Thursday, May 26, 2016

Abdominals With a French Touch - Leo Robert (1958)

Zabo Koszewski

Bert Goodrich on one leg holding Glen Sunby in a handstand.
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by Leo Robert (1958)

Ever since the days of early Sparta, beautiful, classically-carved abdominals have been the hallmark of the superbly developed athlete. Even today in some European countries - notably France - abdominal development is so highly prized it has reached the proportions of a cult.

Happily (and healthfully), as we here in the United States are forsaking the bulk-for-bulk's-sake fad, we are bringing into the fore  greater stress on midsection development. Today, every bodybuilder wants clean, clear, blade-sharp abdominals. Unfortunately, wanting them and getting them are two vastly different things.

The difference in the finished appearance of the French bodybuilder's abdominals and that of the American is startling. Here in the U.S., most of us feel that we have worked a major miracle if we can show even a fair definition of the usual four sets of abdominals. In France, even their abdominals have abdominals.     

Now, anatomically speaking, it is obvious that the French are no different than we. Nor do they have any "secret" exercises nor any bizarre training methods. How, then, do they develop their amazing abdominals -- muscles so numerous one thinks of measuring them with a Geiger counter rather than a tape -- muscles so clear and so dramatic that they actually become a showcase, theatrically displaying the rest of their superior muscular development?

The answer is one of scientific approach to the problem and the degree of exercise intensity -- plus their insistence on training the abdomen from angles rarely done in this country. The French bodybuilder without his angled abdominal board is a bodybuilder without good abdominals . . . and in France this is practically a cardinal sin!

First, let me tell you what they don't do before I tell you what they do

They don't do situps! Heresy? Not at all . . . at least they don't do them in our conventional way. Here, it is considered the normal thing to begin abdominal work with several sets of situps. The French would never do this because:

1) The full situp is the most tiring, boring, time-wasting and nonproductive of all abdominal exercises. For years we here at Weider have been calling the turn on this archaic exercise, explaining graphically how it works only a very small area of the abdominals when done this way.

2) The French bodybuilder, being very logical, realizes this. Consequently he performs only that part of the situp which actually activates the abdominals. This he does by beginning the situp, rising no more than 10 inches from the board, then lowering the back until it just barely grazes the board, before he immediately begins another partial situp. In other words, the entire movement is controlled -- there is no throwing the body upward, there is no tiresome "follow through" as we do it, which makes the exercise unnecessary and ineffective. There is constant tension on the abdominals from start to finish, which doesn't happen when situps are done American fashion.

The upper abdominal area is strikingly well developed in the French bodybuilder because he makes this simple exercise increasingly more and more difficult. How? First, by adjusting the angle of the inclined board so that ever-increasing tension is generated. Secondly, he does it with a barbell when even the most difficult angles of the abdominal board become easy to maneuver. Third, and of possibly greater importance, is his unique method of performing this movement in heavy and light fashion.

This means that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday he will do the partial situp with weight held either across the back (if he is merely using a barbell plate), or in the hands held upon the chest (if he is using a whole barbell). He generally schedules 5 sets of around 12 repetitions for this weighted variation, while on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday he performs the same movement without weight for 8 sets of 50 repetitions.

Now, if you think that 8 sets of 50 in the situp is difficult you should try it the famous French way and find out how much fun it is. For as I've said, the tiring part of the situp is the needless, nonproductive part . . . that which does absolutely nothing for the selected muscles but which puts an enormously tiring burden on the small of the back. Next time you do the situp American style, just for once note where the strain and fatigue begin. You'll find it not in the abdominals but in the back and the hip/upper thigh area.

This method of heavy and light training for the abdominals is the backbone of the French method. It is specifically well adapted for the abdominals because this is the only muscle group in the body that you are not attempting to enlarge. No bodybuilder wants a large waist -- muscular or otherwise. If this method were used on any other muscles the effect would be devastating rather than developmental, for what you would build up in muscular density in one day you would tear down in the next.

In the larger muscle groups you work for maximum size, while in abdominal development you work for maximum definition. You stress muscular solidity, contour and muscle firmness of texture in abdominal work, you do not work to the ultimate in muscular density.

The principle of the French method is that enough weight should be used to develop exceptional muscle firmness, yet enough high set, high rep, weightless movements should be done to insure that every milligram of intra-muscular fat or bulky tissue is destroyed.

The American bodybuilder, as a rule, utilizes only one of these phases of abdominal training in his workouts. Either he performs too many weightless movements which leaves the muscles relatively undeveloped, or he uses weights so heavy that he builds thick abdominal muscles which have no attendant muscular definition, or he performs his exercises on either just a flat bench or on one which is inclined in only one stationary position. In this way only two areas of the abdominal muscles feel any great tension and consequently there is only a partial development of the muscles.

In using all three phases at different times the muscles have a chance to grow to an impressive size and shape, yet remain so highly refined and highlighted that they are breathtaking in their chiseled beauty.

The French method works like magic on the man who thinks he has "too thick" a skin for the abdominals to show; on the man who has considerable fat around his midsection; as well as on the advanced bodybuilder who just can't understand why his abdominals are not as perfectly developed as his other muscles.

One of our great American champions and trainers, Vince Gironda, made a spectacular test with the French method. Though Vince is well into his forties he has the same daring and liking for challenges he had in his youth. A year or more ago, Vince permitted his magnificent body to actually grow fat. Not a vestige of his once great muscularity appeared. Yet by training his midsection with weights on three days and with high set, high rep weightless movements on alternate days, he achieved a sharpness of muscular outline and a richness of muscular texture such as no other present day champion possesses. One of the exercises which Vince claims did the most for him was this same partial situp that I have described here.

The principle used in the partial situp is used in every other abdominal exercise the French bodybuilder performs. The exercises he uses are few in number, but they are done in such a variety of angled positions and they are alternated from day to day with and without weight that they reach every muscle fiber in, around and under the abdominals.

If you will observe the photograph of Jean-Louis Jean of Paris as well as that of our own Vince Gironda you will note how effectively this method brings out even the attachments of the abdominal muscles near the latissimus. How many bodybuilders do you know who can boast such far-reaching abdominal separation? In examining the photograph of Jean-Louis Jean it actually seems as if the abdominals are a continuing part of the lats themselves! 

     Jean-Louis Jean, both photos.

 There is a one exercise which has long been a favorite of the French and Belgian bodybuilders and which has been described in these magazines several times. It is the inverted situp and for this you need either pulleys or a cable set.

To perform it, grasp the handle or handles, then walk forward until there is tension from the cable felt. Now turn around with the back to the pulley. Hold the handles at the back of the head, then bend forward until the head goes down between the knees. Resist firmly on returning to the starting position as the cable resisted you on the way down.

 One Variation of the Inverted Situp

When you do leg raises, don't do them at one stationary angle. Use an adjustable slant board so that you can continuously enlarge the angle. Then with the head at the higher end of the board and with knees locked, pull the legs up only until tension ceases. Lower them until they just barely touch the board, then up again. The idea here is to keep tension on the abdominals continuously, throughout the entire set. 

In the situp as in the leg raise, go no higher than necessary. Raise the body to the exact point where gravity takes over. Once this point is reached the exercise has only one value if continued onward . . . a nuisance value of fatigue which makes the rest of your abdominal harder, more disagreeable and more tiring than it needs to be.

Do as the thrifty French do . . . practice economy of motion in all abdominal exercise, doing the effective part and stopping right there. In this way you can do 10 times the number of exercises, sets and reps you've ever done before and you'll feel every one of them right where they should be felt. 

I will outline a French abdominal routine which you can easily adjust into your regular workout schedule. Just make sure that the abdominal weight exercises are not done on your heavy weight training days. Make it easy on yourself and you'll get double the results and pleasure from it. 

Abdominal Weight Days


1) Leg Raise Hanging From Bar:
Use iron boots if you can, otherwise tie small plates to the feet. Do 5 sets of 8 reps, working up to 12 reps before adding more weight.

2) Dumbbell Pullup From the Floor:
Lie on a flat bench with dumbbells on the floor within your grasp, The bells should be about midway between the shoulders and abdomen. With a hands-over grip, reach down and simply pull the dumbbells upward as high as you possibly can. Lower slowly to starting position, feeling the tension all the way down. In this exercise, which will bring out that terrific tie-in of abdominals and lats, you must THINK THE TENSION INTO THE ABDOMINALS. Don't make an arm, shoulder or chest exercise out of it. The arms are just hooks and the abdominals must do the work. Do 5 sets of 12 reps, adding weight when you can.

3) Barbell Side-to-Side Bend:
Everyone knows this exercise done with a barbell across the shoulders, the body bending to the right and to the left. NEVER USE A HEAVY WEIGHT. This works on the obliques so effectively that use of a heavy weight will build them too much and increase the size and appearance of size of the waist. A lighter weight will give them the stretch they need without building bulk, which they don't need. 5 sets of 15 reps to each side. 

4) Partial Weighted Situp:

This has been described earlier. It only remains to indicate that you should do 5 sets of 12 reps with all the weight you can handle.

20 sets of terrific abdominal work and you'll say it's all a pleasure. I guarantee that, using this French method, you won't be overly fatigued.

Abdominal Weightless Days


1) Leg Raise Hanging From a Bar:
No weight, but do 8 sets of 15 reps in this.

2) Leg Raise on Adjustable Incline Abdominal Board:
Make the angle steep, place the head at the higher position and try another 8 sets of 15 reps.

3) Body Lever:

Lie on a flat bench, hands grasping the supports. Lock knees, and raise the entire body up to position shown but NO FURTHER. Lower slowly, not letting the body quite touch the board before you begin another rep. Do 5 sets of 15 in this.

4) Partial Situp Without Weight:

Clasp hands behind head and raise trunk to a partial sitting position as earlier described. You should try for 8 sets of 50 reps and even then you'll not be overly tired when using this partial motion.

This program can followed by anyone from Paris, France to Paris, Kentucky. You need no large commercial gym and no classy assortment of gadgets. Indeed, the isolation of home training makes possible the utmost concentration which is a basic factor in the French abdominal training method. 

With this economy of equipment, using the economy of motion which is so typically French, plus the intense concentration which you can generate for yourself in the quietude of your own home, you can build a set of abdominal muscles that will make you proud. 

Try this method for just a few days, sandwiching it in your regular workouts. You'll see it's the smoothest, the easiest and the most pleasant and productive way of getting real championship abdominals.


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