Ah yes, the age old question of training muscles that you can’t see (specifically in the offseason for bodybuilders). Some say it’s unnecessary, while other say it’s crucial. The short answer is, yes you should most definitely train your abs in the off season! But I’m not going to stop the article here. I’m going to go over in detail why you should train your abs throughout the entire year no matter what kind of lifter you are. Then I am going to discuss how you can go about training your abs efficiently and effectively, so stay tuned and I hope you enjoy!
Why Should You Train Abs Often?
If I had a cent for every time I’ve heard somebody ask whether they need to train their abs in the offseason I’d probably be able to afford a power rack by now (so quite often). But where did this myth come from? And why is it still being spread around? In this writer’s opinion, I blame a combination of laziness and overall lack of knowledge. It’s easy to forget as a bodybuilder in the off season focusing on increasing your bench or growing your biceps. As well as powerlifters who never care about having a six pack and believe compound lifts will work their abdominal muscles sufficiently.
For powerlifters this is forgivable (but still not ideal as I will talk about), but for lifters who intend to reach a low enough body fat to show their abs, not training them is the worst case scenario! The offseason is when strength and hypertrophy gains are at their peak, allowing you to grow your abs tremendously during this time. If you only begin to train your abs in isolation when you start leaning out, the result will most always be very frustrating. Very shallow, underdeveloped abs and oblique’s will start to show, resulting in an unbalanced physique that doesn’t look quite right. This happens because once you are in a calorie deficit, you more than likely will not gain any muscle, with your abdominals being no exception.
While this might seem like common sense for physique bodybuilders, this question for powerlifters isn’t so cut and dry. Many argue “I want to keep getting stronger so I’m not going to get lean anytime soon”, trying to justify not working out their abs. Aesthetically, I cannot disagree, but from a strength and injury prevention standpoint, I cannot disagree more. A strong core is debatably the most important muscle for all three compound lifts:
✓ On a deadlift without a strong core you will end up with an arched back and possible chronic lower back injuries even with a belt (from experience I can tell you they are not fun)
✓ On a squat with a weak core any kind of respectable weight will almost immediately cause you to lose all tension midway through a lift, resulting in a failed lift and a dangerous aftermath depending on your setup
✓ Perhaps surprisingly a strong bench utilizes a lot of core activation in tandem with leg drive. So as you can see, anybody who lifts weights whether they are training for strength or hypertrophy should take isolation core work more seriously!
How Often Should You Work Your Abs?
This is probably one of the most widely debated and asked question among the lifting community. Should you do them first when you are fresh before any other exercises? Do them last because you don’t want a fatigued core during heavy sets? Should you dedicate an entire 30 minutes to ab work or do you not need to do more than a few sets to fatigue your abs? Should you do varied and unique exercises to hit all your abdominal muscles?
With so much information getting passed around gyms and bodybuilding forums, what should you believe? Of course every individual responds better than others to different volume, frequency and styles, but here I will be going over what I have learned from years of lifting.
First off, 99% of lifters out there who are doing entire ab routines of around five sets of six or seven workouts, you are very deep into the territory of overkill! There is no need to do more than three, two or even just one exercise for two to three sets whenever you decided to work out your abs (two to three time a week is all you need). A few good examples of individuals who did minimalist abdominal training that still lead to success include Ronnie Coleman, one of the greatest Mr. Olympia’s to ever grace the stage, did only cable rope crunches two times a week. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, two of the best martial artists of their time, did only dragon flags (an advanced bodyweight move) and ab wheel roll outs respectively to define and strengthen their midsection. We can all take a lesson from the greats, a minimalist approach can sometimes be the most effective approach.
Take Home Message
Of course you don’t need to take this article as fact, only advice from a seasoned lifter trying to help beginners and intermediate lifters out there who might not have their ab routines figured out. To sum up the article simply, anybody in the gym (male or female) who is motivated to get bigger, leaner and/or stronger, should train their abdominal muscles no more than a few times a week, with only about five to ten minutes worth of sets needed to sufficiently stimulate growth at the end of a workout, year round. Simple as that. Any less and you most likely will have a weak and lagging core, while anymore is usually overkill for most lifters.
The last thing I will mention that you should keep in mind is to try and do abdominal exercises for your:
✓ Rectus abdominis (outer ab muscles)
✓ Oblique’s (side abdominal muscles)
✓ Transverse abdominis (inner abdominal muscles)
Things like crunches, leg raises and mountain climbers will work your outer abs, Russian twists, side bends and wood choppers will work your oblique’s, and all compound lifts (done beltless) will sufficiently work your deeper abs. With all this new found knowledge under your belt don’t be afraid to implement some of it into your routine while making it your own! And before you know it a strong, balanced and aesthetic physique will be yours!