Triple Threat – How to Build a Muscular Midsection with Hanging, Standing and Lying Exercises

Have you ever wondered what the best exercises are to build a muscular midsection?

If your curiosity has led you to research books and articles, you might have discovered the amazingly high number of approaches to building a muscular midsection.

Gymnasts or bodybuilders, with inspiration from gymnastics, focus on hanging exercises (and floor exercises). Powerlifters often focus on standing exercises.1 If a bodybuilder has learned from a Pilates practitioner, he or she will have learned floor exercises.

Many athletes and bodybuilders have great and muscular midsections and have trained in many different ways. This fact tells us that many approaches work. Thus, as a bodybuilder or powerlifter, you can favourably alternate different approaches over time.

The approach taken in this article is to take advantage of the unique and combined benefits of hanging, standing and lying exercises in order to build a muscular midsection.

Characteristics of hanging exercises

  • Strengthen the lower abdominal function (moving the pelvis towards the rib cage).2
  • Tend to also engage the hip flexor muscles, which is important for a martial artist who wants to be strong in kicking, but may be counterproductive for a bodybuilder who wants to build a lean midsection.
  • Requires, but also improves, grip strength.
  • In basic variations of hanging exercises, the elbow joint does not bend and there is limited flexion in the shoulder joint. Advanced variations of hanging exercises exist with significant bending in the elbow joint (which engages biceps and triceps muscles) and flexion in the shoulder joint (which engages the triceps and latissimus dorsi).
  • Many hanging exercises do cause high spinal loads “in the top of the movement,”3 but in the bottom position, the weight of the lower body, to some extent, decompresses the spine. Nearly all weight-training exercises compress the spine. This compression can increase pressure on spinal nerves. Therefore, decompression at the end of a workout can be important for back health and recovery.

Characteristics of Standing Exercises

  • Standing exercises strengthen the “anti-flexion” function of the abdominal muscles, as their activity must prevent the spine from bending in, for example, squats or deadlifts.
  • Standing exercises can also strengthen the “anti-side bending” function of the abdominal muscles, as their activity must prevent the spine from side bending during a heavy standing overhead press with one dumbbell.
  • Walking exercises are highly effective to train the quadratus lumborum and external obliques and the muscle connection called the lateral system – the connection between the lateral hip muscles and the core muscles.4,5
  • Standing cable exercises can also be a great way to strengthen the so-called anterior oblique system. The anterior oblique system is the connection between the external oblique muscle on one side of the body and the internal oblique muscle on the opposite side of the body.5

Characteristics of Lying Exercises

  • When the abdominal and/or back muscles touch the floor, the result may be an increase in energy of the internal organs through stimulation of acupressure points.6
  • Prone (facedown) exercises can be effective and simple in correcting certain aspects of posture, such as rounded (protracted) and internally rotated (rolling forward) shoulders.
  • Lying (on a stability ball) exercises or sitting exercises (on an abdominal machine with a curved back rest) are effective means for training the upper abdominals (moving the rib cage towards the pelvis).2

The following sections describe a six-week sample program that combines the benefits of hanging, standing and lying exercises. The program is designed for those of you with one to two years of training under your belt.

When choosing the number of exercises, the training frequency and the training volume needed to develop a certain muscle group, we must always take into consideration the total stimulation of that muscle group. In the case of the abdominals, they are strongly activated in most compound movements, particularly the squat and deadlift.

The program includes a total of four abdominal exercises, taken from the three categories mentioned above plus a back exercise that is included to maintain muscle balance between the front and the back of the core. The exercises are structured in two giant sets that can be performed on the same day or on separate days (a total of two days per week).

The execution of the exercises is explained below the program.

Sample Program A

A1. One-Handed Farmer Walk with Dumbbell, 5–7 × 40–60 seconds, rest 60 seconds

A2. Horizontal Wood Chop, 5–7 × 8–12, rest 60–120 seconds

Sample Program B

A1. Loaded Crunch on Stability Ball, 3–5 × 12–20, rest 15 seconds

A2. Prone Shoulder Circuit, 3–5 × 12–20, rest 15 seconds

A3. Bent-Arm Hanging Leg Raise, 3–5 × 12–20, rest 15 seconds

A4. Prone Shoulder Circuit, 3–5 × 12–20, rest 60–120 seconds

One-Handed Farmer Walk

Grab a dumbbell with the right hand and walk with good posture and normal speed. Breathe throughout the set and maintain good core activation. Repeat with the other hand. Increase the load when you can walk with the dumbbell for 60 seconds in 5 sets.

Tip: You don’t want your grip to limit the work that your abdominals could do in this exercise. Therefore, it is recommended to begin each set with the straps around your hand, but not on the dumbbell. If your grip fatigues before your core, then take a short break (stop the time) and wrap the strap around the dumbbell.

Prone Shoulder Circuit

Lie on the floor, facedown. Retract your chin (create a double chin-like appearance) and keep it low. Essentially, you should be looking straight down into the ground, not forward.

Unload, but do not lift your rib cage off the floor. If there were a scale under your rib cage, this scale would show “0 kg,” but your rib cage would still touch the scale. While keeping your rib cage unloaded, you move your arms through five positions:

Y = Place your arms so that your arms and your body form the shape of a "Y.”

T = Pull your arms to the side and place your arms so that your arms and your body form the shape of a "T.”

W = Let your elbows bend and pull them towards the side of your rib cage so your arms and your torso form the shape of a "W.”

L = Pull your elbows even harder towards the rib cage, while keeping your elbows bent so that your forearms and your torso form two "Ls" that are mirrored.

I = Keep your elbows close to the rib cage, but straighten them in an attempt to pull the hands as close to the body as possible (essentially to have your body form the shape of an "I")

Throughout the five positions, your thumbs should face the ceiling and your hands should be lifted as high as possible. Breathe normally throughout the five positions.

Add light dumbbells to the exercises when you can perform 3 sets of 20 repetitions. When you perform the exercise with dumbbells in your hands you may have to anchor your feet to prevent tipping forward.

Horizontal Wood Chop>

Adjust the height of the cable to match the top of your head. Even higher is okay, too. When rotating right to left, turn your right side towards the weight stack. Grab the handle with your left hand and place your right hand on top of your left hand. Assume good posture with chest out and chin tucked. Look straight ahead. Place the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth behind the front teeth.

Perform one to two small steps towards the left in order to load the cable. Most of your weight should be on the right leg and you should be able to easily “tap” the floor with your left foot. The arms are “naturally straight” with the left arm slightly more straight than the right. Finish the setup by performing a deep diaphragmatic breath that goes down the back and from there into the lower pelvis.

Perform the concentric phase (lifting phase) of the wood chop by “pushing the floor away” with your right leg while imagining internal energy simultaneously flowing into the feet and ground and into the hands. Powerfully exhale through pursed lips. The handle should pass close by your body as you first bend and then straighten your elbows. Keep looking straight ahead. The move finishes with your hands outside your left knee. Most of your weight is now on the left leg, and your thumbs should face forward.

Reverse the movement while powerfully inhaling through the nose. You should feel the pressure from the inhalation extending into your lower abdomen, hands and feet.

Loaded Crunch on Stability Ball

For this exercise, you can use a well-inflated stability ball or a dedicated abdominal machine with a curved backrest. The dedicated abdominal machine is the preferred choice in this case.

If you plan to use the stability ball, check first that you don’t get dizzy when you look up, for example, when you reach for items in high cupboards.

The stability ball must be inflated to such a degree that if you poke a finger hard into the ball, the dent created by your finger should be no more than 2 inches.7

A dumbbell placed across the chest is the way to load this exercise. You should begin the program with a dumbbell with which you can perform about 12 repetitions. If the dumbbell that you can use is 20 percent of your body weight or more, you need to anchor your feet in order not to flip backwards over the ball.

Here’s how to set up for the exercise: Grab the dumbbell and place the stability ball in front of the anchor. Sit on the ball, with both hands supporting the dumbbell at chest height. Slowly walk forward until you lie down on the ball and both your tailbone and your head are in contact with the ball. Check that your feet are securely anchored.

Initiate the upward movement by moving the chin towards the rib cage, followed by moving the rib cage towards the pelvis until a maximal contraction is achieved. Exhale during this phase. Look down to increase the activation of your abdominal muscles. Reverse the movement and repeat.

Bent-Arm Hanging Leg Raise

The best piece of equipment to use here is the pull-up station with multiple handles. The parallel handles that allow the palms to face each other, the so-called neutral position of the forearm, is the least stressful position for the shoulder joint.

Begin by performing the lifting portion of a pull-up so that your chin is in line with the handles. Maintain this position as you perform 6 to 10 hanging leg raises, lifting your thighs to the horizontal position or higher. After the 6 to 10 hanging leg raises are completed, lower yourself until your upper arms are parallel to the ground and perform another 6 to 10 hanging leg raises.

When you can perform 20 hanging leg raises in 3 sets, it is time to increase the load, for example, by squeezing a medicine ball, attaching ankle weights or wearing so-called iron boots.8

For each exercise, a three-step range is given for the number of sets – for example, 5 to 7 sets. In the first week of the program, it is recommended to perform 5 sets of each exercise. Then add one set per exercise per week in weeks 2 and 3.

Make the fourth week a light week with only one set per exercise, and then repeat the three-week wave, with 5, 6 and 7 exercises per set in weeks 5, 6 and 7.

After seven weeks, you will have completed the program and it will be time to use another abdominal-training routine.

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