Articles  >  Weightlifting Program Design
Abs/Back: What Does it All Mean?
Greg Everett
April 10 2014

I rarely prescribe specific ab work to my lifters. More often I prescribe specific back work, but there are many times when I write something like “abs/back” on a lifter’s program. This is not code for “go home” as my wife always believed when our coach, Mike Burgener, wrote it on her program. It’s an expectation that the athlete knows what he or she should be doing and will take the initiative to do it. Admittedly, this is an expectation that often leads to disappointment. Because most of the online programs I post on the Catalyst Athletics website don’t have prescribed ab and back work, yet the program info page instructs athletes to perform it daily, I’m going to try to lay out clearly what exactly my expectations are, and my preferences for how it’s done.
Back Work
First, there is plenty of back work inherent in training for Olympic weightlifting: squatting and pulling and the lifts themselves place quite a demand on the back. However, for many (if not most) lifters, additional direct back training is a good idea if not necessary.
I break back work into two basic categories: heavy and light (these names are accurate representations of the stunning creativity I have in this area). But let me explain what I mean:
·Stiff-legged deadlifts
·Straight-legged deadlifts
·Good mornings
·Back extensions
·Back planks
·Reverse hypers
·Glute-ham raise
Heavy back work is something I would account for in the training volume of the program—it has a significant effect on the lifter’s recovery. These are exercises I’m going to prescribe in a program, and probably only 2-3 days each week. Light back work would not be considered in that count, and won’t have much of an effect in terms of systemic fatigue. I will sometimes prescribe these exercises specifically, but not always. These can be done daily, and it’s common for me to tell an athlete with a weak back arch in the lifts to do back extensions every training day.
I prefer to do heavy back work on the heavier training days and leave unweighted work for the lighter days, although this isn’t a hard rule. There are times when I will do stiff-legged deadlifts or good mornings on the lighter days if it works best for the program and I find that lifter recovers well enough from them to not cause problems on the heavy days that follow.
Ab Work
There is a lot more variety with ab work than back work, and there are no ab exercises I would consider to be part of the total training volume of the program. I break ab work down into different categories:
Trunk/Hip Flexion
·Hanging Leg Raises (and knee raises)
·Reverse Crunches
·Glute-ham bench (roman chair) sit-ups
·Jack knives
·Planks (front/side)
·Hollow rocks and variations
·Ab Wheel
·Russian Twists
·Standing Twists
·Windshield Wipers
There are plenty more exercises than what I have listed here, but these are the ones I find most effective. Others may get thrown in occasionally just for some variety, but I’ll always fall back on these.
I prefer an alternation of tougher/larger range of motion exercises with easier, static or rotation exercises. For example, on the heavier days of the week (usually Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for my lifters), I like to do a trunk/hip flexion exercises, possibly weighted, and then either an unweighted, higher volume different trunk/hip flexion exercise, or a static/rotation exercise. Then on the lighter days (Tuesday and Thursday for my lifters), static and/or rotation exercises. So a week might look something like this:
·Hanging leg raise
·Standing twist
·Hanging leg raise
·Russian twists
·Weighted sit-ups
·Jack Knives
For unweighted ab work, I typically use 10-30+ reps, and 8-15 reps for weighted work. For planks, I will usually stick between 20-30 seconds and add weight as needed.
When to do What with Whom
So when do you use more taxing back work, when do you use only light back work, and when you do prescribe ab and back work for a lifter, and when do you leave them to their own devices?
First, you prescribe specific work to any lifter you find doesn’t do what they need to be doing on their own. The more guidance a lifter needs, the more you need to provide—pretty simple. If you tell a lifter to go do some ab work, and they spend 20 minutes lying on the floor looking at Twitter and do 5 sit-ups, that lifter is the perfect candidate for spelling it out in the program.
Second, you prescribe specific work when there is specific need. That is, if a lifter is generally stable when he or she lifts, they don’t have a need for a ton of ab and back work. If ab and back strength is lacking, you need to prescribe it to shore up the weakness. The bigger the weakness, the more the training—more weakness means more need for the heavier back work and greater volume of ab work.
Finally, if a lifter has very limited training time, they may require a very pared-down program overall, in which case all the extra work goes out the window and they’ll need to rely on just the basics to get by. This doesn’t mean ab and back work isn’t important, it just means it’s less important than snatches, clean & jerks and squats.
And Remember…
“I don’t need to do ab work, I stabilize my midline during the lifts,” is something lazy people say when they need an excuse to not do more work. It’s not accessory work, it’s successory work.
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April 10 2014
What importance would you put on rowing and chining variations (any preference for one over the other or feel one carries over better than the other, if they should be done much at all)?

Greg Everett
April 10 2014
I like both and think at least one should be present regularly in any program, ideally both if there is time and ability. If an athlete can do chins/pull-ups well, I think it would be the one to choose if you were forced to only do one for the rest of your life. With weightlifting, you just have to remember that the goal isn't getting really good at pull-ups and not get carried away with something peripheral like that.
April 10 2014
Great article, especially that last sentence.
April 10 2014
Do you have a preference over 45 degree extensions vs standard back extensions?
Steve Bare
April 10 2014
A lot of researchers and coaches (citation needed) have expressed concern regarding training abdominals for lumbar flexion; what do you think of this issue?

Also, can you discuss differences between Stiff-Leg DLs and Straight-Leg DLs? Are one or both of these going from flexion to extension? And is a goodmorning a back exercise or a hamstring exercise?

For my own athletes, 90+% of my prescribed trunk work is low load spinal stabilization. Most of them aren't high level athletes, of course, so anything I can do to maintain and train a healthy spinal position seems to have a positive effect on their various expressions of strength. But I avoid sit-ups and other flexed spine exercises because of the work of Dr. Stu McGill and because I'm not trying to make my athletes good at flexing their spine.

Thoughts? Huge fan of your coaching and the team, by the way. I'm just curious
Greg Everett
April 12 2014
Steve -

I don't share the concern over full sit-ups that some people do. Admittedly I can't cite anything but anecdotal evidence to support my lack of concern, but the volume of flexion done is not huge anyway. In cases of existing lumbar problems I would feel differently.

I consider a stiff-legged DL to be hip flexion/extension w the back arched isometrically and the knees unlocked very slightly, and a straight-legged DL to be a combination of hip and back flexion/extension (these are even scarier than sit-ups to people).

Re good mornings, yes they could be considered a hamstring exercise, but only moreso than a back exercise if an athlete's hamstring strength lags behind his/her back strength in the particular position/style of GM used. Ultimately the back should be the weak point of that movement, which means the majority of the work is concentrated on the back.

All that said, as a coach or athlete, you have to use your best judgment and do what you believe is best.
Steve Bare
April 12 2014
Thanks, Coach! And my I just say I appreciate your website and all it's resources immensely.
April 14 2014
Steve, I'm sort of with you on the lumbar flexion but only for certain populations. I've seen younger athletes (12 y.o.) that could not get into a starting dead lift position due to the inability to extend the lumbar spine. I had to start them with supermans then pulls off a plate. These kids are short and 12 and couldn't get into the position! They told me they had been doing 100 sit-ups everyday for months. That mixed with the awkwardness of puberty I think inhibited them from getting them into position. I told them to stop doing sit-ups and only plank. After a week of supermans and planks they cold get into the starting position. Also, I can't back this up with solid evidence only my own experience.
September 9 2014
Hi coach

I'm working out just three days per week and I do this abs work (day I/day II/ day III):

1) Static exercise: roll-out (6-7 more or less) /body lever (8) / plank (70'' weighted with 25 kg)

2) Trunk flexion: Hanging leg lift (12-15)

3) Lateral flexion: side bends over head using a plate (10 reps with 10 kg)/ lateral trunk raise / dumbble side bends (10-12 reps with 50 kg)

4) Rotational: around the world using plate/ russian twist / standing twist with resistance band

Is this a good approach or maybe could be best divide the abdominal work as you do with your athletes?

Thank you!! and sorry for my orthographic mistakes
Greg Everett
September 10 2014
Ivan -

Looks good to me - no need to divide it if you have the time and willingness to do all of it each session.
Michael Carlise
October 27 2014
This is a great article explaining when and what about ab work/back work. However, I have a question about the distinction between heavy lower back work and light back work - particularly dealing with your sites online programming. I have been following your online programming for a little bit - and I do ab work every day, and light lower back work most days. I include this with my other supplemental work which usually includes pull ups, dips, hand stand pushups, rowing, etc... (depending on the day and my current goals of a cycle). My question is - should we be adding heavy back work into the programs our selves? I noticed that most of the programs do hit deadlifts and good mornings sometimes once a week, sometimes more, and then sometimes you can go a week or two without them. Are your programs given on this site intended to leave the heavy work to the programming, or should we work them in? And if so, do you have a good approach, because obviously since the programs are only posted two days at a time, you never know when you might add a heavy back load and than two days later the same exercise comes up. Thanks for any response - and I really appreciate your website.
Greg Everett
March 9 2015
Michael -

I would say rely on the programs for the heavy back work, unless it's a big weakness of yours, in which case, add some in when it's absent. As far as knowing when to do it, the only really reliable way is to follow one of the cycles that's already completed, or to follow the daily workouts a week behind.