I have found success in increasing abdominal strength by doing heavy movements for lower repetitions. I recommend this type of workout to lifters who already have a conditioned abdominal area. If no or little abdominal work has been done, higher repetitions should be done for several weeks. This will help to prepare for the following heavy resistance abdominal training routine. All areas of the abdominals or trunk muscles should be exercised including sides, lower abs, and upper abs. My routine works all these areas. For a beginners abdominal conditioning program, I recommend bar twists with a pole or broom handle, dumbell side bends, bent knee situps, lying leg raises and crunches; all done with little or no resistance. Once it becomes routine to do these for two to three sets of 15-25 repetitions, you're ready for abdominal strength training.
My favorite abdominal strength movement is what I call barbell roman chair situps. Over a period of time, they will prove to make the abdominals stronger than one might imagine. Strong abdominals are a great asset to a lifter. They are a supportive muscle group, keeping the torso upright when squatting and deadlifting. They are also a pressurizing force when they vontract hard, to keep the internal pressures elevated, which enhances forceful movements. (Davis, Ergonomics, 1985)
When I first began doing barbell roman chair situps, I used a 95 pound Olympic barbell for 3 or 4 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions. Depending on the individual, most lifters can begin with 45 to 95 pounds. Again, this is following the conditioning phase of abdominal training mentioned. Over a period of time my newfound abdominal exercise has enabled me to improve to using a 315 pound barbell for 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions. The increased abdominal strength that I have gained has helped my powerlifts considerably in the last year.
The barbell roman chair lift should be done in a slow, controlled manner concentrating on keeping the abs contracted throughout the movement. Like the regular roman chair situp, the movement should be done going only 3/4 of the way down. This will keep a good workload on the abdominals and minimize using the lower back. In time, spotters may be required to perform the exercise safely. Many roman chair situp benches may need extra support to keep the board from falling backward or breaking. The photograph above demonstrates a system to facilitate the movement. Note, the barbell is placed on two car jack stands at a convenient height. An extra wood support under the bench keeps the seat from flexing. Pipe insulation is cut longways and taped to the bar to provide padding for the bicep and forearm. Towels can also be wrapped around the bar if extra padding is needed. Some bars may not require padding depending on the weight used and the sharpness of the knurling. If padding is not available, knee wraps can be wrapped loosely around the elbow covering the forearm and bicep.
In addition to the barbell roman chair situps, other abdominal strength movements can be done as well. Holding a plate behind the head on the roman chair can be very effective; however, only light weight can be handled due to poor leverage. Alternating repetitions form opposite elbow to knee holding the plate will work the obliques well.
To concentrate on the lower abdominals, hanging leg raises are excellent. These can be done by grasping a chin bar or hanging from a special type of harness. Extra weight can be added to this exercise by converting an Olympic lifting belt into a leg weight belt. This is done by cutting the belt to a 2 inch width, making sure that the holes are still in the center with the buckle still intact. Extra holes may need to be drilled in order to take out extra slack when tightening the belt. The 2 inch belt can be woven through the center of Olympic plates with a loop for the foot on one side and the buckle on the other allowing the weight to be secured between the feet. Foam rubber or knee wraps may help pad between the shin and weight. If doing weighted leg raises by grasping a chin bar, lifting straps are helpful for the grip. As with the barbell roman chair lift, weighted leg raises will increase abdominal strength.
I'm convinced that the above exercises have helped me improve strength and prevent lifting related injury. Some of these abdominal movements have helped other lifters as well. If strength training for the abdominals is part of your routine, positive results will be sure to come. Regardless of how much weight one is able to use to strengthen the abdominals, they are an important muscle group which should not be neglected. Not only will a stronger abdominal area help the lifts, it will help make the lower back less susceptible to injury. Many people with extra weight in the abdominal area suffer from lower back pain due to weak abdominal muscles. This type of back problem will only be amplified if the out of shape abs belong to a lifter, due to additional stress on the back from a lift.