Yesterday I found myself engaged in a common conversation I have with people around the gym and fitness space that involves “seeing their abs.” This is arguably the most discussed thing in health and fitness, second only maybe to weight loss. Out of all of articles, podcasts, blog posts and videos you can consume about the topic I find very few helpful, and the ones that are are typically generic in nature (only giving a few tactile exercises). I aim to point out some of those misconceptions and provide arguments that I have found extremely successful in the years of consuming thousands of bits of information from hundreds of coaches and then applying those daily in programming for thousands of people. In the end, you will be armed with more tools to help you tackle the most elusive of vanity metrics!
Basic Understanding of Abs, muscles and their function: I don’t want to go deep into the science and post anatomy pictures, but there are a few main points here that are very important to understand so that you can ensure your pursuit maximizes bang-for-buck training hours. This is probably best explained through a story of a 19-year old me back at Lifetime Fitness and the RPAC with my cut off shirt slaving away with hours of unproductive training. I, like many young men, thought that abs were the key to male dominance, women would swoon over me and I’d instantly be catapulted to movie-star status if I could just achieve this vanity driven goal. I scoured the internet daily, bought muscle & fitness magazines and each day I’d path out a new 30-40 minute ab routine. Knee tucks, dragon flys, crunches are better than sit-ups, no sit-ups are better, screw it I’ll do both! More and more and more I did…and never could I see my abs pop through my slim frame. Sad in hindsight, but I know there are tens of thousands of 16-20 year olds doing the exact same thing as we speak (face-slap). I’ve dedicated Friendship to helping people in their pursuit of health and fitness goals in the most time-efficient way possible – so that they never have to guess through and struggle with the same mistakes I made. Oh how fit I could’ve been in that time had I just known.
My issue was not one of effort, it was due to a lack of understanding. What these magazines and internet articles that are posterized with ripped guys with their shirts off don’t tell you is that contraction without load done for rep on rep on rep doesn’t really cause your body to adapt. Your abs can already lift your legs, they can already get you off the ground (sit-up), and swing your legs all around…and doing it simply for a “burn” doesn’t really precipitate muscle-growth.
You see, your body grows muscle because we impose a new stress onto it that sends receptors all around to the body so it will accommodate that new stress with new muscle. So by simply performing tasks that your body can already achieve your body doesn’t necessarily need more muscle to do that. Highly simple and repetitious ab exercise does have other value, but local muscle growth is likely not going to be a bi-product with that style of training.
These contractions are also just one small part of the abdominals function (flexing and extending your upper torso, and flexing and extending your hips/legs). A major core function of the entire “donut” of muscles that are interlinked with your abdominals is to stabilize your body’s center; to protect the spine, brace for impact, and build stability. This stabilizing structure is immensely powerful, and in my experience is drastically underdeveloped in Americans today. Another way to look at this is to say, what are the things that make us “stabilize” more than anything else – or what might crumble a smaller, weaker person. Partner Fireman’s Carries or Yoke Carries are probably one of the greatest displays of this. My wife, weighs 120lbs, and she has carried me, 225lbs, 400meters by herself on her shoulders. Suffice it to say, she has a more stable core than a 120lb middle schooler who struggles to stabilize a backpack (that’s one our society has gotten wrong). Stabilizing your core while walking, squatting, lunging or picking things up off the ground makes that group of abdominal muscles (and those working with it) work extremely hard to ensure you’re not collapsing under that load. If you’re consistently carrying or moving heavier objects, your core muscles will need to add more muscle to accommodate that stress. The fact that the rest of your major muscle-movers (hamstrings, quads, glutes, lats, etc.) are also being stressed makes these a significant muscle-builder for your body and some of the best bang-for-your-buck ab exercises as well.
People start to go wrong in their thinking that if they don’t feel a muscle working, or it “burning”, that it’s not being exercised – and conversely they think that if they do an extremely challenging ab workout that burns their abs, that they will in turn “get abs.” This is the major flaw and misconception surrounding this elusive vanity metric. If you view it instead as “I need to grow my abdominal muscles to be larger” then they will grow far enough to poke through the layer of fat that might sit nicely on top of them (I’ll get into this later). If you understand that concept then you look at the ‘ab problem’ from a different angle, and you become more in tune with growing lean muscle mass and attempting to do that locally.
Lean muscle mass grows best when we stress our central nervous system through a heavier stress than we’re used to, and in turn activate our ‘satellite cells’ for muscle growth (for a deeper look read this). Now this is relative, 65lbs might be heavy for some, where 655 lbs might be heavy for others. It is hard (but not impossible) to grow muscle-mass locally in smaller muscle groups through only training those groups, mainly because it is extremely difficult to stress your CNS through bicep curls or other isometric exercises. One of my favorite moments in coaching is the first time someone stands up a hard squat, or lifts a real deadlift and they have that look on their face, that beautiful look of maximum physical exertion and they maybe see a few stars…THAT is your CNS being taken for a ride and your body will respond. This is why Arnold and all of the best bodybuilders in the world use squats, deadlifts, lunges and heavy rows as the staples of their program – this helps get their CNS in the mode of growing muscle-mass, then they can locally stress muscles so the brain can tell the body which area of the body needs the most nutrients and recovery (aka muscle growth). Phew, that was too nerdy, so let’s instead just simplify: To see your ab muscles they must be either big enough to push forward and be seen, and/or you must have such low body fat that there is no layer of fat between your skin and abdominals.
Check out how Alex Parker’s abs have to work while she’s doing these carries!
So what would a true “ab” day look like? Well, it would start with a heavy compound lift or carry – Let’s say a deadlift. The goal of the deadlift would be to force you to stabilize as long and hard as possible throughout the lift. It should be challenging to hold a neutral spine angle, but there shouldn’t be any movement once the lift begins (because if your spine is shifting under load than your core muscles aren’t doing their job) (and it’s unsafe). This is where coaching is key, a true coach should get you up to the desired stimulus, and then tell you to cut it off if you exceed your body’s limitations. Not too light to not stress your system, and not too heavy to be unsafe. Next we would move onto some degree of challenging flexion/extension exercises – I personally like things where you have to stabilize AND contract the abs – The V-Up from a hollow position (second variation in video) is a fantastic example of this. If you do it properly your abs have to stabilize at the beginning and end of every contraction. If you pair this in a superset or CrossFit style workout with something else that force you to stabilize your core, like a squat or carry, your core is having a pretty challenging day already! This is the reason that CrossFit athletes have abs most greek gods might be jealous of.
Build muscle, stress the stabilizing muscles as well as the rest of your body and CNS, then use hypertrophy training on the local muscles itself in a contraction. This strategy done correctly, obviously paired with great nutritional habits, will save you HOURS of wasted reps and stress.
I tell you this because I wasted hundreds of hours. I spent over 5-years doing an ineffective and boring ab routine found online. Running on the treadmill and doing back/bi’s and chest/tri’s. I never really put on muscle-mass, and I definitely never saw my abs. I’d all but given up, and I started chasing performance metrics instead. Just 8-months into CrossFit I saw my abs for the first time (still have my first ever ab selfie to prove it — Locked away of course)…At the time I was new and didn’t know why. I thought it was because I was doing MORE (of course right?!) work, not smarter work. In reality, I was actually stressing my system and building muscle for the first time in my life. The push for performance (stronger lifts, faster mile times, more pull-ups) caused me to eat healthier and lift heavier than I ever had before. Who knew? I only do traditional ab work to improve my stabilizing techniques these days and allow me the capability to lift heavier in the squat and deadlift and continue to stress my system more.
So, take a moment and do a quick analysis on your training style and goals. Being focused on a vanity driven goal is normal, and often is a major reason for people starting to train. The amazing thing is that the best training for vanity also mirrors the best training for health and wellness, which also mirrors the best training for general performance. A well-rounded strength program is key, without this you have no chance of success over the long-term in the physical fitness world. This is a major issue facing many of the popular training models and new style gyms that have very little to no real compound strength work. Follow that up with a decent aerobic base and some supplemental hypertrophy training and you’re doing everything you can in the gym. The rest of the equation takes place in the kitchen and while sleeping. If you’ve been desiring this elusive metric I hope that this article has shed some light on a flaw in your training style that you can fix.