How often do you train your abs? For some guys and gals, a workout isn’t complete until knocking out a few sets of abdominal exercises. You might think hitting those ab muscles more often will help you get strong and firm – but does it? Is daily abdominal training really necessary or beneficial?
Discover Your Ab Muscles
Your abdominals are covered in a layer of muscle over which lies a layer of fat. Extending down from your rib cage to your pelvis is the large, superficial muscle we know of as the rectus abdominis. You’ve probably heard this muscle appropriately called the “six-pack” muscle. When you develop this muscle and your body fat is low enough to show that development, you get those coveted, and hard to get, ripples that so many bodybuilders want. As you might expect, women have a harder time getting a six-pack because of a higher body fat percentage.
To the sides of the rectus abdominis, running diagonally on either side are the external and internal oblique muscles. These muscles allow you to rotate your trunk from side to side as well as flex it forward. If you injure these muscles, you’ll feel it not only when you twist your body but when you walk or run as well. When these muscles are strong, it helps keep your hips and lower back stable.
Last but not least, is the deepest abdominal muscle called the transverse abdominus. This is also known as the corset muscle since it stabilizes your pelvis and holds everything in. A weak transverse abdominis predisposes to poor posture, lower back pain, and a stubborn abdominal “pooch.” Standard abdominal training exercises, like crunches, don’t work this muscle effectively. To target this deep muscle, you need exercises like planks that pull in your abdominal wall.
One little utilized exercise called the stomach vacuum targets this deep abdominal muscle as well. To do a stomach vacuum, stand as straight as you can. Then, exhale all of the air out of your lungs as you draw your stomach in as if trying to move your belly button to your spine. Hold this position as long as possible.
How Often Should You Work These Muscles?
Now that you know what muscles you’re working, how often should you train your abs? As mentioned, your abs are no different than other muscles that you train. They need rest and recovery time between workouts to grow and become stronger. When you target them every session, you limit their ability to recover. One mistake some people make is they work their abs every workout using high reps and little or no resistance. That might lead to strength gains and muscle growth when you first start training, but your body quickly adapts to such a repetitive, predictable training schedule.
One of the fundamental tenets of muscle growth is progressive overload. When you do the same abdominal training routine without resistance month after month, where’s the progressive overload? You can increase the volume of reps you do but you’re still primarily building muscle endurance, not strength or definition. A better approach is to add resistance and use a resistance that only allows you to complete 10 to 12 reps. Rather than repeating the same ab routine every day, cut back the frequency to two or three times a week and add more resistance.
How do you add resistance? When doing crunches, hold a dumbbell or a weighted ball across your chest to make your ab muscles work harder. Doing crunches in a declined position is another way to add overload and make your abs work harder. If you have a decline board you can lie on, take advantage of it. Once decline crunches become less challenging, hold a light weight in across your chest and gradually increase the weight over time.
You can also place a weight on your back when you do planks to add resistance. Another way to increase the overload is to hold the plank position longer. Harder plank variations are another way to give your abs a more challenging workout. Some harder options include: planks with dumbbell rows, plank rollouts using a wheel, side shuffle planks, knee drive planks, plank with arm extension, plank into a push-up, and rolling planks. These aren’t the only options but it should inspire you to try a harder variation to promote growth.
Abdominal Training: Less is More
When you add progressive overload to your abdominal training, less training will become more. When you’re using more resistance, 48 hours of rest between workouts is essential for recovery. Just as you wouldn’t work other body parts with weights more than 2 or 3 times a week, the same goes for weighted ab exercises. Yet, the added resistance may be just what your muscles need to finally “pop.”
Compound Lifts Help Your Abs Grow Too
When you do compound exercises that target your lower body, like squats and deadlifts, you also work the muscles in your core region. You can show your deep transverse abdominus, the corset muscle, extra love by doing abdominal vacuums when you do other exercises, like biceps curls, triceps kickbacks, and overhead presses. Suck your abdominal wall in to help strengthen the deepest abdominal muscle of all, your transverse abdominus. This muscle is too often ignored by the bodybuilding community.
Compound exercises, especially ones that work multiple muscle groups, burn calories and promote the release of growth hormone. That’s helpful if you have a layer of fat covering your abs. Finally, regardless of how often you train your abs, nutrition counts. Too many people get the abdominal training part right and don’t progress because they’re loose with their diet.
Are You Eating an Ab-Friendly Diet?
The best dietary advice for building abs is to get between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily and eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet as much as possible. Make sure you’re getting 7 or more hours of sleep per night. Less sleep than this on a consistent basis places stress on your body. In response, your adrenal glands release more cortisol – and that’s not good for your waistline. Cortisol increases cravings for sugary foods and can trigger body fat redistribution with most of it landing on your waist and tummy. That’s self-defeating, isn’t it?
The Bottom Line
Stop focusing on doing a hundred crunches every time you work out and shift towards doing fewer crunches using more resistance. Then, make sure you’re doing a well-rounded workout that also targets the deep transverse abdominis muscle and obliques as well. Planks should be as much a part of your ab routine as crunches. You need progressive overload to build abs but, using this approach, you shouldn’t train them every day. Just make the time you DO train count.
National Strength and Conditioning Association. “Core Training for the Deep Abdominal Muscles”
SuperAbs Resource Manual. Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
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