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,” Liberatore declares, expressing surprise that we wanted to showcase his ab routine. “You never see magazine articles on them. You don’t see streamlined abs onstage these days. It’s like no one trains them any more.” As Liberatore’s fans well know, he has a penchant for what he believes were the more aesthetic physiques of the pro bodybuilders who competed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He emulates that classic look—the small waist and massive shoulders—and has worked hard to achieve it in his own physique. It’s one thing on which he won’t compromise as he continues his bodybuilding career.
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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