Should you train your abs?

Categories: Videos & podcasts

Should you train your abs? The average person might be thinking -Well, duh, of course I should train my abs, but most of my subscribers are probably familiar with the spot reduction myth.


00:00 Introduction

00:12 Spot reduction myth

01:12 Abs will hypertrophy

04:12 Hardgainers might benefit

05:33 Best ab exercise

08:31 Spot reduction is not a complete myth

13:06 Conclusion


This is well summarized by a 2022 meta analysis that concluded localized muscle training. So basically, training abs in this case had no effect on localized adipose tissue depots. training the abs does not result in fat loss specifically around the abs. I.e. there was no spot reduction regardless of the characteristics of the population and of the exercise program. The popular belief concerning spot reduction is probably derived from wishful thinking and convenient marketing strategies such as influencer seeking, increased popularity and procedure setters interested in increasing advertising. It’s a very a burn statement for a research review.

Normally they don’t really go into that kind of things and they just stick to the facts. Very interesting to see, but it is true that there are all of these waistband products and there are so many products out there for localized spot production and none of them work. These waist trainers, all of these things, they don’t work. Spot production is mostly – more or this later – a myth. In fact, what will happen when you train your abs is not that your waist will get slimmer. It will get bigger because the abs are like any other muscle group. They will hypertrophy when you subject them to high mechanical tension.

The primary adaptation of a muscle when you train it heavy is that it gets bigger, it gets bigger and stronger. And in the case of the abs, that can actually thicken your waist. Is this a real concern? Does it actually thicken your waist or is it just that the a six pack kind of pops more?

My experience is that it can definitely be a real concern. And we know that many men’s physique competitors, for example, these days are actually avoiding sometimes even squats and deadlifts, which I think is misguided. More on that later. But they’re avoiding ab work and the like because they want to retain that super narrow waist. And in my personal experience, my waist has grown considerably. I used to do lots of core training also when I had my back injury last year, I also did a lot of core training and now for kickboxing, I do quite some core training and I can say it makes a visual difference and also objectively, my waist went from about 30 inches when I started lifting to about 34 now when I’m bulking. So that’s a pretty big difference. A lot of that is in the spinal erectors on the back. so it’s not necessarily that my waist has expanded that much, but the six-pack will pop more, the erectors will get bigger and also the obliques get bigger. So on all sides, your waist will actually get a bit bigger.

Now, in my case, it’s definitely been net beneficial because I get more X taper because lower body and the upper body grew a lot more than that. But it is definitely a concern for some people. If you already have a relatively thick waist, for example, and your arms are already quite big, then you can get kind of ninja turtle physique, meaning that your waist is protruding a little bit too much and it was probably excessive to train it that much. And this is particularly obliques that have that effect because the rectus abdominis – the six pack muscle in the middle it’s not necessarily much of a problem even if it gets much bigger but is the obliques on the sides that make the waist bigger, especially the external obliques, if those get bigger – then that, literally makes the waist less slim.

Now, most people don’t actually need to train their abs to get a six pack. The six pack is already there. The rectus abdominis muscle. When you are reasonably well trained, you have decent genetics, it will be large enough that it’s visible and it’s mostly a matter of fat loss. And that’s where the cliché abs are made in the kitchen comes from.

Because the abs are there. you don’t need to do exercise. At least most people don’t actually need to do a lot of isolation work like crunches, sit ups to get a six pack. They just have to get lean enough to reveal the six pack that’s already there. So everyone has a six pack. It’s just not visible in some people. You have to get rid of the fat that’s covering the rectus abdominals, muscle and if you’ve just got lean enough, most people will have that six pack and this has led a lot of people and the more evidence based community to conclude you should not train abs because you’ve got “Ninja Turtle” physique and it’s not necessary to get a six pack.

However, this is not true for all people. I just gave the example of someone that already has a relatively thick waist and a muscular waist and kind of stocky physique. In those individuals. It can be true that training the abs alot and in particular training them the wrong way, which we’ll get into in a bit, can make you look a bit like a ninja Turtle. But there are also a lot of hard gainers among us who need ab training or at least benefit from ab training to really make their six pack pop. If they just get very lean, they look, you know, they get that kind of emaciated look where the abs are there, but they’re very small like maybe abs and it looks kind of hollowed out.

So don’t have that shredded big popping six back look. And you can get that by making the abs bigger. So for a lot of individuals, it is actually beneficial to train the abs now and you might say, well I am training the abs and doing squats and deadlifts, but squats and deadlifts are a really poor stimulus for the rectus abdominis.

Yes, the rectus abdominis helps a little bit to produce intra abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine during heavy spinal loading, but it is not maximal muscle activation and definitely not maximum muscle tension over a full range of motion. So it’s not great at training if you are hard gainer you’re probably not going to get like a wild six pack from doing squats and deadlifts. You need crunches. Crunches in my view, are the best ab exercise because they are most specific to the rectus abdominis in the middle. When you do core training, what you want to avoid generally if you’re training purely for esthetic purposes, like if you want to do for training, for kickboxing or whatever, maybe you do more rotational work on the like if you’re training purely to look good naked, then what you want to do is train the rectus abdominis in this plane of motion.

So you really do just crunches like this and reverse crunches. That’s it. Because if you’re doing like rotational work side bending, then you’re evolving the obliques a lot more. And you want minimum hypertrophy in the obliques and maximum hypertrophy in the rectus abdominis, the obliques will come along for the right. You cannot isolate the rectus abdominis and not train the obliques at all, but you can get the best stimulus for the rectus abdominis with the least amount of stimulus for the obliques and that you get with crunches and reverse crunches.

So all in this plane of motion, you want to train the abs just like you train any other muscle group, meaning same set volume, same kind of intensity, same training frequency. They are a muscle group like any other muscle group, like your biceps like your triceps like your pecs, like your glutes, whatever. So you train them the same way, train them heavy, train them with same frequency, volume, etc., same considerations. And also don’t leave them as an after thought if you really want to prioritize the six pack, Like at the end of the workout, you do, you know, three sets of crunches that are like, ehh, you want to do a reasonable volume like you do for any other muscle group.

And also, if you always do them last when you’re already tired, you give them a half assed effort, then you’re going to get half assed results. You also want to train the abs like any other muscle group in terms of range of motion. I mentioned earlier that you want to train them with a full range of motion, high mechanical tension along the entire muscle length if possible, and you achieve that not with regular sit ups and crunches. You want to really extend and flex the spine. And yes, this is generally considered safe, especially in the form of crunches.

You’re not going to herniate a disc with a crunch. What you want to do is really get that full stretch and then crunch into it. So if you’re doing on the floor, you can’t get that full stretch because you’re obstructed by the floor. You want to do your crunches or your reverse crunches on a bosu ball or something. It actually has a use to get that through range of motion. my favorite crunches, probably on a bosu ball with a cable attachment with a rope, and then you hold the rope over your hands like this, The cable is here, and then you crunch all the way into it.

Full stretch, crunch all the way into it. yeah, that’s exactly what you want to do for any muscle group. High tension along the entire muscle length. Now, there is one other thing you should know about training abs, and that is, as I mentioned earlier, spot reduction is mostly a myth, but not a complete myth. So it is a myth that training a muscle group or any area of the body will make that area of the body slimmer. Studies have looked at, for example, training one arm and not the other arm training the abs and seeing if there are localized fat loss from the abs. These things don’t work. Just training a muscle group will make it bigger. It will not make that area leaner.

However, in 2017, a very interesting study came out that shows that under three conditions, it does actually appear possible to induce spot reduction and those conditions are first. High intensity exercise. It seems that based on their literature review, and their exercise protocol that they used, you need an exercise intensity of about 70% of 1RM, which is like 12 rep max or heavier to get fat loss. So what they found in their study is that when you train relatively heavy in the lower body versus the upper body, you can actually make the upper versus the lower body lose more fat.

So if you do more lower body training, you can make the lower body lose more fat. If you do more upper body training, you can make the upper body lose more fat. So it affects the ratio where you lose most of your body fat. And the other two conditions that were kind of unique to their exercise protocol and probably are necessary to induce this kind of spot reduction are. Second, you need to follow up the high intensity strength training with cardio. the idea is that you first achieve a spot lipolysis. This is real.

This has been documented before. If you train an area, a muscle group or body part, whatever, then you’re getting spot lipolysis, meaning there is actually a localized increase in fatty acid oxidation and even the loss of adipose tissue in that area. And that’s due to higher temperatures and higher blood flow in that area versus other areas plus a high demand for fuel substrate use.

Now, the problem is that normally because your body fat distribution is in large part genetically determined, it will re-esterify. So you mobilize those fatty acids, but they will re-esterify, they go back to triglycerides in the body and they come back in the same spot because usually your body will kind of defend its body fat distribution. That’s why people just have a certain body fat distribution. You can influence this, you can make it healthier, in particular, decentralize it.

If you get healthier, you start exercising better diet. Typically what happens is that your body fat distribution becomes less abdominal focused and it becomes more spread out over the body, which is typically a good thing. Esthetically. But there are clear differences between individuals. Like if you go to Brazil, you’ll see that a lot of the women have very lower body focused fat distribution. And then if you go to, for example, Mexico to the Mayans, which is not too far off from it, you can see very different body shapes. And that is in significant part genetically determined.

And to fight this. So we need to high intensity exercise. We need to do cardio to prevent the re-esterification of the fatty acids. And you need to be in an overall state of energy deficit. Most studies that have found no success with spot reduction simply haven’t achieved major fat loss to begin with.

So you need to be losing a lot of fat. You need to exercise a body part with high intensity and then you need to follow it up with cardio. And that’s a lot of big ifs that are not very practical for most people in particular, because you want to be training most body parts. For example, let’s say you’re a woman and you want to get rid of the fat on your triceps. Well, you probably don’t want to do a heavy ass triceps training because that’s going to make the triceps more muscular. Yes, maybe you get a little bit of spot reduction, but you’ll also get a lot of muscle growth. So it’s not very practical. However, there is a scenario where I think it is useful to have this knowledge and it might provide a small competitive edge.

Again, this is the fine tuning, what I all mentioned earlier in this video is going to be the main message for most people. But I think especially for a men’s physique competitor, that is doing cardio already, it can be beneficial to do your ab work on your cardio day and make sure it’s relatively heavy enough and then you might get some spot reduction in the abs. So if you’re doing your ab training before the cardio, you’re doing cardio anyway, then it might be net beneficial For other people.

Probably isn’t going to be great because doing cardio directly after strength training is going to induce a significant interference effect. It has been shown in multiple studies to reduce strength development and muscle growth because essentially you’re kind of pulling your body into two opposite directions on a strength endurance continuum. you’re telling it. I want more endurance and I want more strength. And it seems that in terms of cellular adaptation pathways, these things have some conflicts. Like famous example is conflict between Ampk and mTOR activation. So it’s like anabolic versus catabolic stimulus kind of and it’s not a great idea probably to do cardio in general after your workouts. If your primary goal is muscle growth. It’s better to separate them from the workout. So really the only scenario where I can think of and that I use in my students or my clients is men’s physique competitors that do cardio and they can do their ab work on their cardio day rather than with their regular strength training. But it is good to keep in mind, and maybe for some people this knowledge will be useful.

Again, for most people, though, spot reduction is a myth. The idea of just training a body part will make that leaner. It is not the case. You need specifically those three conditions high intensity exercise. Follow it up with cardio as be an overall significant state of energy deficit and then maybe some spot reduction is possible, but for most people, abs are made in the kitchen. It is true. And whether you have significant abs or not to reveal or not? That depends in large part on your genetics and whether it’s net beneficial or not to train your abs depends on your body structure.

So if you already have a very thick waist, you don’t have issues with gaining muscle, probably ab training is not going to be esthetically beneficial for you if you want that X taper.

If, however, you are like a hard gainer individual with slim waist, hard time putting on muscle, then ab training for you is probably going to be beneficial. Don’t listen to the bros saying like squats and deadlifts are all you need. In your case. Probably you do need some ab training to get that six back to pop and you don’t have to worry about getting an overly thick ninja turtle waist.

All right. I hope that helps you determine how you should train your abs and if you should train them in the first place. If you like this kind of content, I’d be honored if you like and subscribe.

Mini Course on muscle building graphic Want more content like this?

Then get our free mini-course on muscle building, fat loss and strength.

By filling in your details you consent with our privacy policy and the way we handle your personal data.

About the author

Menno Henselmans

Formerly a business consultant, I've traded my company car to follow my passion in strength training. I'm now an online physique coach, scientist and international public speaker with the mission to help serious trainees master their physique.

» Join in and discuss this article on Instagram
Share via
Send this to a friend