Ab workout

The Most Effective Science Based Ab Workout

Whilst the most important component of getting a visible 6 pack is ultimately your body fat percentage, there is still of course a part to play in training the muscle group.

In this article I’m going to cover off the most effective scientifically proven method to train abs. 

With the most effective exercises, rep ranges and training frequency, to help you get the abs you’ve always wanted.

(Also, if you don’t want to read this, you can watch it on YouTube here)

Anatomy of the abs

Rectus abdominis – consists of two parallel muscle strands that run vertically on each side of the abdomen

External and internal obliques – used to pull the chest downwards and compress the abdominal cavity but also have some limited action in flexion and rotation of the vertebral column

Transverse abdominis – located beneath the obliques and help to compress the ribs and viscera to provide thoracic and pelvic stability

Which ab exercises are best?

To find the most effective ab exercises we’re going to split the abs into 3 parts. Upper, lower and obliques. As movement patterns will cause different levels of engagement, however it is worth noting that you will engage all parts of your abs in any ab exercise or full body type movement, it’s just not necessarily as efficient. 

The way we’re going to find the most effective ab exercises is through EMG activity and then select the exercises with the best engagement. 

EMG Abs

As we can see here, there are clear winners in terms of the most effective movement patterns for each part of the abs, with arm extended crunches, hanging leg raises and side bends all “winning” in each part of the abs respectively.

If we were going to pick just one exercise to target all 3 however, it would be hanging leg raises as it has the highest lower ab engagement, 2nd highest in upper abs and 3rd highest in obliques.

Table 1: Top 12 ab- and oblique exercises; ranking according to Boeckh-Behrens & Buskies, 2000

Essentially, what this would suggest that the most effective ab exercise is the hanging leg raise so that, or variants would be a staple of ab training. 

As a crunch with arms extended is the clear winner for upper abs, and has the 3rd highest engagement for lower, we’ll also include that and the side bend for obliques. 

What I would say however is that it wouldn’t be necessary to complete all of these movements on the same training day, we could split them through the course of the week. 

We can also regress these movements into easier to perform movements if you are unable to perform the movements.

Examples of these regressed movement for the hanging leg raise;

    • Straight leg
    • Bent knee
    • V-up
    • Lying leg raise

So if you can’t do, control or feel a hanging leg raise, we’ll start with a lying leg raise and progress the movement as we can complete the exercises effectively.

Exercise Frequency

We’ll look to train abs between 2-3 times a week. Ultimately we should be allowing 48-72 hours between training a muscle group again, so if we perform ab training on alternate training days we won’t be far off. We need to allow for recovery to take place before training again. 

Ab Workout structure

Now this is personal preference, but in terms of bang for your buck with training I would place ab exercises at the end of your sessions or you can perform them outside of the gym environment alongside cardio or other activities. 

I would structure the harder (leg raise) movement that activates all 3 parts of the abs in one session, then the other 2 exercises in your other ab session and have them on rotation.

In terms of sets and reps, we’re looking to perform around 10 working sets per week

As such, a programme may look as follows;

Session A) Hanging leg raises – 3 sets

Session B) Crunches & side bends – 2 sets each

If training each every 2-3 days, over 7 days we’ll be through around 10-11 sets per week of ab training and that is plenty.

In terms of rep volume, we’ll work to failure in each set until we’re able to perform sets up to 20 reps, at this point, we’d benefit from adding load and progressing the exercises, which could take the form of a progression route as provided earlier or we can add progressively heavier weight to the movement.