We all want a nice set of abs, but spending too much time training them specifically (in the generic way that everyone thinks you are meant to, i.e. directly training the abs on a floor mat) is not the best way to get your abs to show.
Abs are highly sought after, but a good set of abs does not automatically mean you are fit and healthy.
Abs are what I like to refer to as a bit of a “glamour muscle”. We constantly see six and eight packs splattered on the front covers of fitness magazines and everyone seems to “want abs”. People seem to think of them as the “holy grail” of fitness. They are heavily promoted as a signal of health and fitness, but that’s not really always the case. Of course I get why people want abs. I mean, abs are cool! :) But I wanted to write this to separate the truth from the myths that tend to circulate around in regards to ab training (i.e. that you should do 200 sit ups every morning if you want abs).
You need to be at a pretty low bodyfat level to see your abs
I would say having a low bodyfat level is the main reason why people have visible abs, rather than higher levels of health or fitness. The lower your bodyfat levels are the more your abs will show. This means that someone with visible abs does not necessarily have stronger abs than someone who’s abs aren’t as visible. It's just a matter of lower bodyfat vs higher bodyfat.
Compound and explosive movements will give you better abs than doing “ab work” every day
Directly training your abs can help for sure a little; it can help tighten up your waist and bring a bit more definition in the midsection. But if you are dedicating a massive portion of your training time to “ab work”, it will end up being time wasted—time that you could be spending doing more beneficial things for your body and your abs too.
The more strength training you do, with big compound movements, as well as power/explosive movements, the better your abs are going to be, even without doing any direct abdominal training. By training your whole body you are going to get the most bang for your buck as far as burning body fat (which is what will make the abs pop most of all), keeping your metabolism working well and building muscle, which all comes into play in your quest for a good set of abs!
Genetics play a big role in how your abs look as well
There is also the genetic aspect. The way your abs look, whether or not they will “pop”, what part of your abs will be the most muscular (i.e. upper vs lower vs obliques) and the way they show when you become very lean is all quite genetically-controlled as well.
I have seen people with a six pack who never train abs and who actually have quite a weak core. I have also had people ask me how they can make their abs more “even” and “symmetrical” and I have had to break it to them that what they are after is impossible. The way your abs look is decided by your genetics and the structure of your body.
Should you directly train your abs? And if so, how often?
There seems to be a few different trains of thought when it comes to abdominal training. I tend to lean more towards promoting a bit of ab training here and there, especially for performance and stability purposes. I’ve always like a good core session. When my boyfriend and I first started going out, we used to do a weekly core sessions at the global gym we both worked at. This become a bit of a ritual for us, was a nice session to do on a day off or when you want to do more of a “chill” session, and got me into the habit of training my core. I’m sure it also didn’t hurt my six-pack either. :)
At the moment I do core stability sessions once or twice a week. I do things like Chinese planks and other plank variations, V-sits, pallof presses, rotational work, dragon flags, rollouts, suitcase & waiter carries etc. As I said above, visible abs are more a product of training correctly overall, doing progressive strength training, and having a good diet (this is very important), rather than actually training the abs directly. But the reason I train my core these days is more for performance reasons than for aesthetics.
The truth is, there have been periods where I have trained my abs religiously, i.e. 3-4 days a week, and then I’ve also had periods where I haven’t really trained my abs directly at all for months at a time (but continued with my normal training) and as far as their “look”, honestly there wasn’t much difference. There may have been a small difference, and of course this is something hard to quantify without photos etc., but it’s not like I went from having a six pack to having an eight pack or from having no abs to suddenly having abs.
The big difference I do notice when I regularly do core strength and stability work, is the increase in my core’s ability to stabilize nicely no matter what other exercise I am doing. Having a strong and stable core will transfer amazingly to all other strength and athletic endeavors.
Train your core for athletic purposes, to build stability and to protect your spine:
Training your core for athletic purposes is actually pretty helpful. Using your core properly is an important part of increasing athleticism as we drive a lot of power through our core when doing all kinds of movements. We need a stable core if we want to improve our power and protect our spine. Here is a good quote explaining the main purpose of our core:
“Your core most often acts as a stabilizer and force transfer center rather than a prime mover. Yet consistently people focus on training their core as a prime mover and in isolation. This would be doing crunches or back extensions versus functional movements like deadlifts, overhead squats, and pushups, among many other functional closed chain exercises.1 By training that way, not only are you missing out on a major function of the core, but also better strength gains, more efficient movement, and longevity of health.
We must look at core strength as the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. According to Andy Waldhem in his Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, there are “five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function”. Without motor control and function, the other three components are useless, like a fish flopping out of water no matter how strong you are or how much endurance you have.
It is important to first achieve core stability to protect the spine and surrounding musculature from injury in static and then dynamic movements. Second, we want to effectively and efficiently transfer and produce force during dynamic movements while maintaining core stability. This can include running, performing Olympic lifts, or picking up the gallon of milk far back in the fridge while keeping your back safe. Research has shown that athletes with higher core stability have a lower risk of injury. This is proven perhaps most effectively by the Functional Movement Screen. There is a multitude of various tests that measure core stability, but I consistently use and recommend the FMS because of the research results and effectiveness of the corrective strategies." (From Breaking Muscle)
Train your core in different dimensions (planes of motion)
One other thing many people don’t realise is that it’s important to train the abdominal muscles in different dimensions (or planes of motion). I currently break my core training down into four categories: anti-Extension, anti-Lateral flexion, anti-rotation and hip Flexion (with a neutral spine).
Here is an awesome article by Tony Gentilcore on all these types of ab work: Building a superhuman core. It’s one of the best articles on core training that I’ve ever read, so I highly recommend you take the time to read it.
Is it worth directly training abs if you still have a lot of weight to lose??
I’m going to go out on a limb here and straight out say no. I personally don’t think it’s worth training abs directly at all, if you aren’t lean enough to see them yet (unless you are training them for performance purposes). It’s just not worth the energy and time. If you are 15kg overweight still, doing sit ups at the gym is not going to give you the best results. You will be so much better off doing proper weight training using big compound movements that work the whole body simultaneously, add in a bit of conditioning, and focus on proper progression in your program. Most importantly, dial in your diet and make sure you are actually in a deficit so that you can lose some fat.
Once you have all that sorted or you are lean enough to actually see your abs, then if you like you can add in a bit of direct ab work. It certainly won’t hurt and if you enjoy it then by all means do it. Just remember if you are carrying a bit of extra body fat, the only way to actually reveal your abs is to lose the excess body fat.
Again, if you are an athlete, play any sport, regularly train the Olympic lifts or train for athletic purposes of any kind I would definitely recommend adding in some direct core stability work once or twice a week. You can never have “too strong” of a core. A strong and stable core will benefit you and your athletic endeavours in more ways than you realise.
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