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Ab Exercises: it’s not About Crunches!

Ever wonder why most gymnasts have 6-packs? … because they hang around bars! Well, I’m talking 6-pack abs of course, and as corny as it may sound, you can always find some truth in humor.

I was a gymnast for 12 years. My teammates and myself included – grew up with nice, lean defined, abdominal muscles, and in the world of high level gymnastics this is more the norm than the exception. It was not because we were all genetic freaks, or did thousands of crunches. In fact…

We all had 6-pack abs but… we did NO standard crunches at all!

But what we did do, is strengthen our core and worked our bodies in such a way that contributed greatly to that to sculpted, quilted abdominal look.

Get Great Abs

The great news is that you do not have to start gymnastics classes to get visible abs. But I do think every fitness athlete or enthusiast can learn something from their training and put to use a variety of these principles. So how does gymnastics core training differ from the standard crunch?

3 Major Components of Gymnast Abs

1) full extension of abdominal muscle
2) isometric contractions
3) working the muscle in various planes of movement

1. Full Extension
– Muscles stretched with resistance through their entire intended range of motion (ROM), receive the most overload.

I can remember way back to my gymnastics training days, where my coach would start and end every practice with 3 to 4 sets of hanging leg raises or leg lifts as we gymnasts called them. For these leg raises, we would hang from the high bar, with our body fully extended and lift our legs to meet our hands. Our coach was a stickler for form and – none of the reps would be counted if we used momentum and did not begin from a “dead” hang – with full extension. As young gymnasts, we knew it was harder to start from the “dead hang” fully extended position. We certainly didn’t know why – but we did it anyway. You can incorporate the same movement into your own workouts. It’s easiest if you have a chin up bar or abdominal chair, a.k.a.,

Leg Raises from chin-up bar or Captain’s Chair:
These devices can be found in just about every gym. The key is starting from that “dead” hang position – getting a full stretch in the abdominal muscles.

Home Gym Modification 1: Use a sturdy armchair, preferably an office or dining room chair. You can lift yourself off the seat with you hands on the arm, and slowly raise your legs up as high as you can, then lower them.

Emily Saunders doing a pike sit-up.



Home Gym Modification 2:

You can also do leg raises from the floor. These look easy but are really tough to do as well as Emily is doing in this photo. You don’t need bars to get the power effect of leg raises!


2. Isometric Contractionsare about pressing and holding. Isometric contractions are where tension is created in the muscle with no visible change (movement) in the joint angle. The muscle(s) is contracting without moving through a ROM.

For this principle, the goal of course is not to achieve a full extension of the abdominal muscle but to hold and contract it in one position. So much of gymnastics is isometric in and of itself (balancing in a handstands, upside down or right side up positions with leg up/ leg down – you name it – we were probably required to do it)- so many of the drills we did were isometric exercises.

Isometric Exercises are Static Positions, such as:

  • Plank – alternate high plank from palms to low plank from forearms
  • Squat and hold – this can be freesquating or against a wall
  • Prayer pose press – palms together, press as hard as you can
  • Leg raise and hold
  • Warrior Pose and hold (a number of yoga positions are isometric in nature)

For more examples of isometric exercises checkout this article.

3. Planes of Motion is the third component vital to core training. In gymnastics, we flipped and twisted in all different directions. Even on the uneven bars, we had requirements in our routine for elements that contained a direction change.

I remember really disliking this, because once you got going in one direction – you had to switch and go the other way – and have enough momentum, technique, and CORE strength to do so.

Hanging windmills was one way we trained for this. It was an advanced version of the hanging leg raise, but instead of just going in one plane of motion and lifting your legs up to the bar and back down again, you lifted your legs in a circle in one direction, then switched directions the other way. It targets the oblique muscles, part of the abdominal core, responsible for rotation.

Here’s an example of Hanging Windmills. 


These powerfully effective “core training principles” will definitely produce results, however remember that nothing can magically transform your belly to a sculpted 6-pack unless you are also lean enough for the abs to show, which is another topic unto itself.

Form Follows Function

But hopefully this gives you some insight and ideas on building a better you. It was the American architect, Lois Sullivan who coined the phrase, “form follows function.” I am a wholehearted believer that quote is applicable to physique and athletic endeavors as well.  Just take a look at competitive gymnasts. We can learn a lot from them!


Desiree Walker is an IFBB pro fitness competitor and general dentist practicing in Lumberton, NC. She shares her love for health and wellness with her husband Ash and 2 crazy cats.

References: Abel, Scott. The Abel Approach. 2007


Ab Exercises: it’s not About Crunches!

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