The rectus abdominis (“abs”) muscle is for many the coveted eye-catcher of a trained body. But what’s the best way to train your abs? Do compound exercises, such as the squat and deadlift, already provide enough training?
With compounds you train multiple muscle groups at the same time. So it’s not surprising to think that squats and deadlifts also work your abs. However, the reality is more nuanced.
Your abs are trained isometrically, or statically, in the squat and deadlift. Although they are under tension, they hardly get shorter or longer. If you want to target the abdominal muscles in a targeted manner, you will have to train them dynamically.
Several studies (including 1, 2) therefore show that the activity of the rectus abdominis is low during squats and deadlifts. It was found that these exercises particularly target the posterior muscles of the core, namely the back extensors. The front muscles of the core, the abs and thus the coveted six-pack, are hardly activated.
Squats and deadlifts therefore do contribute to strengthening your core, but mostly the back part. One of the studies shows that even bodyweight push-ups trigger more abs activation than squats and deadlifts.
What to do now to get a six pack? It is especially important to understand that abs are muscles like any other. Just think of your biceps and triceps: you also train them with isolation exercises, in addition to the indirect training that these muscle groups receive through pull and push exercises.
The same approach should therefore be used for the abs. That means:
- 2-3 times a week training with targeted exercises;
- 5-10 sets per training;
- apply progressive overload;
- reduce your body fat by cutting or recomping.
The best isolation exercises for your abs are:
To get visible abs, your body fat percentage should not be too high, namely:
- 10-12% body fat for men;
- 14-18% body fat for women.
As mentioned, you get a lower fat percentage by cutting or recomping.
Keep in mind that the abs are a muscle group that, like your calves and traps, are highly genetic. Some gym goers don’t have to do any or hardly any targeted exercises to grow a sixpack. Others have to do lots of exercises.
Finally, don’t worry about your belly expanding when you build abs. The rectus abdominis is a fairly flat muscle, which is also pulled taut by horizontal and vertical tendons. Those tendons are the dividing lines you see. It is through those lines that a six- or eight-pack is created optically.
With compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts, your abs are not activated enough to grow significantly. You will therefore have to do targeted exercises, just like with all other muscle groups.