5 Tips to a Stronger Midsection

Odds are, if you’ve actually taken the first step of going to the gym, one of your goals is probably to improve your midsection. You might want a nice little six-pack to take to the beach with you this summer, you might be an athlete who needs more core strength, or maybe you’re just a weekend warrior with some back problems. No matter what your goal, there are certain principles that everyone should follow when it comes to torso training:

Tip #1: Train Your Midsection.
This might sound like the most obvious thing in the world for an article about core training, but you’d be surprised how many people completely skip abdominal training altogether, let alone obliques, transverse abs, and lower back training. If you think these muscles are getting enough work in your regular workouts, you’re wrong.

Tip #2: Train Your Hip Flexors.
Somewhere in the last 30 years, it became en vogue to “isolate the abs” (thank you, Flex Magazine). Pick up a fitness magazine today and odds are it’ll have an article on how to do just that. What’s the problem with that? Everything. The abdominals and hip flexors are designed to be used together. If you try to exclude them from all your core training, then they’ll shut off, and won’t be able to fire properly when you need them most.

Here’s a simple test: Lay flat on a bench, with your feet flat on the floor slightly in front of you and your arms crossed over your chest. From this position, sit all the way up without letting your feet come up off the floor. If you can’t do it, you need to start training your hips, and you need to start yesterday. If you normally do crunches, do situps. If you normally do knee raises, do straight leg raises. There are a lot more ways to train the hip flexors than that, but those will get you started on the right track.

Tip #3: Train Your Midsection While Standing.
A lot of people miss this one, and it’s a shame. Think about it: does it make sense to practice your tennis serve while sitting in a chair? When’s the last time you saw a guy pull a 500lb deadlift while laying on his back? Practice how you play. One of the best standing ab and hip movements is the standing cable crunch. Attach a rope to a lat pulldown station and pull it down to your neck. With your legs straight, flex your abs and hips to bend over about parallel to the floor, then return to a full upright position. Wide foot placement adds more hip focus, and using a split stance (one foot in front of the other) includes the obliques to a greater degree.

Tip #4: Twist & Turn.
Especially if you’re an athlete, you need to do more than just train with crunches and leg raises. There are very few sports that don’t require any torso rotation. Twisting oblique movements should make up at least one out of three core movements, if not more. Medicine ball rotational work is great if you have access to a partner or a masonry wall. If not, here’s a good replacement: take an Olympic bar and wedge it in the corner of a wall, and lift the other end up with both hands, arms extended at about face level. Let the bar drop to the side toward one hip, then, keeping the arms relatively straight and leading by twisting the waist, raise the bar back up to the starting position. You can do all reps to one side at once, or alternate side-to-side. Don’t be afraid to go heavy on these at least once in a while.

Tip #5: Don’t Neglect Your Lower Back.
Probably 2 out of every 3 clients I get describe symptoms of lower back pain when they first begin training with me. When I ask them what they’ve done to help rehab it they typically tell me that they’ve been excluding any movements that involve the lower back. This is extremely backwards. When a child has difficulty learning to walk, is your solution to carry them everywhere instead? Of course not. So why would you deliberately neglect a weak area? How will that make it any better?

One problem is that most people can’t distinguish between muscle soreness and joint injury, and general practitioners don’t take the time to help patients understand. So when someone goes to their family doc with a sore lower back from, say, helping a friend move, the doctor’s prescription is usually the same: “stay off it for a while.” It’s never “you should train your lower back so it won’t get sore the next time you help someone move.”

For every direct abdominal movement you do (crunches, leg raises, situps, etc.), I would suggest an equivalent number of movements to develop the lower back. Planks, 45-degree back raises, good mornings, bridges, Supermans, etc. are all good choices. If you don’t know the proper execution of any of these movements, consult a good trainer and learn (if you don’t know if your trainer is good, ask around. If nobody knows if he’s good or not, odds are he isn’t).

You can’t build a skyscraper without a strong foundation, and you can’t build the body you want without a strong core. Treat these muscles with the time and respect that they deserve, and they will pay you back tenfold with a healthy, strong, injury-free midsection.

5/3/1 Assistance Work: Making Progress

If you haven’t read Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Manual by now, you’re missing out. If you have, you know how effective it can be in improving stalled lifts very quickly and consistently. The program is incredibly simple and effective: follow your percentage work for the main lifts, do your accessory work, then go home. However, the manual doesn’t elaborate very much on the assistance work in the context of progressions, so I thought I’d show some of the ways that I’ve manipulated assistance work with different training clients and still managed to keep the overall simplicity of the program intact.

Example #1: Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight exercises play an important role in 5/3/1 – hell, Wendler has an entire assistance template devoted to them. However, figuring out how and when to progress them can be a little tricky. Here’s how I’ve gone about it with one of my older clients.

Client #1
Let’s use the 45-Degree Back Raise as our sample exercise. When we first started, he could do a single, full-effort set with his own bodyweight that had his form break down at about 14 reps in. We progressed it like this:

Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5×10
Week 2 – 5×11
Week 3 – 5×12
Week 4 – 5×5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5×12
Week 2 – 5×13
Week 3 – 5×14
Week 4 – 5×5 (deload)

On occasion we would only add one extra rep each cycle, starting at 5×11 instead of 5×12 and working through. We repeated this scheme until he was hitting 5×20, then added a 5-lb plate behind his head and began back at 5×10. I know you’re basically only adding a rep or two per set per cycle, but in the long run, that’s probably better gains than 90% of gym members have made in the last 12 months.

Client #2
In another case, I had a client that could only get about 7 reps at a time on the 45-Degree Back Raise. We used a progression like this:

Cycle 1
Week 1 – 3×5
Week 2 – 4×5
Week 3 – 5×5
Week 4 – 2×5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 3×6
Week 2 – 4×6
Week 3 – 5×6
Week 4 – 2×6 (deload)

Once he was up to 5×10, I progressed him like Client #1.

I would not use a progression like this if somebody was unable to get at least 5 reps of a given exercise. However, with the exception of GHR’s and pullups, I’ve never encountered a scenario where somebody couldn’t get at least a single set of 10. In those cases, we used JumpStretch bands to provide assistance (rather than resistance) and progressively worked down in band tension until 5 reps could be performed with bodyweight only. I do this with band-assisted pull-ups since I suck at them:

Band-Assisted Pullup w/ average band
Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5×10
Week 2 – 5×11
Week 3 – 5×12
Week 4 – 5×5

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5×11
Week 2 – 5×12
Week 3 – 5×13
Week 4 – 5×5

You can try going up more than a rep per cycle, but I’ve never had any success with it with band-assisted exercises. Once you get up to 5×20, drop band tension down to a light band, then a monster mini, then a mini, then bodyweight only. Some may feel they can progress quicker than this; I would suggest against it to prevent stalling in the long run.

Example 2: Externally-loaded Exercises
Externally-loaded is a fancy way of saying “anything more than bodyweight” – i.e. everything else. I use 2 methods here, one for the Boring But Big template, and one for everything else.

Boring But Big
After performing the appropriate 5/3/1 progression for whatever week you’re using, repeat the same lift for 5×10 at 50-60% in this manner:

Week 1 – 5×10 @50%
Week 2 – 5×10 @55%
Week 3 – 5×10 @60%
Week 4 – 5×5 @50% (deload)

If your training maxes go up the next cycle on your 5/3/1 lifts, recalculate your percents using the new max. If it doesn’t, then repeat the cycle with the same weights.

Everything Else
I use this with things like rows, side bends, extensions, etc. Pretty straightforward:

DB Side Bend
Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5x55x10
Week 2 – 5x55x12
Week 3 – 5x55x15
Week 4 – 5x55x5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5x60x10
Week 2 – 5x60x12
Week 3 – 5x60x15
Week 4 – 5x60x5 (deload)

How you jump your reps is up to you – I’ve used 5-8-10 as well as 15-18-20 depending on the exercise and who I’m dealing with. Bottom line is to make as small of a jump as possible and progress as consistently as you can.

There are plenty of ways to do this, you just have to be a little creative and think simple. Keep your goal simple and small, just like you would on your main lifts. Increasing your lifts by one rep or by five pounds is still progress. Have that happen 10 times over and suddenly what started as a little extra won’t seem so little anymore, and neither will you.

Strength Training 101: Training Economy

For somebody who is new at strength training, the first few months hold a significant amount of opportunity to see radical changes in the body, including increased lean mass, reduced bodyfat, increased strength, and improved cardiovascular conditioning. However, it is critical that these first few months, where the body reacts rapidly to change, are handled correctly, because once this opportunity is gone, it is gone for good.

There are many components to a sound fitness program, including resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, nutrition, flexibility, recovery, and supplementation. Because most people do not have multiple hours in a given day to devote to these components it is my job to teach someone how to get the most out of their program in the least amount of time. This is especially true for resistance training.

In my experience, the average gymgoer (this excludes gym rats who essentially live at the gym for multiple hours each day) has roughly 1-1 1/2 hours a day, 2-4 days a week to spend at the gym without it creating difficulty in other areas of their life. This means that the big in-gym activities (resistance training, cardio and flexibility) have to all be addressed in this short window. In other words, making the right choices on what to do is crucial to get the most out of your time.

In short, training economy simply means selecting movements that provide the most benefit in the shortest amount of time. A movement that recruits twenty muscles in various proportions is more economical than one that isolates a single muscle. Focus should be on compound exercises (movements that require moving more than one joint) over isolation exercises (movement at only one joint). Let me provide a few examples.

Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

Let’s look at a common target area for a female – the legs. Usually the goal is to shape and define the legs while at the same time reducing their size. Now, we know that in general to make your body smaller you have to lose bodyfat, which means cardio and nutrition are vital to getting the results you want. However, let’s put those aside and focus solely on using the workout floor. The legs are composed of several areas – the quadriceps (front of the leg), the hamstrings (back of the leg), the glutes, the hips, and the calves.

Now let’s look at some leg exercises and compare them in terms of training economy.

Comparison #1: Leg Extension vs. Leg Press

Leg Extension – beginners, for whatever reason, tend to gravitate toward this machine for the bulk of their leg training. From an economical standpoint, however, it only targets the quadriceps. Beyond that, the majority of the stress is only on a very small portion of the quadriceps in general – the vastus lateralus, which is basically the small section of muscle just above and to the inside of the knee that looks like a big teardrop when it’s fully developed. Let’s day you do 3 sets of 15 and rest for a minute in between sets. On average, you’ll spend a minimum of five minutes to have targeted maybe what, 5% of the entire leg? This makes little sense for someone who is pressed for time.

Leg Press – this is another machine that a lot of beginners, especially guys, tend to spend a lot of time on, in this case because it allows you to pile on the plates and boost the ego by moving a weight that’s 2-3 times that of your bodyweight. In terms of training economy, this is a good choice – the entire quadriceps is active, and if you move through a full range of motion by striving to lower the weight down so that the knee is bent at less than 90 degrees, the glutes and hamstrings also become heavily recruited. The calves, hips and abdominals are also involved as stabilizers. So far so good, right? Right, as long as the movement is performed properly, through a full range of motion. The problem is that, as I stated earlier, most guys use this machine to pump their ego and not their legs, so they’ll slap 800lbs on the sled and move through a 3 inch range of motion, at best. This is useless. Full range of motion is vital in almost every instance, with few exceptions.

Comparison #2: Lying Leg Curl vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Lying Leg Curl – just like the leg extension, this is a very popular piece of equipment with beginners. However, again, in terms of bang for your buck, it falls short. For starters, it works only the hamstrings with little to no support from any other muscles. Secondly, the hamstring is a muscle that requires movement at both the hip and the knee to be worked completely, and the leg curl only has movement at the knee.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift – stiff-leg deadlifts not only hit the hamstrings with hip movement, which is not possible with any leg curling variation, but it also involves the glutes and lower back as major movers, and the lats and upper back as supporting muscles. Heavier weights can also be used, which, when coupled with the need to stand when performing this movement, equals more calories burned.

Chuck Vogelpohl deadlifting

Now, there are certain instances where more isolation movements are needed: when working around an injury or rehabilitating an injury, and when there is a muscular imbalance present, either in stength or size. However, 90% of beginning trainees do not have either of these issues and should focus on compound movements done from a standing position.

Here are some of the most economical movements for the beginner and the muscles targeted (in order from most to least involvement):

  • Bench Press (chest/shoulders/triceps)
  • Pushup (chest/shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Standing Military Press (shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Deadlift (lower back/glutes/hamstrings/lats/upper back/core)
  • Squat (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/lower back/calves/core)
  • Lunge (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/hips/core)
  • Pullup/Chinup (upper back/lats/biceps/core)
  • Row (upper back/lats/biceps/core)

Weight is less important than proper technique on these movements – in fact, many can and should be done with bodyweight only until proper form is learned.

You’ll notice there are no direct movements for the biceps and triceps. This is because these movements are by nature isolation movements – all the movement is at the elbow joint only. Most beginners do not need direct arm work if the focus is on presses, rows and pullups for the upper body.

If you are struggling to get the results you are looking for, I encourage you to take a look at your own program and evaluate its training economy. I promise you’ll notice an immediate difference and spend less time in the gym to boot. And as we all know, time is money. And that’s economical.