Ab Training 101 — The Core Muscles, How Often to Train Them, and More

If we can understand the muscles that make up the core and how it functions, then we can train it accordingly!

Ab, or core training, is a great way to develop midline stability, improve torso rigidity, and enhance aesthetic development of the core. While some lifters and coaches may feel that heavy squats and deadlifts are enough to develop a strong core, more isolated ab training movements can be done to improve overall core development, address weaknesses, and increase injury resilience.

In our best abs exercises article, we highlighted the best movements for building a resilient core, however, in this article we wanted to focus our attention on the basics. In this Ab Training 101 Guide, we will discuss:

Core Anatomy 101

Below are five (5) muscle groups that are commonly categorized together when discussing ab/core muscles and training.

Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominis is the most visible abdominal muscle. This muscle runs vertically along the anterior aspect of the torso and is responsible for spinal flexion. This muscle group is most trained by individuals who train abs, typically via sit-ups, crunches, and leg raises.

The rectus abdominis can be trained to be highly resilient to muscle fatigue (Type 1 fibers) in more advanced lifters and athletes.

Obliques (External and Internal)

The obliques run diagonally along the sides of the torso, and are primarily responsible for assisting in hip flexion (external obliques) and rotational force output (external and internal obliques). The obliques also help to stabilize the spine and resist damaging rotational stress on the spine during loaded and unloaded movements (anti-rotational training).

Core Muscles
Photo by decade3d – anatomy online / Shutterstock

Transverse Abdominals

The transverse abdominals are a deep core muscle that helps to stabilize and support the spine during most movements. This muscle can be trained via isometric exercises like planks and loaded compound movements.

Spinal Erectors

While the spinal erectors are technically not part of most definition’s for the abs/core, they deserve a place in this core training conversation for their postural responsibilities. Strong spinal erectors can help to support overall movement and performance, resist injury to the lumbar spine, and balance out strong abdominals and obliques. The spinal erectors are responsible for spinal extension and resisting spinal flexion.

Quadratus Lumborum

The quadratus lumborum is the deepest abdominal muscle and is located along the sides of the spine on the posterior part of the body. These can be found just above the hip (laterally to the spine on both sides) and are responsible for spinal stability and postural strength/endurance.

4 Benefits of Training the Abs Directly

Below are four (4) benefits of directly train the core muscles to enhance core stability, muscle activation, and strength.

1. Increased Core Stability and Strength

Increasing core strength and stability can aid in nearly every physical endeavor you ask of your body.

Increased m core stability is a necessary part of strength, power, and fitness training; as it helps to increase the rigidity of the torso under load. Additionally, improving the strength of the individual muscle groups of the core can aid in force production and exercise performance both in the gym and on the field/platform.

Core Training and Squats and Deadlifts

2. Improved Athletic Performance

While training compound lifts and performing your sport-specific movements can help increase core stability and strength, integrating more isolated core exercises, specifically rotational training, can further help increase force production and power outputs for most athletes.

Additionally, integrating isometrics and other core stability exercise can help energy transferring and minimize stress on the spine and joints of the body, furthering athletic potential.

3. Aesthetics

While training the abs doesn’t necessarily mean you will uncover them, it is a necessary aspect of developing a more aesthetic midsection. Like any muscle, body composition is key for unveiling the abdominals, making nutrition and a caloric deficit necessary components to uncover visible abdominals.

With that said, the abdominals are muscles too, and therefore need to be trained using a combination of heavy and light-loaded core exercises to develop mass and tone to the muscle.

4. Decreased Injury

Increasing core strength, stability, and anti-rotational capacities can increase injury resistance at the spine, pelvis, and surrounding joints. An unstable core can often result in excessive strain placed upon the lumbar spine and/or create movement deficiencies during dynamic and ballistic movements like running, throwing, and lifting.

4 Ways to Train the Abs

There are four (4) main ways to train the core, many of which can and should be integrated within a proper strength and conditioning program, regardless of the athlete. It is important to note that not all athletes have the same core training needs. Therefore, proper exercise election, sport specificity, and individual weaknesses should be taken into consideration when developing a training program.

1. Heavy Compound Movements

Many strength, power, and fitness athletes are under the assumption that if they simply squat and deadlift regularly they do not need to train the core muscles anymore than that. While compound, heavy movements like squats, deadlifts, carries, and overhead lifts do require a great amount of core stability and totso rigidity, they do have their limitations of addressing individual weaknesses and/or asymmetries of the core.

Many athletes can benefit from including isolation, isometric, and breathing drills within warm-ups, corrective, and/or accessory segments to further their success under the bar and decrease the risk of injury under heavy loads.

Note, that while core-specific training is beneficial to strength and power athletes, it is important to remember that lifters who only train the core with isolated exercises yet neglect heavy, compound movements can also lack true core strength. Therefore, if is imperative that all lifters perform both heavy, compound movements (like squats, pulls, carries, etc) and more isolated abs training exercise to maximize performance, muscular development, and injury resilience.

Below are a few heavy compound movements that can develop stronger, more functional abs and core muscles.

  1. Loaded Carries Guide
  2. Squat Guide
  3. Deadlift Guide

2. Isolation Ab Exercises

Isolation training for the abs can be helpful to target individual muscle groups that may be misfiring and/or impeding overall performance. Integrating isolated movements to target the main types of movement of the core (flexion, extension, anti-rotation) can help to develop a balanced and symmetrical core.

Below are a few isolation core exercises that can be performed to increase development of the abdominals, obliques, and erectors.

  1. Hanging Knee Raise Guide
  2. Russian Twist Guide
  3. Sit-Up Guide

3. Isometric Ab Exercises

Isometric core training is key for increasing strength and stability of the transverse abdominals and spinal stabilizers. While the torso is acting isometrically during heavy compound movements, it is important to add targeted training to further enhance the injury resilience and core strength.

Below are a few isometric exercises that can be done to increase core and pelvic stability and increase core activation.

4. Breathing Drills

Correct breathing and bracing is essential for spinal health and performance during strenuous training and competitive lifts. Movements like squats, presses, pulls, and other sub-maximal and maximal lifts require increased intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine and support heavy loads.

Below are some resources to help coaches and lifters understand the importance of bracing and how to properly breathe during heavy lifts.

Different Types of Ab Training Exercises

There are four (4) main classifications of ab training movements, each referring to the specific joint action of responsibility of the abdominal muscles.

Flexion Exercises

Flexion of the spine occurs in movements that target the rectus abdominis. Exercises like crunches, sit-ups, cable crunches, and toes to bar all can be done to target the rectus abdominis and hip flexors.

Extension Exercises

Extension exercises create spinal extension, and are often involved in postural strength of many strength and power movements. Exercises like hyperextensions, reverse-hypers, and supermans all target the erector muscles.

Anti-Rotational Exercises

Anti-rotation exercises can refer to any exercise that targets the muscles involved with spinal stability. Resistance to spinal rotation, which is different than trunk rotation, can be developed by interfering both isometric exercises like planks and Pallof presses and/or rotation movements like landmines and woodchoppers.

Anti-Flexion/Extension Exercises/Side

Anti-flexion, extension, and side bending exercises require the core musculature to resist different forms of counter forces being imposed on the body. This form of training is often present in exercises like ab rollouts, unilateral carries, and overhead carries.

How Often Should You Train Abs?

Training the abs can be done in a variety of frequencies and often depends on the level of the lifter, goals, and overall training volume per session.

The abdominals, like all muscles, require recovery for growth. The abdominals are typically made up of Type-I muscle fibers, which are classified as being more resistant to fatigue. Due to this, it is generally said that the abdominals can be trained more frequently and in higher training volumes (increased loads, reps, sets) than other muscle groups.

Repetitions and loading can vary, and should vary for optimal development. Many lifters opt to use light loads and high repetitions, missing out on activating and developing the Type-II muscle fibers that are present in the abdominals. Be sure to develop a program that includes both heavier core training movements and more endurance-based repetition schemes for overall core development.