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The Ultimate Guide to Ab Workouts

By Tyler Woodward

Let's be honest, there's nothing more envied than a set of washboard abs. It's the holy grail of an amazing physique. Except no one knows how to really train their abs, until now...

Key Takeaways:

Ab Anatomy 101:

Ab Anatomy

The abs or the core consist of four main muscle groups:

  1. Rectus Abdominis - The “6-pack” muscles
  2. The External Obliques - Superficial muscles on the side of the 6-pack
  3. The Internal Obliques - Muscles below the external obliques that run in the opposite direction
  4. The Transverse Abdominis - The deepest muscle of the abs, runs around the core like a belt

For the purpose of this article, I’m also going to add in the erector spinae muscles into the equation as they are the exact opposite of the 6-pack muscles. 

  1. The Erector Spinae - The muscles that run between each bone of the spine 

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Muscle Physiology 101:

Muscle Physiology

The easiest way to describe how muscles work is that they function like a rope that is fixed at either side. In this analogy the muscle is the rope and its two fixed attachment points are its “origin” and “insertion” points. The origin is like the start or beginning of a muscle and the insertion is the end. Muscle’s always contract/pull from their origin to insertion. So when a muscle contracts its origin remains more or less fixed, while the insertion point gets closer and closer to the origin. You can see this as you flex your bicep, the origin (top of the shoulder) remains basically in the same position, but the insertion (top of the forearm) gets significantly closer to the origin. 

By looking at a muscles insertion and origin point you can easily understand how a muscle moves or basically what it pulls.

  • Rectus Abdominis - The 6-pack muscles run down the middle of the stomach and are responsible for flexing or rounding the spine. 
  • The Erectors - The erectors are the exact opposite of the rectus abdominis in terms of function as they are desigened to extend or arch the lower back.
  • The Obliques - The oblique muscles primary role is lateral flex ion of the spine, aka side bending. You now know there are both internal and external obliques which run in opposite directions to one another.  As the external obliques of one side perform the “side crunch” motion, the internal obliques on the other side also contract to stabilize the spine and lower back in the movement.
  • The Transverse Abdominis - This is often referred to as the “belt muscle” and runs around the waist as such. If you’ve ever seen any famous bodybuilders perform the “vacuum pose”, where they suck their stomach up and in, this is the transverse abdominis at work. The transverse abdominis also plays a role in bracing or stiffening the core in order to keep the spine from bending in heavy movements. 

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Ab Workouts Suck (A Rant)

Ab Workouts Suck

Isometric Exercises -

  • Like every other muscle of the body, the muscles of the core have the ability to contract isometrically. Meaning the muscles can flex or contract without changing in length. For some reason this has become all the rage for ab muscles and nearly every core exercise is some form of anti-rotation or anti-flexion exercises. These are exercises like the plank, side, or Pavlov press. The issue with these exercises is that they are extremely inefficient at generating tension on the target muscle which is the main driver of muscle growth. They may have a place in athletics as they improve your ability to resist rotational or flexion forces, but they are terrible from a muscle building perspective.

Circuit Training -

  • When you combine an isometric-dominant ab workout with circuit-style training (jumping from one exercise to another with minimal rest), you have a perfect recipe for 0 gains! Circuit training is great for convenience from a time perspective and can be great to induce full-body fatigue in a workout, but it is extremely poor at creating local fatigue or stimulus in a specific muscle. 

Hip Flexors -

  • Many ab exercises that we choose use large degrees of hip flexion (bending your legs/knees up towards your stomach). As discussed before, none of the ab muscles contribute to hip flexion, so although your abs may be working slightly in these movements you’re primarily using your hip flexors. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but if your intention is to build your abs then doing hip flexors dominant movements isn’t helping your case. 

Target Fat Loss -

  • It is impossible to spot lose or target fat loss to a specific area in the body. Doing ab training sadly will not get your abs more visible or ripped. It can make them bigger so they are more visible at higher body fat percentages, but you still need to remove that layer of body fat to get to the abs. This is driven by being in a calorie deficit, consuming fewer calories than you are burning for a sustained period of time. Working out can help to burn more calories, but alone it will not result in fat loss unless used with a calorie deficit. 

The Ultimate Ab Workout:

The Ultimate Ab Workout

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Conclusion:

This article is a demonstration of my understanding of the rules that govern our existence as humans, as we exist today. I don’t make the rules, I’m just trying to understand them and it should be noted that these ideas and beliefs may change over time as we learn more about the human body.  My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across on this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… be good

~Tyler Woodward
B.S. Physiology & Neurobiology