Most of us admit to wanting killer abs, but few of us ever have a plan on how to accomplish it. We go into the gym and the mishmash of what we do is determined by what we feel like doing, or more likely, what we DON’T feel like doing.
More bizarrely, when it comes to training abs, all knowledge, wisdom, and logic on the subject of fitness and lifting seems to leech out of our brains. What emerge are actions and practices that don’t make much sense and are actually counterproductive to our professed goals.
In an effort to right the ab ship, here are some awkward truths about ab training.
1. Stop with the plank worshiping
Planks are an isometric exercise – they don’t involve any movement. Granted, doing planks activates a hell of a lot of muscle fibers, but they aren’t going to give you a washboard stomach or cause any further etching of your abs. You need the abs to hypertrophy for that to happen, and isometric movements like planks aren’t going to do that.
Expecting to build your core musculature with planks is like holding a heavy canned ham at a 45-degree arm angle for an extended period of time and expecting it to grow your biceps muscle. Nope, you need to do isotonic movements – where a muscle shortens to overcome resistance.
Sure, planks will allow you to maybe withstand a punch from someone who’s sick of your silly planks and they’ll probably facilitate athletic ability, but they won’t build eye-popping abs. Do them as part of your core training, but don’t have any illusions about them.
2. Training the abs won’t make your waist-size smaller
This is the biggest mystery in weight lifting. Why would men and women who seem to know a little bit about weight lifting pursue this contrary path of trying to make the waist smaller through resistance exercise?
Abs are muscles. They grow when exposed to resistance exercise. Granted, the better built your abs are, the sooner they can be seen through the fat.
It’s true that John Meadows does this thing called a pulldown crunch that he recommends for guys with distended, long-distance Doritos-eating trucker guts. You simply seat yourself in a pulldown station and grab the bar as if you were going to do pulldowns. You then inhale deeply and suck in your stomach as hard as you can. Push the abs against the spine, or try to. Then you blow out all your air and crunch down.
Granted, these probably won’t literally make your waistline smaller, but they do allow you to gain greater control over your abs so that you eventually start to subconsciously girdle in your abs when you’re walking around, at least giving people the illusion that you’re a svelte-waisted bastard.
3. You can’t train abs every day
You can blame desiccated-liver quaffing bodybuilders from the 1960’s for this one. They thought that since abs are pretty much activated whenever you’re standing up, they must have high endurance and as such need to be worked every day.
Not so. They’re pretty much like every other muscle group. They grow in response to heavy resistance done for 8 to 20 reps. They need to “heal” and grow in-between workouts.
Even though a lot of people know this, deep down, they insist on working abs every day.
While it’s true the abs, in most people, have a lot of slow-twitch, endurance fibers, they actually have a larger percentage of fast-twitch fibers. That means, in general, that you should train them with a variety of multi-joint exercises using explosive concentric contractions and slower eccentric (negative) contractions, lots of sets with heavier loads, and adequate rest in-between sets. You also shouldn’t train them every day. You know, just like regular muscles.
4. Cardio won’t give you abs
Most of you do weight workouts that probably burn around 250 calories an hour. If you try to row, row, row your fat away, you’ll probably burn close to 400 calories in an hour. Row for an hour for seven days straight and you’ll burn around 2800 to 3000 total calories.
The trouble is, a pound of fat contains roughly 3500 calories. See what I’m getting at? It’s difficult to burn fat through mere exercise. It might be different if you got on a treadmill, set the incline at 15%, kept it there, and ran uphill at a pace of 4 miles an hour for 60 minutes. That might burn some serious blubber over the course of a few weeks, but it’s certainly not easy to do. Besides, it would likely fatigue you and kill your weight workouts.
Sorry, but to make the abs surface, you’re going to need to diet. Get your body fat to 10% and the shy little things will likely start to surface. Get it down to 7% and they’ll be totally naked and exposed for all the world to admire.
5. Developing abs requires a multi-directional workout attack.
I know a guy who started doing Pilates because a girl he knows has great abs and she does Pilates. In a way, this is just as logical as him stocking up on Summer’s Eve because he noticed that a girl with great abs uses feminine hygiene products.
Sometimes we look for associations that just aren’t there. More easily understandable are people who are romanced by the abs of fitness competitors, bodybuilders, or CrossFitters and seek the same results by emulating them.
One of the problems with that is that all three of the preceding disciplines depend heavily on PEDS to help them get that shredded-abs look. If you want to copy the way they train so that you too can have abs, make sure you copy their drug regimen, too.
No particular regimen guarantees abs. You need to go at it logically and follow a multi-directional ab attack. As far as training them, remember that there are multiple pairs of core muscles and they move in multiple planes. You can’t just train them bi-directionally, i.e., up and down or side to side. Neither can you train them by turning yourself into a two-by-four and plank the day away.
In general, you need to do:
- Rollouts for rectus (research-proven to be one of the most effective movements for the rectus abdominis)
- Unloaded knee-ups for obliques (research proven to be one of the most effective oblique movements)
- Multi-directional movements like wood chops and medicine ball slams
- Pulldown crunches for “ab control”
- Anti-rotational, static movements like planks
- “Planky” type movements like renegade rows variations (e.g., hands on floor, toes on Swiss ball)
Again, as with any muscle, you need to do a variety of rep ranges and allow proper rest between workouts, keeping in mind what your goal actually is, whether it’s to create a woman-wooing washboard or a powerful juggernaut core, and adjusting work loads and techniques accordingly.