Truth be told, abdominal muscles, while normally sought after for aesthetic purposes, serve a critical function. Many of you have heard how the abs and lower back are considered the "core" of the body. Virtually any bodybuilding or strength training movement requires its support. In sports, it's one thing to possess a 250lb physique, it's another thing to be able to use that weight to your advantage. That's where strong abdominal muscles come in.
Well-trained and conditioned abs allow one to change direction faster, generate force quicker, and absorb blows better. So whether you're a football player looking for that extra edge, or a fitness buff looking to polish your physique, mid-section training should be approached with a well thought-out plan.
Read This First
Let me begin by saying this. If you are training to lose fat, the ONLY thing you must do to get a six-pack is to lose the fat covering them. Thousands of crunches alone will not work. It takes a combination of diet, cardio, and training to shed fat. This means quitting the junk food, doing time on the treadmill, and hitting the gym ever so often! In time, you will see your abs start to appear, all it takes is some patience and persistence.
There are many articles on this website that will help you devise a diet and training approach to help you achieve your goals. My article focuses on training the abdominal muscles specifically for their overall development and optimum function.
A Brief Anatomy Lesson
There are four main muscle groups that need to be trained for a strong and healthy core.
1) Rectus Abdominis
This muscle is your "six-pack" muscle and runs down the front of your stomach. Their primary function is to FLEX the abs. For example, bringing the chest toward the hips i.e. crunches, or bringing the thighs toward the chest i.e. leg raises.
These muscles run down the side of your waist. They are activated through ROTATION (e.g. broomstick twist) and LATERAL FLEXION (e.g. bending from side to side).
3) Transversalis Abdominis
This muscle group lies underneath your Rectus Abdominis, and is responsible for sucking your tummy, a.k.a. compression (e.g. when you see a pretty lady walking toward you).
4) Erector Spinae
These are the muscles of the lower back, which help extend the abdominal region a.k.a. hyperextension.
5) * Serratus/ Intercoastals
Although not considered part of the "core", a set of well-developed serratus add a finished-look to any set of abs. They are the fan-shaped muscles that lie just above the rib cage, and they make an average physique look incredible. Exercises that train the serratus include cable (rope) crunches, and dumbbell pullovers.
Core Training For Athletes
The functions of the main core muscles (abs and lower back) can be divided into 5 categories:
- Lateral flexion
The body can perform these movements at any given time during athletic activity. This is why I suggest athletes not neglect any area of core training. Instead, they should adopt a holistic approach. Too often, young athletes focus on doing 5 sets of sit-ups for abs and that's it.
You don't just flex your abs when you play football do you? Of course not! You may have to change direction (rotation), bend over backwards (extension), evade your opponent (lateral flexion), or brace yourself to take a hit (compression)! It is important to train ALL the muscles of the core, giving each one equal attention and focus.
The Athlete's Routine
Train the abdominal muscles regularly, with short but intense workouts. This will allow sufficient time for the abs to recover for subsequent workouts, while ensuring they are not overly fatigued to the point that it interferes with regular training. My recommendation is to train them three times a week, after a weights session.
Monday - Focus on flexion (upper abs), extension, and compression
Weighted crunch - 3 x 15
Hyperextensions - 3 x 15
Bridges - 3 x 30sec. *
Click here for a printable log of 'The Athlete's Routine - Monday'.
* Bridges are an excellent exercise for promoting abdominal control and stabilization. Get into a push-up position, except support your upper body with your elbows and forearms. You may want to perform this on an exercise mat to make it comfortable on the elbows..
Wednesday - Focus on extension, lateral flexion, rotation
Hyperextensions - 3 x 15
Overhead side bends - 3 x 15 *
Russian Twists - 3 x 15 #
Click here for a printable log of 'The Athlete's Routine - Wednesday'.
* Standing with feet spread wide apart, and holding two light dumbbells overhead (arms straight up), bend slowly from side to side. A slight bend is all it takes to activate the obliques.
# With feet wedged under a weight plate, bend the knees and keep your butt on the floor while leaning backwards slightly. Hold a light weight-plate in front of you (arms straight and perpendicular to torso), and rotate the trunk from side to side.
Friday - Focus on flexion (lower abs), rotation, compression
Hanging leg raises - 3 x 15 (with twist)
Russian twists - 3 x 15
Bridges - 3 x 30sec.
Click here for a printable log of 'The Athlete's Routine - Friday'.
Core Training For The Bodybuilder
Abdominal training for a bodybuilder is somewhat different. It is carried out to ensure optimum function, but it must not be at the expense of aesthetics. Too much heavy rotation or lateral flexion exercises build up the obliques excessively, giving a wide and blocky appearance to the waistline. Because of this, many bodybuilders avoid lateral flexion and rotation movements with added resistance. Some even avoid abdominal training as a whole, to keep their waist as small as possible. However, I believe there is still value in core training:
Abdominal training teaches the individual to learn to control and contract his/her waistline. For competitive bodybuilders, having control of their abs is vital, especially when posing. You may have to hold your abs in for extended periods of time while on stage.
Ab training builds and thickens (to some extent) the muscles of the abs. But once the fat has been dieted away, these thickened ab (and serratus) muscles stand out to present a rugged, 3-dimensional six-pack that looks good from all angles (as opposed to only being flat).
Strong ab and lower back muscles help stabilize the body, especially when you are lifting hardcore weights, and help prevent injury. Of course, proper form must be maintained during exercise, otherwise injury is inevitable.
The Bodybuilder-Friendly Approach
Both the upper and lower abs can be trained as usual, and added resistance can be applied. Some prefer to add resistance to build up these muscles so that they "pop-out", while others prefer to use no resistance at all. I suggest experimenting with resistance/no resistance to see which works for you.
No question, the lower back is one of the most important muscle groups in the body. It should be trained on a regular basis in order to promote overall stability and to prevent injuries. You use your lower back everyday. Whether it's squatting 300lbs, or bending over to pick up a bag of groceries, a weak lower back is an injury waiting to happen. Train it regularly and train it well. Most people usually train their lower back on back day, so I will not include it in the workout to follow.
3) Lateral Flexion
Side bends build up the obliques too much and give a wider, blocky appearance to the physique. I suggest avoiding them. If you must, do them with extremely light weights to avoid making the obliques too thick.
Exercises such as the Russian twist and other gym machines that add resistance to rotational movements also add size to the obliques and should be approached with caution. I personally prefer performing rotational exercises with NO or very little resistance at all, aiming for a nice stretch in the obliques. The broomstick twist comes to mind - an old school exercises which gives a good stretch in the abs while not adding any unwanted resistance.
Compression exercises are perhaps the most overlooked bodybuilder's ab routine. Learning to master control of your abs is important for performing a vacuum pose (which is rare nowadays), and keeping your waist tight at all times. How often have you seen a well-built bodybuilder with a gut hanging out like a beer belly? Yes, part of that may be due to excess body fat, but part of it is also due to the lack of abdominal control. Bridges and vacuum exercises can be used to correct this problem.
The Bodybuilder's Routine
Core training can be more flexible for the bodybuilder, since it is mainly used for aesthetic development. Bear in mind that lower back training is very important, and I suggest you incorporate it into your back routine. As a result, you won't see exercises like hyper extensions in the following routine. My suggestion is to train he abs twice a week, when time permits. If you desire to increase the frequency/volume of training, by all means do so.
Day 1: Flexion (upper abs), rotation, compression
Weighted rope crunches - 3 x 15
Broomstick twists - 3 x 60sec. (twist continuously for 1min.)
Vacuums - 1 x 10 *
Click here for a printable log of 'The Bodybuilder's Routine - Day 1'.
* get on all fours, torso parallel to the floor, take a deep breath and exhale. At the same time, suck you abs IN and UP into your rib cage. Hold for 10 seconds, or longer if you can. Just don't pass out!
Day 2: Flexion (lower abs), rotation, compression
Hanging leg raises - 3 x 15
Russian Twists - 3 x 15 (use bodyweight only)
Bridges - 3 x 30sec.
Click here for a printable log of 'The Bodybuilder's Routine - Day 2'.
Tips For Performing Ab Exercises Correctly
- Always perform your reps SLOW and CONTROLLED. Ten good reps are always better than a hundred sloppy ones.
- Never sacrifice form for heavier weights. Start with a light weight, and build your way up.
- Perform exercises on a padded surface when possible, to minimize stress on the lower back. (e.g. crunches, leg raises, Russian twists, sit-ups)
- Visualize your muscles contracting and stretching while doing these exercises. This really helps promote good form and control.
A Final Note
Bear in mind your core muscles are already being worked when you perform most bodybuilding/strength training exercises. Squats, bench presses, deadlifts, chins, barbell curls, etc. all require the abs to contract in order to support the body.
As such, you are already indirectly stimulating them. Just because you don't train your abs like a madman doesn't necessarily mean you don't already have a strong core. Don't go crazy on ab training. They need to rest and recover, just like the rest of your muscles!
Whether you are a bodybuilder or football player, a thought out, well-planned routine is the best way to approach ab training. Whatever your goals, these exercises can be used to improve abdominal function for sports performance, or transform an average set of flat abs into a world-class ripped and rugged six-pack. Keep experimenting, figure out what works for you, and you'll be on your way to a great mid-section.