Contrary to the idiotic recommendations of most current ab training books, courses and group class instructors, it is neither necessary nor beneficial to perform dozens of high rep sets of a wide variety of abdominal exercises. You also don’t need different exercises for your lower and upper abs, and you don’t need stability balls, special slings, benches, or any other gimmicky crap. In fact, you don’t need any direct abdominal exercise at all to get ripped abs. All that is necessary is to reduce body fat to very low levels, and that has far more to do with diet than exercise.
Regardless of the strength or development of your superficial abdominal muscles, if your body fat level is low enough they will show good separation due to the muscle being divided into distinct “blocks” by lines of connective tissue. I performed no direct abdominal exercise for over half a year prior to the photo to the left being taken, yet had extremely good abdominal definition simply due to having reduced my body fat to the low single digits. My routine during that time was very basic, especially compared to the kind of unnecessarily complex routines being promoted by the internet ripped abs “experts”. It consisted of of only one set each of stiff-legged deadlifts, leg presses, pulldowns, chest presses, rows, and calf raises, along with occasional barbell curls and cable tricep press-downs. No crunches, sit ups, leg raises, knee raises, planks, twists or bends of any kind.
If you regularly perform chin-ups, pull-ups (especially with additional weight), heavy pull-downs, pullovers, standing presses or even just very heavy cable tricep press-downs, your abdominal muscles receive quite a bit of indirect work stabilizing the body during those exercises. Little additional abdominal work is necessary, and the primary benefit of any additional direct abdominal work is improved trunk strength for being able to better handle weight in those other movements and for protecting the back, not the appearance of your abs. Abdominal muscle development makes absolutely no difference at all if body fat levels are not low enough. Your primary purpose for training abs should be performance and spine health, and not appearance.
Stick to the Basics
While the superficial abdominal muscles are capable of producing a wide variety of movements, all of these movements are just different combinations of flexion (rectus abdominis) and lateral flexion or rotation (internal and external obliques). It is not necessary to perform dozens of variations of these, but rather just a few, basic movements that address each of these functions. People who recommend performing long abdominal workouts involving dozens of exercises either don’t know what they’re talking about or are making things more complex for the sake of sounding more knowledgeable than they are. Training does not have to be complex to be effective, just hard.
If you perform direct exercise for your abs, one hard set of a basic trunk flexion exercise and a basic lateral flexion or rotation exercise for the obliques is all you need. If you want to perform a few different exercises of each type, divide them between different workouts. Use a heavy enough weight to keep the reps within a reasonable range.
Sets, Reps and Frequency
While the abdominal muscles tend to have a higher percentage of slow twitch fibers, they do not require extremely high repetitions or a very high volume of work. In terms of set and rep number and workout frequency they should be trained like any other muscle group. Research shows little difference in results between single and multiple sets for the majority of people, and suggests there is also very little difference in muscular strength or size gains with different rep ranges in the 30 to 100 second range, as long as the level of effort is high (although what is best most likely varies a bit between individuals). Assuming a moderately controlled speed of movement – about a 2 to 3 second lifting and a 2 to 3 second lowering cadence with a brief pause at the start and finish – and taking into account the higher percentage of slow twitch fibers, this means keeping the reps under 20 (Westcott, W. and R. LaRosa Loud. Research on repetition ranges. Master Trainer 10 (4): 16-18, 2000. and Westcott, W. A new look at repetition ranges. Fitness Management Y 18 (7): 36-37, 2002.).
Ab Training Classes
Based on the above, it should be obvious group exercise classes focused entirely on abdominal training are an unnecessary waste of time. Effective abdominal training requires only one or two exercises and a few minutes at most, not 30 to 45 minutes.
Training Upper Versus Lower Abs
You do not need to perform different exercises to work your “upper” versus your “lower” abs. While a few EMG studies suggest different exercises may involve the lower or upper portions somewhat more, it is unlikely to be enough to make any practical difference, especially if weighted exercises are performed using enough resistance to limit the set to the rep range mentioned above.
A few individuals with extraordinary muscle control, like the legendary Ed Jubinville, may be capable of selectively contracting different abdominal segments, but from a practical standpoint it is not necessary to do so as part of an exercise program. If you flex your spine against enough resistance you will effectively train the entire rectus abdominis from top to bottom.
EMG studies show crunches performed on a stability ball are less effective than when performed on the floor or a stable surface.
“A Comparative EMG Analysis: Abdominal Crunches Performed on a Stable Versus Unstable Surface (Exercise Physiology & Fitness)
Chris K. Rhea1, J. Gualberto Cremades2 and Erica Opala2, (1)Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, (2)Barry University, Miami Shores, FL
Research has indicated that core training may be important because opposite rotational movements of the upper and lower torso are required in nearly all physical activities (Allers, 1981). More importantly, strong abdominal muscles assist in stabilizing the spine and can enhance in activities of daily life (Vera-Garcia, 2000). Abdominal muscles may be strengthened while exercising on a stable (e.g. floor) or unstable (e.g. stability ball) surface. There are equivocal results in the literature as to what surface elicits greater muscle activation (Hildenbrand & Noble, 2004; Piering, 1993; Sarti, 1996; Willet, 2001). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to compare EMG activity of the rectus abdominis and external oblique muscles during a crunch on a stable and an unstable surface. A two by two (site by surface) repeated measures ANOVA was used for this study. Data on the subjects (N = 12) indicated no significant differences between site during each condition (F(1,11) = 0.07, p > .05). Significant data were found between surface types (F(1,11) = 8.01, p < .05). The data suggest that the EMG values of the rectus abdominis and external oblique muscles were similar to each other on each surface. However, the floor condition elicited higher EMG values when compared to the stability ball condition. This suggests that the stability ball does not induce greater muscle activity when performing a crunch.”
Stability balls training is a gimmick, and in my opinion one of the biggest shams perpetuated by the fitness industry and specifically the “functional training” crowd.
Ab rollers, ab rockers, ab chairs, ab lounges, ab blasters, ab sculptors, ab shapers, ab toners, ab this, ab that – there is no end to the number of stupid abdominal training devices, most of which are just copies of each other with minor variations. They are a complete waste of money. All you need to effectively train your abs and obliques is adequate floor space and a heavy enough weight plate or dumbbell.
Spot Reduction is a Myth
I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but I will any way since based on the number of ab gadget informercials and ab books and courses claiming to provide spot reduction there are still people out there who believe this is possible. You can not reduce body fat in a specific area by working the underlying muscles. The body doesn’t work that way.
Training Abs Versus Hip Flexors
Many exercises recommended for abdominal training, such as various forms of leg raises and sit ups and gymnastics skills like L and V sits, are actually primarily hip flexor exercises. While the abdominal muscles may be involved significantly as stabilizers, they are better worked through exercises involving trunk flexion. While certain exercises may involve some overlap between the two, trunk flexion exercises should involve relatively little hip flexion, and vice-versa.
There are benefits to performing direct hip flexion exercises, including providing balance to hip extensor work, but it is important to distinguish between hip flexor and trunk flexor training.
No Need for “Cardio”
I’ve done no “cardio” since starting high intensity training well over a year before the top photo was taken. If you are strict enough with your diet cardio is not only unnecessary for fat loss, but can actually be counterproductive to maintaining muscle while trying to reduce body fat to very low levels. In fact, the lower your body fat, the lower your daily calorie deficit needs to be to avoid losing lean body mass. There is a limit to the rate at which your body is able to get energy from its fat stores. If your daily calorie deficit exceeds the amount of energy your body can get from your fat stores (about 30 calories per pound of fat) the difference will come from the breakdown of muscle and other tissues (Alpert SS. A limit on the energy transfer rate from the human fat store in hypophagia. J Theor Biol. 2005 Mar 7;233(1):1-13.). If you’re already doing high intensity strength training workouts, the effect on fat loss will be similar to high intensity interval training of comparable duration, so additional “cardio” would be redundant any way.
Eating for Ripped Abs
Without going into detail, the approach I recommend is to eat primarily lean meat, poultry and fish, along with plenty of fresh fibrous vegetables and fruits, and smaller amounts of nuts and healthy oils. Minimize or eliminate intake of grain products (breads, pastas, rice), starchier vegetables and sugary food and drinks. See the nutrition section of this web site for more specific information.