How I Got My Abs

six pack absLots of folks wonder what I did to get my abs…well, here’s my story from Day 1 of training…right through to today’s workouts.

And at the end, I’ll tell you what works and what you should do based on my 18 years of workout out, 6 years of University (4 years undergrad Kinesiology plus 2 years Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology), and 13 years of personal training.

Age 16 (I don’t have any scanned photos from that era…sorry!)

It all started back in Grade 11 when I was a 16 year-old snot-nosed punk. I can’t remember what I weighed back then, but I’m sure I was skinny as a rail.

At some point, and I can’t remember exactly when, I traded a Sony Discman descriptionfor an old York Universal weight machine. I made the trade with a guy who worked at the factory where my mom worked in the office, and I thought I got a pretty good deal.

It would have vaguely looked like this, but smaller =>

I set the weight machine up in the basement of my house, behind my dad’s workshop. It didn’t smell so great back there, and the lighting was terrible, badmotorfinger_soundgardenimages_big03953742but every night after dinner, I’d go down for an hour and go through the suggested workout from the handout that came with the machine.

While I trained, I blasted Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Metallica – all on TAPE using an old ghetto blaster. I can still probably recite the lyrics to every song on those albums.

Anyways, getting a bit off track, but back then, I didn’t do any abs, because if they were even included in the workout program, they were the last exercise and I just didn’t feel like doing them. Besides, I was smart enough at that point to realize they were a waste of time…unfortunately, years later I would go through a brief stupid spell…

Age 17-19

Around late 16, early 17 years of age I sold the weight machine and got a membership at the local YMCA. I trained at least 5 days per week, and usually 6…every night after dinner I’d go in and workout in the tiny, old weight room filled with old equipment and dumbbells that were falling apart.

I remember feeling pretty darn good when I was able to use 45lbs dumbbells for chest press, and by the end of my time there I was bench pressing 225 for reps. And then it was off to University…

But during that time I didn’t train abs. It was just lifting. Chest, back, legs, shoulders, arms…and then not sure what I did on day 6, but I sure as heck remember going in there on Saturdays…maybe I skipped Thursday night because I had hockey.

Oh, and I don’t even think there was music played in the weight room, crazy9-2_006-253x343 huh? But I sure as heck wore out tapes from Screaming Trees, Nine Inch Nails, Urge Overkill, Danzig, Helmet, and Ministry that I had in my car.

And Judgement Night, anyone else have that one…yep, twas the time of Lollapalooza 1992 – who else was there in Barrie, Ontario when Eddie Vedder climbed the stage scaffolding – insane!?

Anyways, that was the schedule…and the routines…and I still hadn’t trained abs.

Age 20-21

Well, like most kids that go off to school, I got lazy…not with schoolwork, I was still pretty good with that…but with training.

The University gym wasn’t so hot, and I used that as one of my many excuses to completely neglect training for the first 4 months of my college career. stratfordfootball

But by the end of Year 1, I was back on track, and I remember in that summer after 1st year, I was probably in the best physical conditioning state of my life.

At that time, I was playing a LOT of soccer – probably 3-4 games per week plus 2 practices…and I weighed about 167…and could run 10k in about 35 minutes.

But then I screwed it all up…

In 2nd year, I started thinking too much…and learned all the mistakes you want to avoid.

I did a lot of crunches and cardio in this year, and for the life of me I can’t remember why…not sure what got me on the crunches…but I made the mistake of thinking more cardio was better for soccer and fat loss.

Lesson learned – the hard way – that cardio was NOT the best way to build a better body or the best fitness for soccer. I lost a lot of weight, and got pretty skinny – big mistake.

Finally, about half-way through my 3rd year, I smartened up…shifted to interval training and back to heavier weights, and started down the right path to re-building the beach body.

Age 21-25 – The TT Era Begins

Around 1996 I became a Certified Personal Trainer, and in 1998 I became a CSCS (NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). At that time I ast-androstenedione-100also started my research career, doing studies in my 4th year of University, and then several published studies on supplements and mixed aerobic and strength training, including a study on androstenedione and another on creatine.

In fact, it was during the analysis phase of the andro study that I did the first ever Turbulence Training workout back in 1999.

1999, possibly the best year of my life…but that’s another story for another day – and probably for another website!

Back in the gym, I was using interval training to burn the last bit of stomach craig-ballantyne_98fat, plus I was lifting heavy – doing all the right exercises from high school.

This is me in 1998 (nerd!) =>

This was still a little bit before kettlebells became popular, so I wasn’t using those, but I was playing around with some stability ball exercises, and cable exercises like chops and kneeling cable abs – kind of like a crunch-motion, but more like a reverse Good Morning movement.

But I sure as heck wasn’t doing regular crunches, sit-ups, or junk like that…

Age 25-31: The Men’s Health era & The Rise of Turbulence Training

I started writing for Men’s Health in the summer of 2000, and during this time I also graduated from University with my Master’s Degree and eventually became a full time trainer.

But I never stopped learning, and in 2002, Dr. Stuart McGill, a researcher 7051pfrom the nearby University of Waterloo began publishing articles in magazines and on websites about the need for abdominal stability exercises, such as planks, side planks, and bird dogs.

Eventually I drove up to see him and learn from him in person, and he gave me more reasons to avoid crunches. Aside from them being pretty much useless for abs, crunches also can be quite damaging to your low back.

So that’s why you should just say NO to crunches.

Now during those years, I probably did a type of crunch 4-6 times per year,cb_transformation_after_best usually when working out with a friend who insisted upon doing them and really wanted me to try their “killer crunch variation”.

This is me in 2005 =>

And yeah, if you don’t do crunches for a long time and then you do 100-200 in a workout, your abs will be sore the next day…but don’t let that fool you into thinking your body will change – because it won’t. Crunches remain a big waste of your time – and a pain in the neck.

Instead, you need to get introduced to the ab exercises that I learned over the past 10 years, including planks, side planks, planks with your arms on the ball, stability ball rollouts, and even ab wheel rollouts…those are the total body ab exercises that should be in your ab workout program.

Age 31-34: The Legendary TT Abs cb-abs-2_june-2008_small

So the legendary TT abs photo was taken in June 2008 in the backyard of my parent’s house, with a field of wheat behind me, and crazy ol’ Bally the Dog by my side.

These days, of course, I lift heavy, do some kettlebell work, a lot of bodyweight exercises, and I play around with new ab exercises, but often go back to the Stability Ball Rollout if I really want to work my abs.

My favorite *new* ab exercise is the Chin-up With Knee-up.

But frankly, I get a lot of ab work from lifting, and I’ve even had sore abs from dumbbell triceps extensions, front squats, and dumbbell pullovers.

So the bottom line for you?

Skip crunches and focus on fat burning interval training and resistance training, with total body ab exercises thrown in strategically to reduce your risk of back pain AND to do the final sculpting on those abs.

If you are a beginner, stick to the planks, side planks, and bird dog, while you lose belly fat with diet and exercise.

For advanced folks, I’ve got all of my favorite ab exercises in the Turbulence Training for Abs program. tthaw_ebook_41

Say NO to crunches and hello to abs,

Craig Ballantyne, CSCS, MS
Author, Turbulence Training for Abs

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  • Bryan

    Best post ever buddy!

    Love it. Sounds so familiar!!

    B

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thanks Bryan!

    • sarah

      Awesome Craig! I recently competed in my first figure competition and TT got me there….yeah I should have competed in your transformation challenge way back when I got started in April because wow even i am shocked when i look back at my photo’s i took in April and compare them to my contest photo’s…and now I can’t wait to get even stronger and leaner for my next comp! thanks so much Craig you rock!
      Sarah

      • Craig Ballantyne

        Great stuff Sarah!

    • Blair

      Hi Craig, have to agree with the chin up plus knee up being a great and one of my favourite ab exercises. i like to alternate between close grip and oblique knee ups and wide grip and straight knee ups. 2 sets of each. Fantastic!

      However I have just had surgery to remove a kidney and an 83 mm tumour and post op I could not get my abs to disengage after spending so long training them to activate and support me. Spasms sucked. Anyway not to worry as i know my recovery will be quicker.And my lack of abdominal fat meant the surgeons were confident to do the op laparoscopicly. Will be back to basics though as far as my conditoning goes.

      Really enjoy your blog and use your training techniques frequently. Fantastic! Cheers,

      Blair

  • Sharon

    Hey Craig

    Pretty good abs!!! I agree, crunches are a total “waist” of time. 🙂

    I also believe in the bodyweight exercises, and planks, Mt Climbers, and working with a stability ball to obtain the best abs. I am “lazy” by nature – so I just LOVE the fact that you don’t have to work out for hours toget the abs, and body, that you want.

    Keep up your wonderful work – you are an inspiration to all of us.

    Sharon from sunny South Africa

    P.S. I am hooked on all those yummy, wholesome smoothies!!

  • Per

    Thanks a bunch Craig, that’s exactly what I was looking for in the question I asked in some of your previous blog posts.

    Also, the music nostalgia sure brings back a few memories!

    With kind regards,

    /Per

  • simon

    Love the music choices, 90s rock rocks.

  • Frank M

    Hey Craig! Great post! It’s really good to hear and see the progression you’ve had, nice story.

    I’m doing kettlebell and bodyweight circuits, I started with Chris’s Kettlebell Revolution videos and have moved up to heavier weights and tougher exercises.

    You say, “focus on fat burning interval training and resistance training, with total body ab exercises thrown in strategically” – I’m at the fat burning stage still, so I was wondering if something like Chris’s interval workout plan is the best thing right now, where I do a series of exercises (depends on the day, but for example: get-ups, military presses, squats, rows, halos, planks, then side planks) and wait a minute or so. …basically, is this the best thing for fat-burning and overall conditioning?

    Once I lose a good portion of the fat I’ll move to upper/lower/overall workouts but I want to lose most of the fat first.

    Again, great blog, thanks for the regular updates!

  • Awesome article Craig!

    Ever since I stopped doing worthless crunches and situps and focusing instead on the big-bang-for-your-buck total body abs exercises my abs have looked better, been stronger and helped my performance in sports and every day life.

    When I work with new personal training clients I always have a tough time convincing them that they will lose belly fat without doing any crunches, but inevitably in a month or two when their waist has shrunk by a good few inches they’re pretty won over to this way of thinking!

    P.S. You look jacked in 2005!

  • Bill

    Judgement Night!

    Hell yeah. Especially love Faith No More and Boo Ya Tribe’s Another Body Murdered

  • Craig,

    I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t done a single crunch in over 12 years and my abs look better than ever. I simply use planks and occasionally will use a cheap ab wheel on my kitchen floor.

    I have Stuart McGill’s “Low Back Disorders” book. The most expensive book I own…but I have been pain free for close to 7 years because of it.

    Great choices in music. I was 21 living in Seattle when our local boys made it big…Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Primus, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Presidents, etc. It was a magical time, because we would go to smaller live shows and all of the sudden Eddy Vedder would show up and do an unannounced set. We still have a big music scene, but nothing of that magnitude.

    Rusty

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Great stuff Rusty!

  • Thanks for the background Craig. Good stuff.

    Brien Shamp

    http://www.optimalfitnesslifestyle.com

  • Allan

    That was a great post Craig. Im opening my own gym in my home town next year and will definately steer my members away from crunches and towards TT for abs!

  • Allan

    Meant to add, great music choices!!!!!!!!

  • Phyo

    Hi Craig,

    I have a question .. You said crunches ain’t good and etc.. But doesn’t those crunches that you did in 21-25 years, contribute later for nice set of abs muscle?

    • Craig Ballantyne

      No, they were useless.

  • Carl “Muscles” Kissa

    The ab’s do look great! your right about losing belly fat with diet and exercise. Even to maintain the great set of abs you have to diet and exercise. B/c no matter how much exerice you do abs are made in the kitchen period! One great under rated ab or core work and I know the ladies know what i’m talking about is yoga. It is a lot of core work and is great for the nerves too. Even though I don’t mind crunches every now and then. I think their fun.
    best of luck w/ the ab work!

  • Brian Nelson

    You wrote to stick with (as a beginner) “planks, side planks, and bird dog”…can you possibly point me to some good demo videos online that you agree with?

    Many thanks from New Zealand!

  • Great post. I am also a huge fan of Dr. McGill. I was introduced to his work in my final year of undergrad work. Right now I am working with a patient who has had 3 LS vertebrae fused and paraspinal rods inserted. TT and Dr. McGill’s books have done wonders for this guy!!

    Thanks Craig.

  • Thanks, Appreciated the crunch myth busting:)

  • sarah

    Hi Craig,
    My daughter who is into dancing in a big way, is made to do crunches and sit ups. I am very concerned, as she is very thin (naturally, i was like this when i was a girl) and she has a sore coccyx.This is aggrevated when she does sit ups. She hurt her coccyx a while ago, but the xrays the doctor took showed nothing. She complains about her coccyx when she is made to do the crunches, which i have always thought were usless, and i don’t know how to advise her to move or moderate the movements. Can you please advise? I am going to tell her dance teachers that she is not allowed to do crunches, but i need to know whta else to advise her.
    Many thanks
    Sarah

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Hi Sarah! So sorry to hear about your daughter’s injuries. Please have replace those exercises with the ones from this video:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS-oq6EPiPU

      Keep up the great work!

      Craig

  • Mike

    So what’s your favorite Soundgarden album Craig? My favorite is Louder than Love….ever heard of Temple of the Dog?

  • Thanks for this post Craig. Very interesting to read your workout history, especially the part about how doing more cardio and crunches affected your physique. I’ll pass this on to my bootcampers.

  • Thanks CB!!! Love the sharing of the knowledge!!! It adds to my own ‘library’ and benefits both me & my clients. U rock.

  • Anirudh

    Hi Craig,

    I have been doing your Plank, Bird Dog and Side Plank exercises as my focused ab exercises twice a week. Interval training (on the treadmill, bicycle, aerobics and anything interesting I can find w.r.t. cardio) and Heavy Weight Training cover the rest of my workout.

    I can’t say this enough: Getting into a routine and sticking to it as much as you can has helped me shed 15 pounds in 2 months. TT has been a part of my workouts but not the only focus as I have a personal trainer who still believes that Body Part based exercises are better.

    I will be shifting cities at the end of June. I will get started with TT completely and in full earnest once I get there. I couldn’t sign up for the TT Transformation contest this time around, but follow your blog regularly and love your nutrition and bodyweight related updates.

    Trusting your workouts and focusing on your Rule #1 of eating Veggies, Fruits and Nuts has been my biggest support.

    I still have a long way to go before I can say I look and feel totally fit, but the changes taking place are addictive and inspiring at the same time!

    Thanks!
    Cheers
    Anirudh-India