You read the title and said, bodyweight will get you flat abs and weights will build. Well...it's not as "black and white" as you might think. At the end of the day, a muscle develops from stress and resistance. Whether that resistance comes from a cable, a free weight, a machine, or your body doesn’t matter too much.
Now, in order to see your abs, you have to lose body fat. We know this (I’ve posted several blogs about this). But, you can and should train your abs to build up the muscles you want to show off. The more developed the muscle is, the more it will pop and push against skin. What that means for you is that you will need to lose less body-fat for you to actually see those abs!!! And who doesn’t want that?!
OK, let’s get right into the technicalities - weights or no weights. In my opinion, the most important thing is contraction. How hard can you squeeze your abs during bodyweight exercises? If it’s starting to become not as hard (it’s never easy) then you can choose to throw some weight around. But the most important thing is to exhale extremely hard and contract those abs during each and every rep. One of my fitness idols used to say and continues to reference it “Don’t count every rep. Make every rep count.” And I approve that message.
I don’t want to leave you with these generic answers to the debated topic, so I’d like to just give you my current ab regimen. As you will be able to tell, it’s really simple, basic and easy to follow. Nothing fancy. And occasionally I will switch a bodyweight exercise out for a weighted one, and a weighted one for a bodyweight one. Another factor it comes down to is this: I can’t stand doing 50 repetitions of an exercise. I aim to do damage with 12-20 reps. I squeeze my abs hard, put them through work and finish it off. My routine is based around three moves; one focusing on contraction starting from the bottom, one starting from the top, and one focusing on rotation.
My Current Abdominal Regimen
Hanging leg raises - I have really grown an appreciation for this exercise. It’s easy to kick your legs up. It’s far from easy to actually use the movement to train your abs. First, focus on flexing your abs with your legs hanging. Bring your legs and hold them about 45 degrees from the ground (90 degrees would be your feet parallel to the ground). That is your starting position. Breathe out hard as you bring your knees up. Whether you keep your legs straight or not, you should focus on breathing out and using your abs to bring your legs up. On the way down, use your abs to slow the movement down. This part is just as important as the way up. NOW, do not let your feet pass your hips. Your feet should stop ahead of your body, and you must use your abs again to bring your legs up. The beauty of this exercise comes out with control. When you imagine a beam behind your back that your feet can’t pass to create momentum. Sometimes I use a light 5 lb weight, but body weight is usually more than enough for me. Basically, don't be a child on a bar. You're hanging there to do work!
Weighted crunches - This movement is shorter and overall far less taxing than a hanging leg raise, so I prefer to have some added resistance pulling me backwards. At the gym I go to we have an actual crunch machine that I love. You sit down on a pad and have another padded lever above your head that you pull down towards your hips. I lock my shoulders in place so that I am not swinging my arms, and once again, exhale and use my abs to bring the elbows to my hips. If you don’t have that, a rope attachment on a cable machine is perfectly fine. Just make sure to lock your hips in place so that your not pushing your butt back to generate the movement. This takes the pressure from your abs and renders the movement useless. If you do your ab workouts at home, don’t worry! There are many many times that I opt out the machines and weight for a simple, steady crunch. I do this when I feel like I’m getting distracted by the weight and when I feel like I am losing the contraction. This does not make it easier. If you are smiling like the guy in the photo, exhale hard and squeeze your abs HARDER!!!
Cable wood-choppers- This is a relatively new addition to my training routine, but I’ve learned over the years that heavy weight and obliques (aka rotational or side bending movements) don’t mesh well. I have a naturally thicker structured waist, so any additional meat on my sides makes me look very blocky and takes away from my v-taper. With that said, a light weight (like 30-40 lbs depending the cable machine) is more than enough to still give me enough resistance with wood choppers. Focus on really breathing out heavy before you even start the movement. By the time you rotate away from the tower that the cable is coming from, you should be completely out of air. I aim for 20 repetitions of this, as I am not really trying to build thicker muscle on my obliques, but I am training my obliques to contract more frequently and show a little more detail when I lean out. I grab the ropes with an overhand grip, and extend my arms so that they are in front of my sternum and parallel to the ground. Make sure the feet are planted and not twisting and pivoting as you rotate. This makes the exercise and movement easier, but you are then engaging your glutes, quads, hamstrings and even calves to help you move a light weight meant for the tiny obliques. Bottom line- really focus on what you’re training here, go light, and breathe!
So to sum it all up, use a blend of weights and body weight for abs. But don’t go to weight if you haven’t learned to contract your abs yet. And when you do go to weight, personally, I believe in keeping weight light for obliques. Building thickness there won’t do much good for your body’s aesthetics. But don’t be afraid of a little weight on crunching movements (men and women), it will make it easier to see abs as you lean out for the beach!
Till next time, train hard, eat healthy and stay active.