Why do abs matter so much?
“Man, all chicks care about is abs!” How many times have meathead guys (usually in full bulking mode) made this complaint? They just can’t comprehend why Men’s Physique competitors, often referred to disparagingly as ‘Men’s Bikini’ by bodybuilders, get so much female attention. They don’t even have huge quads, which is why they hide them under those board shorts! But you know what they all have? Great abs.
Bodybuilders, particularly those who are perma bulkers, fail to grasp the appeal of a lean, tight six-pack. Who cares about that? Pretty much most of the world, and especially women. To them, having big muscles isn’t anywhere near as sexy as a ripped set of abs, because that communicates raw virility.
Let’s be real here for a minute. Most of us got into bodybuilding because we wanted women to look at us with animalistic lust. We thought having bigger muscles would make them hunger to have nasty, freaky sex with us, the big, strong muscle hero. As most of you eventually figured out, we were sadly mistaken. 99 out of 100 women won’t look twice at a big guy if he’s not in great shape. They just see a hefty blob, which they find about as appealing as a Hefty trash bag. But take that same big guy when he’s ripped, and good God do the heads turn.
I’ve even noticed it myself many times over the years I competed. In the off-season, I was practically invisible to the ladies. But once I dieted away all that flab and was looking nice and chiseled, suddenly all eyes were on me. There’s just something about being ripped that women love, and nothing says ‘ripped’ quite like a shredded midsection. In fact, more than a few times I would randomly get asked to show my abs. And even though I am admittedly no Brad Pitt and no spring chicken either, the eyes did light up. If you’re a young, good-looking dude with a killer six-pack, you’re golden. It’s a fact. Women can’t get enough of ripped abs on a man.
Burn off that bodyfat!
This article is about ab training, and we’ll get to that in a minute. It’s very true that the real key to seeing clear ab definition is having low bodyfat. Getting razor abs in 30 days’ is a very short timeframe to work within. Realistically, you would need to be fairly lean already to see that level of condition in four weeks’ time. Please check out my article “How to Get Shredded” (LINK) for the diet and cardio components involved in melting away your bodyfat to show off your abs.
It’s also true that some guys don’t need to do much in the way of direct ab training to have excellent development in the midsection, and a rare few don’t need to do cardio or eat clean as they naturally carry very low bodyfat. Just as you probably aren’t so metabolically blessed, you also probably need to train your abs to bring them out and make them ‘pop.’
Flat, underdeveloped abs aren’t impressive, because they are two-dimensional. What you want is just enough thickness to the rectus abdominis to give them a 3-D look. Luckily, abdominal training isn’t overly complicated. All you really need are 2-4 exercises for 3 sets each, twice a week or thrice weekly at most to see very satisfactory results. Bearing that in mind, let’s run through the most effective ab movements you can do.
Hanging leg raises
3 seats of 15 reps
The toughest exercise you can do that will work the tougher to reach lower area of your abs is the leg raise, which is why I recommend you always do them first in your ab routine if you’re going to do them. If you already have superior ab strength, you may do these hanging from a bar, or with your arms looped through clip-on cuffs. This provides no leverage and the greatest range of motion.
Most trainers lack the needed power initially, so I recommend doing them with your forearms and torso supported on a special piece of equipment resembling a seat-less elevated chair you can find in any gym or fitness center. Often it’s called the ‘captain’s chair.’
The key point is that you are raising your legs while keeping them completely locked out straight. You will feel like bending your knees just a little bit to make things easier, but don’t! Doing so takes away from the intensity of this very productive exercise. Also, be careful not to use a fast motion or to ‘kick’ your legs up in a rebound out of the bottom. Raise your legs slowly and with control, pausing to flex the abs at the top, then lower them just as slowly. Merely letting your legs drop back down robs you of the negative component of the rep, which many studies about weight training have shown is very important for purposes of building strength.
It should be noted that this exercise will be more difficult for those of you with greater leg development, as your legs are heavier thanks to all that beef. Also note that due to varying structures, some of you will feel the abs fully contracted with your legs up a bit higher or lower than others. Focus on the contraction more so than where your feet end up in front of you.
3 sets of 15-20 reps
Every ab workout should also include some type of crunch, the most basic of all abdominal movements and one that requires absolutely no equipment. Crunches have supplanted sit-ups as the world’s most popular abdominal exercise in recent years, and for good reason. While full sit-ups primarily work the hip flexors, crunches effectively isolate the rectus abdominis in its main function – trunk flexion. This means shortening the trunk, or curling it into itself.
The goal with crunches should be to roll the sternum toward the belly button. Even though the rep range is listed as 15-20 for the sake of simplicity, your reps may start off higher and diminish slightly as the sets proceed. These are not ballistic reps. You will often see people doing crunches and sit-ups as fast as possible, and they are totally missing out on the real benefits.
Instead, come to a full stop at the top of every rep as you blow out the air, flexing the abs hard. That’s how you really engage the abdominals. Breathing is critical with any abdominal exercise, as a full contraction of the abs is only possible when all the air is expelled from your lungs.
3 sets of 15-20 reps
Rope crunches are a very common ab movement, but most people face the weight stack. I happen to prefer facing away and positioning the body a bit further away from the stack to allow for a full stretch of the abs at the top. Any muscle should be worked through a full range of motion that includes a good stretch as well as a good contraction, even the abs.
As for the reps, some bodybuilders do like to sink the pin pretty far down the stack and do sets of 8-10 with heavier weights. Most see better results and are able to feel a real pump and burn only when the reps are higher. Also, although we do want some thickness to the abs. you can go overboard. Training your abs as heavy as possible might be a good idea for sports like powerlifting that rely on powerful core strength, but if your goal is a streamlined six-pack, keep the weight more moderate and get some reps.
Leg and hip raise off bench
3 sets of 10 reps
This would qualify as an advanced movement, as you definitely need a good deal of core strength and ab power to pull it off properly. These are done off a flat bench. While holding on to the bench behind your head, bring your legs and hips off the bench and straight up in the air toward your head. Then, lower slowly back to the start position. These are so tough that 10 reps is all you would need to do per set. Remember Rocky doing these in Rocky IV while in Siberia training to fight Ivan Drago? If you master this exercise, consider yourself a bad-ass.
3 sets of 12 reps to each side
There is more to the midsection than just the abs. If you want to go that extra step and have more eye-catching detail, you will also work your serratus and obliques. You can do that one of two ways. One would be on the floor or on an ab bench, coming up at a diagonal, as in right elbow toward left knee, then left elbow toward right knee. Or, you can do them standing using a cable attachment, crunching down diagonally to contract your serratus. It’s an area that isn’t especially noteworthy if you’re carrying bodyfat, but it’s like a fine-cut diamond when you’re ripped.
3 sets of 15-20 reps
For those of you who simply don’t have the strength to do hanging leg raises yet, the frog kick off a bench is a reasonable alternative. To perform them, position yourself on a flat bench so that you’re on the edge of the seat, legs off in space. Begin with both legs fully bent, then slowly straighten them out in front of you. Many trainers feel these in the lower ab region, which is notoriously hard to target for some.
3 sets of 25-50 reps
Finally, here’s one more movement for the serratus and obliques, and one that’s ‘safer’ in terms of being far less likely to build any further thickness to your obliques. It was a staple of old-school bodybuilders for many decades, including legends like Arnold, Frank Zane, and Lee Haney. All you need is a broomstick or any stick to hold across your shoulders. Keeping your head facing forward, twist your torso to the left until the stick faces directly in front of you, then to the right until it once again faces forward. That’s one rep. These are usually done for fairly high reps. It wasn’t uncommon in the old days for these to be done for sets of 100.
30 days to razor abs? It can be done!
A month is not a long time, but you would be amazed at what can be accomplished in such a short time when you are 100% focused and committed. Work your abs hard 2-3 times a week, eat a very clean diet, and don’t be afraid to hit that cardio with some real effort – as in heavy breathing and pouring sweat. Do those things, and in just 30 days you can see a very real difference in your midsection – and so will everyone else!
Ab routine A
Hanging leg raise 3 x 15
Crunch 3 x 15-20
Oblique crunch 3 x 12
Ab routine B
Frog kick 3 x 15-20
Rope crunch 3 x 15-20
Broomstick twist 3 x 25-50
Advanced ab routine
Hanging leg raise 3 x 20-25
Leg and hip raise off bench 3 x 10
Rope crunch 3 x 15-20
When to work the abs?
To improve any given muscle group, which would include the abs, it should be trained fresh rather than after other areas. I recommend that you either train abs at the start of other workouts for things like chest, back, or legs, or else first thing on your days off from weight training, before cardio.