Want hard abs? Of course you do – and getting them may be more straightforward than you thought with these tips from top trainer Mark Coles
Almost everyone who trains regularly wants to have a rock-hard six-pack. But the reality is that hardly anyone does. Why? The problem is rarely that they don’t train hard enough. More often it’s that they don’t train smart enough.
The biggest misconception most people have when training abs is that more is better. But the time you spend working on your abs has very little impact on how long it takes you to get a six-pack. Just like every other muscle group, quality reps of the key moves are far more significant to your success than the quantity. This leads to the second most common misconception, which is that cranking out very high-rep sets is the only way to bring out your abs. The problem with both of these ideas is that the longer your set or workout lasts, the harder it is for you to maintain the levels of consistency, intensity and focus that are essential to maximising muscle mass development.
When I’m training clients, there are six key principles I rely on to help them build a six-pack effectively and safely. Keep on reading to discover what they are – and then you too can get on the fast track to having the hard abs you’ve always wanted.
1. Recruit the abs
The abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) flex and extend the spine. It’s really important to think about this and let it truly sink in before you even consider crunching. Because when most people “train their abs”, they’re likely to be recruiting other muscles – typically the hip flexors – and hardly paying their abs any attention. You can tell from a distance because they will be swinging up and down with every rep, using momentum to power the movement and never the muscles.
Your abs are a muscle group just like your quads or chest or back, and you need to ensure you train them just like you work these other muscles. I always tell clients that maximal stimulation of the working muscle is essential for development. Always consider this when setting up to train your abs because, again, they’re like any other muscle: you must lengthen the muscle first, then create tension on it, then contract the muscle to its shortest position.
The lengthened position of an abs crunch is way further than most people go, and the contracted position is way shorter than most people can get to. Work on improving your range on a given abs move first, before you consider adding any additional resistance to the exercise.
2. Improve your range
When I start working with new clients, I find most have a poor range of abdominal movement and can’t fully engage their abs, which means the muscle group is underdeveloped. So when I design their programme, I start by taking them back to basics, correct any problems, and then work them through my method of strategic progression.
The best abs exercise is one you can do perfectly. If this is only a very basic version of one move, then so be it. Hardly anyone I work with is ready for the hanging leg raise from day one, for instance. The same goes for any loaded abs exercises – you need to work up to these. When I add abs exercises to a client’s programme, I start with a small arsenal of exercises: the abs crunch on a gym ball, kneeling barbell roll-outs, and incline bench reverse crunches.
Each exercise has a progression, but it’ll take you a good couple of months of hard graft on these moves before you’re ready for the advanced versions.
3. Master the movements
To start with, take the gym ball crunch. For the first week you lie over the ball and work on the stretch component of the exercise. Most people can’t help but shake at this point, which is why they struggle to achieve a full contraction.
Following this, you would then work on contracting up halfway for a week, and so on. As you master the movement pattern you will shake less and the contraction will come easier. I like these stages to be performed slow and controlled for maximum benefit. To develop your abs you need to add load at some point, and once you can do consistent crunches, you can hold a light dumbbell across your chest.
The kneeling barbell roll-out is a tough move, but one at which you can progress quite quickly. From a technique perspective you must start with a very small movement range – don’t attempt to drop down fully to the floor, because you’ll end up with a flat nose.
Just like any exercise, progression is key and you need to always feel tension in your abs. As you lower you should feel your abs lengthening until you can’t lower any further. At this point, contract your abs hard to return to the start position. Use a wall as your marker, and kneel further away as you get stronger.
4. Minimise momentum
The incline bench reverse crunch is a foundation exercise for the hanging leg raise because it focuses on the lower abs. I like it because it allows people to focus on their abs and take out any swinging from their hips. If you watch most people performing the hanging leg raise, they’re swinging back and forth and certainly not making a meaningful contraction. With this in mind, starting with the reverse crunch is extremely useful.
Place the bench at a 30° incline and lie on it on your back with your hands over your head holding on to the bench. Bring your thighs up until your knees are bent at 90°. This is the start and end position of the exercise, and in between there should be no swinging at all. The objective is to lift your knees to your chest, flexing your abdominals as hard as you can.
As you lower your legs, maximum tension should be placed on your abs at all times. When it’s done right this exercise is very hard indeed, and you’ll see why I use it as a pathway to the hanging leg raise.
5. Get the reps and tempo right
Training frequency is important, and I get most clients to train their abs at least twice a week. Beginners will do mainly foundational exercises, while advanced gym-goers and athletes will perform more advanced versions.
When it comes to rep ranges, most people aren’t strong enough to train their abs properly for high-rep sets. I like to always start off with three or four sets in the ten-to-12 rep range, so long as they can keep 100% tension on their abs.
Finally, I keep the tempo pretty slow. I’m a big fan of tempos around 3030 or 2020 when training abs, so you’re taking two to three seconds to lower and raise. Using a slow tempo ensures focus on the abs through the concentric and eccentric phase of each movement.
6. Get lean
You will only start to see your abs when you are lean enough. Many people find they train their abs year-round and never get a six-pack, because it’s covered in a layer of belly fat. If you’re going to put so much effort into training your abs, put the same level of effort into getting lean, otherwise you’ll never get to see all your hard work in the gym pay off.
Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham