The truth is, having great looking abs is mostly about diet. No amount of workouts, magic exercise or routine is going to overcome that. To have good abs, you must have low body fat, and that means being tight on your diet.
That said, you can build, tone, and shape the abdominal muscles; just like any other muscle. To get the most out of your ab training you should understand what the different muscles are, how they function, and how to train them.
This gives you the best chance to create the look that you want. Rather than giving a generic workout, you will get more benefit from learning the principles of training your abs.
As I tell you about the different principles, I will give you exercise examples so that you know how to do it in the real world.
Abs are just…muscles
The abs are no different to any other muscle in the body. The same principles that make your biceps or chest grow will also make your abs grow. That means training your abs every day is probably pointless. It means doing 200 reps is just building your endurance, rather than muscle mass. It means if you can’t feel the muscle working, it probably isn’t. Follow normal protocol for reps, sets, frequency, etc. Train a muscle group 2-3 times per week for best results, and increase volume over time to continue seeing progress. Reps in the 8-20 range are best for muscle growth.
This is all as true for abs as it is for any other muscle group. Don’t treat them any differently.
Your abs main functions
What do the abs primarily do? Their main role is stabilization of the spine. That means they primarily resist movement, rather than creating it. Their secondary role is in the breathing process. They help you expel air.
What does this mean for you in the gym? It means breathe out as you contract your abs, to get the strongest contraction and work the muscles to their full potential. You should use primarily movement resistance based exercises, rather than movement creation. That means things like hollow rocks and dragon flags are more effective than crunches. Rotational exercises like wood chops are better than side bends.
When doing an exercise like hanging knee raises you want to breathe out as you pull your knees up. This will create the strongest contraction. Squeeze the muscles at the top, and then breathe in as you lower the legs down. Stretch the abs at the bottom by squeezing the glutes and making sure you fully straighten at the hip, before going back up for the next rep.
Your abs are not your hip flexors
Your abs do not actually bend the hip. They bend the lower spine. 100% of the training effect comes from curling and uncurling the lower spine. Bending at the hips is something that happens as a result of moving the spine, but it is not where the movement is driven from.
Most people you see doing sit ups or their many variations in the gym are training their hip flexors more than their abs. You should not be bending at the hip too much. It is certainly not where the movement starts from.
You want to think of curling your spine, moving one vertebrae at a time in a segmental curling up and uncurling. If you’re feeling soreness or cramp in the crease of your hips, or upper thigh, you are using your hip flexors to initiate the movement, and not training your abs.
This is the single biggest mistake I see people making with their ab training. Your hip flexors are probably already tight and short because you probably spend all day sitting down, where they’re in a shortened position and cannot function. You don’t need to make it worse by doing a tonne of bad sit ups in the gym.
Curl the lower spine up and down to train your abs. You should feel them working as you do it.
To isolate or not to isolate?
There’s an ongoing debate in the fitness world about whether you need to directly train your abs, or if they get enough stimulation while doing squats, deadlifts, and other big movements.
My opinion is this: they do get trained in other movements, and that is a good baseline, but if you want them to look great, you need to train them properly.
It’s the same argument as “your biceps are worked doing pull ups and rows”. Yes, they are, and that’s a good place to start. But if you want to have big arms, you need to do curls and train them directly.
A muscle will grow much better when it is focused on, not just a by-product of some other training movement you happen to be doing.
That said, you don’t need to make abs your primary focus of every workout if you’re trying to get a six-pack. I said in the intro that your diet and overall body fat level is more important than an abs workout for getting a six-pack.
The best way to improve your body composition, build muscle and strip fat is with big compound movements and intense workouts. So your squats and deadlifts won’t lead to great growth in your abs, but they will make them more likely to be seen by creating a bigger body fat reduction.
Treat your abs the same way you treat any other muscle, and follow the basic principles of progressive overload.
Make sure you’re actually working the right muscles. The abs do not bend the hips, they curl and uncurl the lower spine. This should be the focus of all your movements. They also help in breathing; breathe out as you contract the abs to get the strongest contraction.
Ultimately having visible abs comes down to diet and low body fat, but training them directly will shape and tone them, so they look good when they are visible.