A question that many people have when bulking is should you continue to train your abs. One of the main reasons for this is because your body fat will increase as you progress through a bulk (though your focus should be to minimize this as much as possible!) and as a result you lose visibility of your abs.
Should you train abs while bulking? Your abs are a muscle group that grow like any other and for that reason you should be training them with the same consistency as the rest of your body. Bulking is an ideal period to train abs as you will have the surplus calories available to fuel recovery and growth of the abs.
Males in particular have a natural tendency to store excess fat in their abdomen and lower back region so for this reason your abs will tend to be one of the first things to lose visibility on a bulk along with muscle vascularity (popping veins).
Once visibility goes people often think there is no need to train the muscle group because it is no longer visible. When on a cut, people will hit their abs with multiple sessions, often getting to the point where they train abs everyday to try and make them more defined whilst at lower body fat levels.
Should You Train Abs While Bulking
The abs are just like any other muscle group and with a training routine focused on progressive overload and muscle hypertrophy they will grow and get bigger just as any muscle group would.
Combined with this, a bulking phase is a period of time in which you consume surplus calories in order to fuel and facilitate muscle growth and for that reason you are primed to grow muscle which makes it confusing when people don’t take advantage of this period in order to train abs.
You should definitely train abs while bulking as this is when you can build the solid muscular foundation that will be present when you do finally decide to cut and peel away the body fat covering your abs.
Everyone will have different and individualized goals when it comes to training however when it comes to building a physique everyone should be looking to build and develop their muscle groups as much as possible.
A typical bulking phase could (and should) be in the region of 6+ months, that is a lot of time to not only neglect to directly train a muscle group but it’s also a lot of progress that you are just ignoring.
If you only wait until you are on a cut in order to start developing your abs then you are not only playing catch up but you are at a disadvantage because you will no longer have the surplus of calories to optimally recover.
One point people often say is that they don’t want a thick and bulky set of abs purely for aesthetic reasons which is understandable, a good physique is one that is tapered and that usually involves a slim waist with broad shoulders.
What people are often unaware of however is that the muscles of the abdomen are thinner sheets of muscle fibre, whilst they still have the potential for growth they do not have the same growth potential as your larger muscle groups.
Even if you wanted to grow freakishly popping abs it’s not a realistic goal for 90% of the population. Genetics play a huge role in ab and particularly 6 pack development and most people are not genetically capable of building large popping abs.
You can certainly train them with heavy weights and cause enough muscle hypertrophy that they ‘pop’ but for the everyday gym goer you will never get them to a level being freakishly large.
Can You Keep Abs While Bulking
If you keep in mind that heavy, direct ab training will have hypertrophy effects and you want to build thicker abs then a bulk is the ideal time to do this. You should be training them just as hard as any other muscle group.
What people often wonder though is if you can keep abs while bulking. I’ve dedicated a whole article to whether you can get or keep abs when on a bulk here:
The short and straightforward answer though is that you 100% keep abs whilst bulking as long as you still train them with a similar stimulus to what developed them in the first place.
That last point is absolutely crucial and something that people often get caught out on when cutting, so bulking is a rare example. You maintain any form of muscle you need to consistently do the thing that developed the muscle in the first place.
If you built a solid set of hamstrings by doing lying hamstring curls up to 225lbs in weight but then all of a sudden start to only work them with 100lbs then eventually your body will not need to maintain the level of muscle development that built your hamstrings in the first place.
Switching back to ab training, people often train them hard and frequent during a cut when they are visible and you therefore feel both motivated and accountable for developing them further.
During a bulk however that motivation fades and people are less inclined to train the abs as you can’t physically see the progress for your hard work. A bulk only covers your muscle with a layer or water retention and excess fat storage, it doesn’t result in muscle degradation.
Therefore you definitely still keep your abs on a bulk but this is providing you still provide them with adequate stimulation and train them either directly or indirectly.
Should You Workout Abs If You Have Belly Fat
Another point to note is that people might not necessarily be in a bulking phase but may still be carrying excess belly fat. A common confusion is training your abs in order to burn this belly fat.
It’s worth noting that this is not a justified strategy, burning fat comes from a calorie deficit and/or and increased energy expenditure, you cannot spot reduce an area of fat by targeting then training the muscle group that is behind it. The two methodologies are not related.
Therefore if you are training abs in order to specifically reduce belly fat then you are spinning your wheels and approaching this all wrong. If however you are not necessarily focused on losing belly fat but wondering if you should still train abs the answer is yes.
Regardless of your current body fat level you should train your abs year round, at some point you will commit to a fat loss phase and when you do you’ll want a defined and developed set of abs that are built through year round training.
How Often Should You Train Abs
The abs are made up of predominantly slow twitch muscle fibres that are more resistant to fatigue and quicker to recover than the more explosive fast twitch muscle fibres. For this reason people get into the habit of over training the abs.
Whilst you can train abs everyday on a cut to keep blood and muscle glycogen primed in that area in order to enhance the visual appearance this should still be done with minimal volume.
Those that are training abs for multiple sets and reps, day after day are not doing their physique any favors and will be hampering not only their recovery ability but also the performance on other key lifts.
Your abs and core are the strong link in the chain when it comes to big compound lifts like the squat, deadlift and overhead press and if these are fatigued then this will carryover and make you weaker in your big lifts which is not ideal.
In terms of frequency for training your abs you should be looking to train them as per all your muscle groups looking at 2 – 3 times per week for optimal protein synthesis.
How to Train Abs When Bulking
Now that you know to keep training frequency to a moderate level when bulking (2 – 3 times per week) it’s also important to know how you should train your abs when bulking.
Anatomy of the Abs
Your abs are made up of the rectus abdominis which is your standard 6 pack and responsible for spinal flexion. It’s worth noting that a 6 pack is genetic and if you don’t have the genetic makeup for a 6 pack then there is nothing you can do to change this.
Some will have a 4 pack, some a 5 pack and some are even blessed with an 8 pack! You should not be focused on developing a 6 pack at any time if this is not something you have the genetics for, instead focus on developing what you do have.
Besides this the abs are also made up of the internal and external obliques which are responsible for spinal lateral flexion (bending side to side) and are found running along the ribs. This is often neglected when it comes to ab training however it is just as important when it comes to developing your midsection.
Finally you have the transverse abdominis which is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscle and acts as a key stabilizing muscle for your lower back and core muscles (Source). This is harder to target specifically but planks and side planks are great for developing and strengthening the TVA
Best Exercises for the Abs
Hopefully you are not of the thinking that endless sets of sit ups are the key to a good set of abs. To really develop your physique you need to train specific movement patterns to mimic and target the function of the desired muscle.
The following are some of the best exercises that you should be looking to include to train your abs while bulking.
Hanging Leg Raises
There are two types of flexion that the rectus abdominis (6 pack) go through, one is flexing your upper torso and bringing your shoulders towards your midsection like a crunch.
The other function and one that is often neglected is targeting the lower abs by bringing your hips towards your midsection.
The best exercise for this is the hanging leg raise as it takes pressure off of the spine. You might only be able to manage knee raises to begin with but try to progress to legs fully extended and finally toes to bar will be the advanced progression.
As with the hanging leg raises, a cable crunch allows you take pressure and strain off of the spine and allows you to more effectively load to ab muscle.
For these you want to get into a kneeling position with the rope behind your head and crunch the weight exhaling all the way down. You should only be crunching at the midsection, therefore you shouldn’t be trying to touch your nose to the floor or anything like that.
A good tip is to fully exhale when in the crunched position and really clear your lungs of air, you should feel your abs contract harder as you do this meaning a more engaged muscle which ultimately means more muscle fibre recruitment.
A side plank is a great way to engage your obliques whilst strengthening the TVA in the process. This will be difficult at first if you are not used to it and have weak obliques but once you work you way up and build you strength you could try the following.
Hold your side plank for a set amount of time, for the last 10 seconds of the movement try adding some pulses to make the exercises more difficult. To pulse simply drop your hip slightly and then squeeze back to the starting position.
This will really fry your obliques and is an advanced technique.
The plank is an all round powerhouse of an exercise when it comes to working your midsection and is particularly important for strengthening the TVA muscles. You need to tense your entire body and really squeeze your abs to get the most out of the plank.
This will of course be more difficult and you might only have the strength to make 15 – 20 seconds of this at first but don’t be deterred, any time spent maximally contracted is much more effective than a minute of planking with no active tension!
The above exercises are all you need to get a well balanced and full ab workout, no need for endless hours of sit ups and the results will certainly come by getting proficient in these movements.
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