When it comes to abdominal training, choosing the right ab exercises and performing them correctly is unquestionably important, but your results are also affected by how you incorporate those exercises into your overall training program. Since there are different reasons for performing ab exercises, the first step is to think about your goals and decide what you want your exercises to accomplish.
Note: If you haven’t read the rest of our Abdominal series you can access them here:
Part 1: The Bona Fide Facts On Abdominal Exercises and Fat Loss
Part 2: Avoid These Frustrating Abdominal Training Mistakes By Using These Simple Effective Techniques!
Your goals not only affect what exercises you use, but how and when they should be performed during your workouts. For instance, athletes training improve performance in a specific sport will use different ab exercises and training strategies than someone training for general fitness or injury prevention/rehabilitation.
Most people should focus on increasing the functional ability of their abs by performing slow and controlled or even stationary movements that really isolate their abdominal muscles. These exercises are good for general health and fitness, including the prevention of low back pain.
Exercises that target your abs can be performed at a variety of times, but the best time is usually at the end of a workout. If you don’t have time at the end, you can perform the ab exercises by themselves at a later time. The one thing to avoid is performing exercises that isolate your abs early in a workout that includes other exercises or movements that depend on your abs.
Many exercises (squats, bent rows, etc) require your abs to work as stabilizers during the exercise, even though the abs are not the primary muscles used during the exercise. If you perform ab exercises before these types of exercises, your abs may be too tired to correctly stabilize your body. This can cause your core muscles to become overworked or provide too little support, potentially leading to pain or injury.
When performing ab exercises at the end of a workout, your abs may be a little tired from some of the earlier exercises, but this is not really a problem. If anything, it just means your abs may tire a little faster. However, you will still achieve the same training benefits and once your abs are sufficiently fatigued, there is no reason to keep pushing them. Excessive ab work leads to poor form and the use of the wrong muscles.
There are many variables in ab routines, so it is impossible to suggest an exact number of sets and reps to perform, but there are some general recommendations you can follow. Challenging ab isolation exercises only need to be done 2 to 3 times per week, and I typically recommend performing 2 sets each of 3 different exercises. In addition, each exercise should work a different area of your abs.
There are 4 different abdominal muscles, but functionally, your abs can be broken down into 3 areas/movements. One area is upper abs, one is lower abs, and the third is your obliques (twisting and side bending muscles). Some exercises include more than one area or movement, but a simple and effective strategy is to perform one exercise for your lower abs, followed by an oblique exercise, and end with the upper ab exercise.
As for specific exercises, there are dozens of options, but some good lower ab exercises include knee-ins, leg scissors, and flutter kicks. Oblique exercises include any rotational movement (holding a weight or cable works great) and side raises or holds (side plank) on the ground. Upper ab exercises often involve crunch type exercises, with some good options being ball crunches and cable crunches.
These exercises are great for learning how to use each of your abdominal muscles and they can develop strength, endurance, and stabilization function all at the same time. However, if you already have well-developed abs and are looking for more advanced training, such as improving performance in a particular sport, then you should use a different type of training.
When training for a specific sport, your abdominal exercises should relate to movements in the sport. For example, a tennis player should include exercises to work the torso in a twisting motion similar to the motion used when swinging their racket. These exercises also need to be performed at a fast speed to more closely recreate the same muscular demands encountered in the sport.
Training for sport or performance enhancement uses all the abilities your body learns from isolation ab exercises and takes them to another level. These exercises are more advanced, because you need the same quality of contraction used in the basic exercises, but then you have to integrate them into movements using many different muscles at the same time.
A prime example of how your abs need to work in a performance situation is throwing a pitch in baseball. A baseball pitch is not an ab exercise, but the abs are crucial for a powerful throw. A pitch starts with the leg drive, which generates force that ultimately needs to get to the pitching hand and the ball, but this only happens if the ab muscles contract in the right way at the right time. Otherwise, overall body stability is compromised and much of the force is lost before it gets to the ball.
Specific performance enhancing exercises are beyond the scope of this article, because they are all dependent on the specific movements you want to improve, but there are a couple general recommendations. Unlike exercises that target your abs, performance enhancing exercises using your abs should be done at the beginning of your workout.
These exercises require precise movements and contractions of many different muscle groups, so they are most effective when none of your muscles are fatigued. Another difference is the reps should be kept lower than with basic ab exercises and you should stop while your form is still good. Every rep should be as high-quality as possible, because only quality reps improve the specific movement you are training.
Since there are so many different ab exercises and reasons for training your abs, each person’s routine will be a little different. However, regardless of your goals or your overall training program, you should always make it a priority to ensure that your abs do exactly what they are supposed to during each exercise.
If you have trouble feeling or using your abs correctly, the exercise could be too physically demanding or technically complicated and you may need to spend more time improving your technique on the basic exercises. In any case, if you take the time to learn the basic movements and progress appropriately, you will be well on your way to having an effective abdominal training program.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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