How you should really train your abs

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In this blog I will be discussing my views on the popular topic of ab training. It is a very common for people to have the goal of having a six pack or a slimmer waist and so for most people they assume that training the abdominals is the best place to start. I will talk about why this may not be the case and why some of the exercises you are doing for your abdominals and core musculature may not be as effective as you think.

The first thing to understand if you want a slimmer or more defined midsection is that diet and overall calorie expenditure is crucially important. It doesn’t matter how strong and large the muscles of your core are; if they are covered in a layer of fat, you will not have a six pack. In order for your abdominals to be visible you will have to maintain a fairly low body fat percentage (this will vary depending on genetics). As I have said before, if you want to drop body fat then you almost certainly need to be in a calorie deficit. Therefore, I would argue that a balanced diet and sufficient exercise so that you are consuming fewer calories than you are burning will be more important than any amount of ab training if you want visible abdominals. That being said, core and abdominal training is very important in any exercise routine to promote better posture, reduce risk of back injuries as well as a number of other benefits.

When most people think of ab exercises, the ones that come to mind are generally sit ups or crunches. Although these exercises can be beneficial for isolating the rectus abdominis (the six pack muscle) they can cause a number of issues and generally aren’t an effective to way to fully strengthen the muscles of the core. One of the issues with these types of exercises are that it can cause excess stress on the muscles of the neck and can promote poor posture. When most people do a crunch, there head migrates forward and the shoulders round. Just being in these positions is not necessarily bad but if we can maintain a more neutral position when performing exercises then it is always going to be better – especially if you spend most of your day at a desk as you most likely spend too much time in those positions as it is.

Another thing to mention about crunches and other exercise that involve flexion and extension of the spine is that they are very good for isolating the rectus abdominus but not many of the other muscles of the core (the internal and external obliques and transversus abdominis are the main others). These other muscles are just as important to strengthen and so by doing crunches and alike alone will not develop your core strength in the most optimal way.

So if crunches aren’t good enough then what are some good alternatives? My view is that the most effective core exercises are those where you try to prevent movement of the spine. I will go through my 2 favourite core exercises to work the all of the muscles of your midsection and discuss the technique that I have found most effective with my own training and that of my clients.

WhatsApp Image2The first exercise is the plank. The way I have people do planks is slightly different to the way most people will have been doing them. Rather than passively holding yourself on your forearms and toes, I have people try to create as much tension from head to toe as possible. The first thing to do is position yourself on your forearms and toes with your head staying in line with your hips, and your hips in line with your heels. The next step is to tense your glutes (the muscles in your bum) and try to tuck your hips underneath you, imagining that you are trying to bring your ribcage to the front of your hips and the front of your hips to your ribcage. This will ensure you are engaging your rectus abdominus. Then you will imagine that you are trying to drive your toes through the floor and keep them rigid. The final part is one that turns this relatively simple exercise into a very tough workout in itself. You will drive your elbows backwards towards your toes without you arms actually moving. This will engage the muscles in your back and create lots of tension in your entire core. If you use this technique then 20-30 seconds is normally more than enough.

The second exercise is especially good for the obliques. It’s called the pallof press and the whole idea of this exercise is to use your core muscles to prevent rotation of the spine. It can be done either on the cables or with a band. The first thing to ensure is that the band or handle is set up just below shoulder height. You will then take the weight or create tension in the band and stand with your feet in a strong position just outside of hip width and with a neutral spine and with the band or cable going across your body (as shown in the left picture). You will press your arms out straight in front of you at a slow tempo keeping your shoulders down and your abs tight before slowly returning your hands back to the starting position. The only thing that should be moving during this exercise is your arms. My advice would be to do 15-20 reps each side at a very slow tempo.

To conclude, my main advice if you want to improve the look of your midsection would be continue to train hard with a mixture of resistance and cardio training and ensure you are in a calorie deficit. And if you want to strengthen your core, ditch the crunches and try out the exercises above.


I hope you have found this informative and I will speak to you next week.


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