Arnold Vacuum main
Ask a bodybuilder today what it means to vacuum and he’ll most likely talk about sucking up dirt from a carpet. But pose the same question to Leroy Colbert, Reg Park, Frank Zane, or Ed Corney and they’re sure to give you an entirely different response. Rather than sucking up dirt, their version of vacuuming involves sucking in the gut.

Way back, it was common for bodybuilders to perform vacuum poses as part of their routines. What is a vacuum pose, you may ask? Hitting a vacuum pose involves simultaneously expanding your rib cage while blowing out all of the air from your lungs. The effect is a hollow below your ribs, where your stomach used to be. The effect is dramatic–a massively muscled upper body perched atop a narrow abdominal column.

I worked hard to perfect the vacuum in my posing and employed it in several poses, most notably the front double-biceps and side chest shots. Others, like Frank Zane, turned thevacuum into a pose of its own. With his hands clenched behind his neck and his elbows held high by his ears, Frank’s vacuum pose made it appear as if his torso was floating above his hips. Truly an impressive shot.

These days, it seems almost nobody does the vacuum anymore. Shawn Ray used to vacuumup  when hitting his front double-biceps pose. More recently, Richard Jones has done the same. But that’s about it. Why has a posing technique that was once practically mandatory within bodybuilding now such a rarity? I suppose that with the increased bodyweights of competitors come bigger midsections and, as a result, less ability to suck up into a vacuum.

I, for one, am disappointed by the ever-expanding waistlines I’ve seen in bodybuilding over the course of the past few decades. Whereas at one time having as small a waist as possible was part and parcel of being a bodybuilder, this element of the total physique is now often an afterthought. There is such an overemphasis on getting heavy that too little attention is paid to controlling the growth of the waistline.

Of course, not every pro bodybuilder has gone this route, and I commend athletes such as Troy Alves, Melvin Anthony and Darrem Charles, among others, for carrying on the tradition of making aesthetic concerns a top priority as they sculpt their physiques. I’m confident any of these fine athletes are capable of hitting a vacuum, and I encourage them to do so as a way of separating themselves from those who clearly cannot.

So how does one go about performing a vacuum shot? For one thing, you have to have well-developed abs and have control over them in order to suck up into a vacuum properly. It also takes practice.

Following is an exercise I would regularly perform to improve my vacuuming ability. First, bend at the waist and support your upper body with your hands on a table, dumbbell rack or something else around hip height. Now, take in a deep breath of air and then blow it out forcefully. With your lungs devoid of air, pull your abdominal column in, as if you’re trying to touch your navel to your spine.

Feel the way your whole midsection becomes inverted. It will be an awkward sensation at first, as if your muscles are turning inside out, which, in a sense, they are. However, after practicing this movement a few times, you will find that your abs begin to settle into a “groove” and that it becomes progressively easier each time you attempt to do it.

Once you’ve experienced how an abdominal vacuum feels, you can begin to incorporate it into poses, like the front double biceps, or even before crunching down into an abs and thigh pose. The effect is dramatic, to say the least.

The new IFBB advisory (putting renewed emphasis on shape and trim waistlines) seemed to work out pretty well at last October’s Mr. Olympia, and from that platform perhaps we can return to a day when bodybuilding competitors regularly perform vacuums onstage. If things go really well, maybe we can get them to vacuum backstage after the show, too!