Many of the conversations surrounding the abs can be oddly polarizing. Some prefer to think of them as wasted training time, others like to overemphasize their core with near obsessive volume. The truth, of course, is that optimal abdominal training lies somewhere in between, but understanding the how and why of effective core training is what ensures a proper return on your investment.
Your abdominals are heavy contributors to midline stability, torso rigidity, and aesthetic development of the upper body. While many coaches and lifters believe the majority of abdominal training benefits can be attained by heavy squats and deadlifts alone, strategic abdominal programming prevents gaps from developing for sport-specific core demands and aesthetic goals alike.
Since you only get out what you put in, we’re going to lay out the basic building blocks of properly exercising your core. This Ab Training 101 guide will discuss:
- What Is Ab Training
- Benefits of Ab Training
- How to Program Ab Training
- Ab Training For Hypertrophy
- Ab Training For Performance
- Anatomy of the Abs
Ab training can be broken down into a few distinct categories. Training for abdominal function, or sport-specific performance, requires the abdominals to be used in an isometric, movement-resisting fashion.
Some sport-specific applications may also require explosive or rotational demands on the core. If you want to add new muscle to your core, the abdominals should be treated like any other muscle group while pursuing hypertrophy — this means targeted, concentric-based contractions, sufficient training volume, and some form of progressive overload.
Abdominal function for sports performance often presents as “anti” exercises. The abdominals are a major contributor to midline stability – which requires the abdominals to isometrically counter any force being absorbed by the lifter which would move them away from a neutral spine. These exercises can be described as anti-flexion, anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-rotation.
Training for improved aesthetics, or muscular hypertrophy, is most effective when the targeted muscle group generates enough mechanical tension that comes as close to absolute fatigue as possible.
This is most commonly achieved using concentric contractions and loading schemes that produce muscle failure between eight and up to 20 repetitions. The abdominals are capable of contributing to spinal flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. However, the most externally-visible of your abdominal muscles will be the rectus abdominis and external obliques.
The benefits of training the abdominals are diverse and depend on your training context. That said, without a doubt everyone has some component of their goal that would be improved by abdominal training. Increased core stability and strength, improved athletic performance, the obvious boost to aesthetics, and decreased injury risk are four that immediately come to mind.
Increased Core Stability and Strength
Core stability and strength is required to safely execute nearly every full body exercise both in the gym and in daily life. Both integrated core stability training and direct abdominal work have the capacity to contribute to stronger lifts and make you more prepared for tasks outside the weight room.
Improved Athletic Performance
The stronger your core the better you can transfer force through the torso in nearly every sporting performance. Whether you’re doing powerful throws, testing absolute strength, or resisting an opposing player on the field or court, a strong core is an invaluable asset.
While minimizing body fat percentage is the major key for abdominal aesthetics, the abs are also muscles like any other. Direct hypertrophy training for the abdominals definitely helps them pop that much more once you strip away excess body fat.
Learning to properly utilize a core brace during exercise and sport is one surefire way to reduce risk of injury. The core is designed to reinforce the spine and help transfer force through the torso for any number of athletic movements, particularly when lifting weights. Proper bracing technique and a strong set of abs is crucial to resist dangerous forces from acting on the lumbar spine.
The “why” of ab training is an open-and-shut case, but the “how” is a bit more specific. If you’ve already got a full plate of workouts every week, it might seem challenging at a glance to include even more work for your core.
Fortunately, ab training doesn’t necessarily need to take up too much real estate in your weekly plan. A solid core workout, whether for growth or performance, can be slotted into the end of another training day or conducted as a standalone session.
To Start Your Workout
Any physical quality you’re invested in developing belongs at the start of your workout when you’re mentally fresh and energy levels are high. If making ab gains is a high priority, hit up the yoga mat or cable crunch first thing when you walk into the gym.
Performing your ab training before any other type of exercise will allow you to put in the most effort and attention to that work, bettering your gains. However, this may not be best practice if your subsequent training demands a lot of your abs. It’s not wise torch your core and then head directly to the squat rack.
As a Finisher
It’s perfectly fine to perform a core workout after you’re done with your other exercises. In fact, going through your workout before starting your ab training makes for a great warm-up and can ensure that you’re in a good mindset to work on your core.
That said, if you’ve been in the gym for an hour or two, it can be tempting to forego the crunches altogether and head home. If you decide to do your ab work at the end of your session, stick to your guns on it and don’t blow it off.
On Its Own Day
Resting between intense training sessions is incredibly important for making gains long-term. However, ab training can be considered a soft exception in some cases. In terms of training stimulus, there’s a massive difference between a 15-minute core workout and going back to the gym to smash out more heavy squats.
Provided you’re not pushing yourself too hard, you can also do ab sessions on your rest days. This is particularly useful if you like to use calisthenics for your core, which can be performed at home without having to return to the gym.
Training for abdominal hypertrophy comes down to a delicate balance of generating enough volume to trigger abdominal muscle growth but not interfering with any of your heavy lifting or other performance goals.
If a chiseled core is what you’re after, go full speed ahead with an emphasis on matching training frequency with abdominal recovery. That in mind, the abdominals tend to be an extremely resilient muscle group — once they are no longer sore, fire away. Here’s a sample abdominal workout for inducing growth.
Abdominal performance training is about matching the specific exercises to the requirements of the sport. Many solid movements fall within the realm of isometric training with various amounts of anti-flexion, anti-extension, or anti-rotation.
Your best practice is to find exercises that simulate the real-world demands of whatever you’re training for. Below is a reliable starter workout for core performance that should cover most bases.
- Paused Front Squat: 3 x 5
- Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry: 3 x 20 steps per direction
- Front Plank: 3 x 30 seconds
There are four primary muscles to consider when training the abs, but when describing the core anatomy overall there are a few more muscles in play. Understanding how your core is built is crucial to learning how to train it.
The rectus abdominis is the most easily-visible muscle group and is responsible for spinal flexion and integrated core bracing. It runs the length of the anterior core and is the main component of the highly sought after six-pack.
The internal and external obliques reside along the on either side of the rectus abdominis on side of your torso. They are layered on top of each other and largely contribute to side flexion, rotation, and general core bracing.
The transverse abdominis can be found one layer deeper than the internal obliques, contributing to integrated core bracing and rotation. The transverse abdominis is hard to directly target with core exercises, but comes into play as an auxiliary stabilizer during most movements.
Unsung Core Contributors
When training core stability there is an inseparable connection between the abdominal muscles and several other muscle groups that overlap with abdominal function in protecting the spine.
Of note are the spinal erectors, quadratus lumborum, iliopsoas, glutes, and adductor magnus. These muscles often get a ton of focus during heavy compound exercises and help your abs do their job during most forms of full-body training.
Best Ab Exercises
The best ab exercise really depends on your goals. For a stunning six-pack, spinal flexion is key. But if a personal record squat is on the horizon, resisting force must be involved in abdominal training.
In order to produce a six-pack set of abs, body fat must be lowered to the point where the abdominal region becomes noticeably lean. Now that the mandatory public service announcement has been handled, abdominal crunches are designed to produce safe spinal flexion by contracting the rectus abdominis. This is the six-pack muscle group and by hitting them hard with abdominal crunches using hypertrophy guidelines they should start to pop more and more.
While a fairly vanilla recommendation, the standard-issue front plank is one of the most diversely beneficial exercises. It trains anti-extension, but cues the core engagement necessary to successfully brace during heavy lifting. It requires low to no equipment or space, making it a staple that cannot be beat in terms of getting the most bang for your buck.
Hanging Knee Raise
The hanging knee raise integrates a ton of valuable control to a similar spinal flexion pattern as the abdominal crunch. While it will contribute to developing a good six pack, the real value comes from how it trains you to precisely brace and control your legs while your trunk remains still — lest your body awkwardly compensate.
In line with the theme of high-value integrated abdominal exercises, the kettlebell windmill trains many of the crucial bracing and aesthetic muscles all at once. The rotational aspect reinforces mobility while the return trip to the starting position helps to develop the deep spinal bracing musculature as well as the more visually-present obliques.
Putting It All Together
Ab training isn’t as glamorous as a good biceps workout or as intense as pulling 500 pounds for the first time. However, a solid core — whether you train for show or for go — does a lot for your experience both in and out of the gym.
No matter what goals you’re after, a reliable core training regimen should be part of your physical pursuits. Ab training doesn’t really come with any drawbacks, so it’s probably best to just get to work.
Featured Image: Serhii Bobyk / Shutterstock