If you’re hitting the gym, chances are you want to look like you lift. That’s why six-pack abs are so coveted. But if you’re reading this blog, you also want to perform at your peak.
Developing your entire core is essential to performing well on the playing field and out in the mountains.
This article reveals what you need to know about training for abs that look great and help you perform your best.
There are a couple key factors that contribute to athletic abs:
- Overall leanness. Everyone has a six-pack, but the question is, are you lean enough to see your abs? Eating in a consistent calorie deficit will get you there.
- Strength training. Using heavy, compound movements like squats, lunges, hip hinges, and upper body pushes and pulls allows you to use big muscle groups to lift heavier weights. Using heavier weights requires more exertion, and more exertion means bigger bang-for-your-buck in terms of calorie burn and muscle growth. Plus, these heavy compound lifts all require you to engage your deep core stabilizing muscles.
- Mechanical stress and time under tension, which are the training variables necessary for building bigger, stronger muscles. This is why climbers have such awesome abs and back – they have to maintain core tension for a long time while climbing up a rock face.
- Using the RIGHT combination of direct abdominal exercises.
It’s these last two points that most people overlook in their ab workouts, so that’s the problem we’ll focus on fixing.
You Must Train Your ENTIRE Core
See, your abdominals are actually a large muscle group with many different functions: breathing, regulating abdominal pressure, bracing to protect your spine, flexing and extending your spine, rotating your trunk, resisting external forces, and creating a stable platform for transferring force to your limbs.
In addition, your core includes more than just your rectus abdominis, or surface six-pack muscles. Your core is comprised of deep stabilizing muscles, internal and external obliques, spinal erectors, and even your gluteus muscles and the latismus dorsi on the backside of your body.
Crunches and planks train only a fraction of these abdominal muscles and functions, so if that’s all you’re doing in your core workouts, you’re leaving a ton of potential gains on the table. Let’s fix that.
Here are the six key movements to add to your ab routine:
- Flexion-based movements
- Extension-based movements
- Rotation or twisting
- Anti-flexion and extension
- Abdominal power
“Flexion” is the technical term used to describe crunching your upper and lower body together, as in a sit-up or a leg raise.
Here’s the thing: people rush through these types of movements, cranking on their lower backs, and completely ignore the concept of “time under tension.”
By slowing down your abdominal work, you’ll keep your abs under tension for longer and create more mechanical stress, which is necessary for better-looking abs.
Use a 2-1-2 tempo for sit-up-like movements. That means crunching up for a 2-count, pausing and fully exhaling at the top of the rep, then lowering under control for another 2-count while inhaling before starting your next rep. Try this for sets of 15-20 reps, and I guarantee you’ll feel a difference from ordinary crunches.
You can also increase time under tension by using a greater range of motion (ROM). I generally abhor BOSU balls, but this is one time where they can come in handy. Set yourself up directly on top of a BOSU ball or Swiss ball and lay back all the way over the ball, past where the floor would stop you if you were on the ground. Use a slower tempo, like we discussed above. The increased ROM will allow you to use a 4-1-4 tempo as you lower and crunch back up. Again, try this for sets of 15-20 repetitions.
While we’re at it, the sit-up isn’t your only flexion option. In fact, this movement bothers most peoples’ backs due to years of poor execution. Try the reverse crunch instead to protect your back.
Other flexion-based ab exercises include hanging knee raises, hanging straight leg raises, and Garhammer raises.
As I mentioned above, your core isn’t limited to the muscles on the front of your body. Training your posterior chain (backside) is absolutely necessary to build a strong, stable core and will improve your posture so that you look taller and more confident.
Your glutes are the primary muscles that control hip extension, so the best exercises to build strength here are deadlifts, bridges, hip thrusts, band or cable pull-throughs, back extensions, reverse hyper-extensions, and kettlebell swings.
Just as in flexion, you’ll want to sloooow things down. Lift with a controlled tempo and squeeze the heck out of your glutes at the top of each rep to get the most out of each exercise.
Rotation or twisting
Ah, the good, old Russian twist. It’s a shame people butcher this common rotational exercise.
Again, slow down the movement, and focus on keeping your abs crunched down to avoid hyperextending through your low back. I find it helpful to hold a light object like a med ball or a 10-lb plate in front of my body and think of your hands as headlights on a car. Point the headlights as far to the left and right as possible, using the greatest range of motion available to you.
Don’t limit yourself to the Russian twist. Other exercises that work here are landmine rotations, cable lifts, cable chops, and kettlebell windmills. And for heaven’s sake, give the side-bend a rest. It’s not accomplishing much of anything.
Anti-flexion and extension
Just as important as flexion and extension, if not more-so, are “anti” movements. Recall that one of the main roles of your abdominal muscles is to protect your spine from outside forces. Anti movements train that function, recruiting deep abdominal stabilizers that protect you from injury.
Planks and all their variations are a great example of an anti-flexion and anti-extension exercise, but my go-to move is the dead bug.
To do the basic dead bug, lay on the floor and press your back flat into the ground as hard as you can. Imagine there’s a hundred dollar bill under your back that you don’t want anyone to slide out from beneath you. Bring your arms and legs up into the air (like a dead bug, get it?) and slowly extend your opposite arm and leg as far as you can. Exhale fully as you extend, and hold that position for 1-2 seconds to “own” the movement. Return to the start and repeat on the other side.
To advance this exercise, you can add a band around your feet, hold a band with your arms (move only your legs), or hold a weight in your arms (move both arms together in this variation).
Other great exercises that go beyond the plank include stability ball or suspension trainer rollouts.
Pretty similar to anti-flexion and anti-extension, this is where you train your abs to resist rotation. My favorite anti-rotation exercise is the Paloff press. Make sure you stay squared up throughout the movement. You should feel your oblique closest to the band/cable attachment point firing to accomplish this.
Another very simple anti-rotation exercise is a suitcase carry. Grab a heavy weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, sand bag, etc) and carry it across the gym as space allows. If you’re tight on space, you can march in place. Your goal is to maintain an upright posture that would impress a Marine.
We’ve covered a lot of bases, but what’s missing from the equation so far is POWER training. If you add all the exercises above into your routine, you’ll build a stronger core… but incorporating power training will give you abs that function, too. And where’s the fun in looking good, if you can’t perform at your best?
Power training is all about generating force, quickly, so keep sets of power exercises short and intense. Three to four sets of 5-10 reps are plenty. Rest fully (1-2 minutes) between sets to adequately recover. Remember to exhale forcefully on each rep to engage your core.
The best tools for core power training are medicine balls and kettlebells. Think exercises like med ball slams, med ball sit ups with overhead throws, med ball rotational throws and slams, and kettlebell swings.
Your Six-Pack Training Plan
After a solid warm up, perform a heavy, compound strength exercise. Choose from squats, split squats, lunges, deadlifts, hip thrusts, bench press, overhead press, push ups, dips, bent rows, pull ups, chin ups, lat pulldowns, or cable rows. Do three to five sets of five to ten reps using heavy weights.
Then, hit any of those same movements for three to four sets of 8-12 reps with moderate weights. Remember to engage your core and exhale on each repetition.
Finish with direct core work. Choose 1-2 ab exercises and rotate through each different type throughout the week. If you train three times weekly, you could do two types of exercises in each session. Perform two to three sets of 15+ reps, or 5-10 reps of abdominal power exercises.
- Heavy strength exercise
- Squat 3×5
- Strength superset
- Split squat 3×10/leg
- Pull ups (assisted, if necessary) – 3×8-10
- Direct ab work
- Dead bug with band around feet 3×5-6/side
- Med ball slam 3×5-6
As you can see, training your core requires far more than cranking out hundreds of crunches.
The keys are proper breathing and bracing during heavy strength training, slowing down and “owning” each rep of ab work, and increasing time under tension and range of motion.
Following this training template, along with a sensible diet, will help build abs that make you look and perform your best.
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