Summertime is ab time. There’s no getting away from the fact that a killer midsection will get more attention on the beach than any other lean and muscular body part.
How to make it happen?
If you’ve been in the iron game for any length of time, you know that the best prescription for training the abs is to do the classic lifts of squats, deadlifts, and chin-ups, wasting zero time on the typical isolation ab exercises that get a lot of attention in the mainstream.
And you know that how you eat is just as important as how you train if you want a gaze-worthy midsection.
But the problem with these truths of great abdominals is that they don’t tell us all that much about the details. They leave open a lot of room for mistakes.
Plus, getting killer abs means different things to different people. While some guys want to get absolutely shredded with a chiseled six-pack and wide obliques, most people just want to shrink their waists and lean out. Six-pack definition isn’t necessary.
This article will deal in the details of ab training. You’ll learn how to avoid common mistakes and what to do to reveal your abs with the least struggle possible.
#1: Pick a priority and train accordingly.
For the vast majority of people, two things need to happen to get great abs:
1) You need to lose excess body fat in your waist. This is priority #1 for most people.
Do this by training and eating in a way that allows you to create an energy deficit so that you are expending more energy than you are taking in.
2) Priority #2 for most people is to develop strength in the abdominal muscles and trunk. If you’re relatively new to lifting, this will build muscle in the lower back and abs for a firm, lean waist. It’s the groundwork if you want to eventually develop chiseled six-pack abs with heavy, high volume training.
Do it by prioritizing the multi-joint lifts of squats, deadlifts, lunge variations, presses, and pulls.
Now, if you already have very low body fat, your priority should be on gaining strength and building the abs. If you are fairly strong (such as being able to squat 1.5 to 2 times your bodyweight), continue training hard in the big lifts and add a few full body exercises that target the abs such as hanging leg raises.
If you’re not very strong, but you are lean, better results will come from training hard in all the “big” multi-joint lifts so that you drive your strength threshold up. You’ll develop the core musculature in the process and can work on chiseling out your abs once you’re strong and can handle super heavy weights.
#2: Do tighten up your nutrition.
Exercise is most effective for reducing body fat and revealing your abs when you pair it with a smart diet that leads you to expend more energy than you take in. A simple way to do this is to eat a high-quality, high-protein intake with a lot of vegetables, fruit, beneficial fats, and other nutrient dense REAL foods.
Whether you opt for this tried and true method or work some other nutrition magic on your midsection, chiseled abs can’t have fat covering them up.
Eat protein and fat at every meal, focusing on getting 10 grams of essential amino acids. This is most easily done by eating meat, fish, or eggs because animal products are more amino acid dense than plant proteins.
Plan your carbohydrate intake based on genetics, activity levels, and body fat percentage. For fat loss, try getting the vast majority of carbs from veggies and fruit. If you go very low in carbs (below 50 grams a day, for example) consider cycling high-glycemic whole food carbs, such as starchy veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes) or boiled grains every 5 to 7 days.
#3: Don’t slash calories.
Fat loss is best achieved with a diet that allows you to avoid hunger and experience as little discomfort as possible. Slashing calories is not a good way to do this.
Cutting calories drastically (below 1,500 a day for most people) is one of the worst things you can do if you want to lose belly fat. Fairly quickly, the body will downregulate your metabolism in order to preserve the fuel stores it has, and you’ll burn fewer calories daily.
Slashing calories also elevates cortisol because one effect of cortisol is that it releases energy stores to keep you going when calories are low. When cortisol is chronically elevated, it makes your body think it needs to store fat around the waist so that it will have a great source of easily accessible energy in anticipation of more intense stress.
Top it off with needing to fight off hunger with willpower, and you’ll elevate cortisol even more. This is a very bad situation that will probably leave you with more fat around the middle and no visible abs.
#4: Strength train, focusing on the classic lifts.
The best way to get tighter abs is by training squats and deadlifts with some chin-ups, lunges, presses, and Olympic lifts thrown in for fun. Squats and deads are a highly efficient way of building abs for at least three reasons:
- These exercises allow you to train with the heaviest weights for the greatest overload of the musculature and superior adaptations.
- The abs respond best to high load, low rep training because the abdominal musculature is principally composed of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
- They optimally train the lower back and posterior chain to produce power and force. If you know anything about training anatomy, you’re aware that the true secret for building strong, defined abs is in optimizing function of these muscles to create a strong framework on which to build a great six-pack.
#5: Don’t forget to engage the trunk.
How many times have you seen someone sticking out their stomach on an overhead press or hyperextending their back at the top of a deadlift?
It’s a common pitfall for novice trainees but it also affects athletes. For instance, one study found that female athletes who were instructed to engage the abs protected the core abdominal musculature and had much better movement patterns with less hip side-to-side displacement during single-leg squats than those who received no verbal instructions.
To develop stabilization through the trunk, try these exercises:
- The single-leg jackknife sit-up: Lie on your back, extend your arms over your head, bend one leg, placing the entire foot in contact with the floor. Leave the other leg straight. Lift your leg and trunk simultaneously as rapidly as possible into a V position. Perform an equal number of reps for each side. Increase resistance with the use of wrist and ankle weights.
- The reverse sit-up, with legs bent: Lie on your back with the legs bent and arms behind your head. Simply lift the hips straight up. Do not pull on your neck with your hands. Once you’ve mastered the legs bent variation, perform it with the legs straight up in the air.
- Pullovers will also strengthen the rectus abdominis and tighten up your anterior core: Anchor your feet on a sit up board with the knees bent and perform the pull over while keeping your trunk stationary.
#6: Do sprint intervals to accelerate fat loss.
Sprint intervals are an excellent way to accelerate fat loss from your abs. Intervals literally repair your metabolism, by reducing inflammation and forcing the body to improve its ability to use and burn energy.
The catch is you need to make sure you have time in addition to regular strength training workouts and are able to recover effectively. Do this by lifting four days a week and sprinting 2 days a week, preferably with no two-a-days.
Here are sprint protocols that you can match to your conditioning level:
Beginners: Try the 30-20-10 model in which you jog for 30 seconds, run at a moderate intensity for 20 seconds, and sprint for 10 seconds. Repeat for a 5-minute interval. Do 4 sets with 2 minutes rest in between.
Intermediate:Try a descending distance protocol at maximal intensity (all-out): 400 meters, rest 4 minutes, 300 m, rest 3 min., 200 m, rest 2 min., 100 m. Rest 4 min. and repeat up to 4 times.
Well-Conditioned: Try a 1-to 1-interval-to-rest program. Do 30-second high-intensity intervals (90 percent of full speed) with 30-second jogging recovery. Repeat this 4 times for a total of 4 minutes—that’s one set. Work up to doing 3 to 4 sets.
#7: Focus on breathing contractions when training.
Deep breathing during training that engages the abs can enhance the force of the contraction for greater adaptation. Seems simple, but research shows that people don’t consciously breathe in a way that fully activates their abs.
For example, in a study that assessed muscle activity in various trunk muscles, deep breathing while doing basic stabilization exercises significantly increased activation of the erector spinae of the lower back, the external obliques, and the rectus abdominis compared to when subjects breathed normally.
#8: Don’t waste time on isolation ab exercises.
Besides weight loss in general, your abs are probably the recipient of more ridiculous promises of fast results than any other target of food and fitness marketing.
Research provides evidence on dos and don’ts of ab training. Here’s what science tells us:
- Ab training is useless for fat loss-Duh! A study from Southern Illinois University found that performing a six-week abdominal training program for four hours a week resulted in no loss of body fat.
- The “classic” ab exercises like sit-ups, crunches, and planks do activate the rectus abdominis to a significant degree, however they aren’t very effective for building this muscle. First, planks are isometric exercises—a contraction that will build strength but is inferior for building muscle. Dynamic contractions on the other hand, especially those that emphasize an eccentric component are well known for leading to the greatest muscle growth.
Second, novices may find that planks and crunches improve core strength, but returns quickly diminish. As you get stronger, the weight you’re lifting (or contracting against in the case of planks) stays the same. You can do more reps or extend the time you hold the plank, but, beyond a certain threshold, this isn’t nearly as effective for changing the shape of your midsection as multi-joint exercises that load the spine.
- Another drawback of relying on planks and crunches is that they don’t have significant carry-over to performance on athletic or daily life tasks, which are dynamic (you’re moving) and performed largely on your feet.
- Deadlifts and all squat variations are useful for training the abs and back, and the front squat has been found to work the rectus abdominis, quadriceps, and erector spinae better than the back squat.
- Overhead pressing exercises and chin-ups have also been found to require significant contribution from the abs. Chin-ups hit the obliques whereas the military press has been found to use the rectus abdominis more than squats when a super light 20 kg barbell were used. Naturally, heavier loads would make both presses and squats more effective.
#9: Don’t stress.
Everyone likes to say that abs are made in the kitchen. As true as this is, the real secret to chiseled, visible abs is to manage your stress.
Here’s the thing: If you’re like 99 percent of the busy people out there, you haven’t figured out a way to deal with stress. True stress management is an everyday, all the time approach that includes nutrition, sleep, deep breathing, careful prioritization, and an optimistic outlook on life, among other things.
This is because stress hormones like cortisol are released each and every time you are under any form of physical or mental stress. You skip a meal—you get a cortisol spike. Problems at work? Stuck in traffic? Relationship problems? Eating junkfood? Yep, cortisol spike.
When cortisol is chronically elevated like this, your body shifts into fat storage mode in the abdominal area. People love to overlook this fact because stress is hard to deal with. It takes a complete lifestyle overhaul for most of us, which is the reason a truer statement is that “abs are made on vacation” than in the kitchen.
If you’re the sort of person whose vacations are just as stressful as regular life, or if your nutrition goes to pot and you don’t train when on holiday, you’re stress management plan is not working.
If stress and cortisol are your pitfall to killer abs, here are ten tips for solving this problem.