Q: I’m confused about ab training. I’ve heard some guys say they never train them and that dieting and cardio will bring them out. Others seem to tag them on as an after-thought at the end of their workout. When’s the best time to train them, how often should they be trained and, also, is it beneficial to train different portions of the abs separately?
A: I know how you feel. In fact, I remember attending a seminar once where Mr. Olympia legend Lee Haney claimed that he never trained his abs. Dieting and cardio were all he needed. We should all be so lucky (read genetically gifted). Unfortunately, few of us are and that means that we definitely need to work our abs to bring out our six-packs, not to mention the obliques and intercostal striations. So when and how should we do it?
While the abs does require concentration, they’re not really going to exhaust you for any upcoming weight workout. So, it would appear to make sense to train them first in your workout, when you’re fresh and motivated. This seems logical but recent publicity has surrounded the idea that training abs first places your body at risk because it will pre-fatigue the abdominal wall and place it in an unstable position during compound movements like squats and dead-lifts. There are, however, no credible studies that verify such an idea. And real gym experience seems to contradict it. Most trainers actually report that they are able to lift more weight and feel stronger on compound movements performed after training the abs. In effect, the ab session acts as a warm-up, both mentally and physically, for the compound movements to follow. It makes sense then, to train the abs first in a workout.
As far as frequency of abdominal training goes, again there is a lot of conflicting advice out there. Many people assert that the abs are very resilient and respond well to frequent training, advocating daily ab training sessions. It’s true that the abs do bounce back quickly – if you fail to train them with sufficient intensity. Keep in mind that when we’re talking about the abdominals we’re referring to four muscles at the core of your body (the rectus abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques and transverse abdominis). While proper training of these muscles will not impair future compound movements, over training them may well have a detrimental affect on movements like squats and dead lifts. So, if you’re working your abdominals with the same level of intensity that you’re giving to other body parts (which should be your goal), you wouldn’t want to train them more than two times per week, with at least a two day gap between training sessions.
Specifically targeting different areas of the abdominal wall is another hotly debated topic. On the face of it, the rectus abdominis, being one muscle, would get worked in its entirety by an exercise that stimulated it. After all, that’s the way it works with other muscles. Scientific studies seem to prove this (although there are some that show just the opposite – so much for science). Again, the real litmus test lies in real life experience on the gym floor. The majority of trainers would swear that specific exercises target specific areas of the rectus abdominis because they can feel and see that very thing in action. So, it’s pretty safe to conclude that yes, the rectus abdominis can be specifically targeted and it is proper to speak of exercises that target either the upper or lower areas of this muscle. So, for lower abs concentrate on bench leg raises, hanging leg raises and reverse crunches. For upper abs perform weighted crunches and weighted pull-downs (seated).
So, in summary, train your abs first in your workout. Limit your abdominal workouts to two sessions per week. Train abs just as you would any other muscle group. Do 3 sets of 8 reps per exercise and remain totally focused on the working muscle group throughout the movement.