Another great article from DragonDoor.com
Abdominal Exercises for Total Body Mastery
When I was in elementary school my parents purchased an abdominal wheel. This was advertised as a superb tool to develop upper body and abdominal strength. Unlike many of the fitness gadgets that are promoted today, this product does what it says and is worth every penny you pay for it. When I first saw this product, I thought of it as more of a toy than a serious piece of exercise equipment. Being a wiry kid, I could knock off several reps of the knee version and a couple of the standing version. Laughing at the adults who struggle with this exercise and listening to them complain about their abdominal muscles killing them for the next few days made for great childhood fun. At that time, I had no idea what kind of influence this inexpensive piece of equipment would have on my future training. The wheel seemed to lose popularity very quickly (probably because it was too hard for most adults).
I became a gymnast in high school and college and that abdominal wheel became my secret weapon. I could tell by the feeling produced in my body that this exercise demands the muscles of the upper body and midsection to activate in a coordinated fashion. I had not experienced this feeling with any other abdominal exercise. I still use that same wheel today. It was a pretty good investment of my parents’ money I’d say.
I was a huge fan of the Rocky movies. The segments of the movies showing his training (one-arm push-ups, one-arm chins, etc.) got me especially psyched. Sylvester Stallone demonstrated one movement that totally blew me out of the water (The Dragon Flag). This was the coolest looking exercise that I had ever seen. I did not know what it was called but I knew I was going to do it. All of my previous training on the abdominal wheel prepared me nicely for the Dragon Flag, and it wasn’t long before I was able to successful perform this movement. This exercise was very similar to the wheel in my mind because of the coordinated interaction between the upper body and the abdominals. Hearing that this was a favorite abdominal exercise for Bruce Lee was just icing on the cake for me.
Abdominal training has always been a passion for me. I have reviewed every magazine article that I could get my hands on, watched every infomercial, and tried many exercise programs through the years. Abdominal training gimmicks and gadgets advertised as the easiest and most effective way to train your abs have fooled me in the past. I have performed thousands of sit-ups and crunches but found nothing that matched the supreme muscular contraction generated by Dragon Flags and the abdominal wheel. They have been an instrumental part of my training for nearly 20 years. I thought to myself that people just don’t get it when it comes to training the abdominal muscles. I then stumbled across Pavel and his abdominal training techniques. I was astounded. He actually recommended my two favorite abdominal exercises. Not only did Pavel get it, he provided several additional abdominal challenges and emphasized minor details that made every exercise more effective.
Pavel breaks down abdominal training into two steps: (1) maximum strengthening of the abs in isolation with the Janda Sit-up and (2) teaching the abdominal muscles to work as a team with other muscles and protect your spine (integration). My focus will be on exercises that fit into the second step.
The abdominal and waist region coordinate all parts of the body and act as the center or generator. Therefore, you can promote the ability to control the body’s actions and master your will more easily.
What I hope to accomplish with this article is to outline a sequence of training steps to work up to three of my favorite abdominal exercises. I will then describe some variations on these movements to increase their difficulty and add variety to your workouts. Many of these training steps are exercises that are already described and demonstrated in Bullet-Proof Abs (BPA). I am operating under the assumption that the majority of readers have a copy of BPA and I will not go into great detail about them. Begin at the point in the sequence where your present abilities and past preparation allow.
The following two training steps are essential to master in order to achieve success with all of the remaining exercises. More importantly, they are crucial to maximize their safety.
Lay down on your back with your feet together and your legs straight. Press your back as flat as you can to the floor and attempt to eliminate the space between your lower back and the floor. Attempt to place your fingers between the small of your back and the floor. If there is space, keep your fingers there and attempt to press them down with your back. Tucking your butt in will help decrease the space. Imagine a coin between your buttocks. Squeeze your buttocks together so they pinch the visualized coin. Continue with this exercise until your lower back is as flush to the floor as possible. Remember what this feels like because this is the desired position for most of the exercises that follow and will give the greatest amount of protection against lower back injury.
Gain proficiency in the Russian Ballet Leg Thrust (first with one leg and then with both) as detailed in BPA. This will teach you to stabilize your spine while engaged in movement and is a very effective abdominal exercise itself.
Begin with the kneeling version of the wheel. Steps to achieving this are in BPA. When the kneeling version has become too easy and you can perform well over the prescribed # of reps (3-5), it is time to start working up to the standing version.
Many comrades on the Dragondoor Forum can attest to the fact that the developmental step from the kneeling to the standing version is a large one. This is understandable because at the bottom of the standing drill your body is placed at a severe leverage disadvantage due to the great distance between the two points of contact with the floor. Several great suggestions on making this large step have been made by comrades on the forum. Some of the suggestions are: rolling up to a wall, rolling up an incline, and securing a bungee cord to the wheel. Since all of these effective methods can be found by reviewing the archives of the forum I will not describe them here. To compensate for the leverage disadvantage, you must teach your body to recruit as many muscles as possible and to contract them with maximal force. The drill described in the following paragraph will help with this.
An obstacle to successful completion of the standing drill is controlling the forward movement of the wheel at various points of the descent. A typical example would be someone who competently performs the beginning portion of the exercise but loses control near the bottom as evidenced by the wheel rolling faster and the person falling flat on their face. My recommendation is to identify the point of the movement (what angle is formed by your upper and lower body?) where you lose control. Put down the wheel and place your body at a slightly lesser angle with your hands and feet on the floor. Generate as much tension as possible. Squeeze your abdominals and your glutes. Attempt to create the feeling that all of your activated muscles are pulling towards your abdominals. Simultaneously push your hands into the floor and pull them back towards your feet (activating your chest and lats) and pull your feet towards your hands. This should be isometric with no accompanying body movement. Hold this position for approximately five seconds. The strength and muscular coordination developed from pulling your hands towards your feet will help control and eventually stop the forward rolling of the wheel. The combined action of the arms and legs pulling towards each other will help to reverse the direction of the movement. As you gain strength, gradually increase the distance between your arms and legs until you are able to hold the top position of the jackknife push-up as Pavel demonstrates on Page 57 of BPA. Once you have gained the strength to hold this position in the prescribed manner, you are ready to try the standing drill once again.
Remember the feel of this isometric exercise. Recreate this feeling as you are performing the standing wheel.
Use this method alone or in conjunction with other techniques to make the transition from the kneeling to the standing wheel.
Standing Wheel Variations
These exercises are extremely advanced and should not be attempted until you are very proficient at performing the standing wheel. Use extreme caution and don’t perform these if you have any reservations about injury.
Double Wheel Roll-Outs
I attached 4 office chair wheels (the kind that rotate 360 degrees) to a sturdy 12″ by 18″ board that you can stand on. Become familiar with this device by placing your hands on the floor in front of the rolling board that you are standing on and roll the board away from your hands (just the opposite of the standing wheel). Next, stand on the board while holding an abdominal wheel in your hands on the floor in front of the board. Simultaneously roll the two devices away from each other. Do very small movements at first to gain an understanding of how far you are able to control the movement. I really like the feel of the two devices rolling independently.
One Arm Standing Wheel
As Comrade Trend has described on the Dragondoor forum, you can modify a dual abdominal wheel by moving the two wheels from the center to either end of the axle. There will be room in between the two wheels for you to grip the device. You can do a two-legged, one-arm evil wheel or the more difficult one-legged, one-arm version of this drill. With the one-arm, one-legged drill, hold the wheel in the hand opposite of the leg that is on the floor. Work up to these exercises in much the same way as you worked up to the standing two-armed version. If the one-arm, one-leg version becomes too easy, you can grab a light dumbbell in your free hand to make it more challenging.
The standing abdominal wheel has now prepared you for my favorite exercise. Follow the instructions in BPA for learning this difficult drill. Study the details (breathing, tightening abs, tucking pelvis, squeezing your butt, tensing armpits) that Pavel describes.
Dragon Flag Variations
When you can comfortably perform nearly horizontal Dragon Flags and feel that you are ready for an additional challenge, you can try the following variations. The range of motion on all of these exercises is determined by how far you can go while still maintaining a rock solid flat back (no arch). Begin with a very small ROM and gradually increase.
Vertical Scissor Dragon Flags
Hold the bottom position of the movement and slowly raise and lower your right leg. When your right leg returns to the starting position, raise your left leg. Raising and lowering both legs counts as one rep. Perform two to five reps.
Horizontal Scissor Dragon Flags
Hold the bottom position and separate your feet to the maximum point that your current flexibility allows, and then slowly close the scissors. Opening and closing the legs counts as one rep. Perform two to five reps.
Weighted Dragon Flags
Perform the regular exercise with weights. You will need to squeeze your glutes very hard in order to protect your back. Weights can be attached to your body at any point below your shoulders. Start with an extremely light weight. I have used leg weights around the ankles. Be creative. You can stuff a small dumbbell in the pouch of an ice pack wrap. This can be strapped on the body wherever you wish. Placement of weight near the feet will cause additional stress on the lower back but will also increase the difficulty due to decreased leverage. Please be careful and proceed in very small steps.
An L Sit is a gymnastic movement where you support the entire weight of your body on your hands. I recommend performing this exercise on bars, KBs, or push-up stands because it decreases the stress on your wrists, and it allows you to tie into the strength enhancing effects of squeezing the bars with your hands. The L Sit is accomplished by beginning in Dip position on Dip Bars and then raising your straight legs in front of you until they are parallel to the floor. Hold this position for several seconds. If you are not quite able to perform the straight-legged version, you can work up to it by lifting your bent knees up towards your chest. Hold this position for as long as possible. When you can hold this position for 15 seconds it is time to begin a process of straightening the legs. At each angle, when you can hold for 15 seconds, straighten the legs a little more. The goal is to be able to hold a perfect L with straight legs for 15 seconds or more.
L Sit Variations
You can do the horizontal scissor and weighted variations that you did on the Dragon Flags. You can also gradually work up to the more difficult V Sit by raising your straight legs closer and closer to your face. This is a true test of flexibility, balance, and strength. The goal is to raise your legs until they are perpendicular to the floor. Once you get to a point where you can hold a V Sit for a several seconds, you can perform leg raises by lifting and lowering both of your straight legs or performing vertical scissors. Perform 2 to 5 reps.
Performing Ls and Vs on rings will provide an additional challenge since your stabilizer muscles will need to work even harder to hold the rings still.
Integrate these exercises into your abdominal exercise rotation if you choose.