Every two-bit trainer who has a website or Facebook page touts a secret formula to building a rock-hard midsection, but I’ve got news for you folks: The principle of muscle confusion is just as critical to carving out your abs as it is to building other bodyparts. So anyone who contends that you should be doing just high reps to chisel your abs or, on the contrary, lower reps as the only way to go has completely missed the boat. The fact is you need to combine both approaches when it comes to abs, utilizing weighted moves that help thicken and build the grooves and valleys that create 3-D abs with bodyweight, and high-rep movements that keep your midsection lean and tight.
Some of the confusion comes from the physical makeup of the abdominals. Unlike some of the larger skeletal muscle groups, there’s a greater degree of slow-twitch muscle fibers in the various midsection muscles (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis). As you may recall, the explosive fast-twitch fibers are the ones capable of more growth, and they’re best trained with heavy movements in relatively lower-rep ranges. The slow-twitch fibers are more aerobic in nature and don’t grow to near the degree of the fast-twitch variety; they’re geared more for endurance (high-rep) activities.
It follows, then, that training only with heavy-weighted moves for low reps doesn’t do much for the slow-twitch fibers, and higher-rep movements don’t do jack for the fast-twitch fibers. Neither approach, it seems, would therefore offer an optimal solution in your pursuit of a rock-hard midsection.
But what if you trained both the fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers in the same workout for more complete development? You could start with weighted, low-rep moves to help build up the bricks of the six-pack, then follow up with high-rep bodyweight exercises to help keep your midsection lean and tight. That’s exactly what this workout does: You combine the best of both worlds in a single ab routine (or you can alternate high- and low-rep days). Ultimately, the abdominals get worked in a variety of ways rather than from just a single approach, which not only more optimally builds up the muscle but keeps your workouts — and your training — from becoming stale.
10 Critical Keys
Assembling a workout in which you achieve multiple rep targets requires you to understand a few important considerations.
- Choose exercises and weights that allow you to complete the target number of reps. On weighted and very demanding bodyweight movements, increase or decrease the resistance so that you fail at your target rep. If the weight’s too light, don’t just stop at the target rep; add weight on your next set. With the low-rep exercises, try and reach a target of 10 reps for three sets. It’s important that you reach as close to muscle failure as possible at the target rep.
- Do heavy/low-rep movements first. Because you fatigue over the course of your workout, you don’t want to save the heaviest moves for the end. Instead choose the most challenging exercises early in your workout when your strength levels are high.
- Progress to less-challenging exercises that you can do for more reps. Relatively easier movements are best left for the end of your routine so that you can make the abs burn with higher-rep sets. Research shows that the burn you feel with higher-rep training actually begins metabolic processes that help your body gobble up stores of body fat in the surrounding tissues. No question, higher-rep training has its place in abdominal training. Try and keep rest intervals on these high-rep sets shorter as well to increase the fat-burning effect.
- Remember to fine-tune difficulty so that you reach failure at close to the target rep range. That might entail increasing the weight, holding the peak-contracted position for a count longer, bringing your feet higher on leg raises or simply choosing more challenging movements. It’s important that you challenge yourself at each step of the program.
- Choose two moves from each exercise grouping. So you should be doing two low-rep moves and two high-rep moves each workout.
- Include exercises for the upper as well as lower abs and obliques, as well as the core. A well-rounded ab workout targets all these areas. (Each exercise here indicates which part(s) it focuses on; just remember that it’s impossible to completely isolate a particular portion of the abs. Rather, a certain area can be emphasized as it undergoes a greater degree of contraction than other areas.)
- Try this routine three times a week, allowing for at least 48 hours’ rest between workouts. As with any muscle group, the abdominals grow stronger during the time after your workout given rest and proper nutrition. Hit your training hard, rest and do it all over again no sooner than every other day.
- As you get stronger, increase the overload. Consciously try and add an extra plate each week to the weight stack to challenge your abdominals to become stronger, much like you do with bench presses and arm curls. On bodyweight movements, strive for an extra rep or two or cut your rest interval by a few seconds.
- Take about a minute rest between low-rep sets. While you can conceivably decrease your rest interval to boost the workout intensity, you sacrifice your recovery period and will likely fail faster. Take the full 60 seconds so that you can attack each set with full intensity. With bodyweight exercises, see if you can rest just 20 seconds between sets.
- Don’t forget that to get shredded you need to pay careful attention to your diet and cardio in order to fight the fat that covers your abs. Dialing in your midsection means watching calories — especially calories from carbs and unhealthy fats — and increasing the number of calories your body burns so that you run a daily calorie deficit. Even the best training systems are limited by what you do in your kitchen and your supplementation program, so for the best chances of success, make a commitment both in the gym and in your nutrition program.
Kneeling Cable Crunch
Target Area: Upper abs
Start: Attach a rope to the upper cable and kneel just in front of the cable facing away from the unit. Position the rope by the sides of your head and lock your arms in this position relative to your head for the duration of the set.
Do It Right: Keeping your thighs nearly perpendicular to the floor, contract your abs to curl forward and down, rounding your lower back and holding the peak contraction for a count. Let the weight slowly pull your body back to the start position.
Captain’s Chair Windshield Wiper
Target Area: Lower abs, obliques
Start: Stabilize your body on the chair, grasping the handles so that your forearms are supported on the pads. Your body should hang freely with back support provided by the bench to better stabilize your body and reduce swinging. Keep your feet together and position your legs to one side.
Do It Right: In a smooth motion, contract your feet up and then toward your midline, then crossing over to the other side of your body as you lower them under control. Make sure your spine curls up from the bottom to engage the lower abs as you raise your legs. Repeat, reversing the motion, coming to a full stop at the bottom to reduce swinging.
Captain’s Chair Weighted Knee Raise
Target Area: Lower abs
Start: Step up onto the chair, stabilizing your body by pressing your back into the pad. Place a dumbbell between your feet and lock a bend in your knees and hips for the duration of the set. Rest your forearms snugly atop the arm pads.
Do It Right: Without swinging your body, contract your lower abs to curl your knees up as high as you can, making sure your glutes curl up off the backpad. Lower under control, coming to a full stop at the bottom so you can’t generate momentum going into your next rep.
Exercise Ball Cable Crunch
Target Area: Upper abs
Start: Movements done on an exercise ball already increase core activity to stabilize the body and allow you to get a better abdominal stretch. Now with a weight stack you can easily increase the workload, too. Attach a rope to a lower pulley and position an exercise ball directly in front of it, about a foot away. Lie back on the ball and grasp the rope and pull it next to your head, locking it in this position throughout the set. Roll forward just a bit so that the bottom half of your glutes is just off the edge of the ball, feet spread on the floor for stability.
Do It Right: Contract your abs to crunch up as high as you can. Keep the rope locked in position beside your head to ensure arm movements aren’t contributing to the action. Press your low back into the ball to help you go as high as you can. Hold the peak contraction for a count, then lower under control, allowing the weight to pull you all the way down for a full abdominal stretch. Reverse direction without bouncing.
Target Area: Lower abs
Start: This lower-ab move has a fairly small range of motion but is challenging and requires a degree of coordination. Lie faceup on the floor with your arms out to your sides, palms down. Raise your legs so that they’re perpendicular to the floor.
Do It Right: Pressing your hands into the floor, contract your lower abs to lift your hips up off the floor, as if pushing your heels into the ceiling. Lower under control.
Legs Extended Crunch
Target Area: Upper and lower abs
Start: Lie faceup on the floor and extend your legs out, keeping your feet together and just off the floor. Cup your head with your hands but don’t pull on it. Keep your chin off your chest at all times.
Do It Right: In a smooth motion, contract your abs to bring your shoulder blades up off the floor as high as possible. At the same time, pull your knees back toward your chest, lifting the lower portion of your glutes off the floor in a motion that resembles a reverse crunch. Exhale as you hold the peak-contracted position for a count, then reverse the motion.
Target Area: Upper abs
Start: The unstable surface makes your core work harder, and the exercise ball allows for a slightly longer range of motion, as you can increase the stretch in the down position and go higher at the top by pressing your glutes into the ball. Sit on top of a large exercise ball and roll forward just a bit so that the bottom half of your glutes is just off the edge of the ball. Place your feet shoulder-width apart on the floor for stability. Lie back so that your hips are well supported on the ball and cup your head with your hands.
Do It Right: Without pulling on your head, in a smooth motion crunch up as high as you can, bringing your shoulder blades off the ball as high as possible. Consciously press your low back down into the ball and squeeze your abs hard at the point of peak contraction. Reverse direction, exaggerating the range of motion at the bottom to fully stretch your abs. Don’t bounce off the ball at the bottom.
Target Area: Upper abs
Start: Lie flat on the floor and lift your feet up so that your knees and hips are bent about 90 degrees. Support your head with your hands but don’t pull on it.
Do It Right: Contract your abs to raise your shoulder blades as high off the floor as possible. Hold the top position momentarily as you exhale. Return under control to the start position but try and stop short of a position in which you’re completely resting on the floor.
Target Area: Core with emphasis on transverse abdominis
Start: Get into the pushup position with your body straight, then lower your elbows to the floor so that you’re resting on your forearms. Keep your back flat throughout.
Do It Right: There’s no actual movement. Keep your abs pulled in tight; visualize pressing your belly button back into your spine and hold it there as long as possible. Do this movement for 60 seconds.
Target Area: Obliques (upper and lower abs working isometrically)
Start: Sit on the floor and bend your knees, lifting your feet just off the floor. Sit back as if doing a partial situp, using the weight of your upper body to counterbalance your legs; only your glutes should be touching the floor. Clasp your hands in front of you, arms bent.
Do It Right: In a smooth motion, twist your torso in one direction, bringing your hands to that side, and then twist completely in the opposite direction. Your feet should move just slightly to maintain your body’s center of gravity. Continue this back-and-forth motion.