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#15: The Vacuum!

  • Written by Denis Pedneault

201002_bodysculptingQ: Hi Denis, 

You seem like a bit of an old-school bodybuilder. I mean that as a compliment. What I’d like to know is if you can do a “vacuum” pose the way guys like Frank Zane did, and if you have any tips on how to do it? I look, and most of the guys competing today can’t do the pose at all even though it was quite common in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and even ‘80s. 

. . . Richard Foster

A: Hi Richard, 

That’s quite an unusual question, but an interesting one! And you’re not wrong when you say that I’m some sort of an old-school bodybuilder. Being compared to guys like Frank Zane (one of my idols, by the way) is always an honour for me, and I really miss what people refer to as the “golden age” of bodybuilding. And you’re right: I embrace the ideals those guys had back at that time, the way they pictured bodybuilding as an art of sculpting your physique and being able to present it onstage. I particularly share many thoughts perpetuated by Vince Gironda, as those of you who read my articles should even have already noticed. 

Most athletes today (if you can call them that, since most of them can’t even climb up stairs without being exhausted) don’t even know how to train or pose properly. And with all the drugs and the ugly stuff going around, you’re not about to see that many “vacuum” poses on stage. One thing I realize a lot these days is that people simply think that training consists of merely “lifting” weights. They just think about numbers and focus more on their “weight” than on their actual “shape.” They try to find complicated ways to calculate everything, thinking that the more sophisticated the program looks, the better the results. Bodybuilders didn’t do that in Gironda’s day, and their physiques were much more pleasing to the eye than those you see onstage nowadays. What is the main difference then? It can be summed up into one sentence: A real bodybuilder doesn’t “lift” weights but “works” with weights.  

Focusing on a lifting performance is all right if you’re a weightlifter, a powerlifter, or an athlete trying to improve your performance, because your training goal will (and should) be different. A bodybuilder uses the weights only as a means to attain his goal: better shape, better symmetry, etc. In order to do that, he will need to target specific muscle groups, he will focus on his “mind muscle” connection to make sure he feels the right muscle working, he will take his time to perform each rep with control to ensure that the muscle fibres targeted are under stress at all times during the set, and he will seek to improve and be better at what he is supposed to do: sculpt his body. That’s why exercise selection and technique is such an important part of the process, and where Vince Gironda and I both share the same philosophy. 

I think that a lot of that inner search to a better awareness of your body has been lost over the years and has been replaced by some sort of blind impulse to use any kind of products and just enter the gym with one goal in mind: bust your guts! Well, that is literally what will happen if you do that for some time: you plainly bust your gut and you sure won’t be able to perform anything close to a stomach vacuum! 

I’d like to take a step back now to tell you something I think is interesting; bear with me -- you’ll see where I’m heading. The last time I attended an IDFA show (Canada’s top natural organization), I was just returning from a “non-tested” provincial show in another federation. As usual, I was quite disappointed by the quality of what was presented onstage at the non-tested show, and I didn’t even stay for the whole thing; I was so shocked after the middleweight class that I just took off and didn’t even want to see the heavyweight class! A lot of people think that you have to be big to attract the eye and draw attention. That’s nonsense and surely not the way you inspire admiration. People aren’t that dumb, they can tell the difference between quality and quantity. If that were not the case, I wouldn’t get the attention I get at a mere 150 pounds (but still under 6 percent body fat, even in the off-season) when I take my shirt off in the summer, and I sure wouldn’t get all those complimentary comments people feel the need to share with me. Do you think they do that when they see a 225-pound, over-12-percent-body-fat giant with a belly the size of a nine-month pregnant woman? No! Right from the start, people just think it’s too much; their reaction is, “What the hell! Look at that!” and ultimately use the world “freak” to describe what they see. 

So there I was in the audience at the IDFA show, surprised by what I was witnessing. Despite the obvious difference in size that the athletes presented onstage, the crowd really seemed to enjoy it and participated a lot more in the show than they had done in that other show I saw the week before. More important, you would see a bodybuilder coming on stage and you would just be astonished by his condition, his attitude, his posing, the lines of his physique, his muscle density. I have seen many, many shows in my life and at very high levels, but there I was at a local show with nobody over 200 pounds and I was more than pleased and amazed by what I was seeing onstage. Why? Because just like everybody in the audience that day, that was the bodybuilding I love, respect and want to see. Even backstage, the atmosphere was a lot different; at that IDFA show, I really had the feeling I was back in the days when bodybuilding wasn’t just a freak show. 

Now, think of that “golden age” of bodybuilding. For those of you who have seen Pumping Iron and all those shots from that time, do you remember how the crowds would just go wild at the shows? How these guys would automatically draw attention when they walked by? How everybody was going nuts when Arnold Schwarzenegger popped out a double-biceps pose or when Frank Zane would perform a vacuum? That’s what bodybuilding was meant to be and what has been lost over the years. There’s a reason why, at that time, most of those guys looked great, could pose properly and could do a vacuum. They knew what the essence of bodybuilding was and were respecting it.

However, let’s get back to the vacuum itself. It’s interesting that you point it out, because the last time I went to the IFBB World Championships people were just stunned at how small my waist was compared to the other competitors, and many were amazed at how much smaller I could make it with a properly performed vacuum. And, once again, although I only placed fourth in my division, you have no idea of the complimentary comments I received during those few days. When you’re at a show with that many athletes, people don’t exactly remember who placed where, but that day a lot of them remembered that “little guy” from Canada (the smallest in his division!) with the surprisingly proportioned physique, who left an impression with his “classical” posing routine and his “vacuum.” To me, this is just what I aim for as a bodybuilder. But to many out there, it was something that stood out that day and brought them a feeling of nostalgia. Even if I didn’t win, if I accomplished that I’m more than satisfied with what I did.

201009_double_biceps
Before the finals at the 2009 IFBB World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

As for the technique of the vacuum itself, you first need to develop your mind-muscle connection and the control you can have on your abdominal wall. Every time you train your abdominals, focus on pulling and holding your stomach in (not pushing out), and only train the rectus abdominis (six-pack), not the obliques. The reason is that tensed obliques will apply lateral tension that will prevent you from being able to properly pull in the front abdominal wall and perform the vacuum. It can take some time to get good at it too. It was funny when I first started to practice it because my girlfriend at the time and my training partner both got it right from the start, and it took me more than two weeks to master it! You can imagine how much fun they made of me, knowing they could beat me at something. It was Serge Moreau, a former Mr. Canada and IFBB world-level competitor, who taught me how to do it. You can’t get a better person than an old-school bodybuilder to teach you forgotten techniques. That man has such an incredible control of his abdominals that he can still perform different forms of vacuum. 

A lot of people confuse pulling the stomach “in” with doing a “vacuum.” The fact is that when you perform the vacuum, you don’t actually contract your abdominals. It’s hard to explain in text but I’ll try to do my best: 

First, you need to exhale completely while letting your abdominals loosen themselves. Then your upper body rises as you open up the ribcage, which will have the effect of tightening the abdominal wall. Once there, you simply suck it in (still without any voluntary contraction or pull), just like you would kind of hold your breath, but with no air in. That’s what will have the effect of “sucking” the stomach in, creating that noticeable gap under the rib cage. You should feel comfortable enough to hold the pose for a while (without breathing) as the abs aren’t voluntarily tensed but, rather, sort of plated against your body. That’s the main difference between a real vacuum and a pulled-in stomach, in which you voluntarily pull the abs in from under but can’t actually make that void under the ribcage that characterises the vacuum. 

There you have it. I hope it can guide you in some way. I know I went a little overboard with my explanation, as I’ve done before, but it’s something that I think needs to be pointed out and understood if we want to save the essence of the sport we love: bodybuilding. Your question was relevant, as it was related to some problems bodybuilding faces these days, and you and I aren’t the only people who have noticed them – and regret them in some way. 

Stay focused, be patient . . . and train hard.

Sincerely,

. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006 and 2009

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