Monday, January 8, 2018

Developing Your Abdominals - Zabo Koszewski

Photos Courtesy of Lydia Tack
Article Thanks to Liam Tweed

After so many "Best Ab" trophies over the years I often am surprised to see just how many I have won. In fact, I've been winning them for such a long time that bodybuilders now believe I was born with good abdominals. Believe me, it ain't so! 

To give you the plain unvarnished truth, my abs are the result of an accident! When I was younger I participated in a lot of sports in my New Jersey home town . . . football being a special favorite. I'm sure you realize that training for football isn't much of an ab developer. If anything, it packs on flesh all over the body . . . and the abdominals get their own fair share.

The real clincher that started my road to prizewinning abs was a hernia. Yes, weakness in my intestinal wall made possible an ailment that doctors told me only surgery could repair. I wouldn't accept this answer, and so I would win out another way, and because at first I had little knowledge of advanced training techniques I had to do it largely in hit-or-miss fashion.

I knew that it would be wise for me to "make haste slowly" so my first ab routine consisted of just two exercises: Situps and Leg Raises. Although I could only manage a few reps that first training day, I soon had worked up to the point where 500 Situps and 500 Leg Raises were just warmups for my more advanced training routines every day.

Even just these two exercises had produced a good enough abdominal development for me to begin winning contest titles. Of course, I was in top condition from the football and other sports I had played, and this together with my long torso which responded so rapidly to high sets/high reps made me an easy winner. So, in the more than 20 years I have been competing I have never failed to take the Best Abs award, even though I may have been only runner-up (or less!) in overall competition for the main title.

Because a fine abdominal development is the hallmark of an allover good muscular development, I intend to keep on winning those titles, just to prove to the world that a guy over 40 (way over!) can maintain a well-defined athletic shape. 

To bring out clear-cut abdominals you must do two things: 

1.) Burn away all midsection fat that is on the outside, and that which lurks between the muscles . . . the fat you can't see, but causes you too look too smooth and too large in the abdominal region.

2.) You must continually work for muscularity of the abdominals, and that requires daily diligence. Yes, you don't exercise your abs with a split routine . . . but with an everyday workout with specialized abdominal exercises, as I will show you in this article.

My Favorite Abdominal Stars

 Leo Robert: One man I contested with back in the early 1950s, Leo Robert of Montreal, had the most perfectly shaped, classically carved abs in the business. Flawlessly shaped, they looked as though a sculptor had carved them out of sheer granite. Leo worked them hard, too, to keep that top shape at all times.   

Clarence Ross: Another old-timer with a classical midsection plus obliques like the Farnese Hercules. He worked very hard every day on abdominal development, and it showed in his sensational posing. It just took your breath away. 

Reg Park: Probably the best tall man in the history of abdominal development, Reg was tops in the last 1950s. His entire torso was sensational, but his abs, obliques and intercostals were incomparable, with clear-cut side and deep front separation.

Larry Scott: Few bodybuilders realize that Larry at his best has a tremendous set of abs. Everyone is usually so busy looking at his magnificent arms they miss his top quality abdominals. Larry is not tall, either, and abs on a short-torsoed guy often cause him to look chunky. But in Larry's case his abs are totally right for his build. He is unforgettable.   

Function of the Abdominals

There are two principal functions of the abdominals:

1.) To move the upper body from side to side, and
2.) To lever the upper body forward (as in bending forward).

Two auxiliary muscles assist in this latter function if you perform an exercise such as the Situp from a flat position on the floor. Since this type of Situp is not performed by modern bodybuilders little is written of these muscles, and even less is known. They are not the showy muscles like the rectus, and any exercise that works the rectus actually works the psoas and iliacus . . . so let's just forget about those.

Some Situp Variations

Abdominal movements can be divided into Situps (which affect only the two upper layers of abdominals and Leg Raises (which affect only the lower layers - Note: remember that this was quite some time ago and try not to whine too much about how much more you know. Thanks, and enjoy the article!). Let's discuss some exercise variations of each, beginning with the Situp.

To sit up, or bring the body from a lying to a sitting position, is basic abdominal motion. In the basic Situp the back is held reasonably straight. You come up to a sitting position with abdominal power alone if you do it at an angle (feet higher than the head), on a modern abdominal board.

 Click to ENLARGE

The Flat Situp

I shall begin with this movement to 'get it out of the way', for no modern bodybuilder performs it any more. Why? Because with the body absolutely flat-horizontal on the floor there is just too much 'thrust' required to get the upper body started in this movement, and this 'thrust' is provided by the shoulders and partially by the psoas which adds nothing to development of the abdominals per se.

Continuous Tension is one of the best ways to develop a muscle group to the pinnacle of proportionate shape and sharp definition. Forcing never-ending tension on the target muscles throughout each rep of a movement can speed your results. Applied to ab development it is obvious that any Situp in which the force of gravity pulls against the extended body from head to toe is going to require some degree of 'thrust' or 'cheat' to get the upper body into motion a bit. Thus the abdominals do not begin to really operate in the first 40 degrees of the flat-horizontal Situp. It is here that the psoas does most of the work, with little developmental result of the abs to follow. Thus our first priority is to choose a suitable angle for the Situp, and we do this to relocate the force of gravity so that the abs work against continuous tension instead of with initial thrust. The first variation would be:

The Low Incline Situp

This fine movement can be performed on the very crudest of equipment . . . a simple wooden board which should have one end (for the feet) slightly elevated by placing it on a low support. Modern bodybuilders, however, almost invariably have access to a slant board, and this makes possible a rapid selection of exercising angles. The technique is to anchor the feet and lie with the body flat against the board with with the head near the floor. The hands are clasped behind the neck, the knees are slightly bent, and by strength of the upper tiers of abdominal muscles alone the upper body is brought upward and forward until the elbows touch the knees. The body is then lowered slowly (resisting all the way) back to starting position.

The Situp Touching the Opposite Knee

Resume the position used in the previous exercise, again making sure the undersides of your knees lie flat against the bench. Now round your back slightly and as you bring back upward and over into crouch position, touch the right elbow to the outside of the left knee, and on the next rep touch the left elbow to the outside of the right knee . . . always trying to force an extra squeeze into the abs. This really gets the intercostals, and is one of the best definition exercises for this group of 'showy' muscles.

The Bent-Knee Situp

Keep your abdominal board at the same angle as the preceding two exercises, but this time draw the entire body upward on the bench until you can bend your knees into a high angle (your heels should almost touch your buttocks). Open the legs into a "V" and using the same technique as before, pull the upper body forward until your elbows touch the board between the knees. This articulates the abs in quite a different way, for it makes possible a giant super-squeeze of the central abs. The back will have to be slightly rounded to effect a complete follow-through of this movement. Be sure to think tension into the abs throughout the complete range of the rep.

Ladder Situps 

We increase the difficulty (and effectiveness) of any Situp by increasing the angle of the board. If you have an abdominal board/ladder combination with several rungs of increasing height, you can do any of the preceding Situp variations with continually increasing levels of tension on the abs. In a sense this is like increasing the poundage handled in barbell and/or dumbbell exercises, for the muscles have to work continually harder against a higher angle. In short, any type of Situp you can perform on the ab board is made increasingly effective with the ladder effect.

Side note from blog guy here: Somewhere around a half year after I started lifting, still a kid in the later Sixties, I wanted to know which would be a "better" Situp progression - increasing the angle of the board, or holding more and more weight behind my head. So . . . I sent in a letter to the Weider Research Clinic Canada on Bates Road in Montreal. Duh, pretty gullible and naive, right? Couple weeks later I actually got an answer! Snail mail, eh. I don't remember who 'signed' it, but their answer was to increase the angle to its utmost, then, add more and more reps. Back then adding weight to ab exercises was thought to 'thicken' the midsection and such. But they did send me a real letter, without any other promo or sales pitch, which I thought and still do think was way cool. And how did a guy get a job answering mail like that? One day, if I kept exercising and kept learning more and more about it and grew into a full-fledged adult maybe I could . . . Yeah. Sure, kid-that-was-me. Okay then, back to the article now - 

Roman Chair Situps

This is the most difficult of all the Situp variations, and it is as old as time. It dates from Roman days when gladiators used the 'Roman Chair' to build extreme muscularity and power in the midsection.

Early Roman Column Exercise
See Photo Further Above for Roman Chair Situp of the Zabo Era. 

Another Version.
Today, the Roman Chair Sissy Squat bench utilizes this ancient fulcrum in a modern way. The bench is narrow, you place your body on it so so that the bench itself touches not the buttocks but the upper back thighs. The feet angle downward and are caught by a brace at the bottom. [or put a loaded barbell with a 'bar pad' on it parallel to a flat bench and have at 'er].

You clasp hands behind neck, and from a sitting upright position lower the back as far down as you can. From this starting position you perform a Situp, bringing the back up and forward until your elbows touch between your knees. Leverage is everything here, and when you try this for the first time you will find that even horizontal layout position can provide a tough situp workout. Day by day and bit by bit, you will be coming more and more into the technique of the Roman Chair Situp, and you will then begin lowering the back to greater depths.

These, then, are the principle forms of the Situp. Now, let's look at some . . .

Variations of the Leg Raise

One bodybuilding fact is immutable. Situps cannot exercise the lower abs nor can Leg Raises exercise the upper ones. Likewise, as you sit up against the force of gravity to work [blitz!] the upper abs, you raise  the legs against the force of gravity to bomb the lower abs. There are several variations of the Leg Raise.

Lying Leg Raise

This is the basic Leg Raise. You lie flat on your back and, keeping the knees locked and legs straight, you raise your legs to perpendicular position, and return. Unfortunately, this variation is not as effective as others because (like the flat-horizontal Situp) the tendency is to begin the movement with a 'thrust' (again the entire body is practically anchored by the force of gravity). Hence modern bodybuilders use this variation without additional weight on the feet more as a conditioner and warmup for more severe Leg Raise variations. That is why the most popular lower abdominal movement is the . . .

Hanging Leg Raise

In this variation you grasp the chinning bar (you'll have to use a fairly wide hand spacing so that the legs can be raised freely without worrying about body balance). With the body hanging freely you straighten the legs, lock the knees, and now, by thinking tension into the lower abs, raise the legs to horizontal position and slowly return to starting position. It is understandable that Hanging Leg Raise sets will have to be of short duration because of the dead-hang pull of the entire body against the hands and wrists. [Google "ab straps" for some solutions to this. Or, you could google "ab originals" out of respect for Brad Harris, their inventor, who recently passed]. Do many sets sets of shorter duration to achieve the abdominal effect you desire.

The Body Lever

Done lying or hanging, the Body Lever (see photo above) is the most difficult exercise for the lower abs. It is to the lower abs what the Roman Chair Situp is to the upper. The Hanging Body Lever is almost never done by anyone except gymnasts. It really requires the exceptional muscular coordination and timing that are the special properties of the experienced gymnast. Moreover, the Hanging Lever is really no more effective for chiseling fine abdominals than the Lying Body Lever. As practiced by gymnasts it is more of a strength builder for the central body which makes possible the performance of other (and more difficult) gymnastic stunts.

For the Lying Body Lever you absolutely must have an incline board with a support at the upper end for the hands to grasp. The angle of the board may be increased as strength grows, for the higher the angle the greater the resistance.

Lying flat on the board, hands grasping the upper support, keep the body absolutely rigid. The knees must not bend, the body must not sway, and, if possible the hands must not pull at the supports. With strength of the lower abdominals alone, raise the rigid legs, buttocks and lower back into orbit in a straight line. The only support at this point is the upper back which fastens the body to the board, and, of course, the hands [did you scroll up and look at that photo yet?]. When the body has been raised to a 90-degree (or higher) angle to the incline board, the legs are then held a moment before they are returned to the board. And even here you do not let the legs touch the board . . . but as they near the board, just a few inches above it, begin the next rep. You must do this with only the strength of the lower abs. Anything else produces cheating or momentum which does not build muscles.

What Sets . . . What Reps?   

In Situps, choose one variation each training day (which, abdominally, should be every day!). One form of Situp per day is quite enough. In this way, throughout the entire workout week, you will have run the gamut of them all, thus exercising the upper abs from every conceivable angle.

How many sets? Begin with five . . . and continue increasing them to 10 or more per day.

How many reps? Begin with 10 per set and increase them until your abdominals just won't let you do any more. No set number of reps . . . just do as many as you can. I do upwards of 500 Situps per day . . . I've done more, of course . . . but this is my 'maintenance' workout.

In Leg Raises you cannot do as many reps as you can of the Situps. Gravity is too great an enemy and is not as easily defeated! Start with five sets of one variation of the Leg Raise . . . increase the reps as you can. Like the Situps, bu doing one variation of the Leg Raise each training day you activate the lower abs from all angles. Actually, 30 reps per set are quite enough. You'll be lucky to knock out that many.

So, to recap:

Work up to 10 sets of Situps and work up to at least a total of 500 reps. Work up to 10 sets of Leg Raises and work as many reps per set as your pull against gravity will allow. But don't throw, thrust, or maneuver the body by 'assisting' with other muscles. Make the upper abs do the work in Situps; make the lower abs do the work in Leg Raises.

After each workout practice mirror posing for 15 minutes, contracting first the rectus - then the intercostals, trying to squeeze extra definition from each posing session. This will add interest to your abdominal workouts, and give you valuable posing experience and control.

Larry Scott's "Ring of Fire" Ab training might also interest you: 
Obviously diet plays a great part in whether or not your abs are buried beneath a fatty layer or diamond cut and crystal clear. If you want your midsection to look rock hard you must control and manipulate your diet.

Abdominal training a a great health 'regulator' and no other aspect of training will do so many good things for you. It has maintained a fine physique for me . . . it has rewarded me with great health . . . and it saved me from the scarring indignity of a herniated life.


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