Article_HUGO_7PrinciplesForEpicAbsNo other muscle is more impressive and speaks more volumes about your fitness level than the ab muscles. Ab muscles in conjunction with a well developed and balanced physique puts you in a whole different category when you take your shirt off at the beach. However, this muscle group is one of the most misunderstood ones in terms of how to train it and how to achieve that ripped midsection look.

In this article, I want to cover in detail what you need to do in order to achieve an impressive set of abs.

First of all, I have to start by saying that everyone in this world is born with abs. Ask any student of college anatomy that has opened up a human body and analyzed what is inside. They will tell you that every human subject had abdominal muscles regardless of training. So if we all have abs, then how come we can’t see them? The reason for that is the wall of fat that is covering prevents the muscles from being visible. This leads to the first rule for getting abs:

PRINCIPLE #1:
In Order To Get Abs, You Need To Decrease Your Body Fat Percentage.

There are no “if’s” or “but’s” about this. Too much body fat and you won’t be able to see you abs. In order for men to start seeing some of their abs they need to be at 10% or below. Women, on the other hands, start to see lines at 13% since women typically store body fat in other areas such as the hips and glutes.

In order to lower body fat, a good and balanced nutrition program consisting of 40% carbs, 40% proteins and 20% fats presents a good starting point in conjunction with some cardiovascular exercise and a good periodized weight training routine that exercises your whole body and includes abdominal work.

Note: For those guys who are at 10% body fat already and for women who are at 13% I recommend they try my carb cycling protocol here: Carb Cycling for Fat Loss.

PRINCIPLE #2:
To have the best-looking abs, one needs to exercise them correctly and understand abdominal anatomy in addition to following principle #1.

This principle is pretty much self-explanatory and it leads us to the next topic, which is that of abdominal anatomy.

Abdominal Anatomy 
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

SitUpsYogaBallRectus 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 getting an exercise ball. An exercise ball is a great small investment (they run for about $8-$15 these days) 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.

SitUpsYogaBall2Oblique 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).

PRINCIPLE #3:
Sets and Reps are dependent upon how advanced the person is.
Initially, ab training should just consist of a couple to three movements at the most, performed for 2-3 sets of as many good concentrated repetitions as the person can do with his/her bodyweight. As time goes by and one progresses, more sets can be added and repetition parameters can also be manipulated by adding weights to some exercises in order to target the fast twitch muscle fibers in the abs and thus create a six pack with deeper groves in between. Adding weight to abdominal exercises will not give you a bloated stomach look.

PRINCIPLE #4:
Unless you are training one day upper abs and the next day lower abs (a very advanced technique), training abs every day will typically lead to overtraining them.

While many advanced bodybuilders and figure girls can train their abs every day for a short period of time in order to shock the body part, this typically will lead to overtraining if continued for too long. Therefore, unless you are doing upper abdominals one day and lower the next, you are better off training your abdominals for no more than 20 minutes at a time, 3 times per week on alternating days, as in Mon/Wed/Fri.

AbsLookPRINCIPLE #5:
As one gets more advanced, repetition tempo (the speed at which one performs the exercises) can also be altered in order to elicit a response.

One very neglected variable of training that never gets altered is that one of repetition speed. As one becomes more advanced, a set can always be made more challenging by altering the speed at which the positive portion of the movement is performed, the length of the contraction and the speed of the negative portion. Doing this will in turn stimulate more muscle fibers in the area which results in faster results!

PRINCIPLE #6:
Do not train the obliques with low repetitions.

Unless you want big sides and a wide waist, then oblique training with low reps should not be an option. High reps in the order of 25-50 are best. As a matter of fact, some people are so genetically gifted that their sides grow from little oblique work (this is true for me). In this case, oblique work should be completely taken out.

PRINCIPLE #7:
For a smaller waist, try training the TVA muscle as well.

The TVA, or traverse abdominus, is an abdominal muscle whose function is not to cause movement of the spine, but instead to keep the waist nicely tucked in. To train it, all you have to do is suck your stomach in. I’m serious; believe it or not, that is the purpose of that muscle. So by exhaling all of the air out of your lungs and bringing the navel as close as possible to your spine you will be training the TVA and thus creating the appearance of a smaller waist.

Because of the nature of this muscle, it can be trained every day at any time. Three sets of 30-second contractions should get you started.

Ab Routines
Now that you know the 7 principles for achieving washboard abs, you can start implementing them in your routines. Here are some routines based on your experience level:

Beginner’s Ab Workout Plan
I will start by presenting a beginner abdominals routine. At this level, only one routine is presented that can be applied to both bodybuilders and figure competitors alike. The reason for this is because at this level there is not much differentiation between the two, by virtue of the fact that there won’t be any weights used or any high intensity techniques.

The goal of this phase is to create a nice mind to muscle connection and to increase one’s strength baseline.

Also, notice that for the beginner’s routine, there are no specific amount of repetitions prescribed. The reason for this is because we just want you to focus on the feel and execution of the exercise at this time; not on the amount of reps.

Beginning ab workout plan for both men and women alike.

Weeks 1-3
Monday
Lying Leg Raises – 2 sets to failure
Swiss Ball Crunches – 2 sets to failure
Crunches To Side – 2 sets to failure
TVA training – 2 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions

Notes:

  • Lying leg raises can be performed on any flat surface.
  • The crunches to side can be performed on a Swiss Ball by lying sideways on top of it, placing your hands behind your head with the legs scissored so that one leg is on front of the other one (this is for better stability) and then lifting your body sideways off the ball.

Situps_1Wednesday
Knee-Ins – 2 sets to failure
Partial Sit-Ups – 2 sets to failure
Lateral Bridge – 2 sets to failure
TVA training – 2 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions

Notes:

  • On the Partial Sit-ups, just lift your torso from the floor till you create a 30-degree angle between the floor surface and your torso. To perform a lateral bridge, lie on one of your right side on a flat surface with your left shoulder, hips and knees stacked directly over each other. The right forearms will be on the ground perpendicular to the torso. The movement is performed by lifting your torso and legs off the surface while using the right forearm for support. When you hit failure then you repeat with the other side.

Friday
Modified V-Ups – 3 sets to failure
Bicycle Crunches – 3 sets to failure
TVA training – 2 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions

Notes:

  • The modified V-Ups are performed with the hands behind the torso holding to the bench or a flat surface in order to provide stability. The typical V-Up does not allow for that.

General Training Notes (Applies To All Routines):

  • Rest 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.
  • If a superset is noted, then there will be no rest till you perform all of the exercises listed. At that time, then you can rest 1 minute before the next superset.
  • If a modified superset is prescribed, then you perform the first exercise, rest 1-1/2 minutes (90 seconds), perform the second one, rest 1-1/2 minutes (90 seconds) and then start over.
  • Use a slow tempo of 2-seconds up, 1-second contraction and 2-seconds down unless otherwise noted. The goal is to really focus on the form and on the muscle being worked not on the amount of repetitions that can be performed.
  • These routines can be performed at the beginning or end of your weight training workouts, though typically we prefer to work abs alone before doing cardio. This, in our opinion, is the optimal time to work them.

Weeks 4-6
Monday
Swiss Ball Crunches – 3 sets to failure
Lying Leg Raises – 3 sets to failure
Crunches To Side – 3 sets to failure
TVA training – 3 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions

Wednesday
Knee-Ins – 3 sets to failure
Partial Sit-Ups – 3 sets to failure
Side Bends – 3 sets to failure
TVA training – 3 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions

Friday
Bicycle Crunches – 3 sets to failure
Modified V-Ups – 3 sets to failure
Crunches with Rotation – 3 sets to failure
TVA training – 3 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions

Intermediate Abs Workout Plan

After 6 weeks at the beginning level, it is time to step up on the intensity ladder by a notch. At the Intermediate level, there will be slight differences between a bodybuilding ab workout program and a figure based one; mainly the fact that the bodybuilding program will emphasize the use of weight and lower repetitions in order to create thicker looking abs and deeper groves in between them.

The Figure program on the other hand will emphasize a more slender looking waistline with less thickness; thus higher repetitions are used.

Use these programs for 6-8 weeks and then move on to the Advanced Routines.

Note on TVA Training: At this level, you can perform some TVA training by executing 5 sets of 30 second vacuum contractions every day. Also, whenever you perform the exercises, make sure to bring your belly button in as far as possible. This also works the TVA and helps keep the waistline small.

Intermediate Abs Workout Plan For Bodybuilders 

Train your abs three time a week or even every other day by alternating between Workouts (A) and (B):

Workout (A) 

HangingLegRaisesSuperset:
Swiss Ball Leg Raises (hanging) – 4 sets of 10-15 reps
Swiss Ball Crunches with Side Rotation – 4 sets of 20-25 per side
Swiss Ball Crunches – 4 sets of 10-15 reps

Notes:

  • As you get stronger on the swiss ball leg raises, start adding small amounts of weight in between your feet.
  • As you get stronger on the swiss ball crunches, start adding small amounts of resistance by holding a plate or a medicine ball right in front of you or behind your head as you get more advanced.
  • Refrain from using a large resistance (if any) for the swiss ball with side rotations exercise.
  • Keep a controlled pace at all times and focus on the contraction.

Workout (B) 

Superset:
Knee-Ins – 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Leg Lifts on Decline Bench – 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Side Crunches on Bench – 3 sets of 20-25 per side
Rope Crunches – 3 sets of 10-15 reps

Intermediate Ab Workout Plan For Figure 
Train your abs three time a week or even every other day by alternating between Workouts (A) and (B):

Workout (A)
V-Ups – 4 sets of 15-25 reps
Reverse Crunches – 4 sets of 15-25 per side
Bicycle Crunches – 4 sets of 15-25 reps

Workout (B)
Roman Chair Leg Raises – 3 sets of 15-25 reps
Leg Lifts on Decline Bench – 3 sets of 15-25 per side
Swiss Ball Crunches – 3 sets of 15-25 reps
Swiss Ball Crunches with Side Rotation – 3 sets of 15-25 reps

Notes:
For all leg raises exercises, ensure that you bring your legs up till you hit the 90-degree angle between your torso and the legs.

Advanced Abs Bodybuilding Workout Plan
The Advanced routines make use of the toughest exercises and also the best techniques for increasing intensity. The bodybuilding program uses a periodization approach where one workout session is done using mainly high reps to target the slow twitch oxidative muscle fibers of the abs, the second sessions targets an even split of fast and slow twitch fibers and the final session just concentrates on the fast twitch fibers. Again, remember that the goal of the bodybuilding program is to create thicker looking abs and deeper groves in between them.

The figure programs will use a slight amount of resistance in order to strengthen the abs but using high repetitions in order to keep the slender look. Some resistance is needed at the advanced level as there is still a need to create some depth in between the muscles of the abdominal wall.

Note on TVA Training: At this level you can train the TVA unconsciously by attempting to keep the waist line tucked in at all times at least whenever you stand. Believe it or not that works well. You can also continue to do the 5 sets of Vacuums but increase the time under tension to 60 seconds. Also, whenever you perform the exercises, make sure to bring your belly button in as far as possible. This also works the TVA.

Advanced Ab Workout Plan For Bodybuilders 

Train your abs three time a week or even every other day by alternating between Workouts (A), (B), and (C):

Workout (A) 
Superset:
Bicycle Crunches – 4 sets of 50-100 reps
Crunches on Flat Bench – 4 sets of 50-100 reps
Leg Raises on Flat Bench – 4 sets to failure

Notes:

  • All of these exercises will be performed in a sequence on a flat surface such as a bench.
  • For the leg raises, bring your legs up until you create a 90-degree angle between the legs and the torso. For this exercise, just concentrate on form and feel and do as many reps as you can.

Workout (B) 

Superset:
Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Hanging Knee-Ups (to the side) – 3 sets of 10-15 reps

Superset:
Swiss Ball Crunches with Side Rotation holding Medicine Ball in your hands – 3 sets of 20-25 per side
Weighted Swiss Ball Crunches – 3 sets of 8-10 reps

Single Set:
Bicycle Crunches – 3 sets of 25-45 reps per side

Notes:
For the swiss ball exercise with side rotations hold a medicine ball in front of you with your arms extended (arms will create a 90-degree angle with the torso). 2. For the weighted crunches, you can hold the medicine ball with your arms extended over your head (in this case, both the arms and the torso create a straight line).

Workout (C) 

Modified Superset:
Weighted Knee-Ins – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Weighted Swiss Ball Crunches – 3 sets of 6-8 reps

Modified Superset:
Weighted V-Ups – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Rope Crunches – 3 sets of 6-8 reps

Notes:

  • Weighted knee-ins and weighted v-ups will use a dumbbell in between your feet. Just be sure to start out light with the dumbbells as you do not want to incur an injury due to too much weight. Many times, a small 5-lb dumbbell will do the job. For the more advanced up to 25-lbs.
  • To make the weighted knee-ins even more challenging, try also holding a medicine ball in your hands in addition to a dumbbell in between your feet. This is a super advanced form of this exercise as when you perform it in this manner you won’t be able to use your arms behind you to stabilize your torso.
  • Remember that in a modified superset you perform the first exercise, rest 90 seconds, perform the second one, rest 90 seconds and then start over.

Advanced Abs Workout Plan For Figure

Train your abs three time a week or even every other day by alternating between Workouts (A) and (B):

Workout (A)
Hanging Leg Raises with weight – 4 sets of 15-25 reps
Jackknife – 4 sets of 15-25 per side
Knee-In while holding up a medicine ball – 4 sets of 15-25 reps
Knee-Ins with side rotation while holding up a medicine ball – 4 sets of 15-25 per side

Notes:

  • Limit weight on the hanging leg raises to 5-lbs.
  • To perform the Jackknife you will need a swiss ball. Begin by getting into a push-up position with your feet and lower legs resting on a Swiss Ball and your hands on the floor at shoulder width. Pulling in your belly button towards your spine, bring your legs towards your chest as you exhale by bending your knees and lifting your hips into the air. Hold the top position for a second and then straighten your legs again thus bringing them to the starting position.
  • The Knee-In with the Medicine Ball is performed by holding a medicine ball at arms length in front of you (a 90-degree angle is created by the arms and the torso). Note that this version of the exercise, does not allow for the hands to hold your torso up as in the usual knee-ins where you place your hands behind and hold to the bench or the floor, thus making the exercise easier. This version will require some practice, but the torso will get strong enough and you will be able to perform it in no time.
  • The Knee-Ins with Side Rotations are performed just as the exercise before it with the difference that in every repetition you will twist the torso from one side to the next.

Workout (B) 
Decline Bench Leg Raise Superset:
4 sets of 10 reps regular leg raises
4 sets of 10 reps scissor leg raises
4 sets of 10-second static contraction

Reverse Crunches on Decline Bench (Keep Feet off bench)- 3 sets of 15-25 per side

Rope Crunches with Double Impact Technique – 3 sets of 15-25 reps

Notes:
The rope crunches with double impact technique are performed by achieving the contracted position of the rope crunch, pausing for half a second, letting the torso move up a bit and then achieving full contraction again. So in fact, each rep consists of the positive portion of the movement until you achieve full contraction, a slight negative movement, another contraction (so in reality you just did a partial move), and then the negative portion of the movement that takes you to the starting position. All of this counts as 1 double impact rep.

Conclusion
After 6-8 weeks of the prescribed Advanced Routines you can start creating your own routines using the principles outlined in these articles. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Also, if you are a bodybuilder who has enough thickness on the abs, you can then switch to the figure routines in this article for maintenance purposes and to enhance the quality of the muscle. Conversely, if you are a lady who needs more thickness on the abdominal wall, then a 6-week cycle of a bodybuilding routine would not be a bad idea.

 

Best of luck, take care and train hard!


Hugo-dumbbells-cutoutAbout the Author
Hugo Rivera is an International best selling fitness author certified in personal training and nutrition with a computer engineering degree from the University of South Florida. Hugo is owner of www.hugorivera.net, an informational, free fitness and nutrition website. He is author of over 10 fitness books (with over a million copies sold) including his best sellers: Body Re-Engineering, The Body Sculpting Bible for Men, The Body Sculpting Bible for Women, the Weight Training Diary, and the Hardgainers Handbook of Bodybuilding. Today via his website HugoRivera.net, numerous articles, book publications, TV and radio appearances Hugo continues to educate the public on how to achieve the body of their dreams via the use of weight training exercise, good nutrition and correct supplementation.  You can follow Hugo at his:

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