Article written by Edinburgh Personal Trainer Chris Richards
I think it’s fair to say, if asked what their ideal physique would look like, most people would like a well defined stomach/abdominal area. For this reason you will struggle to find many cover models who do not own a six pack! And for this reason again you will see countless individuals spend a frightening amount of their time in the gym devoted to crunches (sit-ups).
Before we go any further I want to make one thing clear. Everyone has the potential to show off an impressive mid section. However, it doesn’t matter how well you train this muscle group if you cannot see your hard work due to excess body fat. Therefore while I encourage you to read on to ensure your training is worthwhile, please understand if you are not eliminating or highly restricting gluten, sugar and processed food, while ensuring you sleep enough each night, these issues amongst others, are going to hinder your journey to well defined abs!
What are the best exercises?
A study by Petrofsky et al. (2008) used Electromyography (EMG) to measure the muscle activity of the abdominal muscles during different exercises. They demonstrated that only 10% of the available abdominal musculature was recruited whilst performing the crunch. With this in mind, here are three exercises that will get your core working:
1. The Squat – (Front/Back/Overhead)
Named the king of all exercises by many the squat will activate your core beyond levels ever possible while balancing on a Swiss ball. A study by Hamlyn et al. (2007) showed that performing a 80% 1 rep max squat resulted in a significantly greater EMG activity than all other exercises including body weight squats and the superman exercise.
Also it is essential that this exercise is performed as a free weight exercise and not in a Smith machine. A study by Schwanbeck et al. (2009) showed that EMG activity averaged over all muscles was 43% higher in the free weight squat compared to the Smith machine variation. If you want to avoid muscle imbalances and get truly strong (while dropping body fat to see those abs) ensure you use free weight squats in your workouts.
2. The Deadlift
The ‘go-to’ exercise for working your posterior muscles (the ones you can’t see in the mirror) while taxing the abdominal and oblique muscles which support the lower backs arched position during the deadlift. There are a number of variations of the deadlift with the traditional and sumo offering superior abs building potential. Strict technique is essential and a controlled eccentric (lowering) phase is crucial to success.
3. Pull Ups
Individuals who are able to perform unassisted pull ups are on their way to an impressive physique. However some of my clients will testify that assisted pull ups are no mean feat either! I don’t recommend using assisted machines if you wish for real improvement and results though. These machines make you rest your knees on a support which only allows a fixed up and down motion. With full pulls ups you must control your full body weight (or a percentage of if assisted) around the bar which requires substantial help from the abdominal group.
Finally while we have determined that you should be focussing on multi joint exercises which apart from huge core activation will build muscle and burn fat across your whole body; you should also NOT do the following!
Unstable surface training including Swiss balls, Wobble boards and Bosu Balls have become more and more popular in recent time. This picture demonstrates the ridiculous ways these methods have been used. You get no real benefit for doing this and you would be far better lifting heavier on a stable surface to enhance lean muscle gains while dropping body fat.
I hope this has removed a few myths around how to get abs and why you may be struggling to get them. I can’t stress how important nutrition is – the saying ‘abs are made in the kitchen’ is cheesy but very true, however training smart does help too!
Hamlyn, N., Behm, D.G., and Young, W.B. 2007. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21 (4), 1108-1112.
Petrofsky et al. 2008. Muscle use during exercise with a mini medicine ball compared to other exercise modalities. The Journal of Applied Research, 8(2), 95-115.
Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P.D., and Binsted, G. 2009. A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(9), 2588-2591.