Advanced abdominal exercises: Ab wheel and harder variations of plank

Harmful myths about strengthening the abdomen and sixacks

Since the abdomen is a touchy subject for a significant part of the population, it is no wonder that training this particular area is shrouded in a lot of false (or at least misleading) myths and misconceptions. I know from personal experience how incorrect information can delay strengthening results, or worse, lead to injury. Here are at least the most prevalent and damaging ones:

Myth #1: Rigorously strengthening your abdominal muscles will slim your waist and get rid of the fat cushion covering your muscles

Reality: By rigorously strengthening the abdominal muscles, we will strengthen the abdominal muscles. If we don’t lose fat at the same time, nothing will happen to the belly fat. This means that the waistline won’t slim down (by simply strengthening the abs, of course), but it may take on a slightly firmer, more aesthetically satisfying form than if the muscles were flabby!

Myth #2: Visible 6-pack is a sign of a high-performance athlete. Achieving this form is a very ambitious but appropriate goal!

Reality: A visible 6-pack is a sign of low body fat percentage and basically nothing else. A skinny young guy who smokes and doesn’t exercise at all may have visible abdominal muscles simply because he has very little body fat. In contrast, a top competitor in a strength sport (shot put, weightlifting) weighing 120kg will have a top physique, but will also have quite a lot of body fat, so his steel abdominal muscles will not be visible. Achieving 6pack is thus a mostly inconvenient and unremarkable goal that is extremely challenging for one person, whereas for someone else it is achievable in a moment but without any significant improvement in fitness.

Myth #3: There are methods, machines, exercises, supplements, etc. that will ensure effective fat burning just in the abdominal area

Reality: Unfortunately, we always burn fat from all over our body. There is no way to ensure that we selectively burn fat only from the abdomen (or any part of body for that matter). The distribution of fat stores is mainly genetically determined (someone has a bigger belly, someone grows thighs), so the only way to change it is to strengthen a certain part (then it looks better, firmer) or to lose fat from the whole body.

Taking these three points into account, it becomes clear that the measure of success should be something more objective than mere visual appearance. Achieving 10 % body fat is a better goal than “carve out a sexy pec”, and performing a certain number of technically perfect reps on a particular exercise (one should endure a 2-minute elbowplank without a break) is a more appropriate goal than “get rid of the falding on your hips”.

6 pack
Photo: Freepik

How to include abdominal exercises in a training plan?

In general, if the goal is mainly to strengthen the muscles, it is not advisable to try to lose weight at the same time. Burning fat at the same time as muscle growth happens only in very rare cases, namely at puberty (a young boy thanks to hormones can build muscle and burn fat), at the very beginning of exercise (an official who has not exercised for 20 years can initially get stronger and lose weight at the same time by training) , or thanks to the use of steroids.

Except in these cases, the body is either in a caloric deficit (it will take in fewer calories than it puts out), thus conserving and not investing in very energetically expensive muscle mass, or in a caloric surplus, and then it will build muscle and get stronger fast, but always at least a small part of the energy will be stored in the form of fat as well.

The decision whether to focus on weight loss or going crazy should be reflected by the training plan. If I want to get stronger and burn more calories, I may schedule more effort overall, with the bulk of the effort going to strength training. Conversely, when we lose weight, we generally won’t have as much energy, and strength exercise should be focused mainly on maintaining what muscle mass we already have, not on outperforming our best strength performances (we simply can’t get significantly stronger when losing weight).

Involving the center of the body in complex exercises, the frequency of abdominal training

It depends on each individual’s intentions and preferences, of course, but if you’re honestly practicing complex exercises (squats, deadlifts, push-ups, crunches, etc.), the center of the body is already engaged in this way. It’s definitely a good idea to add a few extra sets of exercises directly for the abs to each workout, but you don’t have to dedicate, say, one entire workout to them.

The abdominals have an interesting property in that they recover faster (unfortunately this means they also get flabby faster), so they can be stimulated by exercising them very often. It’s definitely not necessary, but if we exercised our abdominal muscles every day, we wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. Related to this characteristic is the fact that abdominal muscle training should be quite intense (you really need to wring them out), because the abdominal muscles have large energy reserves and the moment they start to burn, they can still work for a very long time before they are completely exhausted.

Generally speaking, therefore, it is advisable to exercise the abdomen more often and more intensively, but on the other hand (for the reasons mentioned above) it is enough to include only 8 minutes of abdominal exercises at the end of each workout. There is no need to worry about overworking, stiffening and shortening the abdominal muscles (not that they can never be shortened, but it is extremely rare), but there is also no need to overstimulate the abdominals somehow unless we have a specific goal that requires it.

Ab Wheel
Photo: Stocklib

Harder exercises for abs

After the trainee has worked up to a decent performance of basic abdominal exercises (2 minutes of perfect plank, dozens of textbook sit-ups, etc.), it is desirable to include some heavier variations.

The plank (in the upright, not on the elbows) can be made more difficult in a variety of ways. For example, one can lift and hold each limb in the air in turn, while the position of the body should not change too much (center clench, no leaning, bending or rotation of the trunk). It is even more strenuous to lift two opposite limbs (right arm and left leg, or vice versa) in this way and hold for a moment on only two points of support. We can also alternate between plank and side-plank (the same exercise but turned on its side with only one arm supported), for example in the order left hip – plank – right hip – plank, changing position every 15 seconds.

Another difficult and effective exercise is lifting the legs in a hang or in an upright position on the bars. We hold ourselves in a hang on a trapeze bar or in a rack on the bars, brace our pelvis, and lift our legs in a smooth stroke as high as we can (according to our strength and mobility) so that we do not lose control of the position or the movement. The most common mistake is to swing too much, which makes the movement easier, or to swing too far and lose a stable position (the latter mistake is often caused by the former).

The most difficult is to lift the legs fully extended, while the more we bend the legs, the easier the exercise becomes. Of course, we can gradually work up to stretched legs if it is too difficult at first.

Ab wheel

If you don’t mind investing a couple of dozen euros in a piece of fitness equipment, or even if you already own one, the ab wheel exercise is a suitable higher degree of difficulty for abdominal training. Exercises with the ab wheel are similar to the plank, but engage even more muscle groups (notable, for example, is the added work for the broad back muscle). Additionally, even the easier version of the ab wheel (from the kneeling position) is noticeably harder than a simple lunge.

With the ab wheel exercise, again, you need to guard your pelvic position, especially when coming back (the harder phase). Even if you initially clench your abdominal and glute muscles and have textbook technique, once you get into the hardest phase of the exercise (I reach the end of the ab wheel and start to come back), the perfect position can unravel very quickly. If you find that from a certain distance onwards you are no longer able to come back technically correct, you should not perform the exercise in its entirety just yet.

The ab wheel is a useful diversion for mid-body training, but it is neither indispensable nor necessary. A similar result is achieved with the exercises described above, but when we forcefully want to train with the ab wheel but don’t want to spend money on it, anything that slides across the floor without too much friction can perform a similar role. For example, a dumbbell with a spinning axis, a skateboard, or just a smooth slippery floor and a piece of cloth will suffice.

Exercises for the “lower abdomen”

Many people are looking for a magic recipe to strengthen and hollow out the lower abdomen. With this goal, it is unfortunately similar to the myths mentioned at the beginning of the article. If you are concerned about flattening and getting rid of the fat cushion on your lower abdomen, you simply need to lose it altogether.

When it comes to strengthening, there is no exercise that isolates only the lower part of the rectus abdominis. When a muscle contracts, it contracts all of it. While it is true that muscles can be “attacked” from different angles, and different heads of muscle stimulated with different exercises at different rates, for example, this is something that is still only relevant to bodybuilders and some elite athletes.

The lower abdominals will be sufficiently engaged when we properly perform exercises like the plank (and its variations), ab wheel, leg raises in the hang, and so on. Too much, and especially too specific aesthetic demands, as we can see, hinder us from achieving physical fitness rather than providing a stronger motivation. Try always to take appearance somewhat lightly, and orient yourself rather according to performance and your own feeling.

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