“Wait, a bodybuilder ab workout? Bodybuilders don’t train their abs!”
If you’re a long-time fan of professional bodybuilding, you might have had that very thought cross your mind when you saw the headline of this article. And it’s true — many top champions past and present famously forgo abs in their splits, instead focusing their prodigious time in the gym on the rest of their physique while dialing in their core definition solely through diet.
“Some” doesn’t equal “all,” though. Plenty of Olympia contenders and aspiring amateurs alike have made sure to squeeze at least some abdominal work into their regular routines, knowing that every detail matters… and that nothing brings out the definition of your six-pack and surrounding midsection muscles like direct, detail-etching exercises taken to searing momentary muscle failure.
Working your abs hard is also a great way to build stability in your entire core, meaning you’ll have a solid base for virtually every movement you do throughout the day and during your workouts. So even if a six-pack isn’t what you’re after, it can’t hurt to put some focus on your midsection.
Borrowing some of the favorite movements of champions past, the Oxygen team has crafted the following top-to-bottom midsection makeover that you can easily add to your current routine once or twice weekly. Sure, not every bodybuilder trains abs — but after a few months of dedicated efforts, your results may just prove they all should.
* Do the last set of each movement to momentary muscle failure.
Favorite of: Two-time Ms. Olympia Rachel McLish
How-to: Lie on a flat bench, grasping both sides of the bench near your head for support, and extend your legs straight out. Your glutes should be aligned with the bottom edge of the bench with your legs over open air, parallel to the floor. Keeping your knees straight, bend at the hips to bring your legs up in an arc until they are pointed toward the ceiling, then slowly and under control, lower them back to the start, controlling the descent via your abdominals.
Pro Tip: You can take the intensity up a notch by doing a tri-set, starting with hanging leg raises (the hardest version of the exercise), followed by leg raises on a decline bench, and finally the lying raise on a flat bench as described here. By switching to slightly easier variations as you reach failure, you’ll extend the length of the overall set and build a deeper, more satisfying burn.
Favorite of: Seven-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger
How-to: Kneel in front of a cable machine and grasp a rope attachment attached to the upper pulley with both hands, with your elbows bent and the balls at the end of the rope aligned with your ears on each side of your head. At the start, your torso should be upright, and you should be positioned far enough away that the weight stack is slightly lifted.
From here, curl your upper body downward, bringing your bent elbows toward your knees, until you reach a full contraction. Hold the tuck position for a one-count, then slowly return along the same path. To keep the tension on the abs, don’t let the stack touch down between reps.
Pro Tip: To incorporate your obliques — the muscles that run alongside the main rectus abdominis (six-pack) muscle, you can add a twist to the movement. Instead of bringing your body straight downward on each rep, alternate between a twist to the left on the way down, then going to the center, then twisting to the right. You can move back and forth between those three positions for the entire set.
Favorite of: Three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane
How-to: Get into position face-up on a Roman chair or back extension bench — your feet should be secured with your ankles under the pads (or on the platform, depending on what type of bench you’re using), your arms crossed over your chest, and your body straight from head to heel. From here, curl your torso upward, shortening the distance between the bottom of your ribcage and your hips as far as you can. Hold the peak contraction for a one count, then slowly lower yourself back to the start.
Pro Tip: Consider finishing this exercise with another favorite of Zane: The vacuum pose. On your final set, stop in the bottom position and pull in your midsection as far as you can, holding it in that “sucked-in” position for as long as you can stand it. (If you prefer, you can also dismount the apparatus and simply do the pose standing or lying on a bench or the floor.)
Favorite of: Six-time Ms. Olympia Cory Everson
How-to: Lie faceup on the floor with your legs bent and your feet planted. Place your hands behind your head with your fingertips touching to support your head and your elbows flared out to your sides. Slowly curl your upper body off the floor, raising your shoulder blades as you twist your torso, bringing your right elbow toward your left knee. Lower yourself back to the floor and immediately come back up, this time bringing your left elbow toward your right knee. Once to each side equals one rep.
Pro Tip: If you want to add some more dynamic action, you can do medicine-ball Russian twists instead. For those, you’ll sit on the floor, balancing on your glutes with your upper body and lower body elevated, holding a medicine ball in both hands in front of your chest, elbows bent. Twist your body in an explosive manner to one side, touching the ball momentarily to the floor on that side, and then bring it back and twist to the other side. Alternate for reps (once to each side equals one rep) or for a specified time (such as 30 seconds).