There’s no beating around the bush: Beach volleyball is a sexy sport. The pure strength of the athletes combined with sun, sand, and barely-there uniforms make it a top draw at international competitions, such as the Olympics.
A big part of what makes the sport so sexy is the fact that the men and women who play volleyball have mastered those ever-coveted six-pack abs. How do they do it? On a recent trip to the AVP Professional Volleyball Invitational in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I had the chance to get the goods from the athletes themselves.
Start With the Fundamentals
1. Clean Up Your Diet
Professional beach volleyball players train for hours upon hours each day, blasting tons of calories, and they understand that maintaining a healthy diet enables them to achieve their goals on the court while also enhancing their physical appearance. For those of us who don’t keep the training schedule of a professional athlete, watching what we eat is even more important when it comes to attaining rock-hard abs. As the saying goes, “Abs are made in the kitchen.”
This doesn’t mean you need to starve yourself or go on a crazy fad diet. It just means you need to be conscious of what you put in your body. Talk to a trainer or registered dietician to gauge how many calories you should be consuming each day, and start keeping a food diary to help keep you on track. Stick to whole foods as much as possible, staying away from items that are highly processed or packed with sodium, saturated or trans fats, and chemical preservatives.
Also, don’t forget the water. Staying well-hydrated keeps your body working on all cylinders while also enabling you to differentiate between the “I’m hungry” and “I’m thirsty” cues your hormones send out. If you aren’t well-hydrated, you’re likely to confuse those thirst and hunger cues, which can result in more calorie consumption than you need. If nutrition is an area that’s hard for you to manage, start by making one change each week, allowing yourself to gradually overhaul your kitchen.
2. Maintain a Tough and Consistent Workout Schedule
You’d better believe that professional beach volleyball players work out five to six days a week, with each sweat session lasting a minimum of two hours. Most people can’t list “professional athlete” as their job title, so no one expects you to carve out quite as much time – but you do need to make sure your workouts are tough and consistent.
Aim for 30 to 60 minutes a day, five to six days a week, with the goal of pushing yourself hard during each one. Breathing hard and breaking a sweat are signs that you’re leaving your comfort zone and challenging your body to improve.
When training away from the volleyball courts, different athletes subscribe to different exercise programs, but here are a few suggestions from the players themselves:
- “I love Spinning. Just indoor, weighted-front wheel – the hills, sprints, jumps – I love it all. It’s an amazing workout.” - Tealle Hunkus, 28
- “I love playing basketball. I’m a big man with some coordination, so I can shoot, too. I’m a Dirk Nowitzki.” - Jake Gibb, 37
- “When it comes to cross-training, I stick to body weight exercises or exercises with light weight. I make sure they’re quick-moving to keep my heart rate up.” - Christal Engle, 28
One thing to note about all of these workouts is that they incorporate some form of interval training, alternating between periods of high-intensity anaerobic exercise, followed by lower-intensity aerobic exercise. The basic difference between anaerobic and aerobic exercise is that anaerobic exercise pushes you to the point where your breath rate can’t keep up with your oxygen needs. Lactic acid accumulates, your muscles begin to burn, you start breathing hard, and you eventually have to slow or stop.
When working in an anaerobic state, your lungs and muscles are challenged, forcing them to work harder, and enabling you to experience fitness gains. Interval training, whether performed during cardiovascular, strength training, or sport-specific settings, is a great way to maximize anaerobic benefit while also improving cardiovascular health.
One other thing to recognize about anaerobic workouts is that your post-exercise calorie burn is increased substantially. Even after your workout is done, your body takes time to recover, moving into a state termed “EPOC,” or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. In order to return to a resting state, your oxygen consumption is increased for hours, also increasing your calorie expenditure.
Perform Powerful Core Moves
If you watch a beach volleyball tournament, you’ll quickly notice just how much power, flexibility, and agility originates from the athletes’ core muscles. Having rock-hard abs is one thing, but volleyball players must make sure that every muscle between their thighs and their chests is prepared to propel their bodies into action. This requires training exercises that engage their hips and back, in addition to their abs.
Here are several exercise suggestions to help you create the foundation needed to achieve fantastic abs:
3. Power Burpees
Olympic silver medalists April Ross and Jen Kessy shared, “One move we both love and hate is a burpee. Our coach makes us do them every time we’re in the gym. But this isn’t your regular burpee. It’s a burpee with a jump onto a box. It’s really hard.”
The beauty of this move is that it requires core strength, stamina, and explosive power in your hips and legs. Start by performing the first four steps, adding the final steps when you’ve built up your strength:
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, your knees slightly bent. If you plan on jumping up onto a bench or step, start with your feet about a foot behind it.
- Place both hands on the floor, just in front of your feet, and hop your legs backward into a pushup position, your legs fully extended, your core tight and straight.
- Optional step: Perform a pushup, bending your elbows and lowering your chest toward the floor before returning to the starting pushup position.
- Hop your feet back to their original position and stand.
- If you’re performing the power portion of the burpee, instead of standing, explode upward through your hips and legs, jumping up into the air or onto the waiting bench or step. If you’re jumping onto that bench or step, be sure to land with your knees slightly bent, your feet solidly on the center of the platform, hip-distance apart.
- Step off the bench or step and continue the exercise.
Perform as many burpees as you can in a 60-second period, being sure to maintain good form.
4. Wood Chops With a Medicine Ball
A wood chop is an ab exercise that requires full core engagement, targeting every muscle between your hips and your shoulders. By holding a 4- to 10-pound weighted medicine ball (roughly the size of a soccer ball) between your hands, the exercise becomes more difficult, helping to increase strength.
- Stand with feet hip-distance apart, knees slightly bent, holding a medicine ball in your hands with your arms straight, hanging down in front of your body.
- Tip your hips backward slightly and bend your knees, moving into a quarter-squat, rotating your shoulders just a bit to the right so that (with your arms straight) the medicine ball is being held just to the right of the right knee.
- Engage your core and keep your arms completely straight as you swing your arms up and across your body in a diagonal motion, straightening your knees and hips until the medicine ball is held over (and slightly to the left of) your left shoulder. Throughout this motion, keep your hips pointing straight ahead, twisting through your waist and shoulders, rather than your hips and legs.
- Reverse the movement, and return to the starting position.
Perform 10 to 15 repetitions on one side before switching to the opposite side.
There’s a reason planks have taken social media by storm – they’re an excellent exercise that targets pretty much every muscle on the front half of your body, especially your abs.
- Lie on a mat on the floor, supporting your upper body with your forearms, your elbows planted directly under your shoulders.
- Flex your feet and plant your toes on the ground. Engage your core and press your body up off the mat so that you’re balanced on your forearms and toes. Your body should form a straight tight line from your heels to your head.
- Hold the position as long as you can while maintaining good form. Aim for 30 to 45 seconds initially, gradually building up to a time between one and two minutes.
Repeat the exercise between two and four times.
6. Side Planks With Rotation
Side planks are a variation of the plank exercise, but they focus on one side of the body while targeting the obliques, the ab muscles that wrap around your waist.
- Lie on your right side on a mat with your legs stacked on top of each other and your torso propped up on your right forearm. Keep your right hand flat on the mat and your right elbow directly under your shoulder. Place your left hand on your left hip, or rest it on the floor in front of your body for balance.
- Tighten your core and lift your hips up off the mat until your body forms a straight diagonal line.
- When you’re feeling steady, extend your left arm directly upward, pointing your left fingers toward the ceiling while turning your head to look up at your fingers.
- Keeping your right forearm and palm planted firmly on the mat, bring your left hand down and across your chest, reaching under your torso, twisting your body so that your shoulders become square with the mat. Keep your left hand from ever touching down, simply reaching as far under your torso as you can without losing your balance.
- Once you’ve twisted as far as you can, rotate your shoulders back to start as you extend your left arm back up toward the ceiling.
Perform 10 to 12 full twists on one side before switching to the opposite side.
Target Those Abs
Once you’ve performed a few exercises that engage your entire core, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. One of the youngest pro volleyball players on the AVP tour, Summer Ross, swears by medicine ball exercises, particularly “Russian twists.”
Both of the following exercises are performed in a seated position with your heels on the floor. You may find that it’s difficult to keep your heels planted on the ground throughout the movement – that’s okay. If they come up, tighten your abs and hips, working to return them back down. Over time, this becomes easier.
7. Russian Medicine Ball Twists
Russian medicine ball twists target your obliques while also requiring engagement of your shoulders, chest, and hip flexors.
- Sit on a mat with your knees bent in front of you and your heels on the floor. It’s okay for you to flex your feet so your toes point up toward the ceiling. Hold a medicine ball in your hands in front of your chest, with your elbows bent. Start with a four- to six-pound ball, and increase the weight over time as the exercise becomes easier.
- Tip your torso backward slightly so that your back makes a 45-degree angle with the floor.
- Keeping your hips steady, twist your waist and torso to the right until you can touch the ground with the medicine ball.
- Return to center and continue twisting all the way through to the left, touching the medicine ball to the ground on the left side of your body. This counts as one repetition.
Perform 15 to 20 total repetitions.
8. Partner Medicine Ball Toss
Finish up your ab workout with a move that targets your rectus abdominus – the true “six-pack” muscles. By adding a partner medicine ball toss to the sit-up, you experience greater core engagement while also working on your upper body power.
- Sit on a mat with your knees bent and your heels on the floor. Hold a medicine ball in your hands in front of your chest with your elbows bent. Have your partner stand directly in front of your feet, facing you.
- Engage your abs and roll onto your back as though you were performing a regular sit-up.
- Keeping your abs tight, pull yourself back up to the seated position, and as you begin sitting up, explosively throw the medicine ball to your partner.
- When you’re sitting completely upright, your partner should throw the medicine ball back to you as you roll back to the lying position. The entire move should be done with as much control as possible.
Perform 15 to 20 sit-ups as you throw the medicine ball back and forth. Start slow, and as you become comfortable with the exercise, try throwing the medicine ball harder, or ask your partner to stand farther away and throw the ball longer distances.
While the abs of professional beach volleyball players deserve our envy, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a measure of genetics at play, too. Most volleyball players are tall and strong by nature, and their hours of training serve to supplement their genetic package, making those ripped abs possible.
Instead of trying to achieve the look of a specific volleyball player, employ these tactics to achieve your best body. Better abs are possible – they just take hard work and dedication.
What’s your favorite ab exercise?
(photo credit: Jen Kessy – Mpu Dinani/A-Game Photography)