Abdominal Training: Do we need more?
Tom McCullough MEd.

How many times are we told that if you do endless hours of abdominal exercises using specific machines you will develop those rock hard abs so you see on so many pro-bodybuilders? If we are hitting the weights very hard do we really need to spend hours training abdominals?

Here is what the pros say


Interesting enough pro-bodybuilder Jay Cutler said in an interview the he only works out his abs during his contest preparation for the Olympia (16 weeks leading up to mid September), and his explanation is that people usually don’t have abs until they have very low bodyfat levels.

What? So low body fat levels are the key to having rock hard abs? Could it be?

Well other pro’s have said about the same thing. In fact another pro was quoted as saying, “you will notice there is no mention of training abs or cardio. That is because I don’t do either for a show. GH will give you all the abs you need.”

Despite heavy marketing of miracle cures and gadgets to get rock hard abs, most include hundreds of hours doing abdominals exercise on the latest abdominal machine, rock hard abs seem to be best developed through a good weight lifting program. All of this core-training seems to be nothing but the latest buzzword to sell products and training programs so called experts claim will give you that six-pack.

Powerlifter Matt Kroczaleski

Is there any research to back this?

If you will take a look at the abdominals of high level powerlifters (see above) and Olympic weightlifters (below), you will quickly discover that by simply performing lifts such as squats, power cleans and deadlifts can develop great abdominals. Most powerlifters for years have referred to this as functional training. Seems research supports this in-the-trenches evidence.

Study #1

Olympic Lifter Ivan Stoitsov

In a recent study published in Physical Therapy in Sport researchers found that competitive Olympic female weightlifters had significantly stronger internal and external oblique abdominal muscles than a recreationally active control group.

Sitilertpisan, P., Pirunsan, U., Puangmali, A., Ratanapinunchai, J., et al. Comparison of Lateral Abdominal Muscle Thickness Between Weightlifters and Matched Controls.Physical Therapy in Sport. 2011 Nov;12(4):171-4.


To compare lateral abdominal muscle thickness between weightlifters and matched controls.
16 female Thai national weightlifters and 16 matched controls participated in this study.
Ultrasound imaging with a 12-MHz linear array was used to measure the resting thickness of transversus abdominis (TrA), internal oblique (IO) and total thickness (Total) of lateral abdominal muscle (LAM) on the right side of abdominal wall. The absolute muscle thickness and the relative contribution of each muscle to the total thickness were determined.
Weightlifters had significantly thicker absolute TrA and IO muscles than matched controls (p < 0.01). Further, the relative thickness of the IO was significantly greater in weightlifters than matched controls (p < 0.05).
The findings of this study suggest that routine Olympic style weight training among female weightlifters appears to result in preferential hypertrophy or adaptation of the IO muscle.

The above study more specifically found that the internal obliques were the thickest, followed by external, and then by transverse abdominis. This is a very significant finding, as it represents a “structurally balanced” relationship or a more true functional training of the abdominal muscles. This finding also means that by independently training specific abdominal muscles you are breaking down your core’s structural balance, thus subjecting the core to injury. Training the abdominals through squats, deadlifts, or power cleans helps keep the abdominals structurally balanced or more functional.

Study #2


Hamlyn, N., D.G. Behm, and W. B. Young. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(4), 1108–1112. 2007.

The purpose of this study was to examine the extent of activation in various trunk muscles during dynamic weight-training and isometric instability exercises. Sixteen subjects performed squats and deadlifts with 80% 1 repetition maximum (1RM), as well as with body weight as resistance and 2 unstable calisthenic-type exercises (superman and sidebridge). Electromyographic (EMG) activity was measured from the lower abdominals (LA), external obliques (EO), upper lumbar erector spinae (ULES), and lumbar-sacral erector spinae (LSES) muscle groups. Results indicated that the LSES EMG activity during the 80% 1RM squat significantly exceeded 80% 1RM deadlift LSES EMG activity by 34.5%. The LSES EMG activity of the 80% 1RM squat also exceeded the body weight squat, deadlift, superman, and sidebridge by 56, 56.6, 65.5, and 53.1%, respectively. The 80% 1RM deadlift ULES EMG activity significantly exceeded the 80% 1RM squat exercise by 12.9%. In addition, the 80% 1RM deadlift ULES EMG activity also exceeded the body weight squat, deadlift, superman, and sidebridge exercises by 66.7, 65.5, 69.3, and 68.6%, respectively. There were no significant changes in EO or LA activity. Therefore, the augmented activity of the LSES and ULES during 80% 1RM squat and deadlift resistance exercises exceeded the activation levels achieved with the same exercises performed with body weight and selected instability exercises. Individuals performing upright, resisted, dynamic exercises can achieve high trunk muscle activation.

The results of the study above indicated that EMG activity of the lumbar-sacral erector spinae during the 80% 1RM squat significantly exceeded EMG activity for the same muscle during the 80% 1RM deadlift, bodyweight squat and deadlift, superman, and sidebridge. EMG activity of the upper lumbar erector spinae during the 80% 1RM deadlift significantly exceeded the EMG activity for the same muscle during the 80% 1RM squat and all body weight exercises. There were no significant changes in EMG activity for the lower abdominals or external obliques.

Our researchers concluded that because the lumbar-sacral erector spinae and upper lumbar erector spinae muscle activation during the 80% squat and deadlift exceeded muscle activation during body weight exercises. So doing all of these endless instability exercises for the core may not be necessary to augment functional core stability training. It appears that all you need to do to have great, functional abdominals is do upright, resisted, dynamic exercises. Oh, that and drop a bunch of body fat.

So there is an indirect effect?

Well, YES! If you doing upright, resisted, dynamic exercises such as deadlifts, powercleans, squats, pull-ups (especially with additional weight), heavy pull-downs, pullovers, standing presses or even just very heavy cable triceps press-downs, your abdominal muscles will receive quite a bit of indirect work stabilizing the body during those exercises.
In fact, the late biomechanist Dr. Mel Siff claimed that the straight-arm lat pull downs performed on a high-pulley machine works the rectus abdominis muscle more strongly than sit-ups do!

As Jay Cutler and other pros have said, very little, if any additional abdominal work is necessary for a bodybuilder. Abdominal is already being indirectly taken care of so direct muscle development makes absolutely no difference at all. You just aren’t going to have that six pack until you have very low body fat levels.