Abdominal Power: The Colgan Power Program
by Dr. Michael Colgan
Spread on my desk are 22 articles on abs, taken from recent issues of muscle and fitness magazines. Not one of them correctly identifies abdominal musculature and only two show any exercises that will improve abdominal power. It・s a sad commentary on the influence of bodybuilding, which focuses on improving only one of the abdominal muscles, the rectus abdominis, or six-pack. It・s the main abdominal muscle you can see (and admire in a mirror).
Under this influence, millions of misguided athletes endure endless hours at crunches, leg lifts, sit-ups, Roman chairs and weird and wishful ab machines. The net result is a minor increase in ab strength and a minimal reduction in the girth of the waistline. The only virtue of these shenanigans is that they keep people off the streets. You would get better abs chopping firewood.
If you want athletic power, don・t waste your time with conventional ab flapdoodle. Consider what an athlete needs in the mid-section. The abdominals and associated back muscles, called the multifidi, form the corset of your body・s core. In my book The New Power Program, I show how the core is your power center, through which power is transferred from the ground or other fixed point of leverage, up and down the body.1 Without a strong core, strong arms and legs cannot apply their power on the playing field.
Martial artists have known these things for centuries, but when bodybuilding developed in the 1930・s, its promoters were not listening, because they only wanted to develop muscles for sideshow. You see it in hundreds of bodybuilding programs. Abs are tagged onto other bodyparts, almost like an afterthought. Bodybuilders train from the outside in. Arms and legs, back and chest, then a little bit of abs, which is usually confined to the six-pack. If you want athletic power, train your body from the inside out: core first, then torso, then arms and legs.
By tight I don・t mean a sucked-in gut, but rather a natural inward curve of the abdominal wall when the muscles are relaxed. Without this firm support, all your soft squashable organs flop around inside, dissipating your power. A loose gut is like a sealed rubber tube, loosely filled with little rubber balls. If I hit the top of the tube with a sledgehammer, it squashes and bulges. Very little of the power of the sledgehammer blow is transferred out the bottom. But if the tube is tightly filled and firm as a fence post, almost all the power is transferred. If you watched Michael Johnson break the 400 meters at the 1999 World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, you know what I mean. He had no body sway. His power transfer through super-firm abs was so precise, he ran like a machine.
Not the Six-Pack
The first big surprise to many athletes at my seminars is to learn that the six-pack has nothing to do with a flat stomach or tight gut. The six-pack is a long flat muscle whose fibers run vertically down the body from the breastbone and fifth, sixth and seventh ribs, to the top of the pubic bone. The six sought after bumps poke out through a grid of flat tendons that run down the center and across the muscle at intervals.
The function of the six-pack is to flex the trunk so that your rib cage moves toward your pelvis. In doing so, it causes the stomach to bulge, never to become flatter. There・s no mechanism by which the six-pack can flatten your gut: its fibers run the wrong way.2 Haven・t you ever wondered why some bodybuilders have incredibly defined abs but, when relaxed, they stick out like a beer belly. That・s what ab training with sit-ups, crunches and Roman chairs will do for you.
Still not convinced? Try this. Lie on your back and put one hand on your gut. Now do any type of crunch or sit-up you like. You will feel the stomach bulge immediately as the six-pack shortens and thickens.
The main muscle that holds your gut flat and firm is the transversus, a thin sheet of muscle to the sides of the six-pack that joins into the connective tissue behind it. The transversus is your body・s natural corset. It・s fibers run across the gut, join into the back sheath of the six-pack and wrap around the sides of the body, attaching all along the rib cage, around the top of the pelvis and into the back muscles.
The transversus is the main muscle that pulls in your gut. Despite this clearly defined function, it is hardly ever trained in conventional ab routines, probably because you can・t see it in a mirror.
Internal Obliques: Stability
The transversus is assisted by the main stabilizers of the trunk, the internal oblique muscles. The diagonal fibers of the internal obliques provide a criss-cross layer of support over the horizontal transversus fibers. Unless you have strong core stabilizers, your upper body will sway like a sapling whenever you try to apply your power. Yet, because they are also invisible in a mirror, the internal obliques are rarely trained in bodybuilding routines. Athletic coaches, however, do realize their value, and use great side-to-side exercises with medicine balls to get at them.
A strong transversus and internal obliques also reduce pressure on the vertebral discs of your back by up to 50%. Especially so when you pull the gut up and in when lifting. Weight lifting belts and back supports used by truck drivers and warehouse staff reduce vertebral pressure by only 20 ? 30%. Natural muscle wins every time.
External Obliques: Rotation
The final outer layer of muscle, which is visible, consists of the external obliques. Fibers of the external obliques run on the opposite diagonal to the internal obliques, providing a further criss-cross layer of support for the gut. They also rotate your trunk and bend it sideways, important functions for athletes.
But the external obliques are shunned in conventional ab training, because bodybuilding exercises make their lower fibers show like love handles and make the waist wider.
Most idiotic of conventional ab routines are the hundreds of standing or bent over trunk twists done with a broom pole, or worse, a barbell on the shoulders, in vain attempts to make the external obliques smaller. The net result of this ballistic twisting is to stretch these muscles where they attach to the pelvis, and make them sag out even further.
You better get the external obliques trained right if you want athletic power. Electromyographic studies show that whenever you lift a weight in front of the body, or move to walk or run, the first muscle to fire is the transversus, followed by the internal obliques and the external obliques, and the lumbar multifidi muscles of the back. Only then does the rectus abdominis fire, and weakly at that.3,4 After all the abdominal muscles are firing and the trunk is stabilized, the prime movers of the movement begin to fire. If the transversus or internal or external obliques are weak, then all your movements are weak also.
Six-Pack Or Psoas
Once you have the transversus, internal obliques and external obliques under control, then you can consider the six-pack for its important athletic function in moving the breastbone towards the pubic bone. But even this simple movement is missed by most conventional ab training. Sit-ups, straight leg raises and Roman chairs, and lying or sitting ab machines that constrain the feet or legs, primarily exercise the psoas muscles which run from the top of the femur (thigh bone) through the pelvis to connect to the lumbar vertebrae. The psoas act to move the trunk towards the knees. Now you know why a lot of ab exercises give you a sore lower back.
The psoas become very strong whenever you arch your back to increase their leverage, and will override the six-pack, which is weak in any unsupported arched back position. Arched back means belly out, not the way you want to be for sport, or for life. Arched back with psoas under load also puts a shearing load on the lumbar spine, a big no-no for athletes.
Our rule is, bum in and round the back whenever you work your abs.
The Pelvic Floor
The floor of your pelvis, which supports your organs and intestines, is not bone, as many people seem to think. It is made of muscles. These muscles are pushed down by compression of the organs whenever you increase intra-abdominal pressure. So whenever you pull up on the transversus to tighten the abs, you should also pull up on the pelvic floor muscles to hold up your guts.
Martial arts have always recognized the importance of internal pelvic exercises to build a strong power center. Apart from these sports, however, even very fit athletes find it difficult to lift the pelvic floor, because it is neglected by all but the most sophisticated trainers. Because you can・t see it in a mirror, bodybuilding training ignores the pelvic floor entirely.
Here we are concerned only with the main supporting muscles, the sphincter ani, the levator ani and the coccygeus. Together with a mesh of connective tissues, they form a muscular hammock, slung across the gap in the pelvis. As you might expect, studies show that lifting weights, and other activity that increases intra-abdominal pressure, tries to push your guts out through the pelvic floor.5,6 The stronger you can make it to resist this pressure, the stronger your core.
The way to do it is pull the anus up and in, an instant before you increase intra-abdominal pressure. That way the pelvic floor muscles are subjected to eccentric contraction (lengthening under load), the best way to strengthen them.
Women are usually familiar with these muscles because of the Kegel exercises taught to expectant mothers. But many male athletes have little awareness of their pelvic floor. To improve awareness, practice this exercise during odd times, such as sitting in traffic. Pull up and in on the levator muscles, as if you are forcibly stopping your urine stream. Hold for five seconds. Relax five seconds. Now do five pumping lifts of one second each. Relax five seconds. Repeat the whole sequence six to eight times. Within a few weeks of daily practice you will be able to hold the pelvic floor up for at least a minute.
Strong Lower Back
The last component of a powerful core is strong lower back muscles. The transversus pulls heavily on the lower back whenever you tighten it. In the event of overload, it's usually the back that gives way. We tackle the problem with two exercises. First is the back extension roll-up on the back extension bench. Most folk you see using the back extension bench move up and down with a straight back, and even go into hyperextension ? not a good idea. Instead, we teach athletes to roll up their back, vertebra by vertebra, from a tightly curled position to the horizontal.
Second is the reverse back extension, popularized by Louie Simmard, in which the legs hang down and are brought up to the horizontal. This exercise used to be a power secret of powerlifters and weightlifters, who constructed their own benches to do the job. Now I see commercial reverse extension benches being advertised everywhere. About time!
The Best Abdominal Exercises
For every ab exercise, center yourself first by pulling up and in on both the transversus and the pelvic floor. Retain this up and in posture even when breathing. Inhale on each concentric contraction and, just before each slow eccentric contraction, exhale forcibly by squeezing in more on the transversus and pelvic floor. Initially this action will be very strenuous. Without tightening the gut, you might do 50 reps of a movement such as hanging and kicking the knees to the chest. With power exercise you will be working to make 10 reps.
Because many athletes have weak abdominals, the series of five hanging exercises is listed from easy to hard. Initially you may be able to do only the first one or two. For some people even these will be too hard and you will have to start on floor ab exercises. As you progress to being able to do them all, you should reverse the order, doing the hardest abdominal exercises first.
For all of the hanging exercises, it is important to keep the back rounded and the toes pointed forward, and curl the torso as you go up, in order to minimize the action of the psoas. A good test of ab strength is Exercise 3, straight leg raise from a dead hang. If you can・t do 10 reps, you need ab work real bad. Add two core exercises to each workout you do during the week. These are our Level 2 and Level 3 ab exercises. Floor ab exercises are Level 1. Level 4 ab and core exercises are not listed here. To learn all the levels you can attend one of our Power Program Camps or purchase the DVD sets which will become available during this year.
Exercise 1: Hanging Knee Kick
Hang on bar with back rounded and toes pointing forwards. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor.
Inhale. Kick knees up to chin, keeping arms straight. Hold and exhale, keeping transversus and pelvic floor up and in. Slowly lower legs to start position.
Inhale. Repeat for 6 ? 8 reps.
Exercise 2: Hanging Half Leg Raise
Hang on bar with back rounded and toes pointing forwards. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor. Inhale. Raise straight legs up to horizontal, so they make a 90? angle with the body. Keep arms straight. Hold and exhale forcibly, keeping transversus and pelvic floor up and in. Slowly lower straight legs to start position. Inhale. Repeat for 6 ? 8 reps.
Exercise 3: Full Leg Raise
Hang on bar with back rounded and toes pointing forwards. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor. Inhale. Raise straight legs up to touch bar between hands, keeping arms straight. Exhale forcibly, tightening transversus and pelvic floor. Slowly lower legs to start position. Inhale. Repeat for 6 ? 8 reps.
Exercise 4: Horizontal Scissors
Hang on bar with back rounded and toes pointing forwards. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor. Inhale. Raise straight legs up to touch bar between hands, keeping arms straight. Exhale. Keep transversus and pelvic floor tight. Keep legs up. Scissor legs out to sides. Inhale. Bring legs in and exhale. Repeat for 6 ? 8 reps before slowly lowering legs to start position.
Exercise 5: Vertical Scissors
Hang on bar with back rounded and toes pointing forwards. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor. Inhale. Raise straight legs up to touch bar between hands. Keep arms straight throughout. Exhale and tighten transversus and pelvic floor. Keep one leg at bar level and lower other straight leg to the horizontal. Inhale. Reverse legs with a scissor movement while exhaling. Repeat 6 ? 8 reps before lowering straight legs slowly to start position. Keep transversus and pelvic floor up and in throughout the exercise.
Exercise 6: Back Extension Roll-ups
Lie face down on extension bench, with pelvic bones protruding over edge. Clasp hands to chest or, preferably (harder), behind neck. Push straight out with elbows, making back as long as possible. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor. Inhale. Lower trunk and curl back. Exhale. Slowly uncurl trunk, one vertebra at a time, starting from the lower back until you reach start position. Inhale. Repeat 6 ? 8 reps, keeping transversus and pelvic floor up and in throughout the exercise.
Exercise 7: Reverse Back Extension
Lay face down on extension bench, with legs hanging vertically. Grasp post of bench and rest forehead on footpad. Pull on post to lengthen back. Pull up and in on transversus and pelvic floor. Exhale. Raise straight legs to horizontal while pushing on the post. Inhale. Slowly lower straight legs to vertical while pulling on post. Exhale. Repeat for 6 ? 8 reps, keeping transversus and pelvic floor up and in throughout the exercise.
Note: The hanging and back extension exercises (Exercises 1 ? 7 above) should be done without additional weights until you can do all of them for 8 reps. Then you can add strap-on ankle weight and hold a soft weight on the upper back for roll-ups, to increase the difficulty.
There are a few other secrets, but these exercises are plenty for at least a year of core training. I・ll bet a once-a-week workout with our program against 500 crunches or sit ups a day anytime.
1. Colgan M. The New Power Program. Vancouver: Apple Publishing, 2000.
2. Basmajian JV, Deluca CJ. Muscles Alive, 5th Edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1985.
3. Hodges PW, Richardson CA. Contraction of the abdominal muscles associated with movement of the lower limb. Phys Ther, 1997;77:132-147.
4. Basmajian JV, et al. Muscles Alive, 5th Edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1985.
6. Carter BL, et al. Cross-Sectional Anatomy. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1977.