Abs! They are muscles of universal appeal. Not only do they complete one’s physique but everyone can appreciate a great set of abdominals. Whereas freaky quads and a massive back only impress a handful of people, abdominals span into pop culture. Consider Mike “The Situation.”
While annoying to many of us, his physique has drawn attention to himself and helped make him a celebrity; and all of this he owes to his pride and joy, his abdominals.
Since the abs are arguably the most "popular" muscle group in pop culture, there comes with that fame a host of misconceptions. The most popular misconception is that you can get great abs by “doing thousands of crunches to burn fat off the stomach.” We have seen enough infomercials out there that all continue to promote these misconceptions. If these solutions were viable then we wouldn’t need to write articles on proper abdominal training and how to make them visible!
The most important thing to remember is that something worth having (like great abs) is going require a lot of hard work and persistence to get it! No amount of gadgetry, gimmicks, or fad diets will get you what you are looking for until you come to grips with this fact. It may also take a considerable amount of time. It took me eight years of bodybuilding before I could say that I was truly proud of my abdominal development (though I am still not satisfied)! Ditch the infomercials get your nose (or stomach rather) to the grindstone!
There are two aspects to developing a great midsection. The first (and probably most important factor) is to be lean enough to have these muscles become visible. The second is that to maximize the appearance of your midsection, there must be significant muscular development there. It was not until I fully understood these two factors that I was able bring out my abdominals and it became something that added value to my physique onstage.
The picture on your left is me in 2007. While I didn’t admit that I was not lean enough (it took weeks afterwards, I was very disappointed), you can see that I struggled to pose hard enough to show my abs and they were still not that impressive. On the right was me in 2010. This time I was much leaner (although I had added muscle over the three years, I was still six pounds lighter)! I had also applied the type of training I will discuss in this article.
The training increased my abdominal development without making me look blocky and on the day of the contest I was able to hold my cell phone up between my abs while lying down. While my midsection was the best it had ever looked, you can see that I had lost a lot of fat in the process and rather quickly as you can tell from the loose skin on my lower abdominals. I have stayed leaner this past off-season and hope to have my skin tighten up so that my midsection will be even better next time!
Let's Get To It!
It is best to have a sound understanding of the anatomy and kinesiology of the abdominal muscles when developing a training program for this muscle group.
The most prominent abdominal muscle is the rectus abdominis (that gives the appearance of the “six-pack”), which is responsible for flexing the trunk and pulling the hips into posterior pelvic tilt. Many ab training articles discuss how the rectus flexes the trunk but fail to mention that tilts the pelvis posteriorly. The importance of this will be discussed when reviewing exercise technique.
The oblique muscles are involved in lateral flexion (bending to one side) as well as rotation of the trunk. Below these superficial muscles we have the transverse abdominis which is involved in core stabilization. All of these muscles need to be developed to have a functionally strong, stable core and outstanding abdominal muscularity.
To Add Weight Or Not?
This debate has dragged on forever. I can tell you from experience that if you are not at least incorporating some weighted ab work into your routine you are missing out on complete development. The abdominals are muscles just the like the rest of your muscles on your body. You need to train them for hypertrophy. Yes, you must be lean to display visible abs; but they will not look nearly as impressive unless they are developed.
Train your basic moves! The compound exercises that require you to stabilize your core, such as deadlifts and squats, recruit your abdominal muscles and will stimulate them even more than adding weight to your crunches. Remember that one function of the rectus abdominis is to pull the hips into posterior pelvic tilt, which is also a function of the gluteal muscles.
The transverse abdominis tightens the entire core to minimize spinal movement during these exercises, and thus is worked also. The abdominals work together with the hip extensors to complete the movement and keep the spine stable during these exercises.
Abs Training Frequency
The abdominals are a small muscle group and recover more quickly than the larger muscles; so likewise you will receive the best development from training them at least twice per week. More is not always better, but you can train them up to three times per week. More often than this may not offer any significant benefit, so stick to 2-3 abdominal workouts per week.
I recommend breaking up your abdominal workouts into middle/upper abs, lower abs, and serratus/obliques/intercostals; one exercise for each. Remember the transverse muscle is worked during your squat and deadlift variations. The following exercises are all variations for different skill levels. You can start with the easier forms of these exercises and progress to more difficult forms. I recommend one to three sets of 10 to 30 repetitions for all exercises. Obviously the lower rep ranges are recommended for when you choose to add weight and the higher rep ranges are without weight.
Lower Abs - Choose one of the following:
There are, of course, many other variations of these exercises; these are just something to start with. I also recommend training your abs in this order as well, starting with lower abs, then middle/upper, and ending with the obliques. This is just a matter of prioritization as the lower abs tend to hide behind the last bit of body fat and are most difficult to develop. Likewise, you do not want to over-develop your obliques as it could make your waist look blocky.
Training the abdominals demand mental focus. You will be using higher repetitions and the tendency for many is to focus on meeting that goal of getting all the repetitions, rather than fully taxing the muscles. Do not adopt this practice or you will short-change yourself in terms of development.
Flex your spine, lift your hips off the floor, and focus on the feeling of your muscles contracting. Some (myself included) prefer to place one or both hands on their stomach to feel the abs contract during the set. Focusing on your technique will double the effectiveness of the routine listed above.
The Exception to the Rule
Some may dismiss this entire article because there are a few top athletes out there who claim that they do not train their abs. I have news for you, you are not them! If you choose not to train abs, it is possible to have visible abs as long as you are lean, but they will not make the same impression will not be as outstanding as they could be if you had trained them, especially if you are a competitor.
See the difference? Guess which one trains their abs?
Putting it All Together
I used all the principles in this article for my ab training last year when I competed and the result was an abs-and-thigh pose that I could finally be proud of! Here is an example of my routine leading up to my last competition:
- Hanging Leg Raises - 3 sets of 20-30 repetitions.
- Decline Crunch - 3 sets of 20-30 repetitions.
- Cable Crunch with Rope - 3 sets of 20-30 repetitions.
This workout was done three times per week either before or after my other bodypart training. My midsection is nowhere near perfect, but this has been the closest I have yet come!