Get Ripped Quick
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When it comes to weight training and, especially what looks good on a physique, most men and women agree that a strong, ripped midsection is essential. Everyone wants to build a six pack!
If you’ve been paying attention to muscle mags, mainstream media, and television infomercials anytime during the last 50 years or so, then you know that just about everyone has an opinion on how to build abs, too. Most of the time, the advice you hear involves doing tons of reps on lots of exercises, sometimes everyday.
Leaving aside the the issues of frequency and set volume for the moment, do you really need to do a lot of reps when you do abs? Or would you be better served taking a different approach?
Let’s take a look at the factors involved to try and come up with a good answer.
The term “abs” is really a bit misleading, because those little blocks of muscle that you see on the midsection of a ripped bodybuilder aren’t really separate muscles at all. Rather, they are all part of the same muscle, the rectus abdominis, which are crossed by three bands of connective tissue called tendinous intersections.
These bands form the “grooves” between your abs — creating the six-pack effect — and help you flex forward in a segmented fashion.
Other muscles of the midsection include the intercostals, serratus, obliques, and transverse abdominals. When we’re targeting the major part of our six packs, though, we’re going after the rectus abdominis muscle, or “abs.”
The key point here is that your abs are really just a muscle, like all the other muscles in your body. While it’s true that abs may have a higher capacity for endurance than, say, your biceps since abs are in use all day long, that doesn’t mean you should train them that much differently than any other body part.
And, believe it or not, you actually do want your abs to grow, at least up to a point. Only by getting larger can your abs standout from the surrounding connective tissue and look really awesome once you’ve lowered your body fat levels.
So the question then becomes …
While counting reps has been the standard for decades, many lifters have come to realize over the last several years that the quality of their reps and the total time under tension (TUT), or time under load (TUL), are more important than the sheer number of reps when it comes to building new size. Time under load is the amount of time that your target muscle is actually exposed to whatever load you’re using during a set.
If you curl 100 pounds for 10 reps, taking once second to lower and one second to raise the weight each time, your total TUL is 20 seconds. If you slow that cadence to three up, three down but only get six reps, then your TUL is 36 seconds — 6 reps X 6 seconds for each complete rep.
Assuming you’re training to failure, what is the optimal time under load for muscle growth?
There have been a few studies into this concept, mostly focusing on total energy expenditure rather than muscle growth. Taken together with in-the-gym experience and expert opinions, though, these experiments point to a general time frame of 30-90 seconds for hypertrophy. If we assume that abs fall at the top of that range due to their constant use, and maybe even add a bit of buffer, we’re still looking at well under two minutes per set.
The other factor that affects the number of reps you will perform is the duration of each rep. You should always avoid fast sloppy reps, because they unload the target muscle and make each movement less effective. Choppy reps also invite injury, and you won’t make any progress at all if you’re hurt.
That said, the range of motion for some abs exercises, like crunches, is fairly short. A reasonable speed might be about one second up, a one second hold in the contracted position, and one second down. That’s three seconds per rep if you’re moving quickly, which translates to around 30 reps for a 90-second set. In most cases, that’s about the upper limit for reps, and you will do better to go lower most of the time by slowing down a bit, contracting hard, and adding weight when possible while still maintaining good form.
On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t dip below 10 reps for most ab exercises since that will force you into a short TUL and maybe more resistance than you’re ready to use.
Putting it all together, a good, solid rule of thumb for most ab exercises is to perform 10-30 reps to failure for the majority of your sets.
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