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Look, I don’t want to tell many of you that you’re training your abs wrong but you’re training your abs wrong. I’m being a bit facetious because I ultimately don’t know what your training goals are but if your goal is to grow your abs, I can say with relative certainty that you are training your abs wrong. I find that people don’t use common sense in their ab training and that it differs from their training of all other muscle groups. When I was in college there was a kid who would routinely do half situps on a bosu ball for ten straight minutes. How anyone can think that is an effective use of their time is beyond me.
There are many ways to skin the cat and abdominal training is no different. After all, there are millions of people with well defined abs and no two people have the exact same training regimen. There truly is no one size fits all training plan that is best for everyone. We all have different anthropometrics and anatomy so training will be different. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a more effective and efficient way for the majority of people to do it.
Why are you doing that?
I don’t know what the exact percentage is but the amount of people who don’t have a defined training plan is absurdly low. If I had to guess I would bet it’s somewhere around 80%. That’s a problem. You can gain muscle without a training plan, especially if you’re a beginner, but having a well defined training program will help you to control variables so that you can take a more scientific approach to training. If something isn’t working you can easily spot where that is and augment that portion so that you can continue toward adaptations. So what about abdominal training? Even a smaller percentage of people that do have a defined training plan include specific abdominal training into their plans. They just throw “ab work” into the end of their workouts 2-3 times per week. Think of how often you hear people in the gym say “I’m going to hit abs today” and then go do some piece of shit circuit for 10 minutes. Probably quit doing that if you want to actually see some results, you know?
Ab Circuits are Kind of Stupid
Why do so many people default to ab circuits for their ab training of choice? I don’t get it. They lift heavy weights for their squats and bench press and push themselves to overload the muscle like they should be doing. When it comes to ab training they throw all of that out the window and do rounds of 50 leg raises, 50 mason twists, and planks or whatever other movement they decide they want to do that day. Why why why why why? The last time I checked your rectus abdominis is skeletal muscle just like all of the others you train. Why train it in a completely different way than you’ve used to grow muscle elsewhere in your body? Think about what we know about building muscle.
We know that in order to grow our training must be hard. The exercise should be taken close to failure.
We know that muscular hypertrophy is optimized when those sets taken close to failure are between 5-30 reps.¹ Rep ranges that fall outside this range don’t quite provide the same stimulus to lead to optimal muscular hypertrophy.
We know that using a full range of motion is preferred. Creating tension by obtaining a full stretch at the bottom of a rep and performing the movement until the muscle is fully shortened at the top lends itself to building muscle more than half or quarter reps.
We know that mechanical tension is the driver of muscular hypertrophy.² Muscular damage and metabolic stress also play a role but they appear to be less important than tension.
Now think about how you train your abdominals. Do you achieve these 4 things? Chances are you don’t. It is my belief that abdominal training should be no different than training other muscles of your body and the same principles apply. We must rewrite the dogma that exists in the training ether that abdominal training is some collection of exercises (many that aren’t even good) thrown into a circuit and performed at high reps.
A Better Way to Train Your Abdominals
You train your chest with a heavy bench press where you fail around 10 reps.
You train your abs with no weight and arbitrarily choose a rep number and then quit when you reach it, regardless if you had more in the tank or not.
You train your biceps with curls where you fully extend at your elbow and curl all of the way to your shoulder.
You train your abs by isometrically contracting them and moving your legs in and out.
I love using isometrics and they have their place in your training but they just are not as good as dynamic training when it comes to muscular hypertrophy.³
From a Biomechanical Perspective
Muscle moves your skeleton. The muscle is attached to the bones via tendons and those muscles cross joints and when the muscles are shortened or lengthened, it leads to movement. Each of those movements has an anatomical name to describe the actions of the muscle on the skeleton. For example, there is flexion and extension, abduction and adduction, elevation and depression, and many more. Learning these anatomical movements and how each muscle moves will allow you to train in a more effective way. I would recommend it to anyone who strives to better themselves as a weight lifter. Let’s focus on the rectus abdominis since that is the muscle we want to develop.
The rectus abdominis flexes the trunk. It originates on the pubic symphysis and inserts on the xiphoid process and ribs 5-7. If you put one hand on your pubic bone and one hand on the base of your sternum and then close the distance between your hands, that is how your abs flex your spine. Now lean back and extend the distance between your hands as far as you can go. Your spine will go into extension and you will feel a stretch in your abs. You just brought your abs through a full range of motion, congratulations. There are other muscles within the abdominal cavity that assist in movement and bracing of the core as well as the overall aesthetic of the trunk but for the purposes of this article we are going to stick to the big papa rectus abdominis.
A Closer Look at Your Exercise Selection
From a biomechanical perspective the best abdominal exercises for muscular hypertrophy are the ones that flex the trunk and move the muscle through a full range of motion. You get bonus points if you can find an exercise that also properly loads the muscle as well. Test yourself and think of an exercise that meets these two variables. What exercise allows the trunk to be fully extended and flexed with proper loading? There are a few different correct answers and hopefully you were able to come up with one. The first exercise that comes to my mind is the weighted cable crunch. Other correct answers could have been weighted GHD situps or weighted bosu crunches. This small list is not exhaustive and there are realistically an unlimited number of ways to train your abs if you got creative enough. I want to focus on the weighted cable crunch because I think it is the best and most reasonable method though. For the weighted cable crunch you place the cable at its highest point and use the rope attachment or two handles. Kneel down facing the cable and grab the rope with each hand. The key for this exercise is to maintain the same angle in your hips and allow your abs to do the work. We don’t want this to turn into hinging movement at the hip as that is not the job of the abs. Keep in mind, spinal flexion is the responsibility of the abs. Remember the movement from earlier where we placed our hands on the origin and insertion points of our rectus abdominis and went through the full range of motion. That is how this exercise should feel. After you have locked your hips in place and have your hands on the rope, initiate the movement by flexing the spine and shortening the distance between the base of your sternum and pubic bone. Once you have reached the end of the range of motion, reverse the movement until you achieve a full stretch in the rectus abdominis. Think cat/cow pose in yoga. At the bottom of the crunch you are in cat pose and at the top when you are in a fully extended position it should feel like cow pose. Remember, the hips should stay locked and the angle shouldn’t change. This movement needs to come from flexion and extension of the spine.
The GHD Situp and Bosu Ball Crunch have the same movement pattern as the Weighted Cable Crunch, they just achieve it in a slightly different manner. All three movements prioritize full range of motion of the rectus abdominis. The reason I choose the Weighted Cable Crunch as the gold standard for abdominal exercises is because it is the easiest way to load the muscle properly. Having the weight on a cable instead of holding it on your chest or behind your head like you would have to do with a GHD Situp or Bosu Ball Crunch allows you to really overload the muscle as you need. You will likely be limited with how much weight you can comfortably use with the GHD Situp and Bosu Ball Crunch as you become stronger. Holding two 45-lb plates behind your head is going to be an issue whereas pulling down the rope attachment of a cable machine with 150lbs isn’t very difficult to hold. With every single exercise that has ever been in existence, you have to load the muscle properly if you want to grow and get stronger. Occasionally that means certain exercises will outperform others which is why exercise selection is important.
Go on instagram right now and find your favorite fitspo. Search on their page until you find a “Killer Abs!” workout. It won’t take long, I promise. They can’t help themselves. Check out the exercises they include. How many of them involve flexion of the spine? Not many I would bet. How many of them take the rectus abdominis through a complete range of motion? Probably zero, right? This is why I say people train their abs wrong. Most “ab” exercises are hip flexor exercises disguised as abdominal exercises. Hip flexion is not an action of the rectus abdominis. The purpose of the rectus abdominis in hip flexion is to assist in stabilization of the pelvis to prevent the pelvis from anteriorly rotating.⁴⁵ It is an isometric contraction to support for a different movement. When you lay on your back to do a leg raise and your lower back comes up off of the floor, this is caused by the downward pull of your hip flexors. Your rectus abdominis works to counteract this and hold your pelvis in the correct positioning.
You have to choose the correct tool for the job. Can you use the backside of a screwdriver to hammer in a nail? Yes of course but using a hammer would make things much easier. The same idea applies to abdominal training. You can grow and strengthen your abs from isometrically contracting them with exercises of hip flexion but choosing exercises that use the rectus abdominis to illicit spinal flexion would be more apt to growing the muscle. Think about these exercises:
- Lying Leg Raises
- Mason Twists
- Flutter Kicks
- In an Outs
- Fifer Scissors
- Roman Chair Knee Raises
All of these work the rectus abdominis through isometric contractions which, again, can lead to muscle growth but not as well as dynamic movement can.
Growing Your Abs Probably Isn’t the Issue
Most people don’t actually care how big their abs are. They only want them to be visible. Of course the bigger your abs are the easier they will be to see but as long as you are lean enough, they will show regardless of size. Showing definition in any muscle is a function of the size of that muscle as well as the amount of fat in the area. Let me make one thing clear. The reason most of you don’t have abs isn’t because your abs aren’t big enough. It’s because you have too much fat in your trunk covering your stomach. Hate to break it to you. You can try and grow your abs to a point where they show a little bit more but in reality you need to lose some fat. Doing ab circuits into oblivion isn’t going to make you lose fat either. It’s hard to believe that in 2020 with all of the information we have available that people still believe that spot reduction of fat is a real thing. Don’t even get me started about the people that wear those sweat belts around their stomachs because they think it will help them lose fat. HA! Gets me every time. Losing fat is a function of energy balance. Need a refresher? Read this. As you work on fat loss you can simultaneously work to grow the muscle and you can expect to see some growth especially if you’re a beginner. The more advanced you are in your training age the better off you would be having dedicated bulking and cutting phases.
Ab Training is Core Training but Core Training is not Necessarily Ab Training
It is important to distinguish between abdominal training and core training. Specificity, after all, must be a priority in your training protocols. Your rectus abdominis is part of your core but there are more muscles that make up the core than just your abs. I don’t believe there is an anatomical definition for what makes up the core (at least that I’m aware of) but for all intents and purposes, your core is everything that is confined within your trunk. Including your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, spinal erectors, multifidi, among others. When I say that the exercises listed above aren’t great abdominal exercises that doesn’t mean that they are useless. Each of those exercises contribute to strengthening your core, which is a good thing. Just make sure you are aware of the purpose that kind of training serves and that it is congruent with your goals. Core training is important and we should all strive to have a strong core as it will benefit other parts of your training and even quality of life. The point I am trying to make is that training for abdominal hypertrophy and training for core strength are not one in the same.
So How Should I Train My Abs?
There is no perfect answer to this question. It truly will be different for everyone. The first thing to consider is if you are even lean enough to show your abdominals in the first place? If you still have some fat to lose, focusing on a bit of weight loss is an easy place to start. After that, there are really an unlimited number of ways you could go about it. If you want to grow your abs then dedicating a part of your training to direct abdominal work should be a priority. My exercise of preference would be the Weighted Cable Crunch but if you prefer a different one that can be loaded and bring the muscle through a full range of motion, be my guest.
How much volume you do will depend on the other details of your regimen. I would personally start with 8-10 sets of direct ab work per week and work up from there. Because you use your abs so much in everyday life they tend to be pretty fatigue resistant in most people. You may find that after 8-10 sets you can handle a little bit more. That’s what periodization is for, you can add more as you go through your training cycles and find your own volume thresholds (This should be done with any muscle group, FYI). Any rep scheme between 5-30 is a solid choice for hypertrophy as long as the set was hard. As I mentioned earlier, the reason I love Weighted Cable Crunches is because of how easy it is to load the exercise. You can easily experiment and change the weight to fit your needs, you don’t need a spotter, and it is easy to approach failure.
If you aren’t trying to actively grow your abs then you have much more freedom in your choices. I am personally in the camp that believes if you do heavy squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses then you are doing plenty to train your abs IF you aren’t looking to grow them. Direct ab training for these people probably isn’t required. Heavy squats, deadlifts, and overhead work can be particularly taxing on your core muscles including your abdominals. Adding in direct ab training for people who either a) don’t need to grow their abs or b) don’t want to grow their abs will only add to the total amount of fatigue accumulated during a training period. This time and volume that would usually be spent training abs can either go to some kind of core training for prehab or adding extra volume to a different body part that you are trying to grow.
Training should be fun. If you don’t enjoy it then it’s going to be a struggle to put in the necessary work to make adaptations anyway. If the ab circuits where you are actually doing hip flexor exercises are your jam, keep on doing them. They still have utility but if you have been trying to develop your abs for what seems like forever and you haven’t been able to, maybe it’s time to take a look at your routine and come about it a little bit more intentionally. All I’m really getting at with the past 3000 words is that specificity in your training is important. If you want to improve a lagging muscle group then you need to be training that muscle group in an intelligent way. It seems obvious for other muscle groups that this is the case but for some reason it has been injected into the zeitgeist that ab training is only about high rep circuits. I hope that you can see a case for why this isn’t necessarily so.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(12), 3508–3523. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0000000000002200
- Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872. doi: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e840f3
- Neves, R. V. P., Rosa, T. S., Souza, M. K., Oliveira, A. J. C., Gomes, G. N. S., Brixi, B., … Moraes, M. R. (2019). Dynamic, Not Isometric Resistance Training Improves Muscle Inflammation, Oxidative Stress and Hypertrophy in Rats. Frontiers in Physiology, 10. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00004
- Lee, S. (2015). Muscle activities of the rectus abdominis and rectus femoris and their ratio during leg raises performed by healthy adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 27(3), 549-550. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.27.549
- Neumann, D. A. (2010). Kinesiology of the hip: A focus on muscular actions. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 40(2), 82-94. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2010.3025