Abs are probably the favorite and the most controversial muscle group of them all, regardless of whether you’re training for aesthetics or strength. Makes sense: not only are they the centerpiece of a phenomenal physique, but they’re also part of the foundation for nearly every compound lift you perform in the gym.
At the same time, it can be really difficult to develop a strong mind-muscle connection with the abs, and it can be even harder to use the abs properly in heavy movements like the squat and deadlift. For those reasons, you’ll find a wide variety of different opinions when it comes to ab training.
The Importance of Bracing
No matter what type of ab work you’re doing, you need to be able to brace if you want your training to be effective. Bracing refers to two things: ab activation and generation of intra-abdominal pressure. If you don’t already know how to brace properly, I strongly suggest you begin with this video:
Do You Even Need to Train Abs?
Once you’ve mastered bracing, you’ll be able to use your abs much more effectively in nearly every exercise you use in the gym. I even brace while doing curls! But even if you can brace really well, you’ll still (probably) need to train your abs with a little bit of direct work. In my opinion, if you’re a strength athlete, it’s simply not possible to work your abs as hard as you should with compound lifts alone, no matter how heavy you’re squatting and deadlifting. The stronger your abs are, the more stable and confident you’ll feel when performing those lifts, so there’s a huge benefit to doing extra training for them.
If you’re training primarily for aesthetics, the story is a little different, but not too much. Your body fat percentage will determine how your abs look much, much more than how well-developed they are, or how strong they are. In fact, if your abs (and your obliques) are over-developed, it can create a physique with a “blocky” look, like I have. Now, aesthetics are subjective, so if you dig the thick, powerful look, by all means: train your abs heavy and hard. But if you’re aspiring to physique or bikini competitions, you might want to minimize the ab work for the sake of a more tapered look.
My Favorite Ab Exercises for Strength Athletes
1. Weighted Planks
Weighted planks are one of my favorite exercises to do in the gym, period, because they’re really challenging! Proper planks are not what you see your average gym-goer doing: you have to keep your brace the entire time you’re holding the position. Once you lose ab tightness, the set is over. You can keep your glutes tight, too, but your quads and arms should stay relaxed. When done this way, you’ll probably struggle to hold a plank for more than a minute or two!
2. Ab Wheel
If planks are too easy for you — even when weighted — it’s time to graduate to the ab wheel. Again, this is one that’s really easy to cheat, and you need to avoid that temptation. You must hold a brace throughout the entire set, and use your abs to initiate the upward motion, not your quads, glutes, or lower back.
This is so hard that you’ll probably need to start off by performing the ab wheel from a kneeling position. When you’re ready to start working up to a standing position, you can use a wall or incline board to make the transition a little easier, like this:
3. Standing Cable Crunch
This is a pretty basic exercise, but hey — if one of the best beltless deadlifters of all time does it, it’s probably pretty good!
I’m no Konstantīns Konstantinovs, but I find that heavy cable crunches really help my stability on heavy squats and deadlifts. I do them a little differently than KK, though: I hold the bottom position for a few seconds. This limits the amount of weight that can be used, but it makes it much easier to make sure you’re working the abs, and not the lower back and hips.
It’s Crunch Time
As cliché as it sounds, success really does start with your core. If you’re not using and training your abs effectively, you’re selling yourself short. So learn to brace, start doing some planks and cable crunches, and see how strong you get!
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.