You want great abs. Oh, shut up. You know you do. Here are some mistakes you might be making right now and how to finally see those elusive abdominals.
This is the biggest piece of bullshit I hear. Your abs are NOT built in the kitchen! That is unless your kitchen also doubles as your training space.
This famous saying should be changed to:
"Abs are built in the gym (with resistance) and carved out in the kitchen."
Like all muscles, your abdominals need to be subjected to hypertrophy training. By doing so, they grow, not by giving you a thicker waist but by increasing the density of your abs. The more dense your abdominals, the higher your body fat percentage can be while still having visible abs.
Of course, to see them in their full glory, you'll need to reduce your body fat. This is where the kitchen part of the equation does matter.
What To Do
Being skinny with abs is like being overweight with a big backside. Neither truly count when compared to the physique most of us are after. What you do in the kitchen matters, but diet can never make up for what resistance training will do for building your abs.
When you want a bigger chest or a heavier deadlift, you structure your training around that goal. Strangely, your abs never receive the same treatment.
Most will either train them at the end of a workout when they're already fatigued, or throw in a few half-assed sets of "core" as a warm-up. I'm not knocking either approach when your goals are centered around something else, but when your goal is to build dense abdominals, you should center the rest of your training around that.
What To Do
Narrow down your goals and training. Make your midsection a priority. Train your abs at the start of your workouts, or try staggered ab training: superset every one of your "main" exercises with a loaded ab exercise. For example, alternate sets of squats or deadlifts with an ab-wheel rollout.
In the old days, we just talked about abs. Now all the experts are talking about the "core." And many of these same experts seem to think it's a sin to move your spine. Think sit-ups, crunches, and other isolation ab exercises.
If elite coaches are arguing about these topics, then it's easy for you to get confused, too. Confusion creates a lack of direction and a lack of direction results in entire workouts being wasted on doing the wrong things.
What To Do
It's very simple. Do more "core" training if your goal is to build spinal, pelvic, and hip stability. This requires a certain set of exercises with more of an isometric or "anti" focus (anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion, etc.).
But, if your goal is to build your abs, then more dynamic and weighted exercises are needed (and no, they won't break your spine).
Remember, your abs are a muscle. They must be built. If all you're doing is deadbugs and Pallof presses, you're not going to see a ton of fast ab development.
Why not do a mix of both? Both core and isolated abdominal training should be combined. Here's what I mean:
To build any muscle, select the best exercises that allow you to put load across those tissues. While core training is about integrating as many muscles as possible that work to provide stability around your spine, pelvis, and hips, ab training is about having a more targeted focus on your rectus abdominis and obliques. Select the best exercises that maximally recruit those areas.
For example, heavy strongman carries and Zercher holds might be great for working your core (quadratus lumborum, internal obliques, and TVA) and have a great carryover to your athletic endeavors, but ab-wheel rollouts and leg raises will activate and create higher levels of mechanical tension through your abdominals.
For that reason, you should use exercises like the former for one purpose but use more of the latter to build your abs.
What To Do
Select the right exercises for the right job. Certain types of exercises and movement patterns work better than others. To understand more about these exercises and patterns, check out Adamantium Abs.
Do some muscles respond to certain rep ranges better than others based on their proportion of fast and slow-twitch fibers? It's up for debate.
But I do believe some muscles require more reps simply because many lifters find them hard to target, hence requiring more reps and metabolic stress to get a good connection. For example, needing to use sets of 20-30 crunches because you "feel the burn" compared to sets of 12 weighted crunches where you might not feel a lot going on.
Individualizing exercise selection based on what feels best – and giving you the sensation that your abs are contracting hard – are key for this. Besides, even if you wanted to train your abs based on fiber type, they're actually pretty evenly portioned.
What To Do
With improved body awareness and exercise selection, you'll feel more targeted muscle tension across all rep ranges. About 10-20 sets per week of loaded ab training is a good start.
Spend 70% of your time in the 8-15 rep range, 20% in the 16-30 rep range, and
10% in the 5-7 rep range using slower tempos (like 4-second negatives/eccentrics). Experiment with different exercises to see what feels best. Start broad, then narrow down as you find those breakthrough exercises.
Build your abs first, then work to reveal them. If you're a 20-something, 150-pound skinny guy, spend a few years committed to eating and building as much muscle as possible before worrying about having visible abs.
On the other hand, if you're a 250-pound meathead who's built a respectable amount of muscle, commit to a period of cutting fat to unveil those already-built abs.
Cardio has no place in the skinny-kid scenario, besides maybe doing it from a health perspective. In the meathead scenario, cardio will be a useful tool in helping create the calorie deficit required to cut the extra fluff.
What To Do
As a starting point, when cutting body fat, begin with a 20% deficit below previously established maintenance calories: about 10% of that coming from reduced calorie intake, and another 10% coming from increased calorie output – adding in cardio and increasing non-exercise physical activity. Adjust as you go, as needed.
Once you decide it's time to unveil your hard-built abs, then you need to commit to your next goal – the cut.
The biggest mistake? Wanting everything all at once – a stronger chest, bigger arms, six-pack abs, and so on. There's no focus, no specialization, and people end up yo-yo-ing between phases of bulking up and cutting down, never really seeing the benefits of either.
Once you commit to the cut, see it through. At times, you may feel small and weak. I always tell my clients, "If you're starting to look flat, you're getting less fat!"
Unfortunately, when most (men in particular) start looking small, they stop cutting because they're afraid of getting even smaller and weaker. But if you're training right, you shouldn't actually be getting much weaker, if at all. And the "looking small" part is mostly because you are glycogen depleted and won't look as pumped in the gym.
What To Do
You've likely got more fat to lose than you first thought, so stop sabotaging your cutting phase too early. Instead, commit to reaching the end goal.
No one likes to feel smaller and lose their pumps, especially while they still have some fat to lose. But get through those weeks and it'll be smooth sailing on the other side. Assessing your body fat as you go along will also keep you on the right track.
Anyone can attain a more chiseled set of abs, regardless of genetics or age. But you'll only see breakthrough progress if you narrow down and commit.
A wealthy client of mine once said to me, "Gareth, you only get paid for DONE."
He was responding to my accumulation of uncompleted projects, but the same rule holds true for your physique goals. Stop half-completing a bunch of different projects and instead focus on just one. Get paid with visible abs.