A Better Way to Train your Abs

I see a lot of climbers in the gym doing long, horrible looking ab workouts. I saw a guy the other day do flutter kicks for what seemed like five minutes straight. As for me, I train strength specifically once a week and I do one ab-specific exercise during that session. Three sets, that’s itThe result: since August of last year I have gone from being able to barely get my feet to 45 degrees to being able to do a legitimate hanging leg raise. Also, I’ve noticed that my feet are cutting way less while I’m climbing. Skill practice helps, but I bet having strong abs isn’t hurting.
The best part though? No flutter kicks or crunches required.

Lauren Abernathy Hanging Leg Raise
Took a long time, but finally progressed to being able to do a legit hanging leg raise.

High Reps Are Not Helping You

After hearing the name tossed around in different arenas-from weightlifting to climbing, I decided it was high time I launch my own research of Pavel Tsatsouline.

Pavel Tsatsouline is famous for being the “Father of the Kettlebell”. However, he has done much more than just introduce the kettle bell to the West. He is a former Soviet Special Forces, and has implemented strength programs for high end Military teams ranging from the U.S. Marine Corps., Navy Seals and even the Secret Service. He holds a Sports Science degree and has authored many books including Hardstyle Abs on which this post is mainly based.

The mission statement of Hardstyle Abs is quite simple: “an extraordinarily strong and developed ‘six pack'”. It is no coincidence that the first substantive chapter of the book is titled “Why High Reps Have Failed You”. High rep, high variety exercises do not produce the kind of strong abs you are after.

“The burn you feel from high reps is from lactate build up and does absolutely nothing for toning up your muscles.” – Pavel Tsatsouline, Hardstyle Abs

3-5 Sets of 3-5 Reps

“As for training your abdomen, there are many different ways…. you have to keep the repetitions to 5 reps and under. Any more than 5 reps is bodybuilding. You need to make a focus on tension/contraction instead of on repetitions.”  
– Pavel Tsatsouline, Tim Ferris Episode 55

Research and practical experience shows that training in low repetitions generally increases muscle strength without causing hypertrophy (muscle growth). This is why Pavel says “anything more than 5 reps is bodybuilding.”

Without getting too far into the weeds of physiology/sports science , you can make strength gains neurologically without actually increasing muscle mass. As many trainers explain this phenomenon–it is like having a four cylinder engine and learning to fire all four instead of just two (this analogy was used by Pavel earlier on in his interview with Tim Ferriss).

For climbing, UFC fighting, power lifting, etc. the athlete’s power to weight ratio is of interest–so if you can gain strength without gaining mass, this is hugely advantageous. Here are the top two reasons to train your abs this way.

  1. Having strong abs without actually gaining muscle is a useful climbing adaptation.
  2. Saving time on your ab workout means less time doing crunches and more time climbing.

Three Exercises to Train Your Abs

According to Pavel, the method of obtaining as Pavel puts it “an extraordinarily strong and developed six pack” is essentially broken up into three parts. They are breathing, sit ups, and the hanging leg raise. Pavel has also mentioned doing very short, intense planks so I will discuss those as well.

The first step, perhaps to the chagrin of the eager exerciser is a breathing technique derived from Martial Arts. I am not going to begin to try to explain it so watch this video. The breathing technique is integrated into both sit ups, hanging leg raises, and might help you keep your midsection tight on the crux of your project.

Breathing techniques for engaged abdominals:

Check out Pavel’s video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ8BDuZuVgo

1. “Hard Style” Sit Ups

So after you’ve mastered breathing, pelvic alignment, etc. (seriously watch the video) you can move on to what Pavel calls Hardstyle Sit-ups. Ideally, you either have a partner or you have a specialized piece of equipment for just this application. Personally, I do not want to count on having a partner available and I my climbing gym does not have a “Pavelizer”. So I am going to demonstrate option #3 which is to tie a resistance band to a raised surface or a door knob like so.

Lauren Abernathy - Hard Style Sit Up
Me using a resistance band to do some of the most torturous sit ups of my life.

Hard Style Sit-Ups: Procedure

I have tried these. In my first attempts, I found doing two reps correctly to be pretty difficult.

Lauren Abernathy Hard Style situp
Me laughing at how just two of these “perfect situps” are extremely tough!
  1. Set up your form of resistance (person with towel, or resistance band) at a 90 degree angle from your calves
  2. Start at the top of a sit up. Two small hisses and a final, larger one to fully engage your abs.
  3. Lean back slowly, sipping in air as you go. Keep your back straight and pelvis tilted forward and engaged.
  4. Come back up to start, maintaining a straight back.
  5. Repeat 3-5 times (or two times). Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.

This “hard style sit up” is the basis for the mother of all ab exercises, the Hanging Leg Raise.

2. A Proper Hanging Leg Raise

Doing a hanging leg raise is a BIG topic and a big goal. Mine is definitely getting there but it sure isn’t perfect.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9c3kOXAfcA

I would definitely check out the above video, but in short, here are the guidelines to a perfect hanging leg raise:

  • Arms are straight
  • Legs are straight
  • Starts from a dead hang, does not involve momentum
  • Shins/feet touch the bar.
  • Use narrow grip on the bar–thumbs almost touching
  • Triceps should be engaged.
  • Do not let your lower back arch

Here are examples of all of my faults/ common mistakes. It’s a work in progress!

Here is a picture of the top of one rep. Legs could be a little straighter, but good form is mostly evident here.

Lauren Abernathy Hanging Leg Raise
Looking forward, straight arms, feet are at the bar, back is not arched.

If you are already a practicer of the hanging leg raise. Pavel recommends doing–you guessed it, 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 minutes of rest in between. For maximum speed of results he recommends doing this 3 times per week. He also notes that you should not go to failure on these. Do as many as you can intensely and well and then stop.

3. Intense Planking 

No. Not this kind.

I love the internet.

Another recommendation Pavel gives in his interview with Tim Ferriss is instead of performing a plank for an extended period of time (e.g. the typical 60s-120s) you should squeeze everything so intensely that you cannot go on after about 10 seconds. of plank is commonly referred to as the RKC plank.

Pavel presents some impressive data showing that doing planks in this manor is significantly more effective in activating your core than planks done in the traditional manor. Data was collected at a kettle bell instructor course by physiologist Bret Contreras with electromyography (EMG) measurements. He compared the peak activation of the lower rectus abdominus (RA), internal oblique, and external oblique in the traditional plank and the “Pavulized” RKC version. Results summarized below.

  • Lower RA contracted more than three times more intensely in the RKC plank than the traditional plank.
  • Internal obliques contracted more than two times more intensely than the traditional version.
  • External obliques contracted almost four times as intensely in the RKC plank than the traditional plank.

The RKC plank is an elegant time-saving solution. You get at least twice the intensity in your abs for less than half the time. And the exercise is gloriously portable as well–all you need is yourself!

Program Design Tips

Depending on how much ab training you do already, this may seem like you’re either about to save time or you’re about to spend a lot more time on your abs. I know it can be super tough to fit it all in.

Recommendations from Pavel in Hardstyle Abs:

  • Train your abs 3x per week
  • Do not train your abs before heavy lifting or when tired
  • “Treat your training session as ‘practice’ not a ‘workout’. ” Pavel means to say that you should not be totally exhausting yourself, you should be practicing to improve at the movements.
  • “Alternate two weeks of Hardstyle sit-ups and two weeks of leg raises (block training).”
  • Do not train to failure.
  • For whatever exercises you do, make sure to do a “total of 10-25 reps per session”.
  • CLIMBER RECOMMENDATION: Personally, I hangboard and stretch during the 3-5 minute rest periods. Pavel recommends that during rest periods, you can stretch or do “unrelated exercises like calf raises.”
  • Yearly planning: Pavel recommends following this regimen twice a year for 8-12 weeks and “in the interim: heavy lifting”.
    • It seems like the ideal time to train your abs might be as part of a twice-yearly strength phase. This seems like it might be aggressive and hard to maintain during projecting season. but to each their own!
Lauren Abernathy Hangboarding
Hangboarding (half-crimp on a 15mm edge) immediately after a stretch and a set of hanging leg raises.

Personal Takeaways

Pesonally, I train strength once per week. During thing, I lift heavy and during the rest periods of intense exercise (such as deadlifts or hanging leg raises) I hangboard and stretch a la Logical Progression by Steve Bechtel.

After diving deep into Pavul’s precription for strong abs, I am considering adding a session of ab work/stretching after endurance days as well. There is potential to do some abs in the morning before heading off to work. It may be possible to do core in separate session (AM vs. evening) from climbing, this is also recommended.

In the big picture I am more focused on being a good climber than having insanely strong abs (although these are not mutually exclusive).

Lauren Abernathy deep water solo cala barques Mallorca
Doing tough exercises is the price you pay to be able send gorgeous routes on stunning cliff faces. This is the real reason for training.

My one ab exercise per week in conjunction with deadlifting has yielded great results. I may add more ab workouts as my training goes away from more limit boulder/strength and gears toward endurance. I will certainly keep you posted. Pavel does have me stoked on getting me some world-class “abbies”.

In any case, I hope that if you are a crunch-doing, bicycling, 5-minute plank kind of person that you now know that there’s a better way to go. It is my greatest wish that you stop doing high reps and start getting your “extraordinarily strong and developed six pack”.

So, may you get yourself some strong abs so that you can truly climb whatever inspires you.

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