Ab Training Tips for Hypertrophy
by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist |
Jan 05, 2017
Here are some helpful tips for your ab training. Please note that these are averages based on my experience working with lots of clients and my own training. The recommendations here should be food for thought or places to start, not dogmatic scriptures to follow to the letter.
If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the Training Volume Landmarks for Muscle Growth article. It discusses the theoretical and practical bases on which the upcoming recommendations are made. And if you love this info but want a bit of help in building your own workouts from the expert scientists at RP, check out the super popular Male Physique or Female Physique Templates.
For most, no ab training at all can maintain the abs. Unless you’re very advanced and train abs specifically on their own often and hard, just training all of the muscles of your body will leave your abs plenty big for physique purposes. In fact, you can even gain ab size but not training them directly… check out the section on MEV!
Zero sets per week. Yep. You can pretty much do NO direct ab work and still grow abs for a very long time. This is because the heavy loading of your compound heavy basics like squats and deadlifts provides a decent ab stimulus. But, if you want your abs to really GROW, and not at a snail’s pace, you’ll have to work them directly. Before we move onto to more details about how to grow the abs purposefully, let’s fist examine in what context this would be needed.
When choosing the needed context for direct ab growth (and conversely, the context in which such growth is NOT considered beneficial and is actually best avoided), we must remember that we are, with direct work, GROWING the abs. That is, your rectus abdominus muscles will actually be getting BIGGER. Which means that they pop out more and are more visible at any given bodyfat, but also means that they slightly expand the size of your waist, especially when viewed from the side.
So if you actually want bigger abs, then direct training for them is a great idea. If you already have a very slim waistline, don’t ever plan on getting massive and competing in bodybuilding, but just want your abs to “pop out” more, then this training is right up your alley! Because let’s face it, some of us get quite lean but have such small abs that even VERY low levels of bodyfat leave our abs looking unimpressive or even barely there. Some folks might be VERY content with just a flat stomach, but if you want your abs to pop, you might consider them for direct training.
On the other hand, if you have aspirations to compete in physique sport, and especially if you’re either planning on getting very big eventually or you’re female and compete in Figure, then direct ab training might even be a net negative, as keeping your waist small must be a high priority for you. So before you start training your abs, consider your goals and then make an educated decision.
Most people respond best to between 16 and 20 weekly sets on average. But that’s of course once they’ve built up to those levels with continuous ab training. It can take YEARS to actually NEED this much volume to grow your best. If you’re just starting ab training, as few as 4 direct sets per week can start each meso, with a top off of around 10 sets at the end of accumulation, and then working up from there each meso after.
Most people seem to encounter serious recovery problems above 25 sets per week. But some people can train far in excess of that amount and still be ok. The abs often develop a great resistance to fatigue with long term exposure to training. One way in which ab MRV becomes apparent is indirect. Sore and weak abs from too much training can reduce your stability and thus strength on other compound moves like squats and deads, leading to a system-wide MRV reduction even if the abs themselves are still growing.
3-5 times per week.
The abs can develop some pretty impressive fatigue resistance, and can also recover very quickly from overloading training. Thus, you can work to up to 5 overloading ab sessions per week over time and recover no problem. For beginners and individuals that are very big and strong, perhaps only 3 ab sessions per week are appropriate.
The abs grow from the same stimulus as any muscle. They need plenty of training in the 8-20 rep range. Fewer than 8 reps with abs tends to cause pretty rapid technique breakdown, and can also expose one to needless back injury risk, so heavier weight and lower rep ab training is probably best avoided.
There are quite a few ab exercises, and you only need to do two of them per any mesocycle, so just rotating exercises in and out every one to two mesos will do the trick for ab variation. And as with other muscle groups, varying the reps between training sessions within the microcycle also works very well and can be done in addition to exercise rotation over the meso. For example, consider the following 3-way ab split for a basic hypertrophy phase:
Monday: Machine Crunches sets of 8
Wednesday: Machine Crunches sets of 12
Friday: Reaching situps sets of 8
In a later metabolite phase, we can use an intra-microcycle variation perhaps like the following:
Monday: Reaching Situps sets of 12
Wednesday: Reaching Situps sets of 15
Friday: Machine Crunches drop set of 6 total sets from a 20rm, with 15 seconds rest between sets and a weight reduction of 10lbs on the stack after every set
Range of Motion:
People LOOOOVE to restrict ab range of motion. Why? Because it lets them avoid embarrassing themselves with how weak their abs really are. How many slant board situps can you do? Well, if I tell you that they only count if you lay all the way back and relaxed at the start of each rep and come up all the way so that your torso is past perpendicular to the ground, your answer might change from the one you were gonna give originally. Stretch under load promotes growth, so really expand and fully contract your abs for best results.
Special Metabolite Techniques:
Two techniques for metabolite generation work well for abs (surely there are others that work well too, but here we’ll just talk about these two).
1.) Drop sets
Best done on a machine, just start with your 20RM and crank out as many reps as you can with good technique, just a tad shy of failure. As soon as you finish that set, drop the weight down by whatever stack increment is about 10lbs, take a couple of breaths, and hit it again. Doing 4-8 of these drops will definitely do the trick.
These are best done by pairing a very difficult ab exercise with an easier one. And even isometric moves can be used here. For example, you can do a set of candlesticks, and follow that up directly with a set of V-ups. Another one to try is the reaching situp paired with the plank. Once you’re done with your situp set, turn over as fast as possible and begin to plank… you’ll quickly realize this really zaps the metabolites hard.
Just like with most bodyparts, your first mesocycle should be moderate weights and reps. The next mesocycle can be more of the same with perhaps slightly different rep ranges and exercises, OR it can be a higher volume block that incorporates lighter weights (closer to the 60%1RM mark) and more metabolite training. After that meso, a shorter (3-4 weeks) mesocycle of strength training (70-85%1RM) with lower volumes is likely a good idea to resensitize your muscles for more growth, at which point you repeat the process. Because abs shouldn’t really be trained SUPER heavy, your strength block can incorporate more sets of 8 (and perhaps as low as 6 reps on occasion) and stay away from sets of 10 or more during that time.
If you have lower back problems, be very careful training your abs, especially with heavy weights. Use comfortable exercises and ease in to both the volumes and intensities.