- Q&A Columns
- Contest Photos
- Contest News
- Athlete Profiles
- Product Reviews
John Robert Cardillo
John travelled the world to learn the best training and nutrition principles and trained alongside top pro bodybuilders at Gold's Gym California. He was a student of Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus and Medx Fitness machines, and the pioneer of hi-intensity training. John developed the HIT3 Training System, which transformed his physique to win countless bodybuilding competitions at just 18 years of age! He was also the first bodybuilder to utilize Faradic Electric Muscle Stimulation in his training and intermittent fasting during his competition prep. John’s SHREDDED Nutrition Diet helped him build one of the most shredded physiques of all time. His diet program incorporates fasting and nutrient timing to help athletes build lean muscle while losing body fat.
How to Develop a Stomach Vacuum By John Robert Cardillo
The stomach vacuum is rarely seen on most modern bodybuilders’ physiques. It’s a physical attribute that very few bodybuilders possess in today’s competitive culture. It seems that heavily muscled bodybuilders have somehow developed such a thick core and serratus muscles that they’ve lost the ability to spread out the rib cage and "open the body up" when doing classic poses such as the double biceps, lat spread and side chest poses. Without the ability to expand the rib cage, it’s literally impossible "to open up" and dramatically hit these poses. The greatest example of this was Arnold Schwarzenegger. His rib cage development made his double biceps, lat spread and side chest poses the best of all time.
In bodybuilding, the vacuum was initially made popular by Frank Zane performing a vacuum pose with his arms over his head, accentuating not just his rib cage vacuum but also his latissimus dorsi development and V-taper. Although Zane had a small bone structure, he also had a terrific lat spread because of his rib cage rib cage development.
In today’s bodybuilding scene, the classic physique division is quickly becoming both a fan and competitor favourite as the class of the future. It seems to be most appreciated by the general public and a majority of bodybuilders. Chris Bumstead, the two-time classic physique Mr. Olympia winner has developed a very good vacuum that sets his physique apart from other competitors. His double biceps, lat spread, side chest and vacuum pose dominate the field by clearly showing his V-taper development. When he hits these poses, the vacuum "opens up" his whole physique, creating a “wow” factor for the judges and audience. When I competed in bodybuilding, my own rib cage development was a prominent part of my physique because I specifically focused on developing it.
Recently, Muscle Insider’s Scott Welch asked me to send him some pictures to include in my column. I searched my photo albums and came across some pictures of my double biceps and vacuum poses from when I was competing in bodybuilding. Scott was interested in knowing how I had developed my vacuum and asked me to write an article on how I mastered the vacuum pose. Wondering if any articles had been written on the subject, I was able to find two, and after reading them, I realized that the information was absolutely incorrect! Both articles totally missed the crucial points and had very little to do with the subject at hand.
The ribcage is split up into two sections. The upper section is made up of 7 ribs which are attached to the sternum. They’re referred to as “true ribs” that are connected by coastal cartilages. The lower section is made up of 5 ribs, 3 of which are attached to the coastal cartilages and the other 2 are floating ribs which are attached to the abdominal muscles. They are referred to as “false ribs”. It’s the last 5 ribs in the lower part of the ribcage that are able to expand to allow diaphragm movement. Because of the coastal cartilages, the lower part of the ribcage has extraordinary elasticity. The lower ribs are connected by strips of dense tissues, which make up the coastal cartilages. It’s this area of the ribcage that can be expanded to create a stomach vacuum.
From the time I started training, my first coach, who also taught me high-intensity training, emphasized that in order to develop a good physique, I had to do foundational training that would help me develop my bone structure. Part of that was developing a larger rib cage. He taught me that it all had to do with breathing and stretching the ligaments and tendons that hold together the ribs. These structures are very flexible and stretch with proper breathing and stretching exercises.
My coach had me perform full squats to muscular failure with a goal of 20 repetitions for the set. An important aspect of doing squats was the deep breathing with every repetition. After reaching muscular failure on squats, he would immediately have me lay across a bench with just my upper back and a 20-pound dumbbell, to do breathing pullovers.
My rib cage stretched and expanded with every deep breath I took. I would perform at least 25 to 30 repetitions of these pullovers until my rib cage actually hurt because of the stretching and expansion. I continued to do breathing pullovers throughout my training which resulted in me developing a great vacuum.
In 2019, I trained Zane for 15 weeks to help him get ready for the Mr. Olympia. Zane asked me the same question: how to develop his rib cage so that he could open up his chest cavity when doing his lat spread and double biceps poses. I suggested to him that we add breathing pullovers at the end of the HIT3 hamstring and quadriceps workout sequences when he would be in a state of breathlessness because of the intensity of each sequence.
We started the HIT3 hamstring sequence with seated leg curls performed to positive, negative and static failure. Without rest, this was followed by prone leg curl. Again, they were performed to positive, negative and static failure. With less than 10 seconds of rest, Zane was under the 90° inverted leg press, performing at least 15 or more repetitions to positive failure. With each repetition, I had Zane take a deep breath, inhaling as much air as possible and exhaling as he pushed the massive weight upwards. After he could no longer perform a single repetition (reaching positive muscular failure), the leg presses were completed. Instead of resting before moving on to the next HIT3 quadriceps sequence, I placed a 25-pound plate in Zane’s hands for him to perform 25 to 30 breathing pullovers. With the rib cage held high, Zane deeply inhaled while his stretched-out arms (holding the plate in his hands) moved as far back as possible to give his rib cage the greatest amount of stretch possible. He exhaled fully as he brought his arms back to their starting position.
Once the breathing pullovers were completed, again without rest, I had Zane start quadriceps with the Avenger Leg Extension machine. Performing each heavy extension with a deep breath until positive, negative and static muscular failure was reached. Without rest, Zane was under the squat bar, performing one set of heavy full squats to failure. Each squat was performed by inhaling deeply on the way down and exhaling hard on the way up. After reaching failure on squats, I had Zane immediately perform hack squats to total positive-only failure. At this point, Zane was breathing like a quarter-mile sprinter, and to take advantage of this, I had him immediately lay across a bench to again perform straight-arm breathing pullovers. At the end of this workout, Zane’s ribs would be sore from the ligaments stretching.
Zane performed this leg workout with breathing pullovers workout for 15 weeks, along with practicing vacuum expansion poses. By continuing to practice raising his rib cage and doing a vacuum, he ended up making his lat spread and double biceps his best poses. This was a great test to see if a seasoned bodybuilder in the later stages of his career could improve his vacuum. The answer is yes!
As you can see from the examples I described, the key to developing a vacuum is to expand the rib cage by performing breathing pullovers after heavy, high-repetition squats instead of resting after a set of squats. It’s not necessary to use more than 10 to 25 pounds. The focus is to expand the ligaments of the rib cage with every deep breath. This will unbind and loosen all of the tendons and ligaments that are attached to the rib cage, creating a bigger cavity.
Practicing the Vacuum
Learning how to perform the stomach vacuum will take a lot of practice. Start slowly and do not attempt to perform a full vacuum right off the bat. Your vacuum will consistently improve by:
- exhaling all the air from your lungs
- gently pulling in your stomach so that your stomach disappears. Do not do it too hard and avoid straining. As you keep practicing, your ability to pull in your stomach will increase.
- pulling your stomach in and imagine your belly button touching your spine.
- holding the vacuum for only a few seconds at first
- practicing the vacuum at least 3 days a week, holding each one longer until it becomes effortless to hold it for 15 seconds.
- practicing the vacuum in various positions. Such as with your arms over your head, with hands firmly in your hips, and lying on your back with your hands on the floor next to your body.
- practicing the vacuum right after you perform breathing pullovers
- practicing your posing (double biceps, lat spread and side chest shot) at least 3 times per week, with the stomach vacuum
Once you master the vacuum, your whole frontal cavity will open up to create a wow factor when you perform a double biceps or a lat spread.
Nothing else will help you achieve a vacuum cavity other than breathing pullovers. The majority of bodybuilders today don’t have good stomach vacuums because they don’t do high repetition (over 15 reps) heavy, breathing squats. They're completly missing out on the opportunity of stretching their ribcage when the thoracic area is primed by the breathlessness as a result of the high rep squats. This could easily be accomplished by performing a simple exercise; breathing pullovers.
*© Images courtesy of Instagram