Ripped Abs

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.

Drew Baye

Drew Baye

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.

Indirect Effect

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

Weighted Crunch

Weighted Crunch

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.

Stability Balls

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.

Other Gimmicks

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

L-sit

L-sit

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.

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23 Responses to Ripped Abs

  1. Chris H August 23, 2008 at 3:55 am #

    Great article Drew! Its crazy how for decades the fitness industry has prided itself on gimmicky marketing to push their products (stability balls), celebrity trainers, and ill advised colleagues of the outdated American College of Sports Medicine. They continue to confuse the general public. You have a very enlightening web site that cuts through all the B.S out there. Keep up the great work. Chris H.

  2. Paul August 26, 2008 at 12:39 pm #

    Excellent common sense article Drew and we should always use the KISS method! Your spot on with all the gimmicks/fads esp the circus acts on Swiss balls/BOSU, the so called trainers should just wear a red nose! Their claim about the ‘Core’ and ‘functional crap’ is one big joke/con, as if working hard to failure on the big basics won’t stimulate the core, come on lol! Drew, Keep up the hard work and good name of the IRON GAME!

    • JLMA May 18, 2014 at 11:53 am #

      Paul,

      For those of us training at home, meaning with no gym equipment, wouldn’t a BOSU or a SWISS ball be (very?) beneficial from the point of view of increased Range Of Motion compared to floor exercises (both for trunk flexion and for spine extension)?

      Otherwise how could one increase ROM for at-home (with weighted vest) core exercises?

      thanks

      • Drew Baye May 19, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

        JLMA,

        I don’t think it would make much of a difference, but if you wanted to increase the range a BOSU would be a better option than a Swiss ball because the instability reduces muscle activation.

      • JLMA May 19, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

        Thanks, Drew.

        It seems to me that the (superman style) floor version of the spinal extension is mostly HYPERextension, and I do not know if that is desired or not (from back health stand point)

        using the BOSU for that same exercise one could flex forward (and down) so that there is increased range of motion and one an still end at the “neutral” position without having to go into hyper-extension

        I do not know how relevant this difference (mostly hyper-extension versus wider range of motion) is, but I thought of elaborating on it

        I am not asking for or expecting your elaborate on your point of view on this matter, Drew. Only clarifying my own view.

        Thank you.

        • Drew Baye May 20, 2014 at 9:03 am #

          JLMA,

          Hyperextension is not problematic as long as it is done in a slow and controlled manner. As long as you’re not slamming into the end of your range of motion you’re unlikely to injure yourself performing prone hyperextensions. In this case I think a BOSU would be a bad choice since the entire body would be supported on it, increasing the difficulty of balancing and reducing the activation of the target muscles. As a general rule, unstable surfaces and postures should be avoided during exercise.

          • JLMA May 20, 2014 at 9:09 am #

            I see, Drew. Thank you for the reply.

            What would be a BOSU-less way to (safely) increase Range Of Motion during at-home spine (hyper)extensions, compared to the short ROM of “floor Supermans”?

            Thanks again.

  3. Steve September 4, 2008 at 5:23 pm #

    Drew–

    Just curious, what was your weight and height at the time the ab photo was taken at the top of the fat loss article (which i do not know I realize you are the same height as you are now)
    What was your bodyfat % at that time, as well?

  4. Drew Baye September 5, 2008 at 7:59 am #

    Steve,

    I am just under 5’8″ and was about 152 pounds when the photo was taken. Skin fold, bio-electrical impedance and infra-red all put me at about 3 to 4% body fat at the time, although I tend to be very skeptical of the accuracy of all of those at lower body fat levels.

  5. DARIN January 19, 2009 at 1:55 am #

    What amount in grams do you suggest for protein, fats and carbs for bodybuilding training while trying to get lean and why do you suggest cutting out EFA?

  6. Drew Baye January 19, 2009 at 9:54 am #

    Darin,

    I cover all of this in Basic Guidelines for Fat Loss. Nowhere do I suggest cutting out essential fatty acids.

  7. Dan Beitzel August 23, 2009 at 10:33 am #

    Drew,

    What would be a benefit to strong hip flexors from a common trainees perspective? In boot camp some years ago, they would make us do endless flutter kicks and leg raises to “toughen up” our hip flexors. They would tell us it provides more protection and power when walking with heavy rucksacks on, when we completed our God awful road marches.

    Dan

    Dan

    • Drew Baye August 23, 2009 at 11:00 am #

      Dan,

      Any movements involving hip flexion would benefit from stronger hip flexors, the most common being running and kicking. The stronger your hip flexors, the more powerful the movements they can produce and the more resistant they are to injury.

  8. james spella September 29, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    drew, excellent site. appreciate your willingness to divulge extensive information to your readers at no cost. very benevolent to keep people informed so they can proceed with confidence, safety, and effectiveness. really looking forward to the release of your book.

  9. Gordon November 14, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    When you say that abs receive plentiful indirect stimulation from heavy upper body exercise, I feel you might be contradicting yourself.

    You say that ab exercises should not get into crazy-high reps; I agree that to be productive strength training should aim for movements that induce at least 70% of Maximum Voluntary Contraction. But isn’t it the case that during heavy pull-downs and standing presses the abs are doing the equivalent of a sub-70% MVC static hold? This is not equivalent to, for example, the exercise the triceps receive as secondary participants in the bench-press and shoulder-press.

    I readily concede I have found for myself that during heavy lifts the abs (well, the rectus abdominis more than the obliques) can occasionally receive a special kind of punishment that is hard to stimulate with the usual targeted ab exercises. But it does not seem reliable or controlled; I rarely ever experienced any significant recovery pains in my abs after performing such exercises.

    • Drew Baye November 14, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

      Gordon,

      During many upper body exercises the abs – including the rectus abdominus and the obliques – are under considerable load. This is especially the case during exercises like weighted chin ups, front grip pulldowns, presses, and cable tricep press downs when a heavy enough weight is used. While an exercise involving trunk flexion against direct resistance would be more effective for strengthening the abs, the primary focus of the article is ripped abs, not strong abs, and no direct abdominal exercise is required to get ripped abs.

  10. Jason September 3, 2010 at 1:18 am #

    Drew,

    Awesome site! I have had some measurements taken using indirect calorimetry, and i was wondering how close you think these devices are to real life. By the the way, i am fairly active, and after stopping “cardio” (read lots of running) my measurement on this device went way up. Lately i measured as high as 3910 cals per day on the BodyGem calorimeter. It made me think that, if it was even close to accurate, that my 1800 calories a day was way too low, and i was probably losing muscle. By increasing my Paleo foraging :) I seemed to recover faster and look more defined, just as all your articles around this suggest. Do you ever rely on these devices as a starting point? I realize that the best way is trial and error, but after losing 120 pounds, keeping it off, and closing in on the body i have always wanted, sometimes you just get lost, and i felt like even after all i had done, i am still learning new things. I like the mention of how much fat your body can transfer for energy…I had never seen that before, and i read every dang reputable health blog out there. It finally clicked reading this article in the adjustment of calorie deficit as you get leaner…i am just soaking up this site!!!

  11. Drew Baye September 6, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Jason,

    Thanks, I’m glad you’re finding the site helpful. I haven’t used the BodyGem but I’ve done indirect calorimetry measurements on myself and clients using a Korr ReeVue and it seemed pretty accurate. I do not currently have indirect calorimetry measuring equipment so we estimate based on client weight and measurements and adjust based on how their body responds.

    This is from the article on basic fat loss guidelines at http://baye.com/basic-guidelines-for-fat-loss/

    “…multiplying ideal bodyweight (approximately 15% body fat if male, 20% if female) by 15 will provide a reasonably good estimate of daily maintenance calorie intake. Sedentary or smaller people may need to multiply by as little as 12 to 14, while very active or larger people may need to multiply by as high as 16 to 18.”

  12. Zidan June 9, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    Do tummy vacuums offer a benefit to the abs that the crunch does not?

    • Drew Baye June 11, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      Zidan,

      No. Stomach vacuums are often recommended as a transverse abdominis exercise by people who believe this is necessary or beneficial for developing core stability. It is not. For more on this read The Myth of Core Stability.

      • Zidan June 13, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

        I’ve heard some people say it offers good core stability, but I often hear people say that it somehow slims your waist and flattens your belly…but not by making you lose fat. You know what I’m referring to? If so, is there any truth to it? And does it do ANYTHING? Thanks.

        • Drew Baye June 14, 2014 at 11:47 am #

          Zidan,

          Unless you plan to perform the stomach vacuum pose as part of a bodybuilding posing routine there is no good reason to practice it.

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