If you've done more leg lifts than a toll gate or spent more time in a Roman chair than Julius Caesar, but that coveted 6-pack is nowhere to be found, you've probably exhausted Google searching for answers. Ab training seems like a mystery.
Maybe it's because the abs have so many functions and are responsible for so many movements; or perhaps it's the infinite number of ab exercise choices; it could also be all those TV commercials offering the new secret ab weapon for $29.95.
Despite their aura of mystery, ab training questions do have answers. But, before you read any further, let me warn you: some of this information may make you realize you've been wasting a lot of time. Until now, that is.
What Exactly Is A 6-Pack?
The abdominal region is made up of several different muscles, but the actual 6-pack that shows through is the rectus abdominis.
It's a single muscle that's long and flat like a small surf board and it runs vertically from your hips to your rib cage.
The 6-pack is formed by the fibrous tendons reinforcing the fascia that covers the muscle.
You could possess abdominal muscles that resemble the underside of an ice cube tray, but if your body fat level isn't low enough, no one will ever see them.
The rectus abdominis has a couple functions. The primary role is "anti-extension" of the spine; the secondary role is to pull the hips toward the chest or the chest toward the hips.
Think of it this way: If your
spine was a bow, your abs
would be the string.
This muscle is made up of
mostly slow-twitch fibers,
designed for endurance; but it's basically a muscle like any other, and it should be worked with the same principles of muscle building that you would apply to all your other muscle groups.
What's Wrong With My Ab Training?
If you ask 10 fitness experts how to build great abs, I guarantee you'll get vastly different answers. Some say you best grow abs by performing structural exercises like squats, deadlifts and standing overhead lifts.
While these exercises are some of the most effective for building overall strength - and involve just about every muscle in your body - you still need to single out each muscle group separately for maximum growth.
Another expert would have you do static holds like planks, dead bugs or Supermans. These, too, are worth your effort because they've been shown to improve core stability and protect the spine. But would you try to build any other muscle group with a static hold?
Another strategy I see in most articles, and from most trainers, is a long list of low-intensity ab exercises done one after the other. This adds up to hundreds of reps. I guess the intention is to make trainees believe that never-ending reps burn fat right off their bellies.
I hope there's no one out there who still believes in the myth of 'spot reduction.' Sadly, the general rule of body fat is "the first place you gain fat is the last place you lose it."
I often see experts advising various leg or knee lift movements. Let's get one thing straight: ab muscles are not connected to your legs! Hip flexors are responsible for pulling your legs forward.
Don't believe me? Take this test: Stand up straight and relax your abs. Press your fingers into your abs so you would feel if they activate. Now raise one leg up in front of you. Did you feel any flexion in your abs? No!
If your spine isn't moving, you're only using your abs for stabilization. For leg lifts or knee lifts to hit your abs, you need to crunch your hips toward your shoulders.
Like the rectus abdominis, hip flexors bring your hips to your shoulders, and your shoulders to your hips. Hip flexors pull the legs forward; they also pull the torso toward the legs.
If your legs are stabilized in a Roman chair or your feet are anchored for old-fashioned sit-ups, chances are you're just holding your abs in a static contraction. Meanwhile, your hip flexors do all the real work.
I see the same situation when someone does cable crunches using a high pulley. They hold their spine in a fixed position and the hip flexors are responsible for all the effort.
So, Which Exercises Are Most Effective?
Lie on your back on a flat bench and scoot down so half of your butt hangs off the bench. The edge of the bench should be just at your tailbone.
Grasp both sides of the bench firmly. Your knees should be at a 90-degree angle and your toes should touch the floor. You should feel a stretch in your abs. This is your starting point.
Slowly tense your abs and bring your knees up in an arc until they point up toward the ceiling. Continue to contract your abs, bringing your butt off the bench, until your knees touch your elbows. Hold for a second. This is your finish position. Slowly lower your knees back down and tap your toes on the floor before starting another rep.
This exercise feels like it's performed in two stages,
because it actually is.
You cannot isolate the upper and lower abs, so the first stage of this movement emphasizes the lower abs and the second stage hits the upper abs.
Take a wide stance and put your lower back against the top half of the ball. Lower your butt while leaning back and raise your arms over your head. Then, lean your head and your arms all the way back and feel a deep stretch in your abs.
I love the feeling of this stretch and I tend to linger here for a while, not only because it feels good, but because it serves to stretch out the fascia encasing the abs. Your abs are almost always working, but the muscle and fascia never get fully stretched, so take full advantage of this opportunity.
Play around with your positioning on the ball, make adjustments to find that perfect spot. Keep your hands on top of your head, but don't pull on it.
Contract your abs and crunch your shoulders toward your hips, while expelling air from your lungs, until your abs are fully contracted. Hold for a second and slowly lower yourself back down to your fully-stretched position.
I perform my warm-up set without any weight for 20 reps. If you're able to complete this set without any problem, grab a weight and hold it above your head for the next set. Use a dumbbell or plate as if you were doing behind-the-head triceps extensions.
Work up to a weight where you fail at 12 reps. I find that 3-or-4 working sets are all I need. Many gyms have done away with stability balls due to liability issues, but you can perform this same movement lying perpendicular on a flat bench.
Because abs are made of slow-twitch fibers, I wouldn't work them with anything less than eight reps. But, stay below 25.
Should I Add Resistance To My Ab Work?
Some advise against it, claiming it will make your waist wider and your belly protrude. I don't believe this to be true. The rectus abdominis is a thin wall of muscle framed by the fibrous bands of the fascia that retain their shape.
The result of building mass in the muscle is that the individual sections pop out, showing that desired grid pattern. The farther out these sections pop, the more body fat you can carry and still have visible abs.
Twisting - Good Or Bad?
No article on abs is complete without discussing twisting movements. Any twisting or bending sideways involves the obliques. The oblique muscles attach your hips to your ribs and run diagonally on both sides of your trunk.
One of the most popular exercises, aimed at the obliques, is the good-old broomstick twist. What is it supposed to do, and how could it possibly be effective? It's one of those exercises people do because they've seen a lot of other people doing it. They must do something, right? Wrong.
I also see a lot of people doing the dumbbell side bend. My favorite fitness faux pas is when people do side bends with equal weights in each hand. They must have been absent the day this principle was covered in physics class.
Equal weights at each end of a horizontal beam (your shoulders) cancel each other out. The correct way to perform this exercise is to hold a dumbbell in one hand and then work the opposite oblique.
Stay away from the seated trunk rotation machine unless you want a thicker waistline and harmful shearing forces on your spine.
If you want to build oblique muscles, fine. Just know that oblique resistance training builds thickness in the muscle. This may produce a blocky waistline.
Ever seen a picture of a dude with ripped up abs and love handles? Those love handles aren't fat, they're well-developed obliques. If you're a physique athlete, or an aspiring one, developing your obliques isn't going to win you any contests.