Everyone wants to build six-pack abs, and for good reason: a solid, strong midsection is essential for lifting success and it looks great in or out of clothes. In our zest to build great abs, though, many of us are making a results-killing mistake that actually prevents us from reach our goal.
So, can you overwork your abs?
Overtraining, the bane of enthusiastic bodybuilders everywhere. Read on to see why doing too much work is a great way to STOP your abs progress.
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What Are Abs?
To begin figuring out how you should train abs, you need to first understand what they are.
Simply put, what we usually refer to as “abs” are actually just a single muscle called the rectus abdominis that runs down the front of your torso and helps you bend forward. The rectus abdominis is crossed by three horizontal and one vertical bands of connective tissue, which is what makes it appear that you have multiple individual abs muscles.
It’s just one, though there are other muscles in your general midsection area: transverse abdominals, obliques, intercostals, serratus.
When it comes to building a six pack, however, we’re talking about the rectus abdominis, and it’s just a muscle.
How Should You Train Abs?
In case you missed it, the key point of the above section is that your abs are a muscle — just like every other muscle in your body. What’s more you DO need to build the size of your abs, at least to an extent.
Only by growing larger and standing out from the connective tissue running across it can the rectus abdominis be truly impressive when your bodyfat is low.
How do you build the size and strength of your abs? Through progressive resistance training, like you would for biceps or quads.
And, like biceps and quads, your abs need intense training followed by rest, recuperation, and solid nutrition in order to grow. For most guys, that means training abs once per lifting cycle, same as you would for every other muscle group.
Now, abs do have a higher capacity for endurance than, say, your chest because your midsection is flexing all day long just to keep you upright. To accommodate that physiological fact, you MAY want to use slightly higher reps for abs or possibly train them twice per cycle using different exercises each day.
Believe it or not, two or three sets of abs exercises, to failure, will have your six-pack popping in no time if you aren’t carrying a lot of extra fat.
Why Overtraining Is Bad for Your Abs
Instead of following these tried-and-true muscle-building principles, though, many guys throw reason out the window when it comes to training abs. They want to “tighten” and “tone” their midsection, and they want to avoid abs growth like the plague.
What they’re really trying to do in most cases is spot-reduce their midsections, even though studies like this one have shown that this approach does not work.
Instead, it leads to lots of extra training and wasted time in the gym, overworked but under-stimulated abs muscles, and maybe even injury. Most of the time, this type of belly training involves tons of sets and repetitions, which generally means a degradation of form. Flopping around through multiple sets of sit-ups or similar exercises is a surefire way to hurt your lower back.
All in all, this is the classic overtraining syndrome as described by the late Mike Mentzer.
At its simplest, overtraining is performing any more work than is necessary to cause a muscle to grow. At its worst, overtraining can leave you drained, hurt, sick, and with no enthusiasm for lifting. Taken to extremes, doing too much can cause your muscles to shrink and may even lead to fat gain as you eat more in order to overcompensate for your rundown state.
For most trainers, most of the time, overtraining won’t help your physique results, and that goes for abs as well as any other muscle group.