This age old question just doesn’t seem to have a straight answer, changing from gym bro to gym bro. How often should I train my abs and how long should I devote to abdominal training? Bodybuilders say you should train them daily, powerlifters say compound movements work your abs enough to not warrant any isolation work, who is right? The individual who is squatting 2X their bodyweight, or the individual whose body fat percentage is half of their shoe size? Read on and the answer will become clear and equip you with knowledge everybody can apply to their training routine, no matter your goals or training style.
Before I get into frequency, timing, individual goals and all that, it will be much easier to understand if I explain the different muscles that make up your abdominal region or “core” as it is called colloquially. The muscle most if not all weightlifters (whether they say it or not) want is the Rectus Abdominis, this muscle is what we refer to as the “six-pack” and provides the aesthetic blocky ab look you see on individuals with visible abs. Whenever you perform a crunch or extension type movement, you will be activating this muscle the most. The deeper abdominal muscle below the Rectus Abdominis is the Transverse Abdominis and wraps around the spine, protecting it and providing you stability while exercising and doing all sorts of daily activates. The External Abdominal Oblique completes the outer ab muscles and runs along the side of the torso, connecting from the lats to the hips. Its main function is rotation at the hips and torso. The final abdominal muscle is the Internal Abdominal Oblique and runs in the opposite direction of external obliques directly underneath them.
To simplify the different uses of the abdominal muscles, the external muscles help your crunch your torso forward, extend your torso back, and rotate your torso side to side. While the internal muscles are mainly for protecting your spine and low back, stabilizing your entire body and keeping your core tight during most other exercises or daily movements.
If You’re a Powerlifter…
Most likely if you’re a powerlifter, your main concern is to get stronger, forgoing any attempt to strip away the extra fat you’ve most likely accumulated on your strength journey. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it gives these individuals the assumption that they don’t need to train their “show muscles”, which mainly include their abs. The thought process behind this theory is that with no intention of showing your Rectus Abdominis or External Obliques, they don’t need to be worked directly. It is true that compound movements (such as bench press, deadlifts, squats and overhead pressing) work your Transverse Abdominis sufficiently to allow growth and an increase in your overall compound movement strength, but is it enough to forgo ab training all together? To put it simply, yes. If you are doing compound lifts in all of your workouts your abs will get stronger, and for a lot of powerlifters that all they want.
But in our newly found “aesthetic” era, a good amount of up and coming powerlifters want to be stupid strong and look the part, which is where the answer to this question changes. If you want to have a 6-pack, you need to exclusively work your Rectus Abdominis and External Obliques. Because going back to the description of those two muscles and their function in the body, none of the movements described is worked during a compound lift. Put simply, bench squat and deadlift work your internal abdominal muscles, but those muscles do not show once you get into single digit body fat percentages for men (and teens for women). Meaning if you want to have strong abs and look like you have strong abs, you need to work them in isolation to sufficiently grow your external abdominal muscles.
If You’re a Bodybuilder…
This answer will be a bit simpler in certain aspects, and most readers probably know what I’m going to say in this section. If you’re a bodybuilder, strength is less of a factor while aesthetics are the number one concern. Thick and blocky Rectus Abdominis and External Obliques are the most sought after muscle group to show off (right above biceps and calves), and a perfectly sculpted midsection can be the difference between first and last place at a bodybuilding competition. Being of such importance many amateur and professional bodybuilders train their abs in isolation daily. This is a mistake most lifters believe because of a myth that has been perpetuated stating that because your abs are a smaller muscle group they recover faster and can be worked every 24 hours. Don’t make this mistake too thinking it’ll fast track you to ripped abs. The reality is, your abs should be worked out as much as all your other muscle groups, no sooner than 48 hours apart from each session. If you are training hard enough and doing enough compound lifting your abs will get a sufficient workout every time you lift heavy, taking care of the internal muscles. When it comes to working your external abdominal muscles, 2 to 3 times a week is enough to elicit enough growth to make your abs grow. Another infamous myth being busted today is that you don’t need to work your abs while bulking. This is the opposite of what you should be doing! This is where your muscles will grow the most and not taking advantage of this fact will leave you with insufficient growth when you cut your weight down into low body fat and will actually show your abs you’ve been working during your bulk. Don’t be that guy who doesn’t work any muscles he can’t see at 15% body fat!
So What Does it All Mean?
As you may have noticed, my answer for powerlifters is to do ab work more, and my answer for bodybuilders is to do ab work less. Does that mean everybody should be doing abs the same amount? Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying observant reader! This isn’t just for those two groups of individuals though, this advice goes for any fitness junkie or enthusiast who only needs to exercise enough to stay in shape and doesn’t necessarily have goals in strength or aesthetics. Everybody should be working their external abs 2-3 times a week and internal abs by doing their heavy compound exercises 2-3 times a week. Of course everybody has their own preference, but in this context for optimal growth and strength this is the number of ab workouts everybody should be striving for on a weekly basis.
The other important question is, when you train your abs, how should it be structured into your routine? How many exercises should you do to properly stimulate both external abdominal muscles? How many reps per exercise? A lot of this comes down to personal goals and preference. But I will mention a few tips to keep in mind… Do your isolation ab work towards the end of your routine, after your heavy compound lifts because a pre-fatigued core will result in a loss in much needed tightness and stability that you need to prevent injury and keep proper form. Because your abs are a smaller muscle group they respond best to higher rep workouts, that being said a mix of high rep bodyweight exercises and weighted lower rep workouts can give you a superior workout. Two exercises are all you need to stimulate your entire external abdominal region, one working the Rectus Abdominis, and one working the External Oblique. There is no need to spend a half an hour on just ab exercises to work them out sufficiently (unless you have the time and energy, in that case you can go nuts but keep in mind it won’t do much more than two quick and effective exercises besides burning some extra calories).
How to Apply These Concepts
A good example of an ab circuit you can quickly do at the end of your workout is four sets of a two exercise superset. Start with bodyweight hanging knee raises (or fully extended legs once knee raises become easy, conversely if hanging knee raises are too difficult then start in a captain’s chair), 10-15 reps to fatigue (Close but not to failure) your Rectus Abdominis. Without resting drop down to the floor and perform weighted Russian Twists for 50 reps (25 on either side), choose a plate you can hold to complete all 50 reps whether it be a five pound, 10 pound, or 25 pound plate (anything heavier will most likely break down your form too much). The Russian twists will fatigue your External Obliques and if done with proper form, you shouldn’t be able to complete a single extra rep at the end of the fourth set. If you don’t feel sore in your abs the next day then that means you didn’t go hard enough! Those eight sets (four per exercise) should be enough abdominal work to stimulate growth in both external muscles if you are in a caloric surplus. With ab work it never gets boring, there are literally thousands of exercises to always keep your muscles guessing!
At the end of the day, you can train your abdominal muscles however you’d like, how often you’d like or as little as you like! Just keep in mind all the benefits you can reap from working them often (but not too often), not to mention the visual appeal a shredded six-pack attracts. Remember the information you learned here today, thank you for reading to the end and continue to train smart and safe as you reach your goals!