How often do you target your abs when you train? If you’re like some 6-pack seekers, you work them every day. But, is this the best approach to getting more ab definition?
The fact is most people overdo abdominal training by eking out hundreds of crunches at a stretch. You don’t train the rest of your body every day, or hopefully you don’t, as you know the muscles you just worked need to rest for 48 hours or longer before you hammer them again.
For some reason, people think this rule doesn’t apply to the muscles that make up the abs, the rectus abdominis, obliques, and deep transverse abdominis muscles. But, why would your abs be different than, say, your glutes or your chest? You don’t work these muscles every day. More than likely, you train them two or three times per week. The reality is the same should apply to your abdominal muscles.
However, the approach many people use is to belt out sets of abdominal curls every time they work out. Usually, the curls consist of a high number of reps without added resistance. Years ago, that was the standard approach to abdominal training. You would do 50 or even 100 abdominal crunches and call it an ab workout. But, that’s not the most effective approach to getting defined abdominal muscles.
How Abs Grow
To make a muscle more defined, you have to thicken it. In other words, the muscle fibers that make up your abdominal muscles must increase in size, so that your ab muscles are more defined. But, doing 100 curls or sit-ups mainly enhances abdominal endurance rather than strength or muscle size. That’s because you’re doing a high number of reps without resistance.
Imagine if you used the high rep approach with biceps curls. Each time, you picked up a set of very light weights and did hundreds of curls. Would you expect to hypertrophy your biceps? If so, you would probably be disappointed – and why should your abs be any different? You’ll make gains initially doing high reps, but your ab muscles will eventually adapt to the stress you place on them and stop hypertrophying and thickening. It’s true that abs have many slow-twitch, endurance muscle fibers that respond to higher reps and low resistance, but they also have fast-twitch muscle fibers and these fibers get ignored when you do high-rep training.
So, the better approach is to do LESS abdominal training and add some resistance so that your muscles have to work harder with each rep that you do. You’ll do fewer reps but get more benefits from those reps. Using resistance and reducing the number of reps also makes ab training more time expedient. So, why not hold a dumbbell or a medicine ball across your chest when you do curls? You’ll target the fast-twitch muscle fibers more for a more balanced workout. Rather than doing 20 or 30 crunches, do 10 using resistance. Another way to make a standard crunch harder is to lie on a decline bench when you crunch. If you have access to a machine, a cable pulldown crunch is another exercise that targets the abs with resistance.
Since you’re adding resistance to your abdominal training, these muscles need the same recovery time as other muscles you work against resistance. So, don’t work your abs every day. Focus on training them 2 to 3 times a week and make them work against resistance.
Exercise order matters too. Avoid training your core and abs early in a workout. Core strength is essential for performing your best on compound exercise, like deadlifts and squats. If you fatigue these muscles early, your performance on compound exercises will suffer. So, save your abdominal training for the end of your workout session.
Keep Your Abdominal Training Well-Rounded
Crunches are only one exercise you should do for ab development. In fact, crunches, due to the fact you’re flexing your spine, are hard on your back. Make sure your back is healthy and you’re using good technique when you do them – and don’t overdo them. Balance out your abdominal training with planks and plank variations. Planks use neutral spine loading rather than spinal flexion to work the entire core. There are probably almost a hundred ways you can vary a plank, so take advantage of this exercise that strengthens your entire core and is safer for your back than crunches and sit-ups.
Don’t forget that compound exercises that work large muscle groups also work your core muscles. Plus, these exercises boost your heart rate and burn more fat than isolation exercises that target your abs. For many people, the fat that covers the abdominal muscles hides any ab definition that they have. That’s especially true of women relative to men since women have a higher body fat percentage. Focusing on compound exercises that work large muscle groups, like deadlifts and squats, help shed body fat, so the ab muscles show through. Plus, you’ll get additional benefits if you hold your abs tight when you do squats and deadlifts. With a little conscious effort, you can contract your abs when you do almost any weight training exercise and get benefits.
The Bigger Picture
Even the best abdominal training can’t overcome the impact of a bad diet. Make sure you’re eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet and minimizing processed junk and sugar. Part of the equation is getting your body fat percentage down low enough for your ab muscles to be visible. That means watching what you eat too! It also means getting enough sleep and managing stress.
The Bottom Line
Don’t train your abs every day. You’re getting some ab and core work when you do compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts. But, when you do train them, make them work harder by adding resistance. Also, make sure you’re doing a variety of ab exercises, including planks and exercises for the opposing muscles in your back. Too often, we over-focus on crunches and place added strain on the back. Diversify your abdominal training a bit and you’ll get better results.
American Council on Exercise. “Reality Check: Are Planks Really the Best Core Exercise?”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Want a stronger core? Skip the sit-ups”
ExRx.net. “Weighted Crunch”
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