Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you something that 99% of the fitness industry likes to sweep under the rug.
And that’s the fact that your genetics have a huge influence on your abs appearance.
If you browse through a fitness magazine or visit a bodybuilding website, you’ll find an article about a supplement, or program that claims that you can get abs like Brad Pitt from Fight Club.
Usually by taking a pill or following a super special diet and workout plan.
The truth, however, is that even though we’re all capable of losing fat and developing our abdominal muscles, what they’ll actually look like is highly influenced by our genetics.
You see, what most people refer to as a “six-pack” is actually one muscle known as the rectus abdominus.
This one muscle appears to be multiple muscles because it’s segmented into separate sections by fibrous bands called tendinous inscriptions.
The number of bands dividing the blocks of abs can vary, usually from 3 to 5, (1) but it can be more or less.
Some people are born with fewer bands, or even less pronounced bands, than an 8- or a 6-pack. In this instance, it can be physically impossible to achieve this segmentation without surgery.
Moreover, these tendinous inscriptions come in all different thicknesses, sizes, and even lopsided arrangements. This is why some people have less symmetrical abs than others.
While one guy might have an evenly lined 8-pack, another guy may have what looks like a lopsided 4-pack.
It all comes down to how many bands of connective tissue you have, and how they’re arranged on your rectus abdominus.
If you only have two bands, you’ll likely have a 4-pack, rather than a 6-pack. And there’s no amount of work you can do to get more tendinous inscriptions.
That’s why even Arnold Schwarzenegger always struggled with his abs. He did his best to draw attention away from them during his posing routines.
Aside from these factors, there are other genetic factors at play. This is why you shouldn’t compare your results to others.
Your goal should be to get lean enough to see your abs, regardless of how many blocks show up when you do. A lot of that is out of your control and, simply put, not worth stressing about.
#2 Go heavy for best results
Now with all that said, most people will at least have two bands. If you ignore the endless ads, you’ll realize that’s more than enough for a very attractive midsection to be proud of.
But to develop those abs, you’re going to want to use some heavyweight. And that’s something that most people don’t tell you.
Most trainers will tell you that you should train your abs with a high number of reps. That’s because they’re made up of mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers, and hardly any fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The scientific evidence, however, doesn’t support this idea. It actually shows that the abs have a balanced profile of around 55-58% slow-twitch fibers, and the other half is made up of fast-twitch fibers (2).
This is one of the reasons why I’ve been saying for years that since your rectus abdominus is a muscle, it would make sense to use heavy weight on it. Just like we do for our bicep, leg, and chest exercises.
Plus, if the goal is to have more pronounced abdominal muscles, ideally you want to do both low- and high-rep sets for this muscle.
For example, one of my favorite ways to target the abs for muscle growth is by performing declined crunches with a weight behind my head, for 10 reps.
And then immediately perform a bodyweight exercise, like pulse-ups or jackknives with no weight but a higher rep count, like 20 reps. Then, repeat that for 3 to 4 sets.
You can simply do that with 3 or 4 different pairs of exercises per ab workout.
I promise, you’ll get better and faster results than doing endless crunches.
#3 Ab exercises and back health
And that brings us right to another very common myth – the idea that it’s “bad for your back to do dynamic core exercises” like crunches and leg raises.
But two leading exercise scientists reviewed all the evidence available on ab training. According to them, all dynamic spinal exercises are safe if they meet three criteria. (3)
The first is that you must progress gradually to give your nervous system, your muscles, and even your spinal disks time to adapt.
So, before you perform weighted declined crunches, make sure you can do bodyweight floor crunches.
The second criterion to prevent a back injury is to avoid extreme ranges of motion of the spine under load.
Basically, if you’re doing declined sit-ups and your back looks like an upside-down U, that means that your abs are too weak for that load. You’re potentially destroying your spine.
This extreme range of motion can happen during almost any ab exercise, including a regular crunch.
The third guideline is to limit targeted core-specific exercises (like crunches, sit-ups, and leg raises) to the end of your workout, or for a separate workout.
This is important because doing ab isolation exercises before heavy compound movements raises your risk of a back injury.
That’s because they fatigue the stabilizer muscles in the core before performing compound exercises with heavy loads (like deadlifts or squats).
These exercises require those core muscles to come into play and support your spine.
#4 Don’t rely on compound exercises alone
While we’re on the topic of exercises like deadlifts, you should know that compound exercises alone are not enough to stimulate your abs optimally.
If you just want a moderate level of ab definition, or you want to maintain the ab definition you currently have, you might not need to perform any direct ab exercises.
But if you want to go for optimal ab development, compound exercises alone won’t cut it.
In fact, if you’re beyond the beginner phase, it’s unlikely that compound exercises will help build your abs any further.
This is because most compound exercises – including squats and deadlifts – don’t activate the abs effectively.
This makes sense from a physiological standpoint since your spine doesn’t flex or rotate during those movements. And research confirms this as well.
For example, we have a study that examined the difference in abdominal muscle activation between several exercises. (4)
When performing a set of very heavy squats, ab muscle activation was so low it didn’t even reach 20% of the maximum voluntary contraction! (5)
Conversely, when performing a straight-leg sit-up, they activated the external obliques and rectus abdominus by around 40%. This is more than double the activation produced by the squat. (6)
Other studies confirm these results as well. For example, research on clean and jerks, also shows that there are low levels of core activity. (7)
Basically, even a clean and jerk, which includes the movement patterns of a deadlift, a squat, and an overhead press all in one, still doesn’t train the abs effectively.
It is no doubt an effective exercise for the erector spinae.
But the reason why most compound exercises aren’t optimal for your abs is because…
#5 …compound exercises train your abs statically
This is something most people don’t understand when it comes to abs.
Both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phases of these exercises offer unique benefits that you don’t get from static or isometric movements. (8)
For example, when compared to isometric contractions, you can produce twice more force during eccentric contractions, and 50% more force during concentric contractions. (9)
This means that dynamic exercises allow you to overload your muscles to a greater extent. This leads to a more potent growth stimulus.
The eccentric and the concentric phases also activate different anabolic cell-signaling pathways. This is something you don’t fully benefit from during isometric exercises. (10)
Now, this doesn’t mean isometric core exercises can’t be beneficial. For example, they can help reduce the risk of low back pain for some people.
But if you want to optimize ab development, you’ll have to focus on dynamic exercises.
#6 Not all ab-specific exercises are dynamic
For example, most people have never been told that planks are not that great at building your abs. There are a few reasons for this.
One of them being what I just went over. The plank trains your abs statically instead of dynamically.
Another reason is that holding a regular plank for a minute is too easy for most people. There are ways to increase the difficulty of a plank.
One is by doing a “long-lever posterior pelvic tilt plank”. Research showed that this variation resulted in over 100% extra abs activation compared to regular planks. (11)
But even with this significant increase in muscle activation, the long lever plank is still not a very effective ab builder.
It is great for core stability, but not for muscle growth. That’s because the tension on the abs is entirely isometric or static.
#7 Train through a full range of motion
The data is clear on the fact that if you want to optimally stimulate a muscle, you must train it through a full range of motion.
We’ve seen this play out in studies that found full squats to stimulate much more muscle growth than partial squats (12), and on other muscle groups like the biceps. (13)
Unfortunately, most people aren’t told that this applies to abs as well. Going through a full range of motion has multiple advantages.
For example, it produces higher levels of muscle activation. Different parts of a movement emphasize different parts of a muscle.
Therefore, by going through a full range of motion you’re able to train a muscle more fully.
Another benefit of going through a full range of motion is that you wind up overloading the muscle you’re
targeting while it’s in a stretched position which is beneficial for muscle growth.
So, the bottom line is – make sure you prioritize exercises that train your abs through a full ROM.
Examples include declined sit-ups, stability ball crunches, and kneeling cable crunches.
#8 Abs synonym of good health?
Let’s move on to another major thing that most people don’t realize about abs. That’s the fact that abs are not necessarily a sign of good health.
Don’t get me wrong, having a low body fat percentage can be very healthy. It also shows that you’re more likely to be fertile.
Scientific evidence shows that there is a negative dose-response relation between body fat percentage and fertility, if your BMI is over 18.5. Basically, the more body fat you have, the less fertile you tend to be. (14)
Excess visceral fat is also bad for health in general, because it produces high amounts of inflammatory markers. These can promote the development of chronic diseases. (15)
But having shredded 6-pack abs can be unhealthy as well.
For example, professional bodybuilders might have extreme ab definition when they step on stage. But the truth is – most of them aren’t feeling too well.
Male natural bodybuilders during their competition tend to have significantly elevated cortisol and significantly reduced testosterone levels.
These often leading to issues such as low libido, erectile dysfunction, mood problems, and more.
Female bodybuilders can also experience health problems when they become very lean, like losing their menstrual cycle.
The point is that abs can signal good health, as long as you don’t take it to the extreme.
This is why it is not a healthy or a realistic goal to maintain a 6-8% body fat percentage year-round.
#9 Abs and general attractiveness
Polls show that the abs are rated as the most attractive muscle group a man can have according to women. (16)
However, another thing that no one tells you about abs is that those results don’t mean that your abs, or your muscles in general, are much of a determining factor when other aspects are considered. I’ll explain.
When compared to other muscles like traps, shoulders, pecs, biceps, forearms, and all the other muscles, women find obliques, glutes, and abs, to be the top 3 attractive muscles. (17)(18)
However, according to other larger polls with up to 68,000 women surveyed, it seems that your personality is far more important than your abs. (19)
In fact, physical attractiveness didn’t even make it to the top of the list for what women look for in a man.
And the number-one preferable physical feature, when women were not limited to just picking from muscle groups, was a nice smile, rather than nice abs. (20)
But regardless, non-physical qualities like kindness, supportiveness, intelligence, education, and confidence, all far outweighed the physical qualities.
So don’t let advertisers fool you into believing that all you need is a nice set of abs, and women will be flocking all over you. Your personality is actually what’s more important.
#10 Abs and… belly fat loss?
I saved this for last because I’ve mentioned this numerous times before. But some of you may still be unaware that you can’t spot-reduce belly fat by doing ab exercises. (21)
To prove this, look no further than a 2011 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (22)
That about wraps it up, guys. If you’re looking for the best diet and workout plan to help you get the best possible midsection that is genetically achievable for you, then my team and I can definitely help.
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- The RA is divided, in part, by tendinous inscriptions that are usually three to five irregular fibrous bands.
- “Mean fibre distribution ranges were 55-58% I, 15-23% 22A, 21-28% IIB, and 0-1% II C fibres.”
- According to Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, two leading exercise scientists who assessed the literature on ab training, dynamic spinal exercises are safe, if they meet three criteria.
- For example, one study published looked at muscle activity levels during various exercises, including the back squat.
- When performing a set of very heavy squats, ab muscle activation was so low it didn’t even reach 20% of the maximum voluntary contraction.
- On the other hand, when performing a straight-leg sit-up, they activated the external obliques and rectus abdominis by around 40%.
- Research on the clean and jerk exercise, for instance, also show low levels of core activity (rectus abdominis, internal obliques, and external obliques).
- That’s suboptimal because both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phases offer unique benefits you don’t get from static (isometric) movements.
- For example, you can produce two times more force during eccentric contractions and 50% more during concentric contractions than isometric ones.
- Besides, the eccentric and the concentric phases activate different anabolic cell signaling patterns, something you don’t fully benefit from during isometrics.
- Research showed that this variation resulted in over 100% activation of the abs compared to regular planks.
- For instance, one study found that full squats led to much more hypertrophy than partial squats.
- And another study found that full ROM Scott curls produce superior bicep growth compared to partials.
- Research shows that there is a negative dose-response relation between body fat percentage and fertility if BMI is over 18.5. The more body fat you have, the less fertile you tend to be.
- Visceral fat is also bad for general health because, when available in excess, it produces high amounts of inflammatory markers. This can promote the development of chronic diseases.
- Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin polled 503 women to find out which muscles they find the most attractive in men.
- “Trapezius, deltoids, pectoralis, biceps, abdominals, obliques, forearms, quadriceps, tibialis anterior, shoulders, latissimus dorsi, triceps, glutes, and calves.”
- “Women reported preferring larger obliques. Followed by glutes, abdominals, biceps, shoulders, triceps, calves, deltoids, quadriceps, pectoralis, latissimus dorsi, forearms, tibialis anterior, and trapezius.”
- “68,000 people in 180 countries. Overall, they found personality comes out on top, with 88.9% of women considering “kindness” a very important trait in a partner. Close behind were “supportiveness” and “intelligence”.
- “For both heterosexual and homosexual women, an attractive smile and attractive eyes were the most important physical features sought in a long-term partner.”
- The academic literature shows you cannot get rid of belly fat by doing ab exercises.
- For a case in point, look no further than a 2011 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.