The abdominals are the muscles that people are concerned with more than any other part of the body. There are so many products developed, articles written, videos made, etc. about developing better looking abs that it could seem like everyone must be walking around with incredible abs. Of course, most people don’t have great abs and genetics does play a part, but another reason is because people assume that doing lots of abdominal exercises is the best way to get great looking abs. The reality is that this belief, while common, is complete fiction.
Doing lots of abdominal exercises is definitely not the best way to get great looking abs and believe it or not, it is actually a very inefficient way to get the abs you desire. That said, it is still very important to incorporate abdominal exercises into your overall routine. Just keep in mind that abdominal exercises have more to do with the way your abs work (strength, endurance, etc.) and less to do with making significant changes in the way they look.
One of the common beliefs people have is that their abdominal muscles are not big enough to be clearly seen, so they think doing a lot of abdominal exercise will make them stand out more. Doing abdominal exercise can tighten, tone, or increase the size of your abs, but the problem is rarely that your abs are not big enough to be seen. The real issue is the significant layer of fat that almost everyone has on top of their abdominal muscles. Until the majority of that fat is lost, your abs will never be visible, regardless of how much you train them.
Other people understand the layer of abdominal fat is the real problem, yet they still often develop the mindset that doing lots of abdominal exercises will get rid of their abdominal fat. The assumption being that exercising a particular body part will result in fat loss around those muscles, but unfortunately your body will lose fat from wherever it chooses, regardless of what muscles are being worked. Many people, including myself, tend to lose fat from the arms and legs first and from the abdominal area last. This can happen regardless of the types of exercises performed during your workouts.
In the end it all comes down to losing enough fat to make your abdominal muscles visible. This means your goal should be to use strategies that maximize your overall fat loss, instead of focusing on just trying to lose the fat around your stomach. Anything that results in you losing a significant amount of fat will make your abs look better, regardless of how much time you spend doing abdominal exercises.
The real keys to fat loss are consuming fewer calories than your body uses/burns by eating healthy foods, while not starving yourself, and performing challenging workouts that help you maintain your good weight (muscle, bone, etc.) and stimulate positive changes in your body. For most people the place to start is with their nutrition, because a great workout program will not make up for poor nutrition and it is almost impossible to achieve and maintain significant fat loss until you develop good eating habits.
Exercise plays a significant role in developing great looking as too, but abdominal exercises are not the key to success. Since the goal is to decrease your overall body fat enough to reveal your abs beneath the fat, your focus should be on performing exercises with a high metabolic cost. In other words, you want to perform exercises that are challenging and cause your body to burn a higher number of calories both during and after your workouts.
The best exercises for this purpose are ones that use the greatest amount of muscle mass, because more muscle used means more calories burned. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges are great, because they use the majority of your lower body muscles and focus on the quads (front of your thigh), which is the largest muscle group in the body. One good set of these types of exercises will have a more significant impact on fat loss than many sets of exercises that focus on just your abs.
Of course, performing a few sets of quality squats will not magically make you lose a bunch of fat, but over time, performing exercises that focus on your largest muscle groups will result in more significant improvements than performing the same amount of exercises with smaller muscles, such as your abs. Other exercises, such as bench presses, push-ups, bent rows, and pull-ups are also examples of exercises that work a large amount of muscle at one time.
However, I don’t want to give you the impression that you should only do exercises using your quads, or other large muscles because you should always have a complete training program that works your whole body. Focusing too much on any muscle group will result in muscle imbalances and cause problems such as pain or injury in the future. The best approach is to work your whole body, but spend more time doing exercises that use your larger muscles or use multiple muscles at the same time.
Traditional abdominal exercises are simply not very physiological demanding and they do not burn as many calories as many other exercises, so they have little impact on fat loss or overall body transformation. This is why doing lots of abdominal exercises is an inefficient way to get great looking abs. Even though you want to have great looking abs, the best thing to do is stop focusing on your abs and really focus on your whole body.
That said, abdominal exercises are still an incredibly important part of every health and fitness routine. Having well functioning abs will help protect your spine, stabilize your body, transfer force/energy from one part of your body to another, and significantly lower your chances of experiencing low back pain. Correctly performing abdominal exercises will tone, tighten, strengthen and build endurance in these very useful muscles, but doing lots of abdominal exercises is definitely not the best way to develop great looking abs.