ABS! ABS! ABS! Yes…it is that time of year we will all have it in the back of our minds that we have to get in shape for the summer, and the one thing that stands out and says your in shape is shredded washboard stomach…what we call, the 6-pack. No matter what muscle mass you may be carrying, no matter what your shape, if you have that 6-pack then you will no doubt stand out on the beach.

That ever-elusive 6-pack is something that anyone who dedicates a decent amount of time to their workouts covets, and strives to achieve. Unfortunately, a lot of us go about this in all the wrong way.

If you walk into a gym you can guarantee you will see someone performing countless crunches on the exercise mat, session after session, with no real improvement in their abdominal area? It’s quite a common occurrence.

When it comes to ab muscles, you must train them in a similar way to all your other muscle groups. You also have to get your diet in line.

“Abs are made in the kitchen.” Whoever first said that wasn’t lying. Getting ripped abs is going to be about 80% due to a really solid diet and 20% due to your ab exercises you do. You can have the best thought-out program in the world, but if you have a layer of fat covering your abs, no one is going to see the abdominal muscles you’ve developed.

So, the first truth you need to know about abdominal training is that diet is the single most important factor. There is no way around this unless you are one of the genetically lucky few who can eat all they want and they stay lean, no doubt it will catch up on them though and we will get the last laugh.

Now, we’ll have a look at the whole truth behind your abdominal training….

Frequency

One of the questions that pops up is: How frequently should I be training my abdominal muscles? Some believe that these are “endurance” muscles and as such, should be trained each and every day.

Think about this for a second and ask yourself: When does a muscle actually grow and become stronger? Answer: During rest.

So, if you’re hitting your abs every day you are either doing one of two things:

1)  Not giving your muscles enough time to recover between sessions, thus, further breaking them down each consecutive session, reducing any results you’ll see.

2)  You’re not working them hard enough in the first place to create those tiny muscle tears that are necessary in order for them to grow back stronger.

Whichever factor is at play with your training, you need to fix it.

You should also take your overall goals into account when determining your frequency. If you’re looking for sheer strength, you will likely want to use weight — and heavy weight — with your abdominal training. As such, you will need more time to recover and should consider doing your ab exercises about two or three times each week.

If you are looking to achieve more core stability from your training, then you should be able to bump this up to about three or four times each week since you will be doing more agility-based exercises with less weight.

Some gym heads tend to think that abs need less time to recover than the other muscle groups since they are smaller, but if you stop to think about this once again you’ll realize that your ab muscles really aren’t chemically different from your chest muscles. They are both muscle fiber tissues and will respond in similar ways. The harder you work the muscles, the more damage you will do and, thus, the more rest you will need. There is no additional benefit to training abs every single day.

We continue our hunt for the truth about abdominal training…

Volume

Next up, you need to determine the volume you should use with your abdominal training. Is doing 100 crunches in a row correct, or should you be doing only 8 to 12 reps of a weighted crunchbe more beneficial and be like you would any other weight-lifting exercise?

Again, let’s look at your goals: Remember that weight lifted and total reps will have an inverse relationship, so the more weight you are using the fewer reps you should be doing.

Also you must keep in mind that the abdominal muscles are highly adaptive to exercise so you absolutely must keep changing the exercises on a regular basis, especially if you aren’t using weight. Once your abs recognize a movement they’ve done before, chances are they aren’t going to feel the need to change all that much.

Aim to have three to four exercises that you regularly cycle through from week to week. You can keep the same exercise in for a few consecutive sessions, but after that move on to the next.

When to do your ab work

The third factor to address is when you should be doing your ab work. With this, remember that your abs are going to largely act as stabilizer muscles throughout your other lifts, particularly the squat, deadlift and military press.

If they are already considerably fatigued from your abdominal training, this could potentially set you up for injury while performing the other lifts, which happen to be lifts that you’ll usually be using a large volume of weight tom complete. In order to prevent injury, be sure your abdominal training comes at the end of your workout.

Exercise selectionFinally, the last point to address is the actual exercise selection you choose with your abdominal training.

A common myth is that you should work your “upper abs” and “lower abs” separately. Truth be told, you cannot actually separate these muscles, and when you perform any abdominal exercise they will all contract simultaneously.

What you do want to focus on (if your goal is agility) is reducing your base of support as much as possible. This is what will work most effectively to really target your deep muscle fiber tissue and give you the best workout possible.

Good choices here would be abdominal work on an exercise ball, clocks (rotating the legs in a circular motion while lying on the floor), twisting work standing on a bosu ball, or partner work with medicine balls.

Alternatively, if you’re going for strength and are using weight, select movements that will get you moving through a great range of motion so that you can strengthen your muscles from the greatest angles possible. Good choices here would be decline sit-ups, weighted hanging leg raises and cable-cross bends.

If you’re stuck for ideas when it comes to new exercises for abdominal training, don’t be afraid to approach a trainer. There are many different pieces of equipment that are coming out as well that can be used to enhance your workouts and a trainer might be able to direct you to one of these.

Furthermore, keep in mind that it really doesn’t take all that much change overall to prevent the adaptation that your abs experience to any given exercise, so it can be simply adjusting your stance/laying position slightly from week to week to keep seeing progress.

With the summer round the corner I wish you the best of luck in your quest to develop abs!

Phil Downing PT
Personal Trainer at Liverpool Personal Training Studios.