Master the Tilt
The cure for this imbalance, and the key to a set of great looking abdominals, involves the use of the absolute cornerstone of all abdominal training exercises - the pelvic tilt. The pelvic tilt is actually a simple exercise, but there is an endless array of progressions and advancements that make it the most versatile abdominal exercise in your training arsenal. Let's start with the most basic version. It involves lying flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Now, place one hand directly beneath your lower back, arching your back upwards if necessary (just keep your hips and glutes flat on the floor). This is not the pelvic tilt. I'm only describing this maneuver because, after doing it, understanding how to perform a pelvic tilt is much easier. To do the tilt, take your hand out from underneath your back and now flatten your back, pushing it directly into the floor. You should not be able to get your hand between the floor and your back now. So, what you've essentially done is performed a posterior tilt (your pelvis rolled back towards your upper body). The next step is to suck in your abdomen (suck in hard!) so you eliminate rectus abdominus activity. Your upper abdomen should feel soft, ensuring that only the lower abs and obliques are performing the pelvic tilt. If this is hard to maintain, meaning your upper abs keep contracting and getting in the way, you really need to work only on this simple exercise. Hold this position for five seconds (while breathing normally) and try to do it 50 times a day for two weeks. This will teach your body to recruit muscles other than the rectus abdominus when training your abs, playing sports, or performing complex exercises. For most people, however, it should be rather simple. Once you've mastered it, you can now bring your legs up off the ground (knees bent), maintaining the pelvic tilt. This is the base position for all other stages in the series. From here, slowly lower one leg at a time (knees bent) in an alternating fashion. Seem easy? Not so fast. You need to check your back position and monitor your upper abdominal activity as you're lowering your legs. If your back inches up off the floor as you're lowering them, or you feel your upper abs tightening up, you're either losing your pelvic tilt or your rectus abdominus is taking over. This defeats the entire purpose of the exercise, and it may mean that you need to begin with only the pelvic tilt itself. Or, it simply means you need to concentrate a little harder. In any event, once you're able to perform 15 solid repetitions for each leg, it's time to move on to stage three, and eventually stages four and five. Here's a breakdown of all five stages:
Stage 1: Isolation Pelvic Tilt.
Perform five to ten second holds, 50 repetitions.
Stage 2: Pelvic Tilt with alternate leg lowering (knees bent).
Once able to perform 15 consecutive repetitions with each leg, move on to stage 3.
Stage 3: Pelvic Tilt while lowering both legs simultaneously (knees bent).
Once able to perform 15 consecutive repetitions while maintaining the pelvic tilt, move on to stage 4.
Stage 4: Pelvic Tilt while alternately extending each leg maximally (knees straight).
Once able to perform 15 consecutive repetitions while maintaining the pelvic tilt, move on to stage 5.
Stage 5: Pelvic Tilt while extending both legs simultaneously (knees straight).
This is tough!
Now, don't go thinking you can jump straight to stage five and master the movement. I see too many people in the gym performing exercises like it with absolutely no regard for their pelvic position, not to mention they perform it so fast it makes me nauseated. Remember, your pelvis should be motionless while performing these exercises. If not, your lower abs and obliques are not contracting effectively enough to maintain pelvic position and support your back. For most trainees, stage two or three is a good starting point, although in some instances, an individual may need to begin at the first stage. Most are unable to begin at stage four, and only in rare cases is someone adept and strong enough to immediately master stage five. Start at the stage that suits you, and plan on staying at each level for about two weeks. Perform the exercises daily or every other day, and soon you'll be able to take on the next set of exercises, which is covered next.
The pelvic tilt can also be done while standing, which is actually a more functional method of performing it. Here's how it's done: Imagine yourself having a tail and tucking it underneath you, between your legs. Stand with your back flat against the wall, feet shoulder width apart and about one foot from the wall. Notice the gap between the wall and your low back - you should be able to easily slip your hand in there. Now assume the "tail-under" position and your back should flatten out nicely against the wall. You should no longer be able to put your hand between the wall and your back. Now suck in that abdomen. Very good. You just performed a pelvic tilt in the standing position, and now you should also be able to perform it without the assistance of a wall.
Okay, now that you've entered another level of abdominal training, performing the following exercises with proper pelvic position is all you need for killer abs. Chances are, you've already done some or all of these exercises, but you just haven't bothered to focus on pelvic position. So, if you get out of position (if you lose the "tilt"), you've defeated the entire purpose of the exercise. And I can't stress enough that you should have the previous set of exercises mastered first - you are now entering advanced training! Now let's get to it.
Medicine Ball Tosses - First of all, you obviously need a medicine ball, and not all gyms carry them. No worries though, you can find them at most sporting goods stores. An 8-12 lb. ball is ideal, and you'll also need a partner. Now, suck in that abdomen and perform the tilt so your back is in a nice, neutral position. You don't want to round out your back so you're almost bent over, so keep a straight alignment. Then, using the power of your abs (not your arms!), rotate your trunk forcefully and throw the ball to your partner. You should also throw it so your partner has to reach to the side and catch it at the same time, rotating his/her body with the catch. This will challenge the abs in an eccentric (negative) fashion. And now it's your turn to catch it the same way. Try three sets of ten tosses each.These five exercises can make a fantastic abdominal routine that can be performed just one to two times per week. But don't limit yourself to just these five. Make a habit of maintaining perfect pelvic posture with all exercises. Especially now that you see how simple it is to perform a pelvic tilt in lying, sitting, and standing positions. So, quite naturally, these lessons can be applied to lying exercises such as triceps extensions and bench presses, and sitting and standing exercises such as curls, presses, and rows. Easy enough, isn't it? Sure, and you can now consider yourself smarter and stronger, so be sure to pass on the message to those less fortunate.
The Chop - You will utilize pulleys for this awesome maneuver. First make sure you place a pulley attachment above the level of your head, and stand so one side (let's start with the right side) of your body is facing the weight stack. Now, reach your left arm across your body and your face (like you're sniffing your arm pit) and grab the attachment. Also grab it with your right hand. Of course you now need to suck in your gut and perform the tilt, and then use your trunk rotators to turn your entire upper body and torso left (don't use your arms). Crunch hard with those obliques! Perform three sets of 15 reps for each side.
Shoulder Presses with Sidebend - These aren't just for your delts anymore. These can be done in the standing position using the pelvic tilt and drawing-in maneuver, but I also like doing them seated with a back support. Now, I don't actually use the support except to use it as a guide to maintain my back alignment. Basically I make sure my low back stays in light contact with the pad at all times. If you let your back arch and come away from the pad, your pelvis just rolled forward and took your abs with it, right out of the equation. The twist? Perform alternate raises (one arm at a time) while performing a sidebend. In other words, as you raise the dumbbell in your right hand, you perform an upper body sidebend to the left. Try three sets of 8-12 reps for each side.
Scissors - Lie on your back, maintain a firm pelvic tilt and drawn-in abdomen, and (slowly!) kick your legs out alternately. This exercise is performed in the gym all the time, but rarely is it ever performed with even a passing regard for pelvic position. Also, most people do it so fast I often think they might take flight. So slow it down and keep your low back glued to the floor. Perform 15-25 reps, 3 sets.
Planks - Think you can perform a pelvic tilt against gravity? Try lying on your stomach and than raising yourself on your elbows and toes. You'll notice that your low back likes to sag in this position. You won't work your abs effectively unless you now perform a pelvic tilt, which is the next step. Suck in your abdomen and notice your back flatten (straighten). Do this next to a mirror to insure your entire torso is a straight line, and hold it for 10 seconds. If this isn't challenging, raise one leg a few inches off the floor and hold it 10 seconds, alternating legs. Try three sets on each leg.
Getting Lean: Dropping the Fat
If developing a perfect midsection was as easy as following these exercises, there wouldn't be a need for all those "super-secret" abdominal training articles in major magazines. If you can't strip the layer of fat from atop your beautiful set of abs, all the training in the world is worthless. This is where a proper diet and additional training is mandatory. Want to strip the fat? You've got to kick-start your metabolism by eating protein-rich meals six times daily and performing high-intensity cardio exercise. In addition to general weight training, these are the best methods for raising your metabolism and stripping fat fast. Start by eating a big breakfast. People tend to lose more fat when they eat a protein-rich breakfast, and it also stimulates necessary elevations in metabolic rate. Avoid eating high-fat meals and also avoid eating carbohydrates alone. Always pair fat and carbs with lean protein sources. Monitor your weight weekly to adjust your caloric intake as necessary. High intensity cardio exercise (fast running) is probably the best method for reducing fat fast. Not only does it burn calories, but it also spurs the release of hormones that burn fat, and of course, raises the metabolism. Don't worry about how long you go, just run at what you consider a fast pace, and slowly work up to 20-30 minutes. That's all you need. You can also try interval training - running very fast for 30 seconds, then slow to a walking pace, repeating every few minutes over the course of a half-hour.
Each of these methods beats the weak alternative of a slow-paced cardio program. The only thing you lose with that is your sanity.