be able to get the iron cross. But realities are, that most of the guys who try go get it, never will. You will most likely need close to a year of preparation, of your elbow joints and shoulders, before you can even, work with high enough volume, to train seriously towards the iron cross. Skipping the long preparation will, for the majority of people, leave them injured. But hey, I am no oracle, you could be a unicorn and obtain a perfect, straight arm iron cross within 6 months of training – if you do, please tell ME how.

When working on your SAS remember this every time:

Almost straight; is still bent!

Consistency every time. A good way to get started working on SAS, and get a feel of what it really is; is by doing straight arm planche leans. They are a pretty simple and basic exercise, but you still need to keep a few things in mind, to reap the right benefits. What you should notice, from the video of me doing these a couple of years ago, is that I keep my arm absolutely straight. Before I lean, I pull my shoulders down towards my waist, and push as far out towards the floor as possible. The same, as if you stood tall, put your hands out in front of you, pulled your shoulders as far down as possible and then pushed as far out as you could, with your hands, while still keeping the shoulders down. This is the correct starting position, from there you slowly lean forward until you can feel the strain on your shoulder and bicep. Do NOT lean to far, as you’ll most likely faceplant. Just a slight bit of lean is needed in the beginning, before the pressure is felt. At all times remember to keep your arms absolutely straight! As far as your hands on the floor, turning them a bit outwards, so that the thump is pointing straight ahead is recommended – you can however turn your hands all the way backwards if you want, this will result in even more pressure on the bicep.

A good way to start trying these are to have them in the start of your workout, right after you did your warm-up. You need to be focused in order to use the right muscles, so a tired mind after a full workout, is not recommended. In fact anticipating a bit on next chapter of this series, I would recommend you to keep all skill-based exercises at the beginning, right after your warm-up. Whatever is at the top of your priorities training-wise – keep it at the beginning where both your body and mind are at peak effect. Do 4-5 sets of 10-15 sec holds the first weeks. Do not rush towards increased lean. There are a few way to attack these, as far as long term programming goes, which I will discuss later on, because the same things applies to front and back levers and more advanced static holds.

Originally had planned to do this entire series in 3 posts, but they just keep filling themselves, with what I consider important facts, and as I sit here thinking about it, I will probably struggle to keep the rest of the info within 2 posts after this one. Next time I plan on talking programming and how you implement these new BG exercises into your existing program.

Continued here

Starting with basic bodyweight isolation movements

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This is third part of a series of posts about going from bodybuilding/barbell training to bodyweight/gymnastics(BG), the first part is here and second part here.

So how do you attack the bodyweight/gymnastics movements? What is a good way to start? And probably even more important, are there any bad ways to start, that you may want to steer clear of? Starting with the latter – I actually think there are bad ways to implement BG, into your routine. But more on that later, let’s start with the basics and most simple.

A lot of BG exercises have the pleasant commonality, of setting very low demands on equipment. A very large part of exercises, can be done on the floor, without any equipment at all. Add a pullup bar and the possibilities expands, add … – and yes, you’ve got it. Where I am going with this is; you can start with absolutely nothing and get good results. However if your goal is to do a mini-ring routine and your local fitness center does not have rings, then do not let that stop you – go buy some, and bring your own rings with you to the gym. I bought mine from ringtraining.com they are their Elite Rings, which has the nice feature of ”fixing” the strop at the top of the rings, keeping the rings, from spinning inside the straps. But any sorts of rings will do, search and you will find. I have trained with rings for probably 3-4 years now, where most of the time, they are submerged from the pullup bar, at the cable cross tower in my gym. I plan on giving tips on how this can challenges your exercise-selection; not having full height rings, and some tricks to do exercises, that otherwise would seem impossible; but they are for another post.

Now how do you go about implementing BG exercises. As I see it, you have a few options. You can choose to look at them as complementary exercises to your existing program, you can have a specific exercise/trick as your goal, thereby having this dictate the exercise selection or you can perhaps be limited by your lack of equipment, that despite my rant above, of course is a valid excuse – to an extent. Will, determination and creativity is going to get you a long way.

Let’s start by looking at ways to implement BG exercises as complementary exercises. The way to do this, is by looking at which muscles are involved in doing what. This is a very common way to look at exercises, from a bodybuilders perspective. There are basically either isolation or complex movements. Everyone is pretty much preaching; do your basic complex movements, squat, deadlift, bench press, dips etc. and then isolation movements for lacking bodyparts eg. curls for biceps, etc. As a beginner the entire ”why-do-what” can be rather hard to understand, especially if you aren’t that good at your body’s bio mechanics. But now moving to BG, it becomes even harder to determine which exercises do what. If you want to incorporate BG as complementary exercises then; where can I find an BG exercise that for instance works my bicep?

To answer all of that really short and superficial; most BG exercises are complex – near full body exercises. They of course, target some muscles/joints more than other, but as you now need to move your body around in space, you are activating a way higher percentage of muscles, than you would sitting in a machine, laying on a bench, or even standing for that matter. Therefore looking at BG exercises as complementary, to an existing barbell routine, can be rather tricky. You won’t find that many resources helping you, since looking at the exercises from that perspective, is rather uncommon practice in the gymnastics world. What you will see however, is actually the other way around; you can find ringgymnasts using dumbells or barbells to target specific muscles that needs extra work, for them to be able to perform certain movements. Which kind of sums up one of the key differences between gymnastics and bodybuilding. In bodybuilding you look at specific muscles and in gymnastics you focus on movements.

But closing it at that, I would not have given you that much value, would I. There are some exercises you can do with BG that target rather specific muscles. You still hit a lot of other muscles, but they can still be used as isolation movements and give a lot of bang for the buck!

Closing this chapter of the series then, is a little video of me performing a couple of real basic ring-exercises that you, without much preparation and instruction can implement and use in your existing routine. But as most of you are probably looking for more advanced exercises I plan to look at them next time, when the focus shifts from complementary/isolation exercises to more movement-based. I added these two as I haven’t seen them mentioned that many places. Apart from these, ring pushups, flyes and inverted rows are also exercises that you can implement without much prior knowledge and get good results.

A few notes specifically for the video. The reverse curl is an absolutely fabulous exercise. Where a ”normal” standing curl are rather easy in the first part of the movement, then becomes harder as you are halfway through and finally gets easy at the top as you finish the ”pulling” part of the movement; this curl instead is just incredibly hard every inch of the movement. As you may notice, I move my feet a couple of times; this shows how you make the exercise easier. I move my feet so that my body becomes more upright, thereby making it easier to do the curl movement. Moving them in the opposite direction, straightening my lower legs and even elevating my feet makes it incredibly more hard to do. The same applies to the triceps extension, where I also go from having a ”false grip” to normal finger grip in the last two reps. The latter makes for a longer lever, and therefore harder on the triceps – this, together with your ability to scale with the feet-position gives you almost unlimited scalability.

Next chapter, we are moving to the more fun exercises/movements, or at least some of the movements, that are both more fun to look at and more challenging to do. As said earlier by next time changing our focus from specific muscles, to specific movements and positions.

Continued here.

Barbell bodybuilding to bodyweight gymnastics

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Over the next coming weeks, I plan on doing a little mini-series, on going from “classic” barbell strength work, to implementing some bodyweight gymnastics, to form a hybrid or perhaps go all the way and stick to only bodyweight exercises.

I will touch upon the “why”, giving you some pros and cons, on implementing a more bodyweight-biased training protocol, helping you decide whether this may be something for you.

I will then give you some steps and approaches, on how to actually go about implementing these exercises, with a more “how”-inspired focus. There are, as I see it, quite a few different ways, you could choose to implement these exercises, when you come from doing pure barbell-work – which in the end all comes down to your goals and motivation for shifting.

Then I also plan on giving you some advice on, what to have as realistic goals. What can you expect to get out of all your work. Which movements and tricks are within reach the first months, half year, year. And how do you keep your motivation high, when things do not come as easily as expected. Expectations and progressions are as I see it, one of the key areas, where “classic” bodybuilding/strength work is very different to gymnastic/bodyweight training.

Stay tuned…

Edit. Go here for part 2