How much ab work do you need?

Photo by Ivan Samkov on

I’ve said this before, and since we’re here I’ll say it again: 80% of your body composition is determined by your diet. And I don’t care if you want to argue that’s wrong. See the forest for the trees: If you want your abs to show up, your diet needs to change so that you burn off most of your current body fat while maintaining your existing muscle and biologically healthy function.

And a good portion of that theoretical remaining 20% is going to come from improving your posture. Improving your posture increases the “display” of your abdomen, which maximises any ab visibility. Often, abs don’t show up because a rounded back causes fat/flesh/fascia to bunch up around your abdominal area, further obscuring your abs even if you’ve burned the fat necessary for those abs to show up.

A well rounded fitness routine combined with addressing your postural imbalances will go a long way to making the necessary posture improvements. That I can and will address another time.

Meanwhile, will doing ab or core exercises help your abs show?

While some amount of ab and core exercises are good for your posture, the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly. Doing a bunch of ab work won’t necessarily hurt you, provided you don’t strain anything in your core from overtraining. But beyond 1-2 sets of core exercises, you’re not going to gain much at all by doing additional sets.

So when it comes to routines like 6 Minute Abs, 8 Minute Abs, 10 Minute Abs, etc… sure, doing this will help improve your core strength. But within a well-rounded strength and endurance program, you would get all the benefit you’re looking for with as little as 1-2 minutes of ab work.

That is not to say all you need to do is 1-2 minutes of exercise. The whole rest of your body still needs exercise, and a sufficient strength routine involves the whole body, with muscle groups training for a few minutes at a time, and the whole routine taking closer to 20-30 minutes. Training abs for 1-2 sets is one part of a sufficient whole-body strength training routine.

First of all, posture requires fitness and strength endurance from all key muscle groups in your body. It’s not just abs or the generally labeled “core”, but working in tandem with your hip flexor complex and glutes, your major leg muscles, your shoulder and back muscles, right up to how well your spinal and neck muscles carry your head. Everything works together to create your posture, and that posture has an effect on everything, not to mention how your fat is stored and carried, and how your abs will show.

Secondly, the strength of your other muscle groups will influence how well your core muscles work and how much they work they can afford to do. A weak back or shoulder complex, or an overstretched underactive gluteus group, can lead to your body collapsing into your abdomen. No amount of crunches or sit ups will help undo that, because the problem obscuring your abs is coming from your underactive back, shoulder and glute muscles.

One of the reasons you want to strength train is not necessarily vanity, but that improving the strength endurance of all your key muscle groups will make maintaining a healthy posture easier. This will free up your core muscles and help open up that abdominal space so that, as you burn the remaining fat, those ab muscles are more likely to begin showing up as you get to the magic number of bodyfat percentage needed for them to appear (typically around 10-12% in men and around 15-18% in women).

So to go back to the question… how much ab work do you need? Really only about 1-2 minutes… and then about 18-28 minutes of strength training for the whole rest of your body. And then days, weeks, months of practicing a healthy diet that promotes the burnoff of extra fat you don’t need.

Final note: The more varied that 1-2 minutes of ab work, the better. All ab exercises tend to target and isolate one particular area of your core muscles. There are people who like to do planks. They should also mix and match sets of crunches or sit ups, Russian Twists, hanging leg raises, back extensions, etc. One exercise tends to isolate the muscular development to one particular part of your abs, and you want to ideally exercise and develop all of them.

That said, again, you don’t want to do all of the above and fall into the 6-10 Minute Abs routine, when in reality as mentioned you only need 1-2 minutes.

Rotate the exercises in every workout. Do one exercise at the middle or end of one workout. Do a different exercise the next time, and so on. For example, end Monday’s workout with a 30-60 second plank or two. End Tuesday’s workout with 1-2 sets of sit-ups. End Wednesday’s workout with 1-2 sets of medicine ball Russian Twists. Cycle back to the planks on Thursday, and so on. It doesn’t need to be rocket science. Your abs will get a well-rounded collection of work along with the rest of your body.

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