I hope we can all agree at this point that there should be some direct ab work in every powerlifter or strong(wo)man's training program. Now, I said some. It doesn’t have to be an entire session dedicated to it, but if your abs are weak, make it a priority. If you are hitting the compound movements on a regular basis, and especially some of the strongman movements, there is no doubt you are getting ab work in. Many of them, done the correct way, are full body movements.
First, to train your abs correctly you need to learn how to use them, which means learning how to brace and breathe properly. If you haven’t yet, check out Swede’s previous article on both topics here and here. Once you learn how to do both you can then train your abs to improve your lifts.
Now, I’m only going to discuss three of my favorite ab exercises, as these are the ones you must brace properly for. This is not to say you can’t do decline sit-ups, standing abs, hanging leg raises, etc., as those are great as well.
Ab Wheel Rollouts
How you breath and brace for a heavy squat will be the same way you will set up for the ab wheel. The ab wheel, I have to say, is the most butchered ab exercise I see. What most people do is roll out all the way to the floor, then stick their butt way up in the air. Raising your hips makes this exercise much easier, and takes all the stress off your abs, placing it on your triceps.
To do these properly, kneel down with your knees together. The starting position should be with the wheel directly under your shoulders, with your butt down. In the starting position, you should already feel your abs bracing to hold the position. A great cue I was taught is to think about pulling your ribs down, locking everything in place. Your glutes should be squeezed tight, and there should be a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Once you are in position roll out, but only as far as you are able to with a neutral spine. If you feel the lower back start to cave in and your abs give out, you need to stop short of that point.
As you get stronger, you will be able to roll all the way out. Once you can roll all the way out, stop short of touching the floor, as this will only let you rest. If you are advanced at these you can start pausing about an inch off the floor before coming back. Or if you are very advanced, give these a shot standing up. Again, keep everything in a straight line; this will keep tension on the abs. Just like Swede said in a previous article, do not breathe during a rep. Breathe at the top of each rep and brace hard as your roll out.
Also, make sure to keep the wrists straight as you see in the video.
Do yourself a favor and pick up the Pro Ab Wheel. If you’re a big boy, the cheap plastic ones won’t cut it.
The body saw is an exercise that, from my experience, most people haven’t heard of yet. Trust me when I say they are very humbling. You need to start slow. Again, brace tight, hold your breath for each rep, and push yourself away slowly until you get more comfortable with the movement. You will need a suspension strap to put your feet in, then get in a push-up position. A common mistake is to move the hands around as you push back. The hands remain planted the entire time. Simply slide yourself back, and only as far back as you can handle. Go too far and, similar to the ab wheel, your lower back will cave in, defeating the purpose of the exercise. These can also be done on a carpet or turf with your feet on furniture movers if you do not have suspension straps.
I’m sure many of you have seen dragon flags before if you are fans of Rocky IV (and how can you not be a fan or Rocky IV?). I will say that these are extremely difficult, and you will have to start with basic leg lifts while holding on to the bench. Once leg lifts are easy enough then start to hold your body straight on the eccentric portion. Shoot your legs up so your toes point to the ceiling. Take a big breath in and brace tight, lowering yourself down while you remain flat as a board. When you are strong enough, rise back up while remaining straight. These took me quite a while to master but they pay off big time.
I always have at least one of these three in my program, but here is an example of how you can add them. This is from my training this week:
1. Strongman Event: Yoke to Farmers Walk
2. Front Squats — 3x6
3. SS Yoke Bar Squats — 3x8
4. Strongman Event: Husafell Carry
5A. Bulgarian Squats — 3x10
5B. Ab Wheel — 3x12
(5A and 5B are performed as a superset)
1. Deadlifts — 5x2
2. Snatch Grip Deadlifts — 3x6
3. Strongman Event: Atlas Stones
4A. Single-Leg Deadlifts — 3x12
4B. Body Saws — 3x12
I prefer to save time with my ab training and superset it at the end with lighter accessory movements, as they don’t take away from each other. Adding in some other of your favorite ab exercises is totally fine. I like to do some extra ab work on my conditioning days where I will push the Prowler, do some kettlebell swings, and do some standing ab crunches, for example. The important thing is to not neglect this work.