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December 09, 2015

Bodybuilding Training Advice On How To Get Abs

Hugo Rivera, BSCE, CFT

Getting abdominal muscle definition is one of the most coveted goals in the bodybuilding and fitness world. Nothing looks more impressive than a well built physique with a six pack of sharply defined abdominals in front of it.

There are many myths regarding how to get abs. Some people are led to believe that thousands of repetitions are required every day in order to get them to show. Others believe that the secret must be some exercise that successful bodybuilders keep to themselves. The truth of the matter is that getting abdominals is a combination of the following:

  • A Balanced Fat Burning Bodybuilding Diet

    I have a saying that "abs are built in the kitchen". The truth is that no matter how many abdominal exercises you do, or for how many repetitions, if you do not follow a bodybuilding diet that emphasizes fat burning you will never get to see your abs. If you go to an anatomy class in college, you'll see that even without exercise, everybody has a great set of abs. However, they are covered by a layer of fat and water. In order for you to be able to see your abs, you need to get your body fat to be low enough for the abs to show. For men this comes out to be a body fat level below 10% body fat and for women below 13%. Typically, guys that have a well defined "six pack" hover at around 6-7% body fat and women at 11-12%.

    A great diet consisting of 40% carbs, 40% proteins, and 20% good fats with multiple meals spaced out at 3 hour intervals works best for the purposes of losing body fat. Since you are focused on reducing body fat, dairy products and fruits need to be eliminated at this time; not because they are not healthy, but due to the fact that the type of simple carbs contained in these foods may slow down fat loss.

  • Carbs

    Carbs should come mainly from complex slow releasing sources such as oatmeal, grits, brown rice, sweat potatoes in combination with fibrous sources such as green beans and broccoli.

  • Proteins

    Proteins should come from chicken, turkey, tuna, and lean red meats.

  • Fats

    Fats should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources. Canned extra virgin olive oil and flax seed oil should be the main sources of these.

    On future articles, I will cover bodybuilding nutrition more in depth but for now, try to get a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner with protein shakes in between them so that the multiple meal requirement is fulfilled. You can add a tablespoon of flaxseed oil also to 1 or 2 of your protein drinks so that the essential fats requirement is met.

  • Cardio

    Enough Cardio built into the program to start the fat loss process and burn some extra calories. 20-30 minutes, 3 times a week at a challenging pace should start producing results. For those of us with a slower metabolism, we may need up to 45 minutes 6 times a week.

  • A Good Weight Training Routine

    A weight training toutine that has you in the gym for 45-60 minutes four to five times a week. After all, you do not want to just have abs without a good physique to carry them, right?

There are many routines that you could choose from and which one to choose depends on your training goals and experience (something that will be discussed in future articles).

However, below you will find some useful guidelines:

  • If you are a beginning bodybuilder

    Use a full body routine performed three times a week with 2 exercises of 2 sets each for the large body parts (chest, back, shoulders, thighs, hamstrings) and 1 exercise of 2 sets each for the minor ones ( biceps, triceps, and calves). Repetitions should be between 13-15 emphasizing good form and feeling the muscle as it is worked. Rest in between sets should be kept to a minute. Abs however we will treat as a large body part and perform 2 exercises of 2 sets each for the amount of reps that you can do concentrating in using good form. For abs, only rest 30 seconds in between sets.

  • If you are an intermediate bodybuilder (have been training steadily for 6 months)

    Use a split your body over two days. One day you can do chest, back, biceps, triceps and lower abs, while the next day you can do delts, thighs, hamstrings, calves and upper abs. Day one can be performed on Mondays and Thursdays while Day 2 on Tuesdays and Fridays. At this point, you can do 2 exercises of 3 sets each per large body part and 2 exercises of 2 sets each for smaller body parts. You can use a repetition range of 10-12, always emphasizing good form and feeling the muscle as it is worked. Rest in between sets should be kept to a minute.

    Abs however we will treat as a large body part and perform 2 exercises of 3 sets each for the amount of reps that you can do concentrating in using good form resting only 30 seconds in between sets.

  • If you are an advanced bodybuilder(have been training steadily for a year)

    You can graduate to a three day split routine like the following:

    • Day 1: Thighs, Hamstrings, Calves
    • Day 2: Chest, Back, Abs
    • Day 3: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps

    Many bodybuilders who perform this split just train from Monday through Friday and then pick up where they left off on the following week. Another alternative is to train three days in a row and rest the 4th day, re-starting the cycle again on the 5th day. It is up to you and your schedule. Exercise wise, 3 exercises of 3 sets each for the large body parts and 2 exercises of 3 sets each for the small ones is a good start. Shoot for 8-10 repetitions and a rest of 60 seconds in between sets. Again, I want you to treat abs a bit differently and do 3 exercises of 3 sets each for the amount of repetitions that you can perform in good form resting 30 seconds in between sets. As you get more advanced you can add an extra exercise for all body parts and even increase the sets to 4 as well as play around with techniques like supersets, drop sets, and others. You can also start applying periodization principles in order to avoid plateaus and thus keep progressing constantly.

  • A Well Designed Abdominal Training Program that is performed on the days listed on the splits above.

    A good abdominal training routine serves to strengthen and tone the ab muscles thus giving them a firm and hard look once you are able to see them. Believe it or not, I think that this is the easiest body part to work out. The key is to feel the muscle contraction and practice perfect form.

Abdominal Anatomy

Before I present a few abdominal routines, I would like to give you some insight on abdominal anatomy so that you understand then the rationale behind my exercise selections.

There Are Four Main Muscle Groups That Make Up The Full Abdominal Wall:

  • The Rectus Abdominis (composed of upper and lower abdominals)
  • The Oblique Muscles
  • The Intercostal Muscles
  • The Serratus Anterior

Rectus Abdominis Function & Exercises

The muscle that extends from the top of the pelvis to the sternum is called the rectus abdominis. This is the primary abdominal muscle, which when properly developed (assuming that the person has low enough body fat levels) will give the illusion of a six-pack. Its function is to pull the upper torso towards the hips when the body is only slightly flexed at the waist.

This is the reason why if you are doing a sit-up, any additional torso movement done past the initial 30 degrees from the floor will not stimulate the abs; instead the hips will be the ones that will complete the movement. Because of this, partial sit-ups performed with the torso moving up to 30 degrees and crunches are great allies in our quest to achieve great abs.

However, if you really want to maximally stimulate the abdominals, prevent lower back problems and get the most "bang for your buck" so to speak, then you need to also consider the fact that the anatomy of the rectus abdominis is such that if you do not bend your torso backwards by around 15 to 20 degrees then you won't be able to accomplish these things. Since the floor only provides a flat surface, not only your abs will not get maximal stimulation, but also they will not learn how to properly contract and protect your back when your body is bent backwards (as is often the case when advanced bodybuilders perform exercises like standing military presses).

The only way to get around this is by investing on a swiss ball (also known as exercise ball). A swiss ball is a great small investment as this apparatus will allow you to get the necessary backwards bend that your torso needs in order to maximally stimulate your abs.

So because of this, crunches performed on an exercise ball are the way in which I recommend you perform this exercise.

Since the rectus abdominis also has muscles in the lower region that help maintain proper postural alignment, it becomes necessary to include reverse crunches performed on the swiss ball (make sure that you hold to a stationary sturdy object) as this exercise will allow you to go below the neutral (flat) position.

Another good lower abdominal exercise is the hanging leg raises. The key for maximal stimulation in this exercise is to roll the pelvis slightly backwards at the beginning of the movement.

Oblique Muscles Function & Exercises

The external obliques are the muscles at the sides of the waist. The external oblique complex actually consists of three layers of muscles: the internal obliques, the transverse obliques and external obliques. Together, these muscles contract to tilt the torso, as well as twist it, from side to side.

While a bodybuilder would not want massive obliques as this would take away from symmetry and give the illusion of a thick waist, these muscle do need to be trained in order to maintain ideal postural alignment.

A great exercise for these muscles is the side bends performed on a swiss ball. Another exercise that also needs to be performed for these muscles in order to exercise its rotating capabilities are the Russian twists.

The Intercostal Muscles

The intercostals are the muscles of breathing that lie between the ribs and show as bands of muscle angling downward in the sides of the rib cage and the upper abdomen.

The intercostals come into play by flexing the torso and causing it to twist, so doing any type of twisting crunch on a swiss ball will stimulate this group maximally.

The Serratus Muscles

The serratus anterior muscles are the finger-like strands of muscle on the rib cage between the front abs and the lats. Their job is to depress the rib cage and also assist in bringing the upper arms from a position pointing directly up from the shoulders to one pointing directly below the shoulders. A good exercise that will stimulate these muscles is the one-arm cable crunches (using an overhead pulley).

Abdominals Training Routines

Below, are three abdominal training routines that can be performed easily from the comfort of your home or at the gym. One routine is for beginners, one for intermediates, and the other one is for advanced bodybuilders.

Beginning abdominal training routine

  • Monday
    • Crunches (preferably performed on Swiss Ball)
    • Knee-Ins
  • Wednesday
    • Lying Leg Raises
    • Partial Sit-Ups (only go 30 degrees above ground)
  • Friday
    • Bicycle Crunches
    • Modified V-Ups

Training Notes:

Perform 2 sets per exercise of as many reps as you can execute with good form. Use slow and deliberate movements, pause at the contracted position for a couple of seconds and then slowly come back to the starting position. Only rest 30 seconds in between sets.

Intermediate abdominal training routine

  • Monday
    • Knee-Ins
    • Modified V-Ups
  • Tuesday
    • Crunches (preferably on Swiss ball)
    • Twisting Crunches (preferably on a Swiss Ball)
  • Thursday
    • Lying Knee-Ins
    • Lying Leg Raises
  • Friday
    • Bicycle Crunches
    • Partial Sit-Ups (only go 30 degrees above ground)

Training Notes:

Perform 3 sets per exercise of as many reps as you can execute with good form. Use slow and deliberate movements, pause at the contracted position for a couple of seconds and then slowly come back to the starting position.

Only rest 30 seconds in between sets.

Advanced abdominal training routine

Alternate between the following two abdominal workouts. You will perform your ab workouts on the days that you do your chest and back ones.

  • Abdominals Workout #1
    • Crunches (preferably on Swiss ball)
    • Hanging Leg Raises
    • Bicycle Crunches
  • Abdominals Workout #2
    • Partial Sit-Ups (only go 30 degrees above ground)
    • Knee-Ins
    • Twisting Crunches on Swiss Ball
  • Abdominals Workout #3
    • One Arm Cable Crunches
    • Modified V-Ups
    • Russian Twists

Training Notes:

Perform 3 sets per exercise of as many reps as you can execute with good form. Use slow and deliberate movements, pause at the contracted position for a couple of seconds and then slowly come back to the starting position.

Only rest 30 seconds in between sets.

Written by Hugo Rivera, BSCE, CFT