Updated: Jun 2, 2018
Abs are made in the kitchen. You must have heard this saying many times being repeated over and over again. I must say that I disagree with that statement because its simply not true. I will explain why and then I will list 3 steps on how to actually build amazing abs.
Abdominal muscles, just like any other muscles in our body, must be sufficiently stimulated through various different exercises to have a viable development and adaptations. While it is true that to have visible six pack you need to be sufficiently lean, you still need to develop them first. I have seen many cases, including myself, where individuals diet down to as low as 10% with abs barely visible. This is the case where abs simply do not ''pop'' because of the lack of the development. So the more accurate saying would be that abs are made in the gym but revealed in the kitchen. It is during your bulking, not the cutting period that you should be focusing on building your six pack.
It is also important to consider the benefits of strengthening your core muscles if you are a beginner, particularly for your lower back, as it will help with your overall stability when performing some of the compound movements in other exercises. Abdominal activation also increases the stiffness of the spine and promotes stability.
Step 1 Consider your own body structure and genetics first
Before you can build your own program and strategy for your ab training you need to consider what you are working with. Do you have a wide waist? Do you already have a decent abs by genetics? Do you perhaps have a small waist? What is the structure of your abdominal? Do you have a six pack or a four pack? Do you already have a strong obliques?
Answers to these questions will give you an idea on how to intelligently train your abs. For example if you already have a wide waist and strong obliques then it probably is not necessary for you to do any ab work with weights but only with body weight. This way you would avoid getting even thicker waist by growing your abs.
On the other hand if you have a small waist, like I do, then it would be a good idea to consider exercises that include weights for your abs. At the beginning of my fitness journey I had underdeveloped obliques specifically and I had to target them specifically with weighted exercises to develop them to a sufficient level.
Step 2 Select your exercises
To be able to intelligently select exercises for your abs you need to understand the structure of abdominal muscles. Lets look at that briefly.
Also referred as six pack, the main purpose is to pull the pelvis and ribs in and flex the spine. Therefore the best exercises would be movements that are resembling crunches for the upper part of your six pack, and movements that involve your legs that target the lower part of your abs. Keep in mind that adding weight element to these exercises will make your abs thicker with that pop effect, but it will also increase the width of your waist. Here is the list of exercises that target this group of muscles in the best way based on multiple research papers comparing many different exercises.
Upper Rectus Abdominis
Exercises that involve spine flexion will target your upper abs. Below you can see a direct comparison of EMG activity of upper abdominal part in comparison with the most popular exercises. It is interesting that Ab Slide emerged as an exercise with the highest activation of upper rectus abdominis. Therefore, implementing this exercise into your workout plan would be a good idea.
Other exercises that had very good results are Reverse Crunch on an incline bench, Double Leg Thrust, Swiss Ball Crunch, and a Regular Crunch as shown in the graphs below. However, you can increase the intensity by modifying Regular Crunch by performing it on a decline bench, and also adding weights to progressively overload it.
Lower Rectus Abdominis
Exercises targeting lower portion of the Abdominis should have a lower limb movement as well as posterior pelvic tilt. Therefore, it is no surprise that in comparison one of the top exercises for lower abs is Hanging Leg Rise. This is a very popular exercise but it is also very advanced. For beginners, a knee rise would be good enough.
Another good variation in another research published in the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy showed various different exercises with the Swiss Ball to activate lower rectus abdominis very well. Particularly the Pike movement performed on a Swiss Ball with the activation level of up to 60%. You can see the graph below.
To summarize, you should pick at least one exercise with the spine flexion movement, like a crunch, and one movement involving your lower limbs movement and posterior pelvic tilt, like Hanging Leg Rise to fully maximize activation of both upper and lower abs. I have listed below my personal favorite for both options.
The role of oblique muscles is to support abdominal wall, assist in forced respiration, aid in raising pressure in the abdominal area, rotate the trunk and bend sideways. There are two types of obliques, internal and external, and as you will see, different exercises can emphasis different parts of your oblique muscles. Having said this, to effectively target this group of muscles you need to incorporate rotating movements but also include side bend movements as well.
According to Boeckh - Behrens W. Buskies data, Side Bend came out on top, followed by a Side Plank and Hanging Leg Rise as you can see in the graph below.
Some of my favorite exercises are listed in below. Pick one of them and stick with the throughout the whole meso-cycle (4-6 weeks).
To incorporate all three types of exercises I would recommend to pick one exercise for each group and then do them all together twice a week or split them into 3 separate workouts to increase the frequency. Both can work well as long as you match the weekly volume.
Step 3 Set the right volume and frequency
After selecting your exercises you need to set your weekly volume to stimulate your abs to grow. Weekly volume will depend on your experience level, but it can be anywhere between 12 and 25 sets per week. If you are new to fitness you should be doing around 12 sets but if you are experienced you might consider doing between 16 and 20 sets, and periodizing it for a progressive overload.
Just like any other muscles in the body, you can train them with medium to high rep range with 10 to 25 sets on average. Doing lower rep range would require added resistance with extra weight to your exercises, and will help you build thicker abs. Particularly good exercises for this are Regular Crunch, Decline Crunch, Russian Twist and Side Bends.
Your goal should be to either increase the weekly volume throughout your meso-cycle. This can be either done by adding sets, reps, or weight every week. This also means that you should start your meso-cycle in a lower range of recommended weekly volume that way you can work your way up to your maximum volume when you overreach. This will help you greatly in growing your ab muscles. For example:
Week 1: Decline Crunch 3 sets x 15 reps, Hanging Knee Rise 3 sets x 10 reps
Week 2: Decline Crunch 4 sets x 15 reps+5 kg plate, Hanging Knee Rise 4 sets x 10 reps
Week 3:Decline Crunch 5 sets x 15 reps+5 kg plate, Hanging Knee Rise 5 sets x 10 reps
Week 4:(Deload) Decline Crunch 2 sets x 10 reps, Hanging Knee Rise 2 sets x 10 reps
Because abs recover very quickly you can work them even up to 5 times per week. As long as you match you weekly volume, which is the most important element in muscle hypertrophy, you should not be concerned much about your frequency. Just pick the one that suits your lifestyle.
Now that I have cleared for you a couple of misconceptions about building and revealing abs you can go ahead an implement these techniques into your workout plan. Just pick the exercises, set the right volume that suits your training experience, and pick the frequency that matches your lifestyle and you are good to go. Just be patient, consistent, and trust the process. Good things will come.
For a detailed guide on how to lose as much fat as possible while building muscle at the same time (which is possible) download my free Nutrition 2.0 guide below!