Ab Training For Strongman
Article by Drew Spriggs
Core (wow I hate that term) training is a contentious issue in the fitness world. Like any subject, public opinion ebbs and flows on the matter. Not so long ago, it was fairly accepted that throwing a few sets of ‘abs’ in a week was pretty much good practice, then with the introduction of the ‘functional’ fitness bros the consensus switched to there not being a need for any extra ab work, as you’d get enough doing any compound movement. Given the amount of trained people I see almost daily with poor posture (lordosis generally – a spine stuck in lumbar extension, which can be a sign of weak abs), that don’t know how to breathe and that don’t know how to brace properly, it becomes pretty obvious that just getting ab work indirectly while training isn’t the answer!
There’s saying I see thrown around a lot by the Darkside Strength guys – ‘posture dictates performance, and breathing dictates posture’ – this is extra relevant when it comes to training your abs! The role of the abdominal group of muscles (rectus abdominus, obliques and deep transverse abdominus) for anybody involved in strength sports is pretty simple – stabilize the lumbar spine/torso to resist rotation, flexion and extension, and create a strong ‘pillar’ to transfer energy from the floor to the barbell/implement. You don’t want to be carrying anything over your head or a monstrously heavy weight on your back if you don’t have strong and ‘tight’ abs (from abdominal bracing after aligning your diaphragm and pelvic wall) – all the movement and pressure will be transferred to the discs of your lumbar spine, and can create all sorts of lower back problems. Unfortunately there’s a tendency in the strength sports world for coaches to push their athletes to ‘arch hard!’ instead of correctly bracing when squatting or deadlifting, which only compounds the problem! A lumbar spine that is arched hard while deadlifting can prevent the abdominals from bracing correctly, leading to lumbar movement from a lot of extension to slight flexion, increasing the risk of disc problems. Likewise while squatting, a back that is arched hard will usually increase the dreaded ‘buttwink’, furthering lumbar pressure. The end result of this is generally erector spinae that are massively tight and overdeveloped, and weak abdominals (if they can’t work, they can’t get stronger!) – leading to a lumbar spine stuck in heavy extension. As an observation, every client I have ever had that has suffered from lumbar disc issues has this exact situation going on. Clearly ignoring your abs completely isn’t the ideal option, especially if you have these issues. So that being said, what is the best way to train your ‘core’?
When people think ‘core’ training, they usually think of endless crunches and lying bicycles. This is some terrible broscience that’s traveled through the fitness industry (especially with products like the Ab Lounge, Ab King, etc). If you’ve already got a lumbar spine stuck in extension, and you’re performing endless crunches there’s a lot of lumbar movement going on. This places you at the risk of injury – in fact, I’ve watched a PT put two women in hospital from this exact situation! A great example of this belief can also be seen the difference between the abs of bodybuilders and pro strongmen – the relatively tiny waists of bodybuilders and abs that are normally only visible while at low bf% directly contrasts with the massive cores of pro strongmen, and abs that are often visible despite being +25% bf! The difference in training between the two? In all the bodybuilding training I’ve seen, it’s predominantly lighter work involving lumbar flexion and extension, such as crunches, dragon flags and ab machines, whereas most strongmen get the majority of their ab work in while being in a neutral-spine position under heavy load – heavy yoke carries, holding something heavy over their head or being in an anteriorly loaded position (front squats, sandbag carries, atlas stones, etc). If we’re training for function over form, clearly there is benefit to be had while training like the latter.
Core training for most Dreadnought Strength clients is fairly basic and simple – and is something that should be done by EVERY person that enters a gym. It starts with first learning how to breathe with your diaphragm and utilizing as much of your lungs as possible. Despite performing 20000 ‘reps’ of breathing every single day, the majority of people are doing it completely wrong! Not being able to breathe will massively decrease potential strength and mobility/stability because as I’ve already mentioned, “posture dictates performance, and breathing dictates posture”. A full, deep breath allows the ribcage to expand, ensure the core muscles have the ability to switch on, ensure both scapulae can move correctly and will allow you to proceed to the next step – learning to brace properly.
In my experience, this is the single biggest game-changer for the majority of people – I have seen multiple clients with ‘weak’ abs add over 20kg onto their squats instantly, completely eliminate buttwink and massively increase stability by learning these two simple things! They didn’t have weak abs to begin with, they simply didn’t know how to use them. By correctly lining up the diaphragm and pelvic wall, a massive amount of intra-abdominal pressure can be created, which will stabilize the spine and hips. While in this position, all of those core muscles are working hard, increasing core ‘strength’ while you’re free to go about squatting, pressing, hinging or carrying. For a large majority of clients, correct breathing and bracing will be all they need to get past plateaus to take their strength to the next level, but occasionally there will be clients with extra demand for core stability. The first exercise I will use with them is something everybody has done, but more than likely incorrectly!
The Humble Plank:
A great tool for getting people out of lumbar extension when done properly, and to make sure it is done properly I like to use the variant known as the posteriorly-tilted plank. Starting with your elbows on a bench in a normal plank position, allow your spine to move into full extension (sag down). From there, squeeze your abs and pull your spine back around to flexion (hips tuck forward). The movement feels similar to trying to do a lying crunch, but once you get to full flexion you hold that position for as long as possible. For most people, this will only be 20-30s before it gets incredibly difficult. If the back ever moves back into extension, stop for a break and go again. I like to these for a total time goal (ie. 5 minutes total), with as many quality sets as you need to get there. Like anything, quantity should never come at the cost of quality! Lots of good, short sets will build up great ab strength and endurance, and promote a neutral spine position. These can be progressed from an incline to the floor, and eventually weight can be added – this increases the chance of the spine moving back into extension, so care should be taken. For strongman or other athletes, side planks are a great add-on to do between your PTP sets and further increase all aspects of your abdominal strength. Once again, ensure the spine is in a neutral position with the shoulders vertical to get the best results.
The Pallof Press
is a great tool for increasing anti-rotation strength. Standing side-on and just off center of a cable machine set at shoulder height, rotate your torso to hold the pulley in front of you under tension. The next step is the most important – tuck your hips forward slightly (as with a PTP) to get you spine into a neutral position and brace your core (imagine your abs are a cylinder, and you’re trying to push everything down). From there, push the handle in front of you and resist the force attempting to rotate your torso. Once the pulley is all the way in front of you, pull back to your chest and repeat. I like to do these with very light weight for the 3×20 set/rep range, slowly enough that you can really focus on resisting the rotation. These can be progressed with an increase in weight and reps, once again slower quality reps greatly trump fast, rushed reps.
The are two variants of final ab exercises that I have a soft spot for, and both are static holds. They have a big requirement for core strength and can increase the risk of spinal issues if not done correctly, so only do these if your spine is healthy and you have strong abs already!
The first is the anterior-loaded static hold.
This is extremely beneficial to anybody competing in strongman, as it creates a strong foundation for any anteriorly loaded exercises (Conan wheel, sandbag carry, atlas stones, husaffel stone carry, etc). Load up a heavy barbell to approximately 125% of your front squat 1RM, stand under it with the bar in the front-rack position (cross-armed or Oly style – doesn’t matter), tilt your pelvis slightly forward, brace your core and unrack the weight. If it feels like you can’t breathe, then reduce the weight and try again. While you want to be in a neutral spine and fully braced, the need to breathe is unfortunately a big aspect of these long-distance events. With the right weight choice, you should be able to fully engage your core while still breathing and be in a strong position for your spine. I like to do these for 10-30 seconds and increase the weight until breathing becomes too difficult. Once my weight for the day has been found, I like to do 3-4 sets, with one or 2 minutes between sets. Like always, if you feel your back moving into extension, immediately re-rack the weight. These are a great tool for increasing static strength and seem to carry over incredibly well to yoke and overhead stability, despite yoke being posteriorly loaded. These can be done either beltless or with a belt, as both will be equally beneficial.
The other variant of this static hold is the breathing squat.
Loading a barbell up to around 20-30% of your max beltless back squat, get under the barbell in a high-bar position, tuck/brace and then descend until you’re sitting at the bottom of the squat at a depth you can maintain. From there, breathe out while maintaining core tightness. Hold this position while breathing for as long as you can feel stable at, then rebrace and ascend. I like to do these for 4-5 sets of around 30 seconds, once again aiming for quality over quality. I wouldn’t recommend starting these at all with anything but an empty bar if you have any sorts of back problems!
Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list of great ab exercises, but it does include the ones I personally use and have found great benefit from, and also the ones my clients will do. For me, I like to prioritize ‘abs’ one day a week but will make sure I ALWAYS perform a breathing warmup and practice good spine posture regardless of what exercise I am doing. I think this is extra important if you are recovering from a spinal injury, as a strong torso will prevent it from occurring again.
Drew is a competitive powerlifter and strongman, who realised that strength training had a massive positive effect on other areas of his life. After realising he was much better at teaching others how to be lift than lifting himself, he decided to step down off the platform and create Dreadnought Strength – an online and in-person coaching business that dedicates itself to allowing regular people to experience the transformative power of strength training. He is available for online coaching from Starting Strongman