Ab, or core training, is one of most sought out topics in the fitness population. There are generally three major reasons people continue to seek out and make core training one of their main fitness prerogatives. First, the aesthetics that come with a “ripped” core. Second, the performance benefits in sports. And lastly, the preventative benefits for one’s posture, pelvis alignment, and lower back health.
In an oversimplified statement, a strong core is essential for almost every movement we make, and can act as a limiting factor for many athletes. For example, one can only move so much weight (let’s say in a squat) without a certain level of core strength and stability to maintain their fixed body angle.
This article will dive into the topic of how often to train the core, ab myths, ab truths, and effective means of doing so.
Abs Muscles and Fiber Types
The Main Ab Muscles
The core is made up of multiple superficial and deep muscles, but for the sake of this article, we’re going to reference the core as the four most commonly known ab muscles. These four muscles include the: Rectus abdominis, external abdominis oblique, internal abdominal oblique, and transerse abdominis. A couple of the deeper core muscles include the psoas and the multitifidus.
These four major muscles are what most think about when they train their abs, as they’re the superficial muscles that will provide one with “six pack ab” look. The core muscle fibers are smaller in size relative to some of the major muscles on the limbs/hips, and can often be trained a little more frequently due to this characteristic.
Ab Fiber Types
One of the reasons we can train the core a little more frequently is due to their muscle fiber composition. The core is predominately made up of Type-I (slow twitch) muscle fibers, which are fibers inherently known for their ability to handle prolonged work. For example, marathon runners often have higher amounts of Type-I fibers, as these muscles have the capability of producing prolonged bouts of work through the way they utilize energy.
A study from 1979 analyzed the composition of the fiber types for the four major ab muscles we referenced above. The study authors found that the fiber composition in their subjects only varied slightly, and the fibers had similar attributes in relationship to the fiber breakdown. For example, they noted that subjects’ cores were composed of roughly 55-58% Type-I fibers, 15-23% Type-IIA, and 21-28% Type-IIB (now referred to as Type-IIX). The authors also suggested that the work capacity was higher in the Type-I fibers, and the core muscles all had relatively similar fiber compositions.
But keep in mind, this study is slightly older, and everyone will have slightly different ab muscle fiber compositions due to genetics and external influences. In addition, since this study’s publication, there’s been more research published that suggests we have the ability to slightly influence our muscle fibers’ composition and behavior. This being said, a consistent method of training could alter how our core performs and strengthens.
Ab Training Myths
Below are a few ab training myths that frequently get talked about, but are important to briefly touch upon before discussing training volume.
- Spot Reduction Will Reveal a 6-Pack: In short, we can’t just perform multiple crunches to reduce the fat covering the stomach to reveal a sculpted 6-pack.
- Training Can Outweigh Diet: Both are important, but when it comes to revealing visible abs, a great diet constitutes more of an influence on our bodyfat amounts, which will be the factor to reveal the strong abs we’ve built underneath.
- Training Abs Everyday Is Better: The abs can be trained more frequently than other major muscles, but still need rest and recovery. Like every other muscle, the abs or core can be overtrained, which is counter-intuitive to training.
- Compound Movements Are Enough: The compounds like squats, deadlifts, and presses utilize/activate the core, but if we’re talking about a goal to directly strengthen this muscle group, then there should be some direct core accessories.
Obviously, there’s more to each point above, but these are four misconceptions much of the general public tends to believe. Additionally, the abbreviated myths above left out one of the most important concepts of training, which is context for each trainee’s situation. Yet, for the majority of occasions, these myths are good starting points and reminders.
Ab Training Truths
Like the ab myths, there are also a few truths and points to keep in mind when strengthening the core. Below are three aspects that can benefit your ab training.
- Progressive Overload: Like every other muscle, the core will benefit best with a progressive overload. An example of this would be adding a little extra time to your planks every workout. It ensures your core is getting stronger in a calculated way.
- Pay Attention to Your Breathing: Unlike other exercises, the core benefits with a different breathing pattern than your typical valsalva maneuver (inhale on eccentric:exhale on concentric). If you perform your normal breathing pattern, then chances are you’re missing out on the ability to fully contract your core muscles. A full chest/belly of air will limit range of motion with trunk flexion
- Proper Mechanics: Proper mechanics are essential to building a better core. For example, performing “core” movements predominately with the hip flexors (ex: lower back arching in supine movements) would be an example of not utilizing the time you spend on the core optimally.
The method below is an easy way to check and gain the feeling of making sure you’re engaging the lower core in supine movements. To check this, lie on your back, place a band under the lumbar spine, and lift your legs off the ground.
If you’re properly engaging your low core and the lower back is flush with the ground, then the band will stay. If you’re arching and putting stress into the hips/back instead, then the band will come out.
How Often to Train the Abs
Now to answer the main question of the article: How often should one train their abs/core? Well, like with everything in the world of fitness, there isn’t a clear cut answer, but there are a few suggestions we can look at. Direct core and ab training will often be part of one’s accessory work, and will typically come at the very end of a workout to avoid decreased performance in major lifts.
When deciding how often to train the core, then a good starting point is to look at two factors in your training: Training history and current volume. These two factors will help you dial in how much core training you can perform in a weekly basis without fatiguing or sacrificing your workout’s other goals. Below are a few examples of how to incorporate core training at various fitness levels.
A beginner in the gym will need to build up a base, so they can have the ability to handle higher workloads. The core is like any other muscle and will need to have a foundation before jumping to higher frequencies. For this reason, training the core 1-2x a week directly will be a beneficial starting point.
- Training History: >1 year of resistance training
- Current Training Volume: 2-3x week
- Starting Core Work: 1-2x a week full core days
Intermediate & Advanced
Both the intermediate and advanced athletes will already have a training base, and more of a guided goal in the gym. At this point in one’s training career there’s often a calculated method behind why one’s in the gym, along with an understanding of what their body is capable of. For this reason, these folks can train the core directly more frequently, and 2-4x a week is usually sufficient (4 is on the much higher end).
- Training History: 1+ years of resistance training
- Current Training Volume: 3-5x a week
- Adding In Extra Core Work: 2-4x a week
This group of lifter should keep two aspects in mind when utilizing additional core work. First, they should cater these exercises around their current training goals. For example, it wouldn’t be optimal to exhaust the core a day before a heavy squat day, as this could decrease your compound lifts performance. Base additional core work off of compounds.
Second, breaking the core up into separate days can be a useful tool. Lower abs, obliques, and upper abs are three ways of deviating core work into different days. This is useful because it allows you to spend time on various aspects of the core, as opposed to exhausting every part of it 2-4x a week. Plus, if you know your lower core is weak for example, then doing this allows you to apply additional direct work to this area.
Training the core is like any other muscle group, and having a proper plan will produce the best results. The above information can help you construct the best plan based off of your workout, training history, and goals. Additionally, it’s important to remember that the recommendations included should be taken in conjunction with your current training status/goals, and what you apply or takeaway may differ slightly from what’s above.
Feature image screenshot from @marcusfilly Instagram page.
Editor’s Note: Paul Roller, MS, CSCS, CF-L1, USAW L1, and BarBend reader, had this to add after reading the above article:
“I think many people overlook the importance of fiber type in their training, as we see from the study cited in this article, you can easily train the abs more frequently because of this. This means you achieve your goal faster!
I love the ab myth section as well. All too often, I hear these exact four things repeated. A balance of training, lifestyle and approach is the best way of revealing that six pack that we all have!
Jake knows what he’s talking about.”