However, keep in mind that the greatest looking abdominals are doomed to eternal hiding if your diet, weight training and cardiovascular exercise are not dialed in. The secret to great abs lies in performing an effective routine that will stimulate them from all angles by using the correct set and repetition schemes in order to develop these muscles and by lowering your body fat enough through diet and training in order to be able to show this development.
If you want great abdominals and have the determination necessary to do what it takes to get them, in this article I describe the path that will lead to success.
Well-defined and tight abs are the most sougt-after body part as a hard midsection is associated with being in good shape. In order to design a program that will properly stimulate the abs, we first need to take a small anatomy lesson.
I Break The Abdominals Down Into Four Main Muscle Groups:
- The Rectus Abdominis (composed of upper and lower abdominals)
- The Oblique Muscles
- The Intercostal Muscles
- The Serratus Anterior
Rectus Abdominis Function & Exercises
The muscle that extends from the top of the pelvis to the sternum is called the rectus abdominis. This is the primary abdominal muscle, which when properly developed (assuming that the person has low enough body fat levels) will give the illusion of a six-pack. Its function is to pull the upper torso towards the hips when the body is only slightly flexed at the waist.
This is the reason why if you are doing a sit-up, any additional torso movement done past the initial 30 degrees from the floor will not stimulate the abs; instead the hips will be the ones that will complete the movement. Because of this, partial sit-ups performed with the torso moving up to 30 degrees and crunches are great allies in our quest to achieve great abs.
However, if you really want to maximally stimulate the abdominals, prevent lower back problems and get the most "bang for your buck" so to speak, then you need to also consider the fact that the anatomy of the rectus abdominis is such that if you do not bend your torso backwards by around 15 to 20 degrees then you won't be able to accomplish these things.
Since the floor only provides a flat surface, not only your abs will not get maximal stimulation, but also they will not learn how to properly contract and protect your back when your body is bent backwards (as is often the case when advanced bodybuilders perform exercises like standing military presses).
The only way to get around this is by investing on a swiss ball (also known as exercise ball or medicine ball). A swiss ball is a great small investment (they run for about $13-$15) as this apparatus will allow you to get the necessary backwards bend that your torso needs in order to maximally stimulate your abs. So because of this, crunches performed on an exercise ball are the way in which I recommend you perform this exercise.
Since the rectus abdominis also has muscles in the lower region that help maintain proper postural alignment, it becomes necessary to include reverse crunches performed on the swiss ball (make sure that you hold to a stationary sturdy object) as this exercise will allow you to go below the neutral (flat) position. Another good lower abdominal exercise is the hanging leg raises. The key for maximal stimulation in this exercise is to roll the pelvis slightly backwards at the beginning of the movement.
Oblique Muscles Function & Exercises
The external obliques are the muscles at the sides of the waist. The external oblique complex actually consists of three layers of muscles: the internal obliques, the transverse obliques and external obliques. Together, these muscles contract to tilt the torso, as well as twist it, from side to side.
While a bodybuilder would not want massive obliques as this would take away from symmetry and give the illusion of a thick waist, these muscle do need to be trained in order to maintain ideal postural alignment. A great exercise for these muscles is the side bends performed on a swiss ball. Another exercise that also needs to be performed for these muscles in order to exercise its rotating capabilities are the Russian Twists.
The Intercostal Muscles
The intercostals are the muscles of breathing that lie between the ribs and show as bands of muscle angling downward in the sides of the rib cage and the upper abdomen. The intercostals come into play by flexing the torso and causing it to twist, so doing any type of twisting crunch on a swiss ball will stimulate this group maximally.
The Serratus Muscles
The serratus anterior muscles are the finger-like strands of muscle on the rib cage between the front abs and the lats. Their job is to depress the rib cage and also assist in bringing the upper arms from a position pointing directly up from the shoulders to one pointing directly below the shoulders. A good exercise that will stimulate these muscles is the one-arm cable crunches (using an overhead pulley).
How Much, How Often?
Since we have now identified which exercises should be present in our specialized abdominal training routine, let's now figure out how much will we do of each and how often.
Believe it or not, the abdominal muscles are composed mainly of fast twitch fibers. These fibers (as opposed to the slow twitch, endurance type ones), are composed of the strongest types of muscle fibers and are thus designed for short bouts of explosive hard work. Because of this, fast-twitch fibers respond best to heavy weight/low repetition work. Therefore, performing more than 15 repetitions per set on your abdominal exercises will be largely a waste of time!
So for abs, lets keep the repetitions from as low as 5 to a maximum of 15. As far as sets, if you perform days of lower repetitions, you can do as much as 5 sets per exercise, while on higher repetition days you can get away with 3 sets. For abs, you want to mainly concentrate on the intensity of the contraction and you really want to feel the movement. However, ensure that you choose a tempo that allows you to finish all of your repetitions within a time span of 40 seconds.
Typically, as you lower the repetitions and increase the resistance, the lower the tempo should be and the higher the repetitions, the faster the exercise should be performed. Also, as you get stronger, you may want to start adding resistance to your exercises except for the ones that target the obliques. Oblique exercises should be executed with no weights even as the repetitions get lower. On lower repetition days, just concentrate on holding the contraction longer at the peak of the movement.
As far as how often, we need to keep in mind that fast twitch fibers take long to recover. Therefore, we need to train these muscles like we train any other muscles and give them the rest they need.
Below is my personal Exercise Prescription for Abs of Steel:
PHASE A (3 Weeks)
Monday and Thursday (Rectus Abdominis)
Giant set the following exercises:
30-degree partial sit-ups 3 sets of 15 repetitions (No Rest)
Hanging leg raises 3 sets of 15 repetitions (No Rest)
Swiss ball crunches 3 sets of 15 repetitions (No Rest)
Swiss ball reverse crunches 3 sets of 15 repetitions (1 Minute Rest)
Click here for a printable log of PHASE A - Mon, Thurs!
Tuesday and Friday (Obliques, Intercostals, and Serratus)
Giant set the following exercises:
Swiss ball side bends 3 sets of 15 repetitions (No Rest)
Russian twists 3 sets of 15 repetitions (No Rest)
Twisting crunches on swiss ball 3 sets of 15 repetitions (No Rest)
One-arm high pulley crunches 3 sets of 15 repetitions (1 Minute Rest)
Click here for a printable log of PHASE A - Tue, Fri!
PHASE B (3 Weeks)
Perform the same exercises as above and in the same manner but do 4 sets of 10 repetitions for each.
PHASE C (3 Weeks)
Perform the same exercises as above and in the same manner but do 5 sets of 5 repetitions for each.
When To Perform This Routine
When I specialize on abdominal training I like to perform my abs first thing in the morning right before my cardiovascular training. That way, I can dedicate my full energy towards training them when I am fresh as opposed to training them after I am badly beaten from say a leg workout.
Remember: In order to showcase your awesome set of abs you also need to follow an exercise program and diet that is conductive to burning fat. There is no such thing as spot reduction.
However, in this article, I have provided you with a logical selection of exercises, set and repetition schemes that will develop your abdominals in record time! Persevere and you shall succeed! See you at the beach!