Ever since I was lucky enough to pull down the Mr. America title in Detroit last June, I have quite frequently been called on for travel to different parts of the country. We won't go into the question of whether I enjoy it or not - after three years in the Seabees, covering more miles than I can count, what do you think? [C.B.'s - U.S. Navy Construction Battalion]
But it has given me the opportunity to get a look into gyms and health clubs all over the United States and up into Canada. I have worked out in basement gyms, swanky athletic clubs, Y.M.C.A.'s - everything, from the beautiful blue of Sig Klein's carpeted salon to an oily garage floor!
And the more I travel, the more firmly I become convinced of America's need to work on its bellies! It is amazing the number of otherwise healthy men there are in the country who have neglected their mid-sections. A glance around in any Y.M.C.A. locker room of on any beach will prove t his to you, as it has been so effectively proven to me; most of us neglect our abdominal regions, and as we grow older it is the first section of our bodies to show that neglect.
It is a serious matter. We may tease our friends and our associates about their pot-bellies, or our thin friends about their flatness, but it is not a laughing matter. For it is in the abdominal region that we find some of the most important organs of the body: the stomach, the bladder, the liver, the kidneys, bowels. intestines; even the highly important sex organs are located in the abdominal region. When we neglect the muscles of the abdomen, they in time sag and droop, and the important organs are warped; crowded and shifted until their natural pattern is lost, and they can't function well.
Thus I imagine you can see the importance in developing the abdominal muscles. Not only do they hold these organs in position; they also aid them in their functioning. They are the means by which we raise our bodies while lying down; they help lift the legs; help us to bend forward or sideways; to lie down, to sit up, to get up again. We'd be a pretty stiff bunch of sticks, wouldn't we, without the marvelously flexible abdominal muscles and their functions.
Structure of the Abdomen
Let's take a look at the abdominal muscles. In order to know how to develop them, we ought to know what they are, and what they do. First and foremost are the ones most of us are familiar with: the muscles that form those beautiful ridges and valleys across the front of the abdomen that all of us like to see, and all of us work so hard for! These are known as the rectus abdominus. They are the means by which we raise the upper body or legs while lying down. (You will see how these operate in the familiar Sit Up and Leg Raise exercises which are the most common and popular abdominal exercises for most of us.) The rectus abdominus muscles are also used in other ways: to bend forward, whether to lift weights, or to permit us to tie our shoes; to flex out chests, or to compress our viscera.
Next come the external obliques. They come into play in all side-bending movements, and help us to bring the upper body erect after bending; they also help to hold it erect. In the internal functions they are important too: they help to flex the thorax, and to compress the viscera and intestines. They add much beauty to the male physique, a fact which was well recognized by the early Greek sculptors, nearly all of whose statues have beautifully developed external obliques. My friend Marvin Urvant has wonderfully developed externals - in fact his whole abdominal development is outstanding. I am including one of his favorite exercises in this set, as it is one I have liked and adopted for my own use.
Other abdominal muscles are the vagina medius abdominus, the transversalis and obliquus internus, both of which help in body functions, by flexing the thorax and compressing the intestines. There are others, too: the psoas magnus and the psoas parvus, the iliacus, the quadratus lumborum, and so forth, but we won't need to give them much thought in development. Abdominal exercises aid all the abdominal muscles, and we won't have to work out special exercises for the obscure muscles. (I just mentioned them to try to sound like an expert, anyway!)
Actually, unless you want to concentrate particularly on achieving a "washboard abdomen" most of you will not have to concentrate especially on the abdominals, anyway. This is because nearly all forms of barbell and dumbbell exercises cannot help but benefit the midsection. There is much bending and twisting in these exercises, and the usual routine of most of us covers enough that we do not have to give too much time to especial development if the abdominal muscles.
However, I assume each of you is trying for the perfect body. (I know I am, and I have a long way to go, especially on my abdominals!) And so, let's try this series of exercises, and build up that rippling washboard effect we all desire so much.
Exercise One - The Sit-Up
One of the best abdominal exercises is the well-known sit-up. There are many ways to do the sit-up, but they all start from the same position: flat on the back! They are much more effective on an inclined abdominal board, inasmuch as you can get considerably more contraction that way. I suggest you buy or make one, as it will be of tremendous value to you in abdominal exercises.
You can perform your sit-ups with or without weights. If you are just starting, better leave the weight off. But if you are an advanced weight trainer, do them with a plate held behind the neck. I use about 50 lbs. for 50 reps, when I am in good shape. This is one exercise you can get plenty of repetitions in, you've undoubtedly read of Gene Jantzen's 1,000 sit-ups, [also 5,200 situps in 3 hours and 50 minutes] and of the competition between many of the fellows in service for sit-up records. Don't cheat and try to 'throw' your body up with the assistance of the arms and the elbows - make sure the abdominal muscles do all the work.
Another good variation on the sit-up is to sit on a bench or stool (with someone or something holding your feet down), and bend down all the way to the floor, touching the back of the head, then pull up as before. You get the added benefit of the s-t-r-e-t-c-h that is so good for the muscle tissue. You will find you can do fewer repetitions on this one! An excellent variation that goes after the external obliques, and gives greater 'looseness' and flexibility to the waist is to do the sit-up in the usual fashion, bending up, and then touching the right knee with the left elbow, and vice versa. Better not try this one on the bench; it's too rugged, but it's very fine on the abdominal board or the floor.
Exercise Two - The Leg Raise
The garden variety leg raise is an excellent exercise for the lower abdomen, just as the sit-up is for the upper abdomen. This exercise lends itself well to use of the iron boots. Be sure to keep the legs straight while lifting the legs. You can either raise them to a vertical position, or continue over, bringing them above the head. Be sure the hips stay on the ground if you use the latter version. This is a good stretch exercise, and at the risk of being repetitious in this series of articles, I am going to remind you that the stretch is vitally important. Just as the tensing of the muscle builds up the cells and tissues within it, so does the stretching of it, enabling the life-giving oxygen to flow in and 're-fuel' the muscle for rebuilding.
Later, as your abdominal muscles strengthen, you might add a pair of lightweight dumbbells to the iron boots to increase the resistance. As in most exercises in this series I'd use about 3 sets of 10 repetitions each, evaluating the weight by the ability to do the repetitions, and the degree of difficulty you experience in it. Try the leg raise in several variations. In all of them, lower the legs slowly, letting the abdominal muscles do all the work. Lift the legs together, then alternately. Try the variation of lifting them to the side, then up. Be sure to keep the knees straight.
I like to do them occasionally with my hands at the sides, under my hips. This aids in the lift, and also gives that stretch. Devote plenty of time to these exercises, as they are very fine abdominal conditioners.
Exercise Three - Leg Raise on Horizontal Bar
This exercise, done while hanging from a chinning bar, really is ideal for stretching the abdominal muscles, and is a sure cure for sagging stomachs! It is simple to describe - you hang from the bar, hands about shoulder width apart (or whatever width is comfortable), and slowly raise the toes all the way up to the bar, touching it with the toes. Then slowly lower, and repeat. Either do this as many repetitions as you can, of do it in sets of 10 each, three sets. I have done 25 reps without the iron boots. However, if you can do as many as 15 reps, begin doing it with the iron boots. Remember, raise and lower the legs s-l-o-w-l-y to obtain the maximum benefits.
Exercise Four - Leg Spread with Boots
This is really a very simple, yet very effective exercise. Lying on the floor, or on the abdominal board, raise the legs about a foot above the board, and slowly spread them as far as possible, them bring them together again. It will be quite easy, until you get the number of repetitions up. Use the iron boots when you can do 3 sets of 10 reps with ease. Do not lower the feet to the ground between repetitions, but keep them always in the raised position, knees straight. Be sure to spread the legs as far as possible each time. You might try the variation of crossing the legs alternatively as you bring them to the center after the spread.
If you'd like to concentrate on the external obliques, try this variation on the leg spread. Lie on the side, and raise the leg sidewise into the air with the iron boot, as far as it will go. Lower it s-l-o-w-l-y! Then turn onto the other side, and repeat. Three sets of ten repetitions, each side. This is also an excellent exercise for the tensor fascia muscle of the thigh, but that is another article! You fellows who are a bit bulky in the hips will also find it an excellent reducer.
Exercise Five - The Push Out
I prefer doing this exercise on a bench and not the floor, as it allows you to hang on. However, it can be done on the floor, bench, or abdominal board, as you wish, with equal effectiveness. This is also an iron boot exercise.
While lying on the back, bend the knees and bring them up as far as possible toward the chest, keeping the forelegs parallel to the floor while doing so. Then, with a vigorous push, shoot the legs out straight, and parallel to the floor. If you are lying on the floor, you will have to point them up slightly, about a foot off the floor. If you are on a bench, you can bring them out parallel and even with the bench. Repeat, and do again for 10 repetitions, 3 sets. When you are good at this, add some light weights to the iron boots and carry on. You'll find a bench handy for this, too, in that you can hang on, and if you do it as vigorously as you should, you will want to hang on!
Exercise Six - Side Bends with Weight
Tired of lying down, on the back and side for these abdominal exercises? Here is one you can do standing up, without the iron boots! It is the side bend with weight, a simple yet very effective waist conditioner that is excellent for the external obliques. Stand with the feet together, legs straight, a dumbbell in one hand. Don't start out with too heavy a weight, as you will want to do 30 repetitions and it has a tendency to seem to get heavier after the first dozen reps! (Strange, eh?)
This exercise is simple: bend sideways at the waist as far as you can go, letting the weight hang straight, then come up straight, slowly. Try the first 10 reps with the held a trifle to the front, throwing the weight a bit forward; then 10 reps with the weight slightly in back; then 10 reps directly at the side. Remember, when you bend down, you are working the muscle on the opposite side from which you bend. Be sure to exercise both sides equally.
Exercise Seven - Abdominal Side Twist
Here is an exercise that will require some bending and stretching - one you will find plenty rigorous, but also very beneficial. This is the abdominal side twist with weight overhead.
You start in the erect position, as in Exercise Six, but with the weight held at arm's length overhead (I'm using about 50 pounds here, but you can best determine after you have had a few tries at it; use the best weight for your own strength, and work for 20 reps.)
Spread the feet a little over 24 inches apart, depending on your height. With the free hand, bend down and touch the toe of the opposite foot, keeping the weight overhead, arm straight, then return to to the original position, and repeat. 20 reps to each side is the goal; when you've reached it, use more weight, and so forth. Work for those reps each side and be sure to keep the knees fairly straight.
This exercise is very fine, not only for the front abdominal muscles, but also for the internal organs, stimulating them and feeding them with new blood and life-giving oxygen. With 20 reps of this a day you should never be bothered with colonic troubles, constipation, or other internal difficulties of the lower abdominal region. And I doubt if very much that you will have to worry about a weak of flabby waistline!
Exercise Eight - The 'Bank Twist'
I have been saving for last this exercise taught to me by my good friend Marvin Urvant. This is one he learned in the Army Air Forces while a physical instructor. While I share Marvin's belief that many of the Army and Navy calisthenics exercises are of no more value than so much flapping of the arms, this is one exercise I really believe in. It has done wonders for Marvin, who has what I consider the finest abs in the country, and it has been very helpful in developing my own. Try it, and see if you don't agree it is a beauty!
It is known as the Bank Twist and is shown in the photo above. You will want the iron boots for this one. Lie on the back on the floor, hand under the head. Now bring one leg straight up, and keeping the hips and buttocks on the floor, let it down slowly across the other leg, and touch the floor. Return to the vertical position, and repeat, 10 repetitions each side, 3 sets each. Be sure to keep the buttocks on the floor, and get all the stretch possible in the abdomen. This is especially good for the lower abdomen, and also very fine for the organs within.
Now try this variation of the Bank Twist: lie on the back as before, but with the arms extended straight out at the sides, palms downward, on the floor. Bring both legs up as in the leg raise, until they are vertical. Then, without bending the knees and keeping the buttocks as low to the floor as is possible, lower both legs to the left, touching the floor with the toes. Be sure the knees are kept straight. Now raise the legs together to the vertical position, and touch them to the floor together at the right, and repeat, alternating sides. Better try this without the iron boots at first, until you have mastered it and built up some strong abdominal musculature. Later you can try it with the iron boots. You will really feel the pull on the abdominals but it will be well worth the work. The externals and viscera get a fine workout with this one!
These eight exercises, if practiced faithfully and conscientiously, should really give you an abdominal development to be proud of. And remember, in planning your workouts, that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link - if the midsection has been neglected the body cannot perform its functions effectively. Without a well proportioned and muscular abdominal development your physique will fall short of the perfection and beauty all of us desire. With it, you can reflect with pride when you see yourself in the mirror, and you will never need to experience the sluggish, logy feeling of a man whose abdominal organs are weak and ineffective.