How to train your abs – the right way!
Whether you are a competitive physique athlete or simply a recreational gym user attempting to improve your physique, having the perfect midsection is frequently placed high on the list of priorities with respect to training goals. However, it is amazing how often you walk into a gym and see someone going through a heavy leg or arm routine and then finishing their workout with an abdominal routine that looks more like something taken straight from an early 90’s aerobics video! The abdominals are like any other muscle group in the sense that if you want them to grow and to “pop” then they must be given sufficient stimulus to do so. You wouldn’t attempt to make your arms bigger by completing as many momentum based reps of barbell curls as you can in 60 seconds so why do the same for your abs? Sure, the cardio aspect may help burn some body fat, but there are better ways to do so and that is not the goal of the abdominal training itself. Burning away the layers of body fat is an essential component when creating your ideal midsection, but this is done primarily through changes to your diet and cardio routine. The goal of any abdominal workout should be to build and shape the core muscles so they look the way you want them too once body fat levels have been reduced.
Something that is so often either overlooked or misunderstood with regards to abdominal training is form. If anything, reps should be even more controlled and performed at a slower tempo than your other lifts, not the other way around! It is imperative not to just go through the range of motion, but to ensure that you are feeling the abdominals working throughout the entire set. When you complete a bicep curl, you implement those controlled negatives, squeezes in the contracted position and forcefully contract the muscles to raise the weight all the while ensuring the biceps remain under constant tension from the start of the first rep to the end of the last. The same applies to your abdominals! Firstly, look at the range of motion that this muscle group can go through, a good way to see this is simply to lay on the floor on your back and curl, flexing the spine so your shoulder blades come off the ground, bringing your sternum towards your lower body. You should notice that this range of motion, to the point where you can squeeze the abs with your lower back still on the ground, is very small. If you attempt to increase the range of motion and bring your sternum as far from the ground as possible, you will notice a point where your body starts to curl from the hips rather than just the initial spinal flexion. This range of motion needs to be considered through all crunching exercises. This is also why I never recommend using sit-ups in an abdominal routine, they provide a huge range of motion but most of this range is a result of flexion at the hips rather than spinal flexion which means the hip flexors are being worked far more than the abdominals.
Weight and Reps
You want your abs to grow and to pop-out from the stomach? Well train them like you want them to grow! This will not be achieved by completing sets of 100 bodyweight crunches, but by using heavier loads and lower reps. Personally I like to keep all abdominal training in the 6-20 rep range, with most exercises not exceeding 12 reps. Weighted incline crunches are a great exercise for the abs when performed correctly. Consider what I have said with regards to form, tempo and range of motion - slow controlled reps with the abs under tension throughout and only being taken through that small range of motion they offer – plus keep the reps in the 8-12 rep range for sets of 3-4 and you will soon notice the benefits! You use drop sets and rest pause techniques when trying to improve other muscle groups
Obliques and Seratus Anterior Muscles
Special consideration needs to be applied to oblique training and unlike the abdominals, these should never be trained directly with heavy weights. Excessive growth in the obliques will lead to a waist that appears much blockier and common exercises such as dumbbell side bends should be completely eliminated! If you do directly train your obliques then they should be trained with lighter weight and higher reps, but also using movements that offer a twisting motion of the trunk as opposed to laterally bending at the waist.
The obliques will grow enough through exercises such as squats and deadlifts and in fact, the oblique development that occurs as a result of heavy squats, leg presses and deadlifts often poses issues to the physique athlete who is trying to minimise their oblique development without sacrificing the huge benefits offered by these exercises to other aspects of their physique. Personally, I do not like to train the obliques directly at all, but instead use twisting movements that although still work the obliques, switch a lot of focus to the seratus muscles above.
Exercises and Frequency
Like any muscle group, after a training session the abdominal muscles need time to repair and grow. However, they are able to do so much quicker than larger muscle groups and this is why I like to train them every other day. They do not require a great deal of volume in each session, therefore I find training them 3-4 times per week whilst avoiding training them on consecutive days is optimal.
Whilst you can’t completely isolate the upper abs or lower abs, the exercises you choose can certainly apply more focus to one section over the other. Upper abs can be focused on through exercises such as crunches, incline crunches, cable crunches and seated machine crunches. Exercises that focus on the lower abs include hanging and lying leg raises (despite the name, remember the range of motion and muscle recruitment – we are not just raising the legs by flexing the hips, but rather crunching the lower abs and flexing the spine to bring the hips towards the upper body), knee raises, knee ups and rollouts. Exercises that can be used to focus on the obliques and seratus muscles include broomstick twists, oblique cable twists and Russian twists.
If you are training the abdominals 3-4 times per week, I suggest using the exercises you feel most effective more frequently, but never solely stick to those, with 3 sessions per week you will need variation! Select one upper abs exercise, one for the lower abs and one for the obliques in each routine, or reduce the oblique training to 1 or two sessions only and increase the sets for the upper and lower abs in the other sessions. Here is an example routine I like to use, keep rests between sets to 30 seconds and rest 1 minute between different exercises:
Weighted Incline Crunch – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Lying Leg Raises – 3 sets of 12-16 reps
Broomstick twists – 1 set of 50 reps (each side)
Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets of 10-12 reps
Cable Crunches – 3 sets of 10-12 reps
Russian Twists performed on an incline – 2 sets of 16-20 reps (each side)
Seated Machine Crunch – 4 sets of 8-10 reps plus one drop set for 16 reps
Barbell Roll outs – 4 sets of 10-12 reps
For the bodyweight exercises such as the lying and hanging leg raises, if you can complete more than the reps given then take a look at that form! Remember, we are not simply raising the legs but curling at the hips and feeling constant tension on the abdominals throughout! If needed, slow the reps down. Do it right and 10-12 reps of hanging leg raises is enough!
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