Abdominal Exercises Are Useless. I Promise.

My friend asked me an interesting question the other day: “What do you think is the most useless exercise, and what is the most useful?”

The second part of the question is tough to answer, but I told him that if I could do only one exercise, it would be the front squat deadlift. Sure, there’s no such thing as a front squat deadlift, but cheated on the answer because I think they’re the two most effective strength exercises a human can perform. But the answer to the first part was a no-brainer: any exercise that targets the abdominal region directly–like sit-ups, crunches, leg raises/ lifts, and certainly torso twists–is the most useless. Blech.

Look at the two photos below. In the one on the left (July 2014) my abs are a little more defined than in the right (Jan 2015). Is it because I stopped doing direct abdominal work? Definitely not, because I haven’t done any–I repeat ANY–direct ab work in years. My abs are slightly more blurry now because I’m purposely carrying more fat. On the left I’m sub-7%; on the right, I’m just over 8%, which on my body equates to a couple of pounds. My strong core is purely the product of heavy front squats, heavy back squats, and heavy deadlifts. I truly believe that direct abdominal work is a waste of life, except of course for the pros who are interested in carving out fine details (which is only worthwhile at the sub 5% bodyfat level.

None of this is to say that you can’t develop abs with crunches and other stuff [crap], but why bother? Isolation exercises do nothing for intermuscular coordination and development of proportional strength i.e. the right ratio of strength between muscle groups for optimum functional balance. So if you’re doing tons of direct ab work, you’ll also have to do tons of lower back isolation work, and if you do that, you’ll have to make sure you’re getting the right amount of hamstring stimulation, which means you’ll also need to make sure you hit the muscles of your hip complex and the three heads of your quads. There’s just no way to know if you’re developing strength in all those areas in proper proportion to one another. Seems complicated, right? It is. But it’s not if you just stick to the basic giant compound lifts and forget about hitting individual muscles.

Ripped Abs Without Crunches, Cut Biceps Without Curls

All individuals have different goals. Some are more interested in developing massive strength, and less so in maintaining a ripped physique (e.g. powerlifters), while others are more interested in growing and specifically shaping individual muscles, while being less concerned about strength (e.g. bodybuilders). My interests have gravitated toward a hybrid of those, i.e. developing both the strength and physique I wanted as efficiently as possible.

For me, getting ripped became legitimately effortless once I understood how effortless it could be. Sort of a circular statement, I know, but it’s true. I also know from experience that it can also be excruciatingly difficult if it’s made to be that. I’ve noticed that my overall health and general physique flourish when I stress myself just enough, then stop long before I’m spent, and rest even when I feel I don’t need it. This is one of the reasons I dropped structured cardio almost completely out of my life several months ago.

To these points, I figure why bother with exercises that target only one thing, like crunches or biceps curls? I see many gym goers performing lots of these types of exercises; these are clearly two really popular muscle groups to isolate, so much that it sort of cliché. I don’t know what the goals of these individuals are, and I pass no judgement on why they’re doing what they’re doing, but my best guess is that they probably want definition and/ or growth in those areas. But for my particular goals though, there are a few big problems with isolating muscle groups like this.

Abs with zero direct ab work.

Abs with zero direct ab work.

Muscular balance is upset [functional fitness suffers]
I developed imbalances in my overall musculature when attempting to stress individual muscle groups, and even experienced impingement in certain areas as a result of the impossibility of applying loads in the right ratios to antagonizing muscle groups in isolation. Take a hamstring curl, for example. When ever during the course of real life would the hamstrings be isolated to that extent? There is literally no natural motion that isolates the hamstrings the way a very unnatural leg curl does. You can look at it from the other side too: an individual who favors leg extensions (either intentionally or unintentionally) to the point where the quads become more powerful than they should in relation to the rest of the lower body musculature, can develop a painfully tight lower back and lordosis. Chances are exceptionally high that if one major muscle group in the lower body is firing during a real life motion, the rest of those groups are as well. This is why it makes sense to me to almost exclusively perform compound exercises with a barbell, like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and other fixed bar exercises like weighted chinups, pullups and dips.

Biceps without a single curl.

Biceps without a single curl.

Isolation takes too long
Two exercises for the biceps, two for the deltoids, three for the back, three for the chest, one for the abs… oh wait, make that two cause I gotta hit those obliques. Oh crap, lemme get my traps in there also, so one for that. I forgot triceps. I’ll add two exercises for those. This is pretty much the way I used to lift weights. I’ve written fairly extensively on the main pages of about why it was so absolutely pointless for me. Now, if I perform 3-5 sets of close grip heavy weighted chinups, I hit the biceps, lats, abs (lots of isometric work during a heavy chinup), traps, rhomboids and posterior deltoids. And as a bonus, if I squeeze all the way to the top of the motion range, I get hard pectoral work. Five sets of five reps of very heavy chinups takes maybe eight minutes. That plus some heavy front squats and deadlifts can easily be a complete and very effective workout completed in 40 minutes.

Isolation doesn’t develop strength
At least not nearly to the same extent that heavy compound lifts can. Compound lifts tax the central nervous system in a big way like nothing else can. A shoulder raise can’t do that. Neither can a calf raise. Nor a shrug. Reverse curl? No way.

Isolation has a place
None of the above is to say that I think isolation or working smaller muscle groups is worthless. I can’t say that, because many individuals find them very valuable and critical to their own goals. They’re just not relevant to my goals, and they absolutely are not a requirement for getting ripped and staying ripped.