Getting stronger and more defined abdominal muscles

Getting stronger and more defined abdominal muscles

One of the greatest martial artists of all time, Bruce Lee, famously said, “My strength comes from abdomen. It’s the center of gravity and the source of a real power. “ In the next subsequent paragraphs we will be exploring how to structure an effective abdominal workout and its progression.

This blog post is aimed at everyone who wants to improve their abdominal muscle strength and definition. I believe that everybody can. Word of caution: Pure abdominal exercises do a very poor job in removing fat so abdominal work should be used mainly to build muscle. If you want to remove the unnecessary fat in your abdominal area, you need to have a complete personalised nutrition plan and watch closely what you consume on daily basis.

Let’s go over some of the basics that you need to know before I dive in into my philosophy and workout structure.

Our abdominal region includes four types of muscles:

  • The rectus abdominis, people call them “the abs”.
  • The external obliques, which can be found on both sides of the rectus abdominis.
  • The internal obliques, which can be found under the external obliques.
  • The transversus abdominis, which can be found under the obliques.

Please take a look at the image below.

Image showing the anatomy of abdominal area. Image credit to

Why is important to have strong abdominal muscles? Well, the stronger our abdominals are, the more stabilized our spine is. Having lean and strong abdominal muscles means easier picking up things from the floor and bending related activities, moving around our body more efficiently, and having a healthy posture.

I train abdominal muscles every day and I believe that everyone who desires to keep the lean and strong abdominals need to train these muscles regularly. To me, the key is in high reps to produce a maximum burn in your abdominal muscles. When I say the high reps, it depends on the actual exercises. In general, 15 reps per set is a great starting point.

There are three major areas that you need to target in the same workout, regularly which are:

  • Upper abdominals
  • Lower abdominals
  • Obliques

For each of these major areas, we want to select the specific exercise suited for the purpose of developing those muscles. Later I will give you an example of a sample structure.

So, how do you start if you are a complete beginner?

You start with selecting exercise for each of the major areas I mentioned above. Here is an example:

Upper abdominalsCrunches with legs 90 degrees on the floor
Lower abdominalsLeg raises
ObliquesSide bends with a dumbbell

So,you start with three abdominal exercises per workout.

What about the number of sets and repetitions?

If you are a complete beginner, start with only 1 set of 15-20 repetitions. As per above example we have:

Leg raises115
Side bends with a dumbbell115
Crunches with legs 90 degrees on the floor115

Finally, what about the rest between sets?

If you are doing multiple sets, 45-60 seconds rest is ideal. Take no more than 60 seconds if you don’t have to.

Sample abdominal workout progression

Phase 1

If you are a beginner, start with only 1 set but try doing at least 15 repetitions per abdominal exercise. Don’t move on to the 2nd phase until you complete 15 repetitions for each exercise, in total 45 repetitions per session (3 exercises x 15 repetitions).

Phase 2

In phase 2 we are increasing number of sets but keeping the number of repetitions the same. Increase the number of sets to 2 and don’t move on to the next phase until you complete 15 repetitions per each set.

Phase 3

Now, it’s the time to increase the number of sets to 3. Again, keep the number of repetitions to 15. Don’t move on to the next phase until you complete 3 sets of 15 repetitions per each abdominal exercise.

Phase 4

In this phase you will increase the number of repetitions to 20 but keep the number of sets to 3 which means you will do 3 sets of 20 repetitions.

Phase 5-Final

This final phase is a true accomplishment and I really believe if you get to this stage and put it in the practice regularly, that you will have a nice, strong and well defined abdominals. What is this phase about? You will increase the number of sets to 4 but keep the number of repetitions to 20. Total, 4 sets of 20 repetitions, per abdominal exercise.

This last phase is hard to get to, but you will be so proud of yourself and the effort you put in.

My intention with this sample workout progression is to show you how I progressed and achieved a final phase that I am now practicing daily. You don’t have to get to the final phase if that’s not your goal. What is most important is that you start and that you keep being consistent. It’s better to do 1 set of 15 reps for each of three abdominal exercises, three times per week, than doing the same work but one time per week, two times per week etc. You get my point? You need to be consistent no matter what phase you are on. Week in and week out. Persistent hard work will achieve results, remember that.

How long you should stay on each phase? That question is difficult to answer because it depends on so many variables. Progression and the duration of phases need to be personalised to you, your goals, current fitness level, other workout variables. Your fitness expert will know how to progress your abdominal workout in a more specific way. However, I wouldn’t move on to the next phase when you just completed your required sets target. You need to stay in that phase for a period of time to build the necessary adaptations and the abdominal form.

Some final pointers on abdominal workout

Here I will share some of Bruce Lee‘s tips on abdominal workout because I can’t think of a better person to learn from.

  1. Work fast, but concentrate.
  2. When you cannot do any more full repetitions, continue with short range “burns” to give greater muscle development and separation.
  3. At the end of each workout, a session of abdominal tensing or static contractions will help.
  4. Remember that abdominal workout does not reduce- only nutrition and a workout with a minimum of rest between sets can reduce.

I hope this blog post was valuable to you. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out or comment below.

Until next time,

Damir Pervan, certified Personal Trainer, Founder and CEO of TrainChampion

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