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Ab Exercises: So, You Want Abs?
By Frank Melfa of

Here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to give you my favorite 3 abs exercises that I used religiously during contest preparation and still now. I'm going to give a few workouts and how to use these exercises and then it is time for STRAIGHT TALK!

My 3 favorite Abs Exercises:

  • Curlups
  • Rope Crunches
  • Knee Raises
Curlups: This is my favorite abdominal exercise. Curlups are easy, accessible and very effective for working your abdominals. Although considered a lower abdominal exercise, curlups work the entire abdominal wall. Since you are raising your lower body up towards your upper body, you should feel more stress on the lower part of your abdominal muscles.

Simply grab the end of the bench as shown in the photo and raise your buttocks off the bench. I'm exaggerating a little in the photo. You really don't need to raise your buttocks that high. You do want to lower your buttock all the way down to the bench and then repeat. Notice the bend in my knees. Extending your legs will make this exercise extremely difficult, but will put unneeded stress on your lower back. Try to keep your knees as close to your body as possible.

Curlups can be performed at home. They're probably just as effective or in my opinion, more effective than using any ab roller. I usually perform them during commercial breaks during my favorite TV shows. All you need to do is grab the bottom of your couch with your hands over head and follow the same procedures above. I usually perform about 15 to 20 repetitions, rest for about 30 seconds and then repeat two or three more times. It really depends on the duration and frequency of the commercial breaks!

If curlups hurt your lower back, then try them with your hands underneath your buttocks rather than over your head. This will help support your lower back. If you can only perform a few curlups at a time, then gradually increase your reps. As your abdominal muscles strengthen, you will be able to perform more reps every time you try.

Curlups on a decline bench:
If curlups get too easy, then try performing them on a decline bench. The decline makes it more difficult because it increases the range of motion. Your buttocks travels a longer distance and against the center of gravity.

With this exercise, I use a rope to wrap around the leg part of the bench for my grip. From here, just simply raise your buttocks up just as before.

Knee Raises: This is another lower abdominal exercise because you are raising your lower body towards your upper body. Once again, this works your entire abdominal wall, but targets the lower portion of the abdominals. The easy way to perform this exercise is by using an apparatus as shown in the photo. Although they look easy, they're really not. It takes some upper body strength to hold yourself up. I mean easy in respect to positioning yourself and simply raising your knees up to your chest. It's not a complex exercise. Just be sure to fully lower your legs before repeating.



Hanging Knee Raises: If your gym doesn't provide the apparatus shown above, hang anywhere and perform knee raises. These are a lot more difficult than regular knee raises. Here you need a lot of upper body strength to hold yourself up. It's more difficult because you're hanging freely without any back support to push yourself up. I actually call these torso raises. Because, what you want to do is raise your torso rather than your knees only. This will increase your range of motion, forcing your abdominals to work harder.

I sometimes use wrist wraps to help keep my grip. You may want to consider investing in a pair. Be sure to perform these slowly. Actually, you won't have much of a choice. If you go to fast, your body will start swinging uncontrollably. You want to pause once you completely lower your legs and squeeze at the top.

As with most abdominal exercises, you can simply twist your torso to one side and target the sides of your abs as shown in the third photo. Here I'm shown twisting my body to the right. You can perform a set raising your knees straight up. You can perform another set alternating sides. Or you can mix them all in one set. It's up to you. To start, try completing a set with your knees straight up and then mix it up after you get the hang of it.

Rope Crunches: These are performed from a cable machine using a rope. If a rope is not available, try using a towel or anything you can secure to the hook that you can grab that will allow you the leverage to perform this exercise. I got to admit that this is not a basic exercise like a regular crunch. However, because they are so effective, I really want you to learn how to properly perform them.

Start by holding the rope with your hands towards the top of your head from a kneeling position. Your body position when starting, when performing, and when finishing a rep is so important. Some things should remain the same during the entire exercise and some things need to change.

Things that stay the same:

  • Your hands and the bend in your elbows when holding the rope should remain the same from beginning to end. Don't let the rope up on the way up; keep it near your head. Don't pull it either. You want your abs to pull the rope, not your arms.

  • Your buttocks should be up all the time. Do not sit on your legs. You want to keep constant stress on your abs. Sitting on your legs will take stress away from your abs.

    Things that change: When you start, arch your lower back as shown in step one. In step two, when you are crunching, round your back. This will ensure that you are contracting your abs. After you crunch and begin to raise your torso to the original position, slowly and gradually arch your back again.

    Once you get the hang of that, then you can experiment by crunching to the side as I'm doing in the third photo.

    As far as I'm concerned, the only way to train abs is to move quickly from one exercise to the other. There are a few ways you can do this: circuit training, supersets, and you can change things around with staggered sets.

    1. Circuit Training: Select three exercises: curl ups, rope crunches, knee raises. First perform a set of curlups, then immediately perform a set of rope crunches, and then perform a set of knee raises. That's one circuit, with no rest. From here you can repeat the circuit two or three more times. Your fitness level will determine how many times to repeat the circuit. I usually perform the circuit three times and that's it. The entire abdominal workout usually takes me no more than 10 minutes.

    2. Supersets: Choose two exercises, preferably one for the upper abs and one for the lower abs and superset them. A superset is when you perform an exercise for one bodypart and then immediately perform another exercise for the same body part.

    For example, perform a set of curlups, for the lower abs and then immediately perform a set of cable crunches for the upper abs. Repeat this process two or three more times. Then select another two exercises, hanging knee raises for lower abs and regular crunches for upper abs. Superset them by performing a set up hanging knee raises first and then immediately perform a set of crunches. Repeat this process another two or three times. Then finally select two more ab exercises and superset them. Be creative and mix up your exercises.

    Your fitness level determines the number of sets and exercises to perform. I usually perform my reps until failure, that is when I can't do anymore. If you are just starting out, select two exercises, superset them and repeat only once. Then select another two exercise and repeat them only once.

    3. Staggered sets: A staggered set is when you perform an exercise for one bodypart and then immediately perform another exercise for a different bodypart. For example you can train your abs during chest by performing a set of benchpresses for chest and then immediately performing a set of curlups for your abs.

    I usually perform staggered sets using ab exercises when I'm training chest, shoulders, or back. If I'm working my chest, I perform a set of bench presses and then immediately perform a set of abs, such as curlups on the same bench. The concept here is, rather than waste time and rest between chest exercises, use your time efficiently by working ab exercises during your rest.

    I like using curlups with benchpresses because I use the same bench to perform my curlups. When I'm finished with a set of bench presses, I immediately grab the bench and start my curlups. From here, repeat the process two or 3 more times, assuming you perform three or four sets of benchpresses.

    Sample Abdominal Routines

    Example 1: Circuit Training

    Exercise Reps Sets Repeat
    Hanging Knee Raise 10 1 1 to 3 times
    Cable Crunch 15 1
    Regular crunch 15 1

    Here, you are setting up a circuit of exercises using hanging knee raises, cable crunches, and regular crunches. Start with a set of hanging knee raises and try to get 10 reps. Immediately perform a set of cable crunches and immediately finish with regular crunches. Repeat this circuit anywhere from one to three times, once again depending on your fitness level. If you feel that you can continue, then do it. If you feel like you're going to pass out then take a rest or call it quits. As long as you work hard!

    Example 2: Supersets

    Exercise Reps Repeat Sets
    Knee Raises 10 2 or 3 times
    Crunches 15
    Curlups 10 1 or 2 times
    Cable Crunch 15

    In this example, superset knee raises and crunches. Perform a set of knee raises and immediately perform a set of crunches. Repeat this process at least once or maybe twice depending on your fitness level. Once you have repeated supersetting knee raises and crunches, perform a set of curlups and then immediately perform a set of cable crunches. Repeat this process once or twice more. If you really want to work hard, select two more exercises and superset them a total of two or three times. Or you can stick with four exercises and just repeat more than two or three times. It's up to you.

    Example 3: Staggered Sets

    Exercise Reps Sets Repeat
    Bench Press 10 1 2 or 3 times
    Curlups 15 1
    Incline Dumbbell Press 10 1 2 or 3 times
    Cable Crunches 10 1
    Flyes 10 1 2 or 3 times
    Knee Raises 15 1

    Here, I'm working my chest and supersetting abs. I perform a set of bench press and then immediately perform a set of curlups on the same bench. I repeat this process at least three times performing four sets of bench press and four sets of curlups. Then I go to my next chest exercise, the incline dumbbell press. I perform a set up dumbbell presses and immediately go to the cable machine and perform a set of cable crunches. I repeat this two or more times. Then I finish chest with dumbbell flyes and superset them with knee raises. Repeat this process two or three times. That's it; you're done!

    It's Time for Straight Talk!

    This is the part about abs that you probably don't want to hear, but here it goes: I don't care if you work your abs every day. Buy all the ab rollers and ab machines advertised on TV. If you don't eat right, it aint gunna happen! You would have a better chance of showing your abs by improving your eating habits only without working your abs than if you worked your abs every day and didn't improve your eating habits.

    Have you ever noticed the well-defined abs on lean, young kids? You can see everything from abs, ribcage, to veins. Most of these kids of course will grow older and cease to look as lean and may no longer show their abs. The point is, these young kids have abs because they are lean, not because they work their abs. They have probably never performed an ab exercise in their short lives. They show abs because no layers of fat cover their abdominal wall.

    When I competed in bodybuilding contests, I showed great abs as well as most of the other competitors. I could tell you that about one month following my contest, and about 15 to 20 pounds later, my abs didn't look nearly as good as they did during contest. Does that mean that in order to get my abs back that I needed to work them harder or more frequent? Or better yet, should you buy an ab roller and use that every day? WRONG! I had to shed some of the weight that I put on. My abs didn't go anywhere. They were just covered with some fat. Not to say I didn't show my abs at all. You could still see them, but not as well as when I was 15 pounds lighter.

    Of course the optimal thing to do is eat right and perform the right exercises with the right routines discussed and shown in this article. Notice I haven't used the word diet, but rather eat. That's because diet to most people means short term. Eating on the other hand means something you do every day, for a very long time. You can't decide to diet hard for one or two weeks and then go back to your normal eating habits. You need to change the way you eat forever, that is if you always want to show your abs.

    I don't want to monopolize this chapter about eating right and losing fat. I have other chapters dedicated to that. But I do want to say this:

    Some people tell me they started walking to fulfill their aerobics part of their fitness plan to shed fat. Let me tell you something, taking a stroll through the park isn't going to do much in regard to shedding fat. You got to work hard. If you power walk, increasing your heart rate to at least 120 beats per minute, then your doing something. Don't get me wrong, walking is good to increase your overall health and activity. It's also better than sitting home in front of the TV. But I'm talking about SHOWING ABS! I'm talking decreasing your bodyfat! I'm talking about working hard!

    People tell me that I'm blessed with good genes. Bull! I work hard! I'm in the gym five to six days per week. And more importantly, I struggle to eat right. Yes, struggle. People think I don't like to eat sweets and fatty foods. I bet I like eating more than most people, but I like looking better than most people too. So I do whatever it takes!

    Even though I don't compete anymore, I still like to show my abs. I got to admit, my abs don't look as good as they did when I competed, but I still make a conscious effort to improve my own eating habits. In my case I need something to motivate me, since I don't compete anymore. Posing for this book was one motivating factor. You need to find your motivating factor such as getting ready for the summer, spring break, vacation..... Or, take some before and after photos of yourself. That would be a great start to help you focus on your goals. The first thing you need to do is take a photograph of yourself right now. Then go to the supermarket and buy some healthy, low-fat, foods, and use this article and go to the gym. Now, get to work!

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