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Ab and Core Exercises and Workouts

A collection of my best tips, exercises, and workouts for building a strong core and bringing out your abs.

Ab and Core Exercises and Workouts

As some of you may know, abs are one of my favorite body parts to train. However, when you train your abs it is extremely important to understand the best way to exercise the different areas of the abs to get maximum results. Core strength is critical on most exercises you do, especially on exercises like squats, shoulder presses, bent-over rows, and even curls and the bench press. Greater core strength translates into greater strength on these exercises.

Below, I cover the ins and outs of abdominal training, including tips, exercises, and ab-specific workouts that can help you develop a stronger core and bring out your abs like never before.

Even for Abs, Progression is Key

Here’s the thing with abs: Everyone trains them, but not everyone trains them correctly—and more is not always better.

Super-high reps may help you win a sit-up competition, but it's not necessarily the best way to get your abs to pop out. Yes, diet and body fat percentage are key factors to a washboard stomach, but muscle hypertrophy matters, too.

People get it wrong when they consider abs to be different from every other muscle group. They train their pecs and biceps to get bigger, using rep schemes of 8-12 per set, while doing 50-100 crunches in hopes of chiseling out their six-packs. For some reason, we’ve forgotten the rules of progression.

Rather than doing more reps for abs, try adding more weight to your exercises. Increase the training load, which will increase muscle size, and those tough-to-see abs will start to become visible.

To Crunch or Not to Crunch

There is a lot of crazy advice out there on the internet. After all, that's one of the main reasons that you guys look to me—for sound advice that is backed by credible science.

One of the craziest recommendations that I am seeing lately is fitness "experts" warning that crunches are dangerous.

What?!

Yes, there is an entire camp of fitness "experts" that claim that crunches are bad for your spine, and that you should completely stop doing them. That's like warning people to stop doing curls because they are bad for your elbows!

Luckily, the National Strength & Conditioning Association's (NSCA) Strength and Conditioning Journal published a review paper on whether or not the crunch is a dangerous exercise. Here is a summary of what they found:

There is research showing that when you flex your spine forward, like you do when you do a crunch, it can cause damage to the spinal discs. However, all of this research was done in animal spines—and in vitro. In vitro basically means "outside the body". So basically these studies were done in isolated animal spines. There are many problems with this technique.

For starters, the majority of these were done with the cervical (neck) portion of pig spines, and not even the lower back portion. There is a big difference between the spine in your neck and the spine in your lumbar (lower) back.

Another problem is the fact that, in the body, there are muscles that support the spine and take much of the load, reducing the stress on the spine and discs. There are no muscles working with the spine in an isolated animal spine.

Yet another issue is that when you do a crunch, you increase the pressure inside the abdominal cavity. This increase in pressure also reduces the stress on the spine and discs. An isolated animal spine has no abdominal cavity working with it, and therefore no extra pressure to support it.

So most of these fitness "experts" claiming that crunches are bad for your spine are basing these conclusions mainly on this ridiculous research in pig cervical spines. What they forgot to read were all the studies showing that flexion of the spine is actually beneficial to the discs, as the Strength & Conditioning Journal article points out.

Research shows that flexion of the spine increases nutrient delivery to the discs. Research also shows that exercise programs involving spinal flexion have been proven to reduce low back pain and increase flexibility of the spine. Lastly, the only way to increase muscle hypertrophy of the major midsection muscles—the rectus abdominis (the abs) and obliques—as well as their strength is by doing exercises with resistance that involve spinal flexion.

So if you read in a book, or magazine, or online that you should stop doing crunches, get a good laugh, and ignore it. Crunches and other ab exercises that involve flexing the spine are one of the healthiest things you can do for your back and your body.

A few tips on when not to do crunches:

Don’t Do Crunches Within the First Hour of Waking Up

When you sleep, loading on the discs is reduced. This allows them to absorb more fluid. When you wake the pressure inside the discs is 240% higher than before going to bed. This increases bending stresses at the discs by 300%. As the day goes on, the discs become more elastic and flexible in bending. If you workout when you first wake up, do your ab work at the end of your workout.

Don’t Do Crunches after Prolonged Sitting

After sitting for long periods, discs gain height and decrease lumbar range of motion, which can increase the risk of injury. If you sit at a desk all day and then sit in your car driving to the gym, do not train abs as soon as you get to the gym—at the very least, warm up on the treadmill for 5 or 10 minutes. Or better yet, save the ab training for the end of the workout.

Ab and Cardio Training Timing

Regardless of how big you want your arms to be, or how strong you want your bench press to get, you still want a ripped set of abs.

I don't think that I've ever met a man or woman who wouldn't prefer to have an impressive six pack. Despite that fact, ab training and cardio are the most likely things to get skipped when time is running short. That’s obviously not the best way to get a ripped set of abs.

There are many trainers out there who recommend training abs and cardio first for those who tend to skip them. While this may be good for those who have a problem with their time management skills, it is not good for those who what to build muscle size and strength.

Do Your Cardio Last for Better Weight Workouts

First of all, it isn’t ideal to do cardio first when you work out. Yes, doing 5-10 minutes of light cardio makes a good warm-up, but doing a full cardio workout before you lift weights will zap your energy levels and your muscle strength. So consider waiting to do cardio till after the weight workout. Not only is this better for muscle strength and size gains, but research shows that it can also enhance fat burning.

Training Abs First is a Mistake You Don’t Want to Make

There are numerous reasons why you NEVER want to train abs first when you work out.

The first is strength—or lack thereof.

As I said before, core strength is critical on most exercises you do, particularly exercises like squats, shoulder presses, bent-over rows, as well as some you might not consider such as curls and the bench press. Greater core strength translates into greater strength on these exercises. If you train abs before you train the major muscle groups, then you will fatigue your core muscles. This can reduce your core strength, and therefore your strength on most other exercises.

A study that I did with the Weider Research Group supports this. We had trained bodybuilders do three sets of squats using their 6-rep max weight. In one workout, they did a typical warm-up and then did the 3 sets of squats. In another workout they first trained abs by doing 3 sets of the dumbbell woodchoppers, 3 sets of hanging leg raises, and 3 sets of crunches before doing the 3 sets of squats.

When they did the ab workout before squats they completed fewer reps on ALL 3 sets of squats than when they did squats without doing abs first. They performed one less rep on sets one and two and 2 less reps on set three. In other words, the guys were weaker on squats after training abs. Likely the reason that they were weaker on squats was because their core muscles were fatigued.

A second reason to never train abs first when you workout is to prevent injuries, particularly to your spine or spinal discs. Since the core supports your spine, training abs before you train legs or other muscle groups could also leave you more prone to injuries. That's because a fatigued core will offer your spine less support. When you have to support heavy weight, this can increase your risk of back injury, as well as other injuries.

Jim’s Take-Home Message

The bottom line is to be sure to keep your ab training and cardio at the end of your workouts or do them as completely different workouts. This way your strength and muscle growth will not be limited and neither will your ability to get lean and build an impressive six pack.

For those of you who are often pressed for time and end up frequently skipping abs, I suggest that you consider supersetting abs with other small muscle groups, such as forearms or calves. Or you can even do an abs, calves and forearms triset workout. Again, do this at the end of the workout or as a separate workout on its own. This will help to limit the time it takes to train these oft-neglected muscle groups.

How Can You Target Lower Abs?

I have long recommended separating abdominal work into exercises that focus mainly on the upper abs—such as crunches—and exercises that focus more on the lower abs—such as hanging leg raises and reverse crunches. This way you develop well-balanced abs from top to bottom.

Yet you may have heard from some trainers or read from some experts that it's impossible to focus on the upper or lower abs, and that both areas are used equally whether you do crunches or reverse crunches.

This misinformation was based mainly on an older study that reported that when subjects did the hanging leg raise muscle activity of both the upper and lower rectus abdominis (abs) were the same.

I disregarded this study, as I knew from experience that their findings were flawed. I know, as does anyone who has trained abs properly, that it is in fact possible to focus more on the upper or lower abs with proper exercise selection. Plus, bodybuilders had figured this out decades ago, and the results that they have achieved with this practice speaks volumes to its effectiveness—and there’s research to support this claim.

Researchers from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil had male subjects perform the crunch and the reverse crunch while they measured the muscle activity of the upper rectus abdominis and the lower rectus abdominis muscle fibers.

They reported in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine that the subjects used more upper ab muscle fibers than lower ab muscle fibers during the crunch, and they used more lower ab muscle fibers than upper ab muscle fibers during the reverse crunch. They further supported this finding with the fact that research in human cadavers shows that the different portions of the abs are innervated by different nerves.

Jim's Take-Home Message:

As we knew all along, it is possible to focus on the upper abs or the lower abs by doing exercises that emphasize each area. So be sure to incorporate a variety of exercises that focus on the upper abs and exercises that focus on the lower abs.

Exercises that involve flexing the spine and moving the shoulders forward, such as crunches, place more focus on the upper portion of the abs. Exercises that involve flexing the spine by moving the hips and legs forward, such a reverse crunches, hip thrusts, and leg raises, place more emphasis on the lower abs.

Since the lower abs tend to be the weaker area for most people, consider starting your ab workouts with a lower ab exercise while your abs are their strongest and not yet fatigued. Then follow with upper ab work, as well as exercises that target the obliques and strengthen the core.

Performing Hanging Leg Raises Correctly

I answer questions on training, nutrition and supplements literally everyday from countless JYM Army members and other inquiring minds via social media. But let’s face it, the 140 characters I’m limited to on Twitter isn’t always enough to get my point across. And even when I’m able to elaborate, some of my responses get lost in the Facebook madness. So what better place to answer more questions for JimStoppani.com subscribers than right here at my virtual home base?

Q: I do tons of hanging leg raises, but I still can’t develop decent lower abs. Is there a better exercise for the lower abs I should do instead?

A: There are a number of great exercises for the lower abs in addition to hanging leg raises, such as reverse crunches, hip thrusts, and exercise ball knee tucks. However, the hanging leg raise is one of the best lower ab exercises you can do because the vertical position you’re in maximizes the resistance from your lower body. That said, this exercise is only effective when done correctly.

The error most people makes is raising the legs up to parallel to the floor and then lowering them back down. But this makes the hanging leg raise a good exercise for the hip flexors, not the lower abs. To properly hit the lower abs, it’s essential to bring the legs as high as possible, way past parallel.

Here’s how to do it right: Position yourself on a vertical bench (aka Roman chair) or hang from a pull-up bar with your legs hanging straight down below you. Raise your legs up as high as you can so that your spine flexes forward from the bottom up. Your goal is to get your feet to point straight up to the ceiling in the top position—this will maximize the muscle fiber activity of the lower abs. Hold this position for a second, then slowly lower your legs back to the start position.

It’s critical to keep this eccentric portion slow and controlled, as it places greater stress on the lower ab muscle fibers and better encourages muscle development. Once your legs have returned to the start position, repeat for reps. Since the lower abs tend to be the weakest area of the six-pack, do this exercise first in your ab workout when your abs are at their strongest and not fatigued.

Here's a photo of me doing hanging leg raises the right way—with a FULL range of motion:

Intensity-Boosting Tip: To really blast the lower abs, after reaching muscle failure on hanging leg raises, continue the set by bending your knees and doing hanging knee raises until reaching muscle failure again. This decreases resistance from the lower body to make the exercise easier, and allows you to extend the set for greater results.

Abs for Athletes

Do you play baseball, softball, throw a football or some sport that has you throwing something? If not, this still can be a relevant piece of information for you; if you do, then you had better listen up.

Your abdominal strength is a vital part of a baseball or softball players game. Because of all the rapid movements involved in swinging, pitching or throwing, the abdominal muscles are key to your performance. Having a strenuous training schedule that focuses on core strength and routine abdominal training could have a dramatic impact on your game.

Recent research showed significant muscle activity and muscle activation with ballistic movements of the spine and the trunk when athletes performed both a baseball type throw and a boxer's punch. So what does this mean? We all know boxers train their abs in an almost torturous pattern, however we are not suggesting you do the same as a baseball player.

However, you should make sure you have a routine. There is a higher order of muscle activity occurring during these movements, as there is greater range of motion performed by the abdominals, so training your abs is a must. Additionally research has shown that if you perform the ab crunch at a rapid, steady pace, rather than slow and controlled, more muscle fiber activity is present in not only the rectus abdominis but the external obliques. So make sure to try speeding up your routine.

Incorporating Core Exercises into Your Workouts

As stated above, abs are one of my favorite body parts to train. It’s important to understand the best approaches to training different areas of the abs for optimal results. In this video, I explain all the different areas of the abs and give you a few good exercises to incorporate into your program.

Below is one of my favorite workouts to give a whirl from my Training Like Jim series. This program utilizes the concepts discussed in the video when it comes to the abdominal exercises listed in this program.

download this workout

Crunch the Numbers: Ab-Specific Training

As I said from the start, with ab training more isn’t always better. For optimal muscle development, an approach involving increased resistance during ab exercises is a must.

Hit the below workout twice per week with as heavy resistance as you can handle. As you’ll notice, the last two exercises aren’t weighted: Because your abs will already be tired from the first part of the workout, you shouldn’t need additional weight at that point to fail in the 8-12 range. Slow down your movements on these exercises; this will further increase difficulty.

Clean up your diet on top of this routine (for more on that, read my Dieting 101 article), and soon enough you'll have a more chiseled core to show for your efforts.

Note: For hanging knee raises, if you don't have bands available do weighted hanging knee raises with a medicine ball held between your legs or a dumbbell held between your feet. On each set, do 10 banded/weighted reps, then drop the bands/weight and rep out to failure.

Download This Workout

Not sold on exercise ball crunches? Check out this video:

Targeting the Entire Core

In the below Video Tip of the Day on ab training, I discussed the four major areas of the midsection that need to be addressed in your training to develop the best possible six-pack:

  • Lower abs
  • Upper abs
  • Obliques (internal and external)
  • The deeper muscles of the core

You can either train these four areas in the same ab workout, or focus on individual areas each time you train abs. Personally, I recommend you mix it up on a regular basis and utilize both methods.

In my Workouts section on JimStoppani.com, I put together a sample abs routine that targets all four areas in each workout, which you can plug into your program wherever abs fall on your schedule.

You'll find four separate ab workouts in the routine for the simple reason that the abs, like any muscle group, require variety for continual development: Variety of exercises, variety in rep count, variety in exercise order, variety in intensity and volume—the whole nine yards.

You can space these workouts apart however you like, just make sure you give your abs at least 1-2 days’ rest between each. Do these four workouts over the course of four weeks (one per week), or bang them all out over a shorter period of time—whatever you prefer.

View and Download the Routine Here

 





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