by Mike Arnold
Of all the topics I have written on over the last several years, there are a select few I tend to return to again and again. One of these is stomach distension—perhaps the single biggest blight in modern competitive bodybuilding. Largely responsible for the destruction of the aesthetic standard, most of you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the reasons for its emergence, but trying to figure out why bodybuilders have abandoned the chase for aesthetic excellence is a much more baffling proposition.
You see, even if one refuses to discontinue engaging in distention promoting habits, what excuse can be given for failing to implement other forms of corrective action when the only requirement is a bit of one’s time? With the majority demonstrating a blatant disregard for the unique artistic element which served to define the sport, bodybuilding has in many ways become nothing more than the acquisition of ripped mass for its own sake.
Although it is natural to wonder how we arrived at this juncture, it is the lackadaisical attitude so many seem hold towards the problem that has me concerned, prompting me to ask the question “have today’s bodybuilders really stopped caring about this aspect of their development or are they ignorant of its importance?” My guess, and a more likely scenario, is that they are simply unaware of how effective some of the old-school strategies can be for controlling the problem.
While we may not be able to change our genetic structure, there are things we can do to dramatically change the appearance of our midsection come contest day without having to sacrifice hard-earned mass. As recent contests point out, a lack of muscle control is frequently a major contributor to the distended look. Even when suffering from minor to moderate distension, it can often be reeled in through proper muscle control, presenting the illusion of a flat or even concave waistline. Yet, most bodybuilders invest relatively little time into this aspect of their presentation.
There are two forms of muscle control; voluntary and involuntary. Both are crucial to showcasing the smallest midsection possible, but only one technique is capable of addressing both of them at once—vacuum training. On the verge of extinction, vacuum training was at one time a staple in the programs of pros and amateurs alike, but as the emphasis on mass began to increase, it slowly fell out of favor. With advancements in training science having debunked several old-school training theories, one could be forgiven for thinking that vacuum training was among them. In reality, this specialized form of training is based on solid science, allowing us to modify the waistline through improved muscle control and strengthening the underlying supportive musculature.
Improved muscle control speaks for itself. If you can’t control your own midsection, proficiently that is, you will never be able to display your physique to its best advantage. Proper control of the abdominals is vital to pulling off many of the most impressive shots, such as the front double bicep, front lat spread, and nearly all twisting shots. In fact, some of these poses are almost entirely absent from the routines of modern bodybuilders and for good reason—because they take skill and require much practice to perform correctly—something most bodybuilder’s just aren’t willing to do.
While the importance of muscle control is self-evident, we can’t say the same thing for the midsection’s underlying support structures. This complex and inter-dependent muscle group, known as the abdominals, is comprised of 3 layers, which includes the rectus abdominis, the internal obliques, and the transverse abdominis. The deepest of these, the transverse abdominis, wraps around the entire midsection like an extra-wide powerlifting belt. Its primary function is to assist in respiration and help maintain the midsection’s shape by preventing the internal organs from spilling outwards. However, this muscle can be stretched out and weakened, causing it to lose its natural contours. When this happens the stomach begins to bulge outwards.
As bodybuilders, we are more likely to experience stomach distention via compromised abdominal integrity than almost any other athlete, due to the number risk factors inherent in the bodybuilding lifestyle. Basically, anything which produces intra-abdominal pressure, unless actively resisted, is going to place the transverse abdominis under stretch. If you take a moment, you can probably think of multiple potential risk factors. Even eating and training, despite being fundamental to the muscle growth process, present substantial risk.
Think about it. Anytime we train, especially when performing exercises like squats, deadlifts, leg presses, etc, we experience an immense amount intra-abdominal pressure, causing the stomach to bow outward. This is why some coaches recommend wearing a belt during training; to prevent repeated stretching of the transverse abdominis. Over-eating is also a big one, but something that many bodybuilders must take part in if they want to build competitive levels of muscle mass. Just like with training, eating to the point of distension places the transverse abdominis under stretch, but for an even longer period of time. The bottom line is that the more intensely and frequently this muscle is stretched, the more likely one is to experience issues.
The problem is further compounded by muscle weakness. As with any muscle, the transverse abdominis must be trained if it is to maintain its integrity against opposable forces. Unfortunately, very few bodybuilders do any type of training for this area, instead opting to rely on last minute corrective measures with marginal effectiveness. This is where vacuum training comes in.
Not only does it help strengthen the transverse abdominis, but it helps restore its natural position through re-training. If you are looking for a quick fix, this is not it, as vacuum training done properly demands a several month time commitment before maximum results can be attained. Furthermore, in order to prevent subsequent dilapidation, one must continue performing maintenance training indefinitely.
As a form of isometric exercise, vacuum training is relatively easy to perform. However, by adhering to a few basic guidelines, you will increase your potential results while making the entire process easier. Like with weight training, progression is an important component of the program, but rather than adding more weight to a bar or trying to perform additional reps, you will increase both the length and intensity of the static contraction as time goes by. Below I have laid out a comprehensive program that is compatible with all standard weight training programs. Since vacuum training doesn’t interfere with the recovery or performance of other muscles, you can plan a routine irrespective of your current training split.
I recommend performing vacuum training in the morning, before you eat your first meal of the day. You can even opt to do it while still lying in bed. The reason for this is simple. Vacuum training involves sucking in your stomach as far as possible and holding it there. Any food you have in your gut will only get in the way, preventing you from achieving the fullest contraction possible, while also making it rather uncomfortable.
First of all, you need to know how to perform a standard vacuum. Begin by taking several deep breaths with the goal of hyperoxygenation, after which you should blow out as much air as possible (not beyond your comfort level) and attempt to suck your stomach in as far as possible. Imagine trying to touch your navel to your spine. It is the transverse abdominis which is responsible for this movement, and since you can’t increase the resistance by adding additional weight like you would with conventional exercises, you really need to focus on pulling your stomach in hard. After you are at full contraction you want to hold it there for 15-20 seconds before relaxing. Now that you have an idea of what vacuum training entails, let’s work through the full program.
Training intensity will be gauged by the number of “sets” performed, the length of those sets, and the position of your body as you perform the exercise. As each set increases in length, don’t worry if you can’t hold your breath for the entire set. Simply take another breath when you need to and resume the set until you have held the contraction for the required amount of time. If you need to take multiple breaths, that’s fine as well, but take each breath quickly so as to not reduce the stress on the target muscle. Below is the recommended rate of progression. Although different programs can vary in how they progress, they are all based on the same principle, so if you find that what I’ve typed out below is too easy or difficult for you, just increase or decrease the number and length of sets performed.
Week #1: 2 sets, 30 seconds each
Week #2: 2 sets, 35 seconds each
Week #3: 2 sets, 40 seconds each
Week #4: 3 sets, 45 seconds each
Week #5: 3 sets, 50 seconds each
Week #6: 3 sets, 55 seconds each
Week #7: 4 sets, 60 seconds each
Week #8: 4 sets, 65 seconds each
Week #9: 4 sets, 70 seconds each
*Perform this routine 6 days per week
In addition to a progressive increase in volume and duration, your body positioning will also change as the weeks go by. Allow me to explain. When you ask someone to picture the vacuum pose in their mind, most people are automatically going to think about Frank Zane or some other bodybuilder hitting the pose in traditional fashion, but this is not how you will begin your program. During the first couple weeks, all vacuum training will be done lying on your back (supine position). This is this easiest position to master and great for beginners, as there is no gravitational pull on your organs. Afterwards, you graduate from the supine position, you will do them quadruped (hands &knees), then sitting, standing, and finally when posing. See below.
Weeks 1-2: Supine Position
Weeks 3-4: Quadruped Position
Weeks 5-6: Sitting Position
Week 7-9: Standing Position
After week 9: Begin using the vacuum with individual poses.
Of all the different waist reduction techniques out there, this is easily the most effective for the largest number of people. Almost all bodybuilders can benefit from a smaller waist, making vacuum training a valuable part of one’s preparation, especially for competitors. Considering the amount of time and effort the typical bodybuilder puts into his training and diet, investing 5-10 minutes per day is a small price to pay for such a big return.