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Chances are most FLEX readers don’t follow men’s gymnastics. But even if you just catch a glimpse of them during the Olympics or while flipping through ESPN, one can’t help but notice that, in addition to their massive shoulders and forearms, most male gymnasts have phenomenal abdominal development. Not only was Mike Liberatore a gymnast in his younger years, he was also a college cheerleader. Holding his body steady in an iron cross on the rings and hoisting cheerleaders onto his shoulders and sending them spinning into the air taught him a thing or two about ab development, namely that strong abs are fundamental to lifting heavy as well as maintaining a strong back. He took the principles he learned before bodybuilding and kept training using many of the same techniques, particularly with his abs, which have allowed him to keep a small waist while developing the rest of his physique.
“Abs are a lost art,”
I asked Liberatore if he splits his ab workout into sections to target the upper and lower abs as well as obliques? “I was always taught you can’t work them separately and that you should just train the entire midsection by using different exercises,” he says. He admits that an exercise that brings your knees to the chest generally works lower abs, but everything else is simply a variation on working the entire core. “I don’t keep my legs too straight on any exercise because that builds your hip flexors but not your abs,” he says.
People who train abs regularly are split into two camps: those who favor using weights for their routine and those who believe that technique builds up the midsection. You can tell which camp Liberatore falls into by his response: “Except for some resistance on my rope crunches, I use only my body weight for abs. You don’t need to use weight, especially for obliques. Who wants to build up their waist? I don’t get it when I see guys doing abs with a plate.” A final, but not obvious, tip he has for building six-pack abs is to wear a weight belt sparingly. “I wear it only for certain exercises like the deadlift when I need to protect my lower back. People tend to relax their abs over the top of the belt. I prefer to keep them tight even when I wear it.”
Liberatore follows a no-frills, simple routine consisting of a few stock exercises that he does three days a week before a contest and two days a week off-season. You don’t need to even go to the gym to follow this routine. If he’s short on time, he combines abs and calves into one workout, sometimes squeezing them in after cardio if necessary. But he generally dedicates 15 minutes after a chest or arms workout to knock out his ab routine. He walked me through his favorite exercise that he’s been doing since his days as a gymnast.
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Doing a couple
“Never ever swing your body forward or use shoulders on this. Your torso should stay straight up and down and your legs should be slightly bent to protect your lower back.” He has the flexibility and strength to raise his feet almost to the height of the pullup bar, but even getting the legs parallel to the ground provides immense benefits.
Functionally similar to the hanging leg raise is his next exercise, the lying leg raise, which can be done on a bench or the floor. When starting, you can place the hands under the glutes to support the pelvis with the palms facing down, but eventually, as you build more stability throughout the core, you should be able to perform these with the arms to the side.
The movement is simple—keeping just a slight bend in the legs, raise them as far as possible above parallel, hold for 30 seconds and then lower back down in a smooth motion. As you get stronger, your body should look like a V—by raising the legs above parallel along with the arms. But beginners can bring the knees toward the chest instead of keeping the legs straight.
If you’re really up for a challenge, try doing what he does next. He stays hanging on the bar. Holding the legs straight in front (with a slight bend) and keeping his torso just as upright, he moves his legs all the way to the right and slowly back to center, then all the way to the left and slowly back to center. “I did a lot of these in gymnastics,” Liberatore says, “because that sport required a lot of functional strength. It builds up the obliques a lot.” He does 25 reps of these, in which a rep includes both the left and right side.
If you’re just
He does these facing away from the weight stack, but you can do it facing toward it—just give yourself enough room so that you’re not sitting back on your ankles. Keeping the quads perpendicular to the floor rather than sitting on your ankles forces you to exclusively use the abs and not rely on body weight to bring the rope down. (If your gym lacks a rope, you can attach a handle or just grab the cable itself with both hands.) Liberatore keeps his back almost fat and holds the tension in his abs the entire time as he crunches downward, bringing his elbows to his knees, then back up. He also makes sure the rope stays right next to his ears the entire time.
You should attempt thisexercise only if you can master the other ones with perfect form, because the dragonfly is a killer when performed properly. Lie on a bench (or the ground) and drive your shoulders into it while gripping the sides of the bench. You need to keep your lower back, feet, and legs off the bench at all times.
Now comes the tough part. As Liberatore describes it, “You pull your body horizontal to the floor without letting your hips drop or arching your back.”
Since this is an advanced move, he advises progressing to it in stages. “You can start by bending your knees to 90 degrees and just raising your torso up. That way you’re getting the majority of the benefit to your abs.” He does this one last, but can usually manage only two sets with strict form. FLEX