Man training abdominal muscles

How often should you train your abs?

Is doing a daily routine of crunches and other core exercises the fastest way to build a six pack or is there a smarter approach? Here’s what you need to know

When someone asks me how often they should train their abs, it’s not because they love doing planks and hanging knee raises. It’s because they’re looking for a way to fast track their fat loss and reveal their six pack. The first thing you need to know is that, when it comes to abdominal training, more isn’t automatically better. Read on to get the expert view on how often you should do abs exercises as part of your workout and how you can weave them into your training plan.

Will crunches burn belly fat?
The short answer is: not really. The reason that’s the case is because, in simple terms, fat loss happens when you use more energy (calories) than you consume. Doing crunches and other direct abs moves will burn a relatively small number of calories, which means they’re not the most effective use of your time when it comes to burning stomach fat. It’s also the case that you can’t ‘spot reduce’ fat, which means you can’t lose fat from a part of your body – your belly, for example – by doing exercises that target that body part. Your body will decide where it wants to shift fat from and that will vary from person to person. 

What exercises are best for burning fat?
If fat loss is your priority then the bulk of your workouts should be made up of compound (multi-joint) exercises such as squats, bench presses and shoulder presses because these moves will give you more calorie burn for your buck. You should also aim to do a significant portion of your workout at high intensity because that will also help to maximise calorie burn, which is a key component of fat loss. 

What is the benefit of dong abs exercises?
Just because you can’t sculpt a six-pack by doing hundreds of sit-ups it doesn’t mean that abs exercises are useless. In fact, there are a number of reasons for doing them:

  • They shape your six pack: they can’t do much to remove the fat covering your abs but direct abdominal exercises will help to increase the size and strength of your six pack, so that they stand out when you do remove the fat that’s covering them. 
  • They give you a stable base: doing abs and core work will strengthen your stabilising muscles, particularly the ones around your spine, which will improve your posture and help to prevent injury when you’re doing heavy lifts.
  • They remove weak links: Your body is only as strong as its weakest link. If you have strong legs and a weak core and you try to perform a heavy barbell squat, it is likely that you won’t have the strength to maintain the abdominal brace required to power the lift. You may find that you collapse at the chest which, at best means you miss the rep and at worst means you’ll end up injured. 

Can I train my abs every day?
You can train your abdominal muscles more frequently than you can train other body parts. For example, if you tried to train your legs every day then you’d soon get fatigued to the point where the weights you’re lifting are well below your capability because you’re so tired. You’ll end up doing ‘junk’ reps and you won’t make progress. You can, however,  safely train your abs multiple times per week and even train them on consecutive days. The important thing is that you get the timing right. 

When should I train my abs?
You should leave your abdominal exercises until the end of your session. If you do them at the start of a session and you then move on to a big lift, such as a barbell deadlift or shoulder press, your abs may be too tired to maintain spinal integrity and you could get pulled out of position and get injured. Doing them at the end of a session is a much safer approach. 

What else do I need to know?
You should understand that quality will always trump quantity when it comes to training your abdominal muscles. You are much better off training your abs two or three times a week and doing it properly than you are training every day but failing to effectively recruit and engage the target muscles.

 

Effective abs training

Follow these quick tips to maximise the potential of every rep

Control the rep to grow the muscle
They key to abs training is effectively applying tension to the muscle and being in complete control of the rep. A big mistake people make when doing crunches, for example, is to focus on crunching up and then switching off on the way back down. If you let your torso just fall back down to the floor, you’re missing a massive opportunity to grow your abs. You need to be in control and lower slowly, ideally for a count of three or four seconds, to make sure that you’re applying tension to the muscle for the duration of the set. Never jerk or use momentum to cheat a rep. Take your time and stay in control. 

Add resistance rather then doing endless reps
One of the most common mistakes people make when training their abs is doing too many reps. If you do an exercise frequently, you’ll soon become good at it and you may find that you can easily do 50 reps of your favourite abs exercises. But if you’re working in that rep range then you’re increasing muscular endurance rather than adding size. So once you can do 15-20 reps of an exercise, it’s time to make the move harder, either by adding resistance (you could do a crunch while holding a weight plate) or by finding a more challenging variation. 

Work your abs from multiple angles for a well-defined six-pack
Crunches will do wonders for your upper abdominals but they won’t do much to bring out your lower abdominals or your obliques (side abs). You’ll need to use a variety of different exercises if you want to sculpt an impressive six pack and we’ll guide you through the best way to do that in the tips below. 

 

The best way to structure an abs workout

Here’s how you can create your own six-pack sculpting sessions

You can add this style of abs mini-circuit to the end of any workout session.

Step 1: Choose your exercises
There’s no perfect way to do this but a great system is to choose a range of moves that work different parts of your abs:

  • Upper abs: Any move where you’re raising your torso while lying on the floor, such as crunch variations, will work your upper abs. 
  • Lower abs: Any exercise where you raise your legs or hips, whether you’re lying on the floor or hanging from a bar, will work your lower abs. 
  • Side abs: Any move that involves some kind of trunk rotation, such as bicycles or crossover mountain climbers, will work your side abs. 
  • Core: Any static exercise, such as plank variations, will work your core. 

Step 2: Choose your reps or work period
If you want to grow your abdominals then you should work them just like any other muscle and focus on the hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep range. That’s going to be about 10-12 reps, although you can do slightly more or slightly fewer than that and you’ll still get a muscle growth effect. Doing very high reps, such as 50-rep sets, will develop your endurance rather than your muscle size. An alternative is to do your abs exercises for time. Do between 20-40 seconds per move if you’re doing the exercises back-to-back in a mini circuit. Record how many reps you do and aim to beast the number next time you do the workout. 

Step 3: Choose a rest period
Your rest period should be just about long enough for you to go again and complete the next circuit without fatiguing. If you’re doing four exercises back to back for 30 seconds each then you’ll probably need a minute rest between circuits. If you’re only doing three moves for 20 seconds each then you may be ready to go again after 30 or 45 seconds. 

Step 4: Choose your sets
Doing three sets for each move is a god place to start. It will allow you to do a good amount of work and fatigue the muscles. As you progress you could increase to four or five sets per move. Once you get to five sets per move you’re probably better off trying to make the move harder by adding resistance or by performing a more challenging variation of the exercise than you are adding an extra set. 

Digested read
Training your abs every day isn’t necessary (or even desirable). Doing two or three 10-minute abs circuits at the end of your main workout session will give you the results you’re looking for. 

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