Who doesn’t want a tight flat mid-section and it takes training to get it. But with so many muscle groups to work, your upper and lower body, where does ab training fit into your routine? Should you do ab exercises towards the beginning of your strength workout or save abs and core exercises for the end?
Timing Ab and Core Exercises
Unfortunately, there isn’t a study in the literature that’s looked at this particular issue. However, if you consider ab training within the context of your other training, the best approach is to save ab and core training for the end of your workout, unless you’re doing a circuit-style workout where you’re mixing everything up.
Why save abs for later? If you’re doing compound strength exercises like deadlifts and squats, you want your core and abs to be as strong as possible to maximize your performance on these exercises. If you’ve exhausted your core and abs beforehand, you won’t be able to generate as much force when you carry out compound moves that use almost every muscle in your body, including your abs and core.
In fact, these compound exercises contribute almost as much to developing firm, strong abs as the ab and core exercises you do on a mat. It’s these exercises that give you the metabolic boost you need to burn fat since they work multiple muscle groups at the same time. Some experts even believe that compound strength-training exercises should be the main focus when you’re trying to trim your belly.
The other benefit of doing ab exercises after doing other compound strength exercises is you know your back muscles will be warm, thereby lowering your risk for a back injury. If you start your workout with ab exercises and don’t warm up sufficiently, your back can suffer the repercussions. Don’t forget some ab exercises place a significant strain on your lower back.
Another option, if you do cardio and strength on separate days, is to work your abs after doing cardio. Better yet, do a circuit-style ab routine by alternating a cardio move with an ab exercise. Mix it up!
Make Sure You DO Abs
The drawback to saving ab exercises to the end is it’s easier to blow them off. You’re tired after doing other strength-training exercises and it’s harder to focus in on another set of muscles. If developing ab definition and core strength is your primary goal, doing ab exercises towards the beginning of your routine will ensure you give your abs a go before you’re too fatigued. However, you could pay for it with sub-optimal performance on the big, compound exercises that count the most overall. Know your priorities.
Make Sure Your Ab Workout is Varied
Whenever you choose to do ab exercises, make sure you’re doing a variety of moves that work all the muscles in your core, not just your abs. When you focus on a single set of muscles, by doing only crunches, you create strength imbalances that can destabilize your spine. Crunches alone won’t cut it since they don’t work your entire core, like a plank.
Planks and plank variations are a form of exercise everyone can benefit from. When you do a standard plank, you target the deep abdominal muscle called the transverse abdominis that helps hold your entire midsection in. Most abdominal exercises do little to work the so-called “corset” muscle. With a name like corset, you know why focusing some energy on this deep muscle can pay off with dividends.
Don’t forget to include side planks to work your obliques and work on your balance at the same time. Break away from the idea that crunches are THE abdominal exercise. When you perform crunches, do crunch variations as well.
Is There a “Best” Ab Exercise?
According to a study carried out by ACE fitness using EMG to measure muscle activation, the bicycle crunch beat out thirteen other ab exercises in terms of how effectively they activated ab muscles. This study also found crunches on a stability ball led to less activation of the thigh and oblique muscles and thus were more targeted to the abs. Lying on a stability is an effective way to target your abs in a different way. Yes, you need variety!
Finally, to get the lean, firm abs you want, you need to get your body fat down. You can’t crunch away body fat. No matter how many reps you do. That’s where heavy resistance training and high-intensity interval training come in – they help you uncover abdominal muscles that are hiding under too much insulation.
Nutrition comes into play here too. You’ve heard it before, 80% to 90% of the results you get stem from what you prepare in the kitchen. Not to undermine exercise, the other 10% to 20% is super important, but you can’t ignore what you eat.
The Bottom Line
Unless your primary goal is to build abdominal and core strength, you’re probably best served doing ab and core exercises AFTER your other strength-training exercises. Your abs and back muscles will be warm and supple from the squats and deadlifts you did and you’ll have devoted the bulk of your energy to the compound exercises that best burn body fat.
Remember, you don’t need to spend 30 minutes working your abs and core, especially when you’re recruiting your abs and core when you do other compound exercises. Don’t forget whole body workouts are good for your abs, so throw in some kickboxing and kettlebell swings as well as standing abs for more variety. As far as focused ab training? You should be able to work your abs in no more than 15 minutes. Just make sure that 15 minutes is focused and intense.
ACE Press Room. “American Council on Exercise (ACE)-sponsored Study Reveals Best and Worst Abdominal Exercises”
Mayo Clinic. “Core exercises: Why you should strengthen your core muscles”
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