Have you ever wondered what the best way to build abs is? Should you do hundreds of reps as many old school bodybuilders, boxers, and more have done? Or should you add extra weight like those crunch machines you see at your gym? The truth is that both volume and adding extra weight can help you build abs. It just depends on why you’re training.
Before you can discuss whether you should use volume, weight, or both to build abs, you have to realize that they play by a different set of rules. Your abdominal muscles are indeed muscles, so the same fundamentals for increasing strength, hypertrophy, endurance and such that apply to your chest, back, and legs all still apply. However, the abs are sort of like the forearms and calves in that they can’t be as easily developed.
This is because all of these muscle groups are used so extensively in normal activities in regular, everyday life. It’s your abdominal muscles (in part) that connect your upper body and lower body. So almost any time you bend, twist, walk, get up, or even hold yourself upright, your abs are being worked in some fashion. As a result, they have a much higher threshold and can withstand way more work than other muscle groups.
When we want to build abs, we often think of the old school way of doing crunches or situps for hundreds of reps. This idea has two main points of origin. The first is the antiquated (and incorrect) idea that you can “spot reduce” body fat. The concept was that if you had belly fat and wanted to get rid of it, then doing abdominal work could burn it off. And of course, “more is better”, so it led to people doing hundreds of reps.
Another source for this misconception is old school boxing trainers. Boxers need to obviously have a very strong and durable midsection, so they’d use various exercises for the abs. However, trainers back in the day were heavily against lifting weights, thinking that it would make their fighters inflexible and “musclebound”. Couple this with the abs’ high threshold for work, and you had boxers doing insane volume in order to bulletproof their core.
If you add weight to your ab exercises, doing heavy(-ish) sets of 8-12 is definitely a way to strengthen your midsection. How much of this type of strength you need to develop really depends on what you’re training for and what the rest of your workout looks like, though. If you’re already doing a lot of compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, and standing presses, then your abs will already be strong from having to support your torso. This could mean not much extra ab strength work is necessary.
One thing you might be considering is if adding weight will actually build abs bigger, as it would with any other muscle group. The answer is yes, but because the abs can withstand so much work, they would need significantly more volume for this to happen. All other things being equal, you’d probably have to do 150-200% the amount of work for your abs that you do other body parts to see commensurate muscle gain.
As has already been said, whether you should use weight, volume, or both is going to depend on your training goals. If you’re an athlete where physical performance is your main priority, then doing some of both in your routine is a good idea. This will ensure not only a strong midsection, but one with great endurance, too.
A good sample workout for athletes to build abs would be one that used added weight one workout, with high volume the next. This ensures you’re getting sufficient amounts of both types of work. Two sample workouts you could alternate between are as follows:
*Dragon flags and hanging toes-to-bar aren’t weight-added movements, but both have extremely poor leverage, making them very difficult to perform. Both are usually performed for lower to moderate reps.
Because this type of work is so pertinent to an athlete, ending every workout you do with one or the other above is a good idea.
So the above will work to build abs for an athlete. But what if you’re a bodybuilder? Well, abdominal definition is going to be best improved by achieving a low body fat percentage, so that should be your obvious main focus. However, direct midsection work can definitely improve how your abs look. The question is if you should take the added weight or high volume approach.
Truthfully, you can find anecdotal examples to support almost any position. Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates both had good a solid midsection while doing minimal volume and using as heavy of a weight as possible. On the extreme other end, Serge Nubret and Thierry Pastel both built amazing abs by doing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of reps nearly every single workout. Then you had guys like Lee Haney and Gary Strydom, both of which developed well defined six-packs from doing some of both.
Taking the hybrid approach would likely be your best bet. Start off with 1-2 weighted (or at least very difficult) movements, followed up with another 1-2 high volume exercises. This will get you the benefit from both camps, and you can feel free to switch your exercises up every workout.
Here are a couple examples:
Because abdominal work isn’t as critical to a bodybuilder as it is an athlete, you can get usually get away with training them only 2-3x/week.
Taking a mixed approach like this ensures you have a strong midsection, which can improve your big lifts such as squats and deadlifts. Your abs will also have a lot of endurance, making every day life easier, and when you lower your body fat, can help give you good definition. Plus these workouts won’t take a ton of extra time and having a better core will reduce your risk of injury.