Ask Mr. O: Building the Best Abs Possible

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Q: I'm 14 and I need your help with my abs. The rest of my body is fine, but I just can't get my abs in shape.

-- John Benton

A: At 14 years of age, your abs haven't yet had time to atrophy. Remember that you are still growing, your bones and muscles are still lengthening and thickening, and your body has to finish that process before it can get to work enlarging and hardening its muscles. Meanwhile, I can give you some tips for building the most powerful abs in the most efficient manner.

As bodybuilders, even though we train bodyparts separately, the lifting is never done by that bodypart alone. The abs are almost always involved, or at least they should be.

Conversely, you cannot properly train your abs without bringing into play your hip flexors, your back erectors and your glutes. All of those muscle groups need to tighten as one in what's called a "compound" manner. If they don't, your pelvis rotates forward against the base of your spine, which not only prevents you from getting a full contraction of your abs but also compresses your vertebrae.

Keep in mind that your abs become involved only if you use basic free-weight exercises that require your abdominals to provide a tight connection between your upper and lower body. For chest, that means flat and incline barbell or dumbbell presses, although cable crossovers also call for abdominal tension.

For biceps, any heavy standing barbell or dumbbell curl requires intense abdominal contractions for stability, as do standing French presses or overhead extensions for triceps. Nearly any free-weight shoulder exercise, particularly military presses and standing or seated dumbbell raises, benefits your abs. For back, you can't do deadlifts or barbell rows without first contracting your abs as hard as you can, and any pro will tell you the procedure for squatting is to tighten your abs as hard as you can to relieve pressure from your spine, flex your traps to get the bar up and off your deltoids, squeeze your hips so they provide a foundation for your torso, then maintain that as you squat.

Of course, you should also work your abs specifically with crunches, hanging knee or leg raises and Roman chair roll ups; whatever ab exercise you do, always shorten the distance between your sternum and your pelvis. Never arch backward or keep your torso straight.

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