I think that it’s pretty safe to say that almost everyone that works out on a regular basis, all have this one goal in common: To attain ripped, washboard like abdominal musculature. The problem is that most people go about this in the wrong way. They think that all they need to do is a ton of isolative abdominal exercises. This is just the icing on the cake. Consider all of the crunches, and crossovers to be the polishing up act on a good abdominal routine.
Abdominal musculature is part of the core muscle group consisting of the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, external oblique, internal oblique, serratus anterior, serratus posterior, erector spinae, illiopsoas, coccygeus, Iliacus, psoas major and minor, quadratus lumborum, and the latissimus dorsi. As you can see there are a lot of deep musculature included within the core. A well-balanced abdominal routine must include training core musculature to attain that washboard appearance. There is nothing wrong with doing a lot of isolative abdominal work as long as core training is the primary staple in your strength-training program.
There are many lifts that include core activation, compound ones being the most effective, such as barbell and dumbbell squats, dead lifts, standing shoulder press, power cleans, rotary torso twists, and the use of suspension training straps.
When you get down to doing the exercises that are targeted to just the abdominal musculature, there is a proper sequence in which to train them most effectively.
The primary muscles that compose the abdominal area are the rectus abdominis, which can be divided into the upper and lower abs, and the internal, and external obliques. The function of the upper abs is to draw the ribcage towards the pelvis. The lower draws the pelvis towards the ribcage, and the obliques stabilize the rib cage allowing twisting or transverse movement. In order for the lower abs to work, drawing the pelvis towards the rib cage, they must recruit upper abs as well. So performing an exercise such as a reverse crunch you would recruit both lower and upper abs, and as a note, there technically is not an upper and lower abdominal muscle, but for discussion sake I am calling them as such, so this is easier to follow.
The obliques must also recruit the upper abs in order to perform any twisting movement. The upper abs can work by themselves in a sense; they do not need the assistance of the obliques and lower abs in order to perform an exercise such as the abdominal crunch. This then leads us into the order in which the abs should be trained for maximal efficiency.
The lower abs should be trained first, the obliques second, and the upper abs last, so essentially the abs are being worked from compound in nature to more isolative. In order to use the lower abs and obliques, the upper abs must come into play as well. If you pre exhaust the upper abs by working them first, the lower abs and obliques cannot be worked as intensely. By training the lower abs, and obliques first, the upper abs will become pre-fatigued, and then the upper abs will not have to be trained as hard to get a good workout.
Form as always is another important factor to keep in mind. Remember the five point contact principle comes into play in the start position of abdominal work. Avoid movements that recruit the psoas allowing the low back to arch away from the floor going into excessive lordosis, or what is known as hyperextension. If you have a back condition you should probably avoid abdominal exercises that recruit the iliopsoas, such as full sit ups, which pull the pelvis forward and puts unnecessary stress on the low back. Fast jerky motions will only get you a hurt, and besides that never looks good anyway, unless your power lifting.
In conclusion, a good abdominal routine involves an athlete to perform firstly, compound strength training exercises that recruit core musculature. This targets all of the deep core musculature. Then work the abs by doing all of the more isolative abdominal specific exercises. Overload your abdominal musculature, forcing them to do more work than they are used to. Try using variations other than a set number of repetitions, try doing a specific exercise for specific time duration. Use a wide variety of abdominal exercises so your routine is not always the same and to keep it more interesting, and remember to add in aerobic activity to keep a balanced routine and to help accentuate those abs you work so hard for.
Jon Torerk, CSCS