How To Train Abs For Maximum Development
Everyone Wants Great Looking Abs But Few People Have Them
If there’s one thing everybody can agree on, it’s that a trim, muscular midsection looks great.
Most people who start off lifting weights will focus primarily on the ‘mirror muscles’; the arms and chest for guys, hamstrings and glutes for girls. Some people hate on this, but they’re always just posturing. There’s no law that says you have to train to win a bodybuilding show.
But after a few months, people start to broaden their outlook, and the first thing people start to care about after their arms and chest is usually their abs.
Of course, not all stomachs are the same, and people have very different physique goals.
Some people have a slim, tapering abdomen, a slim waste, and well defined abdominal muscles.
Other people have a thick trunk, visible veins, and an altogether more ‘powerful’ look.
What you can do is to a great extent determined by your genetics, your willingness to work against that, and other factors. But it is possible to sculpt a certain ‘look’ when it comes to your physique, and people do aim for very different things.
The one thing everybody strives for though, regardless of the specific physique you are going for, is well developed, defined, lean abs.
It’s perhaps not a big coincidence, then, that the one thing people seem to be most confused about is how to actually get well developed, visible abs.
Whether man or woman, the one thing people misunderstand more than any other thing when it comes to bodybuilding (perhaps with the exception of the importance of protein), is abdominal training.
We regularly see people in the gym working themselves to death obviously in pursuit of a midsection befitting a Greek god. But 9 times out of 10, we can see that they’re putting in a lot of effort for minimal gains. They will typically do 1000 crunches, followed by leg raises, planks, and more at the end of each workout.
We also encounter the other end of the spectrum quite often: “Abs are built in the kitchen, not in the gym”. But if you’ve ever seen anybody who eats little and trains little with their shirt off, you’ll know that this isn’t true at all.
Close to this end of the spectrum is another school of thought, which could largely be labelled as ‘old school’. That is the idea that you don’t need to train abs at all, because they get plenty of training from squats and deadlifts. But again, if you’ve ever seen someone who only does these exercises with their shirt off, you’re probably well aware that this isn’t true either.
So what is the best way to get a well developed, chiseled, powerful looking midsection?
What is wrong with blasting the stomach with 1000 crunches and leg raises every workout?
Don’t squats and deadlifts build a muscular core?
How important is diet in creating an aesthetically pleasing stomach?
What is the best way to get a genuinely impressive 6 pack?
In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and a lot more. We’re not going to try to be exhaustive at all. We will go into detail where we need to, but this is not supposed to be an “everything you need to know” about ab training. That could consume volumes. No, this is supposed to be a good basis for further reading of your own.
We’re not going to present any special “tricks” to you for getting a 6 pack.
We’re not going to tell you there’s an easy way.
We’re just going to explain the science behind ab training, and hopefully help you train more efficiently to meet your own personal goals. If you have any questions, post them in the comments section and we’ll get back to you asap!
What Do The Abs Do?
The first thing we need to get straight in our heads is what we mean by “abs”.
Here is a cross section of the abdomen’s musculature:
As you can see, we have a lot more than just the ‘6 pack’ here.
In fact, the muscles that make up the ‘6 pack’, the rectus abdominis, are just one of 4 major muscles of the midsection.
As you can see, your core has quite a complex musculature. Certainly when compared to the chest.
The muscles seen here have quite different functions from one another. Understanding these functions is key to understanding how you need to train your core for maximum development (and ideal aesthetics).
So, what do they do?
Well, first of all, we have the external oblique.
This is responsible primarily for flexing the spine, like when you’re doing a sit up. They are heavily involved in lateral flexion; so moving your shoulders down towards your hips. They are also involved in core rotation, and in compressing your core, like when bracing during a heavy squat or power clean.
Next we have the internal oblique.
This runs in the opposite direction to the external obliques, and it has many of the same functions (but its primary focus is different). So the internal oblique is mainly involved in rotation; think of doing cable woodchoppers, medicine ball twists or simple bar twists – that’s mainly the internal obliques and some external obliques (as well as the spinal erectors, but we’ll deal with that in a different article). Like the external oblique, the internals are also involved in lateral flexion.
We also have the transverse abdominis.
This is usually the one muscle of the trunk that people overlook, and surprise surprise, it is one that we think can make an enormous difference to your overall aesthetic if trained correctly. It can also make a big difference to your lifts if you know how to use it! The transverse abdominis (TVA) compresses the midsection, effectively bracing the core. The external obliques do this too, but the TVA does most of the work here. When you do a very heavy overhead press and lock out, it is your TVA keeping you nice and tight under the bar.
The TVA is involved in practically every movement that requires real core stability; the squat, the clean and jerk, the deadlift, etc. It is also the muscles that bodybuilders manipulate when doing the iconic vacuum pose.
Finally, we have the big one; the rectus abdominis.
This is the muscle which we know as the 6 pack, and it is the one that the vast majority of people focus on in their ab training. This is the muscle your average guy in the street will notice on a lean guy. Regardless of what you’re impressed by personally, a well developed rectus abdominis is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser.
The rectus abdominis is most involved in spinal flexing. That is, moving your head closer to your feet or vice versa. So crunches, sit ups, leg raises – all of these movements involve the rectus abdominis in a big way. It is also heavily involved in trunk rotation, stabilization, and to some extent, internal bracing.
Anatomically, the rectus abdominis sits just above the transverse abdominis and under a layer of muscle fascia. It is sandwiched in between the internal and external obliques.
These 4 muscles, taken together, comprise the front portion of the midsection. The internal and external obliques wrap around the body, meeting the spinal erectors at the back. Moving up the trunk, the serratus muscles appear just under the chest next to the external oblique. Many people incorporate these into their ab training, but they are, to us, a separate muscle, with a very different function. It really classes as a back muscle to us. The back of the midsection is largely composed of the spinal erectors, the obliques, and the lats. We will deal with these in a separate article.
So, now you have an understanding of what the ab muscles do.
As you can see, your core is not solely stressed by sit ups.
It is heavily involved in a wide variety of movements, and it has the added functions of bracing the core and compressing the abdomen contents (like when doing a stomach vacuum).
The musculature of the abs is significantly more complex than the chest, which is composed of the pectoralis major and, beneath than, the pectoralis minor, which both have practically the same function.
To drive the point home even more, here is a breakdown of the various exercises commonly used to stress the core, and how much they activate the target muscles:
You might think then that the abs require sophisticated, targeted training, just like the pecs.
But many people disagree.
There are lots of people, who have tremendous physiques, who are adamant that “abs are built in the kitchen”.
So, are they?
“Abs Are Made In The Kitchen” – Are They?
There are lots of people around today who swear that the most important factor in creating great abs is diet.
As far as they’re concerned, a great set of abs is built in the kitchen, not in the gym.
Some people go as far as to say that you shouldn’t really bother training your abs at all. That you should just train your whole body and reveal your abs with diet.
Other people do train their abs directly, but they say that training makes up a small part of ab development; that getting your diet dialed in and your body fat levels low is 90% of a great set of abs.
Many people claiming this are certainly in a position to do so; lots of them have superb midsections. The vast majority of people would love a similar stomach, so this mantra has spread like wildfire.
Unfortunately, we think the claim that “abs are built in the kitchen” is incredibly misleading.
Ultimately, it is extremely unhelpful.
Of course, there is some truth to the claim that diet is important in creating a good set of abs.
If your body fat levels aren’t low enough, you simply won’t be able to see the abdominal musculature. Just look at most strongmen; those guys obviously have incredibly well developed abs, but because their body fat levels are so high, you can’t see it. The legendary Big Z provides quite a clear example:
Lee Priest is another good example here. Lee was famous for getting fat in the off season. However, when he got his body fat down to competition standard, he had arguably some of the best abs in bodybuilding:
If your body fat levels are not sufficiently low, your abs will be hidden beneath a layer of fat.
It doesn’t matter how developed they are; your fat stores sit above your abs, so they will hide them if they are large enough.
But can’t you just lose your stomach fat?
Wont building your abs make you lose fat around your stomach?
This is a very common myth, perpetuated by people who prey on people looking for easy answers to hard questions.
We’ll lay out some home truths for you here:
You CANNOT SPOT REDUCE BODY FAT.
Building muscle in one particular area WILL NOT MAKE THAT BODY PART LEANER!
Body fat storage simply doesn’t work like that.
Your body stores fat in certain places in a kind of order of preference. It will generally fill up fat stores in a given area before moving on to less efficient areas of storage.
That’s why men get fat around their stomach before they get it around their arms.
That’s also why women get fat around their hips before they get fat necks.
The body has preferred fat depots that it uses first. These are also the last fat stores to be emptied when you are losing weight. Hence why you’ve never seen a fat loss transformation where the last bit of flab to go was around the elbow or the shoulders.
There is also no mechanisms by which your body will burn fat stores close to the area being worked.
Your muscles simply use fat in the blood, which should be mobilized from fat cells when you need extra energy (e.g when exercising after all ready fuel sources in the blood are used-up).
If a relatively fat person starts running, the first bits that will start to lean out will be the neck, shoulders and forearms.
They haven’t been doing lots of direct shoulder work.
They are doing lots of direct leg work, but if it’s a woman, chances are the legs will be the last parts to lean out.
So obviously, direct work on a given area doesn’t affect fat levels in that area.
In order to lose body fat in any given area, you need to lower your overall body fat levels. This can be done by working that area, sure, but it is the very fact or exercising and putting yourself into a caloric deficit which brings about the fat loss; not the specific exercise.
Of course, working a particular area will make it larger, and thus give you an overall greater lean mass ratio.
This would make your overall body fat percentage lower.
But that isn’t what most people are looking for, that isn’t how it is often sold to people by personal trainers, and it is hard to build a discernible amount of muscle while in a caloric deficit (which you should be in if you want to lose body fat).
The whole “stubborn” fat myth comes about when people struggle to get to a ver low body fat percentage.
They often believe that this is because stomach fat is “stubborn”, i.e difficult to burn away.
The truth is that it is just hard to get to a very low body fat percentage unless you are highly experienced, incredibly disciplined, or using AAS.
So if you don’t have low enough body fat levels, you wont be able to see your abs.
So are abs really built in the kitchen?
No. As stated above, we don’t think that’s a fair assertion.
Just as the best abs are kind of useless (aesthetically) if you are fat, being lean is useless unless you have abs to show off int he first place.
Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t have developed abs at all.
Lots of people are extremely lean, but they don’t look ripped, powerful, or to put it in more simple terms, they don’t have a physique most people aspire to.
If abs were really built in the kitchen and not in the gym, then everyone who had a low body fat percentage would have abs like Lee Priest.
But they don’t.
It is just obvious to us that abs need stressing in order to grow, and that they need growth to look good.
Your abs need to be worked or they’ll look like they’ve never been worked.
Why would abs be different to any muscle?!
So abs aren’t built in the kitchen.
A good set of abs is revealed in the kitchen.
Hopefully that is now obvious.
So now that that’s covered, how do we actually go about building an impressive midsection?
Are we fine sticking to big compound movements for ab development?
Do Deadlifts & Squats Build A Muscular Abdomen?
There have been plenty of studies looking at this exact question, and the answer seems to be a resounding “no”.
Many of our contributors certainly used to fall into the camp of “I don’t need to work abs, I squat 405”.
But we can’t argue with the wealth of scientific data available on this subject.
There are lots of people with great looking abs who let deadlifts, power cleans, squats, and farmers walks do the work.
But in reality, it seems that they could have significantly better abs if they did direct work. All studies looking at actual muscle activation show that there is little involvement from any of the 4 muscles involved in the squat, the deadlift, or other big compound movements.
This article does a superb job of summarizing much of the literature on this subject.
Or if you want to look at some studies right away, take a look at this study, which compared muscle activation in the sumo and conventional deadlifts. It found that activation in the obliques and the rectus abdominis was around 50% – hardly enough to stimulate growth.
Other studies have found that there was even less peak rectus abdominis activation in the back squat than in the deadlift.
This study interestingly compared the overhead squat with the back squat, and found that ab activation was not noticeably different between the two. This runs counter to accepted bro science. It also tells us that if the squat doesn’t develop your abs, neither will an overhead squat (although OH Squatting will help you get better at Olympic weightlifting, and at overhead squatting).
Sure, all heavy lifts, including the bench, require you to brace.
But the TVA won’t get much training this way.
That’s why people like Arnold did stomach vacuums and cross bench pullovers despite deadlifting and squatting multiple times per week.
Someone who only does heavy squatting might have good looking abs, but they’re just not anywhere near as good as they could be if they did direct ab work.
They are certainly only as good as they are due to some intense, heavy, consistent squatting, which you probably aren’t going to replicate.
How Much Work Do The Abs Need?
Despite what some personal ‘trainers’ might tell you in your local Planet Fitness, your abs are not significantly different to any other muscle group.
There’s no reason why someone should be subjecting their abs to sets of 100 crunches followed immediately by 2 minute planks.
The way you train your abs should be relatively similar to the way you train other muscles in your body.
That is, with enough intensity to stimulate growth, but low enough intensity to allow for regular training.
The only thing we think makes the abs different than, say, your calves is that your abs are involved in all rows, pressing, and squatting. Frying your abs will potentially hold you back on your next training session, so you might want to stop a little short of failure. This isn’t a major consideration though, since most people don’t come anywhere near failure.
Several studies have looked at ab training in an attempt to find the optimal training volume and frequency.
It seems that training 2-3 times per week, with 3-4 exercises, and 2-3 sets per exercise is ideal.
Your abs are 50% fast twitch and 50% slow twitch muscle fibers.
That means you should do a mix of weighted or explosive movements for, say, 8-12 reps, and some light, constant tension movements for 15-30 reps.
Someone doing 10 sets of 20 leg raises isn’t wasting their time, they’re still going to have some great abs if they stay motivated and consistent.
They’re just not going to have as good a physique as they could have for the amount of effort expended.
So How Should You Train & Diet To Get Great Looking Abs?
You now know what muscles make up the abs.
You now understand what they all do.
You know understand that diet is crucial for showing off your abs, but that you need to actually build the muscle if you want to impress people with your lean, sculpted midsection.
You understand that deadlifting, squatting, and even Olympic weightlifting is not sufficient for developing the abs to a great degree.
You also understand that the abs should be trained like most other muscles; with a mix of high intensity sets and high volume sets. Frequency can be higher than for, say, lower back, but there’s no need to train your abs every day.
So, let’s put all this together and draw up an ideal ab training routine for maximum development, core stability, and aesthetics.
We’re going to do 3 ab training sessions per week.
If you think your abs aren’t as important as other body parts, then do this routine at the end of your other sessions. So you might do shoulders, triceps and abs, back and abs, and legs and abs.
If you think you could do with bringing up your abs, try training them first before training movements that don’t require a lot of ab stabilization.
We recommend training abs with arms and chest if you want to do abs first. Yes you need to brace when benching heavy. No, doing crunches before you bench isn’t going to hold you back.
We are also going to hit every part of the abs. That means different movements using different muscles. As the table we displayed at the beginning of the article shows, different exercises put differing amounts of stress on different ab muscles. The difference between exercises is actually notable. Here is another table to illustrate:
Of course, most of our focus will go on the rectus abdominis. It would be a shame to put so much time into your abs and not to have a killer 6 pack, right?
But in order to be complete, we need to make sure every area is being hit directly at least once per week.
So, here’s a sample 3 day workout:
Cable Crunches – 2 x 10
Hanging Leg Raise – 2 x 15
Side Bend – 2 x 20
Cable Twists/Wood Choppers – 2 x 20
Ab Slider – 2 x 20
Double Leg Thrust – 2 x 30
Straight Leg Sit Up – 2 x 10
Weighted Crunch – 2 x 10
Plank – 2 x 45 seconds