Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ab Training for a Classic Physique: Pre-Roid, Golden Age Approaches!

(Photo Above: Steve Reeves - Mr. Pacific Coast 1946, Mr. Western America 1947, Mr. America 1947, Mr. World 1948, Mr. Universe 1950)

In previous posts, we mentioned that Steve Reeves didn't directly train his abs most of the time. This is certainly true. The beginning, intermediate, and advanced routines that he followed didn't contain any direct ab exercises (see his book, Building the Classic Physique - The Natural Way available at However, the specific routine that he used to prepare for the Mr. America and (at least one of) the Mr. Universe contests that he competed in, did contain 2 sets of knee raises on a vertical bench (with some light ankle weights). That's it!

However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Steve did not really train his abs. On the contrary, he felt that his abs got plenty of training from all the other exercises in his routines. He noticed, for example, that when he did tricep pushdowns, he would strongly contract his abs. This was true for his other exercises as well. When you consider the amount of concentration and all-out-effort he put into every set of his exercises, then it is quite believable that his abs got plenty of training. So much so, that he didn't feel the need to train them directly. I'm sure if he had felt that his abs needed more training, he would have done more.

That being said, as we look over the pre-roid Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s, we can identify 3 basic approaches that the champs seemed to follow:

(1) The Indirect Approach - followed by Steve Reeves as described above,

(2) The "Normal" Approach - followed by those who felt the abs were just like any other muscle and needed to be exercised in the same way (this is the approach taken in the Weider 1950 Muscle Building Course),

(3) The "High Rep" Approach - followed by those who felt that the abs were a "high rep muscle" requiring training with very high reps - and even daily training (this was the approach used by Zabo).

There are pre-roid Golden Age champs who followed each approach and they all have great abs. So what can we learn from this? That all 3 approaches work!

But each approach may not work for everyone. Many people trying to gain mass find that they cannot do so when they include direct ab work in their routines (this phenomenon was noticed by Vince Gironda). Others do fine when training the abs normally. Still others can take the high rep approach. The bottom line is that you have to see what works for you.

But remember, proper exercise can only tone (tighten up) a muscle, or increase its size. There is no such thing as "spot reducing." No amount of exercise is going to define your abs (despite all the TV commercials for various ab exercisers that imply that it can). It doesn't matter what approach above you take, your "six pack" will not show if there is a layer of fat over it and ab training will not reduce that fat (even cardio is not the best way to burn up calories). So your number one "tool" for ab training is YOUR DIET!

Vince Gironda once said not to even bother training your abs until you can see them! In other words, he is making the point to GET YOUR DIET ON TRACK - lose the spare tire first! Then when you can see your abs, you can start training them and actually see the effect your exercise is having on them. Vince had other reasons for avoiding ab training during mass building, but we will save that for another time.

Just remember, if you want great abs, get your diet right first - then pick one of the three approaches above and see what works best for you.


P.S. If you would like a free, 1 year subscription to Classic Physique Builder (CPBzine) - a pdf "zine" (do-it-yourself magazine) that is patterned after the muscle mags of the Golden Age of Bodybuilding (the 1940s and 50s) - just email your name, the name of your city (not your actual address), state/province, and country to That's it! Any info you send us is strictly confidential. We don't share our info with anyone, so you won't get on any unwanted lists or receive unwanted, automated email (spam) - even from us!


Johnny G said...

I felt that Zabo had great abs and maybe a little better then Reeves, but not that much better when you consider that he (Zabo) spent half of his workouts training them - I feel this is one of the best articles written so far Anthony - Just plain and simple - get eating right to look right - sometimes the most basic programs of diet & training are the best - Also great pic of Reeves

A said...

I liked this post a lot. Though I don't know if I agree not training abs until you have low enough bf. At least not for me. I feel as if I have better posture when I train abs/core. I am definitely aware that this doesn't mean I am gonna get that six pack any faster. lol


Johnny G said...

I would somewhat agree about training abs some - but the guys from the past used a lot of free weights compared to todays fitness gyms where there are more machines - when you are using good form and great posture you really bring in a lot more stomach muscles - that is why people like Vince & Steve steered away from to much direct abs training - that is again my take on it

A said...

Johnny G,

That theory makes a lot of sense. I mostly use free weights and focus on keeping my core tight throughout each lift. So I think the ab work I do is probably sufficient along side this other training.


Anonymous said...

I think yiu need to look in the mirror and if you have too much fat, adjust your diet and burn more calories and if your abs look good without any direct work , don't do any, if they are soft and protruding do some direct work for them.

Johnny G said...

boy oh boy Anthony here I go again - I realize I have no scientific proof, but I do feel you can somewhat spot reduce thru different forms of exercises - I have seen people who run get lean slim legs that were muscular yet the rest of their bodies were not as in shape, as people who bike develope strong legs yet the rest of them were not lean or the blacksmith who has one strong muscular arm and another smaller flabbier arm - some activities will cause your body to reshape its self - Now I know this might not be what some what call spot reducing, but I feel I view it that way - spot reshaping maybe the thing I'm saying- If you can spot gain why not spot reduce - I have seen people loss weight around the midsection thru series of abs workout and yet lose very little weight - again I know that other bodyparts of theirs gained in size, but the theory I feel is some what sound - Do you get where I am coming from, can you elabrote

- CPB (Blog and Zine) - said...

Hi Johnny G!

Actually, if you think there might be something to "spot reducing" or "spot reshaping", you are in good company - because most Golden Agers thought that spot reducing was possible (except for Vince and perhaps a few others). Peary Rader advised that if you needed to lose "around the middle" you should do more abdominal exercises. This advice was fairly common.

However, "newer knowledge" has shown that the idea of spot reducing doesn't work quite that way. The body does indeed "spot reduce" but according to its own genetic predisposition and not because of targetted exercise.

The general pattern of reducing is the opposite of the pattern of gaining. If I remember correctly, men, in general - acknowledging that there can be individual variation - gain excess weight (fat) first around the abdomen, then hips, then thighs and legs, then chest and arms.

So when we start to reduce, weight (fat) comes off in the reverse order. First we lose from our arms and chest, then thighs and legs, then finally hips and abs. So we don't lose fat evenly from all parts of the body at the same time, we "spot reduce" sequentially according to our set genetic pattern.

I think it is this genetic "spot reducing" that originally gave people the idea that targetted spot reducing was possible. This was before they realized that genetics determines the pattern of reducing from different body areas, not exercise.

I myself have found that when I reduce, it does follow the genetic pattern above. It doesn't matter what I do for my abs, I will lose fat from my arms and chest first, then thighs and legs, and then finally on my hips and abs. I wish this weren't the case! But there it is.

I'm not sure that this answers your question completely, but perhaps it gives some 'food for thought'!

All the best

CPB (Anthony)

Johnny G said...

I hope those who read these bloggs comeback to them at a later time just in case some one responds - You are I feel right with your comment on spot reducing - if you gain it there you can take it off there - only one slight problem - if someone is on a yo yo diet and they gain quite a lot of weight fat cells can split and now we have 2 fat cells instead of one - that goes as well with muscle cells - that is why I think that the Golden age bodybuilders look good even after the were done competing, they were not on some crazy diets, but on a sensible diet