Focus on fat loss first
Nothing matters more for having a great set of abs then the amount of fat you have around your midsection. There are tons of guys out there who have a great set of abs that no one can see because they are hidden under layers of fat.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
Nothing impacts fat loss more than your nutrition. I like to joke that the top-six exercises for great-looking abs are:
1. Table push-a-ways
2. Fridge door closing
3. Junk food isle skipping
4. Drive-through drive buys
5. Vegetable chopping
6. Countless reps of “no thank you” when you are offered desserts and other fattening foods
Always remember that abs are built in the kitchen.
Learn to relax
Stress causes your body to secrete cortisol and this is linked to gaining fat in your midsection.
Minimize ab training until you get to 8-10% body fat
During the initial get-lean phase, keep your training sessions focused on big, hard, uncomfortable, movements (e.g. squats, deadlifts, pull-ups). Feel free to add 1-2 direct ab exercises into your routine, but resist the urge to add more.
More time spent training your abs means less time spent doing more important exercises that will have a bigger impact on your body fat levels and thus how your abs look. Once you are lean, feel free to up the ab training to 2-3 exercises done about 3 times a week to maximize abdominal muscular development.
Do intense ab training at the end of your workout
Unless you plan to sit on machines for your whole workout (not recommended), save your intense ab training to the end of your session so they are fresh to provide you the spinal support for your big lifts.
Note: I do like some short, non-fatiguing exercises ab in my warm-ups to activate the core for performance enhancement.
Go hard and heavy/intense
Light weight, high-rep training is a waste of time for toning and defining your abs. Heavy weights or high-tension body weight exercises for the abs – or any muscle for that matter builds real tone and hardness in the muscle.
Many people fear heavy weights for the abs thinking it will give their abs the big, bloated bodybuilder look. Don’t worry! This is the result of drug use and poor contest prep, not heavy ab training.
Increase volume for more hypertrophy
Heavy weight makes your muscles hard and strong. By adding more volume (within reason), you make the muscle bigger and stronger. Some muscles (e.g. rectus abdominis) you want to make bigger to help with the 6-pack look. Other muscles (e.g. the obliques) you may not want to over-develop.
Try 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps for areas you want to build and 1-2 sets of 5-8 reps for areas you don’t want bigger.
Let your goals dictate your exercise selection
Do you want to step on stage and compete or to just be strong, healthy and have nice abs for the beach? If your goal is physique competition, you want to maximize the development of your rectus abdominis. Like any other muscle, this is best done through dynamic movements.
In this case, I would recommend a curl-up done over a domed surface (e.g. bosu ball) and a dumbbell on your upper chest. The difference between the curl-up and a regular crunch is that you only come up moving at the upper back and do not let your low back round.
Unless you have aspirations to compete in a physique sport, I would stay with exercises that teach your abs to resist movement. These exercises are easier on your spine, better for your posture and will translate better into real-life strength and performance. Basic planks are a good start here. Then, you can simply progress them into more advanced versions.
For example, the front plank can become a ab wheel rollout or suspension strap fallout. You can also get into hanging leg raises where your leg move while your abs hold your low back still. Side planks can be advanced by lifting the top leg or moving into standing cable chopping patterns. For some of my favorite ab exercises, check out my YouTube channel here.
Practice flexing your abs
The final icing on the cake (I know, bad analogy for this context) is your muscular control. How you contract the various abdominal muscles changes how they look. For best results you want a hard rectus abdominis (6-pack) muscle contraction with some activation of your tranverse abdominis (think slight pull-in of your belly button).
This takes time to master, but a few minutes in front of a mirror each day will allow you to improve your muscle control and show-case your abs.
Happy ab training!