Frank Zane’s Ab routine

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Few bodybuilders are remembered solely for their individual body parts. The collective entity? Certainly. But the individual sections of the body? This is a far rarer phenomenon. While Dorian Yates may be remembered for his towering Lat spread and Tom Platz for his Quad sweep, Frank Zane holds the distinction of being remembered for his incredibly refined mid-section. Indeed, photographs of Zane hitting the stomach vacuum, shown below, have taken on something of a mythical status.

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At a time when bodybuilders had not yet fallen victim to the desperately low body fats of modern times, Zane was known, envied and remarked upon for his vascularity and chiselled abdominals. How then, did the former Mr. Olympia train his abdominals and keep himself in such incredible shape? What tips has he given for us mere mortals?

Overtraining or overemphasis?

Unlike many gym goers, including yours truly at one point, who have tended to workout the abdominals once a week, Zane’s midsection was the result of thousands of hours of training. At a time when bodybuilders took pride in the length of their workouts, Zane always made sure to get in an abs session at the end of his workout. In a fascinating interview reprinted on Zane’s own website, the bodybuilding legend revealed the following

I always worked abs every day, and did a good 400 and upward for total reps of abs. Before a contest, I’d move that up to as many as 1,000 reps a day.  

This did two things. First it trained the abdominals and second it helped shed some of the unwanted pounds before a bodybuilding contest. As depicted previously on this site, a common approach by ‘old school’ bodybuilders was to increase the number of repetitions per workout prior to a contest. Zane, it seems, was no exception. At its longest, these ab sessions took Zane roughly thirty minutes to complete. It’s perhaps no surprise that the results spoke for themselves.

What then were the exercises of choice?

In true Zen form, Zane stuck to the pure fundamentals, a point he observed in the training of ‘Zabo’ Koszewski. ‘Zabo’ as many iron heads will remember, was famed for having the best abdominals in Venice, which at the time, was a highly coveted title! To maintain his supremacy, Zabo would would do 500 Roman-chair situps in the morning and 500 leg raises in the afternoon. After observing Zabo in training, Zane decided to do likewise.

Thus ‘The Chemist’ as he became known focused on doing a few ab exercises but doing them in a marathon style. For the upper abdominals, Zane emulated Zabo by performing crunches and/or Roman-chair situps ad nauseam. These were interspersed with leg raises or hanging knee-ups and seated twists for his obliques.

But what about the Stomach Vacuum?

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Ah yes, the iconic Zane exercise…

Writing for Ironman magazine in 2004 Zane revealed the ‘trick’ to his stomach vacuum pose. You can probably guess it. Repetition and hard work. In a highly informative article, which I suggest you read, Zane highlights four separate ways to perform the vacuum, each more difficult than the last. Though this exercise appears relatively easy, it is certainly not for the faint of heart. At his prime in the 1970s and 80s, Zane could hold the pose for roughly one minute.

Beginning with reps of 5 seconds doesn’t seem so bad in light of that does it?

Some of you will no doubt be wondering about Zane’s caloric intake at this point. After all, the mantra that ‘abs are made in the kitchen’ is repeated so often these days that many of us are brainwashed by it.

Eating like Frank Zane

When asked about his eating strategies by Flex magazine, Zane revealed his novel approach to food. Whereas others were and are still obsessed with periods of huge caloric intake followed by paltry meals (a.k.k bulking and cutting with gusto), Zane took on a more moderate, and arguably more sane approach.

I was never a big carbohydrate freak. There were always fewer carbohydrates in my diet than protein. I kept protein at one gram per pound of body weight, usually between 190–200 grams per day. My carbohydrates stayed between 70–150 grams, and fat made up around 25% of my total calories. I never went above 3,000 calories. I’d just get fat doing that.

The way I did it was a seasonal approach. I would train hard in the summer and peak in the fall. I would go into maintenance in the winter and start building back up in the spring. I wasn’t peaked all of the time, but I always stayed on top of my nutrition and supplementation.

All of this points towards a bodybuilder who was patient and dogged in his training and nutrition strategies. A bodybuilder who listened to his body and proceeded accordingly. We have yet however to cover the final aspect of Zane’s training in this regard, that being cardio.

Do you even Run?

Again returning to the Flex magazine, Zane states that

I didn’t do much cardio because I always stayed on the lean side. When I did do it, it was to reach an ultra-lean state. It would help me get very conditioned. In 1976 I got into great shape and was running about two miles four times a week. Then in 1979, when I reached my peak shape, I would go to a track at night and do six laps. My legs got very muscular from that. Nowadays I walk very often. I think walking is great for bodybuilders to limit the stress placed on their feet and tibialis.

By keeping a much stricter eye on his caloric intake, Zane could thus eschew the jogging craze of the time in favour of a more measured approach. Interesting, Zane believed that the sheer volume of his workouts had a cardiovascular effect.

My diet was always very good, but volume training in itself really conditions you. if you go heavy, you’ll grow too, but boy, volume training really works you down to your core. To this day, I still practice volume, except now I will train three days a week or so.  

Take Home Lessens?

Having trained using Zane’s guidelines as detailed in a number of his works (available here), I’d humbly like to suggest three take home points on Zane’s impressive midsection.

  1. Train Abs using a high volume and high frequency.
  2. Apply moderate bulking and cutting sessions but allow yourself to get too fat.
  3. Be patient and let the results come.

Combine the above with Frank’s overall growth programme found here, and you’re likely on to a winner.

How do these guidelines match with your own philosophy? Let us know in the comments.

As always, happy lifting!

P.S. No article on Zane’s ab training would be complete without a showing of the vacuum in action… Enjoy!

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