1.) visible abdominal muscles are the product of only one spot-reducing exercise:
Push-aways - you must practice this exercise daily with high reps and sets.
Push away the food.
Push away from the dining table.
Push away treats and non-nutritious “food”.
2.) training the ABILITY of abs appropriately comes down to understanding one single thing:
The action of the abdomen is to flex the trunk, bringing the pelvis closer to the rib cage. This is not my opinion. This is physiology. If you feel your back when working abs, you don’t understand this. If your hips hurt when training abs, you don’t understand this. Primarily, people flex at the hip and think they’re working “core.” For simplicity’s sake, reference the “cat back.” Learn to control spinal flexion. Do not train “core” or abs until you grasp this. Once you do grasp this, only perform exercises in which you are moving into trunk flexion with no back strain, hip pain, or momentum.
3.) progressing ab strength/core development returns to a single principle:
Can you produce more force with the abdomen and with greater control?
If you don’t understand #2, the answer is “no” regardless if you can do a 3 hour plank or 10,000 sit-ups. In fact, people who perform crazy long planks and tons of sit-ups generally have incredibly terrible control of the abdomen, are frozen through the trunk (which is a bad thing), and simply developed outrageously rigid hip flexors with fair to moderate muscular endurance in the psoas major, minor, ileacus, sartorius and quads.
Watch these two videos (https://www.instagram.com/p/BudscSOHqEi/) of high level abdominal force production exercises. Watch the spine bend. That’s the abdomen working.
How to work up to these? Here's how:
1.) Practice cat backs - this is essential.
You must gain a solid understanding of trunk flexion, both in the feel, and the look, and the bifurcation between it and hip flexion. You should be able to extend at the hip and flex at the trunk simultaneously. Don't misunderstand me. You CAN flex at both simultaneously. But you should understand and learn to control them both independently and dependently. As such, you want to widen your knees in the kneeling position while practicing cat backs. That spacing provides the ability to better rotate at the hip joints. And you want to think about contracting the glutes (as if you were going to extend at the hip), while tucking the pelvis "under" (posterior pelvic tilt). The end position will have your hip joint lower than your shoulder joint, and your knee joint behind (not directly under or ahead of) the hip joint.
I'll provide additional video examples on IG.
2.) Practice trunk flexion while standing, lying face up, against a load, etc.
Starting with the first step is essential. But then you must take this newfound skill and progress it somewhere. Before you have gained mastery of the first, this second step is not simply jumping ahead. You WILL NOT BE ABLE to do it. Specifically, I have people perform planks in a knees-down position with extreme trunk flexion. Advanced athletes will fail in under 30 seconds. If you can hold it for minutes, you are performing it incorrectly. I have had Division I athletes who cannot do this at the beginning. People are so incredibly out of touch and weak through the specific action of the abdomen (even most people with visible abs) that it will be shocking to the layperson reading this. But I have seen this literally tens of thousands of times.
Check back to Instagram for more video examples.
3.) Keep reminding yourself of what specifically we're trying to do here.
It's going to be very easy to fall back into your old patterns even after you have gained mastery of step 1, and proficiency in step 2. But as soon as you attempt to raise the bar, your body is going to attempt to rely on momentum and hip flexion to get the job done. Thus, whether you are choosing a lying hip peel or a weighted ab crunch, you must be outrageously strict and mindful that it is trunk flexion ALONE we're after. I know you can hinge at the hip. Everyone can hinge at the hip. Every single darn person at the gym is flipping their legs around while they think they're training abs. NO. Flex the trunk. Every influencer I've seen does this incorrectly. In fact, just before writing this I saw an article about some lady with 1.4 million followers who has specific programs she's selling for ab training programs, and NONE of her videos have her in a flexed trunk/shortened abdomen position. She is not even at Step 1 and she's selling ab training programs to hundreds of thousands of people.
4.) Endeavor toward advanced core exercises.
The most advanced abdominal movements are extremely high load with the hip assist removed or mitigated such that it wouldn't matter if you tried to call upon them anyway. The front lever, hanging wipers, weighted floor wipers, flags and such in gymnastics/calisthenics are among the top in difficulty, but they begin to get distracting for people as there is more going on with upper body strength, lever lengths, etc. I featured the lying hip raise (called the "dragon flag", sometimes referred to as Rocky Hip Raise) and ab wheel, because there is a clear way to do an intermediate/beginner version which can progress to the versions I showed or even beyond.
Dragon Flag - first, we must be able to lie face-up on the ground and without momentum peel the hips and lower body off the ground. I prefer a decline bench with hands anchored firmly. Little by little we are aiming to peel the spine (via flexion) until we one day achieve a reverse shoulder stand. If you can use momentum to hike yourself into the reverse shoulder stand, then you can interface with this exercise by starting there. From the reverse shoulder stand, you will do partial descent reps and/or forced negatives as slowly and strictly as possible. Ultimately, you will achieve a position with the body mostly parallel to the ground, yet only your shoulders and hands will be in contact with anything.
Don't do more than 8 reps. And usually you should probably think more like 3. Your time under tension is a lot even for single rep efforts. And it's a lot of focus. So don't do many reps. Don't do many sets. Once you've progressed through the first three steps, we're mostly interested in developing more force production. Long training sessions will drain you and you'll find you can't outdo your performance the following week. Every single time you return to this exercise, you want to increase the range of motion, the length of the lever, and eliminate hip action or momentum. Those are the standards by which you should be measuring progress.
Ab Wheel - first, you want to make sure you can nail the flexed-spine plank both kneeling and non-kneeling. Again, going back to step 3, your body will want to just move at the hip and shoulder. You understand those better and may still be more powerful there; so it's the natural default. Instead, think about it like your torso is an accordion. You are lengthening the torso from the start position (like pulling an accordion apart) and then compressing the torso together via trunk flexion (like pushing the accordion closed).
The only thing that happens when you go to your feet, versus knees, is the lever lengthens, and the hip tries a little harder to be involved. Like with the Dragon Flag, every singly time you return to this exercise, you want to increase the range of motion, the length of the lever, and eliminate (or in this case minimize) hip action and momentum. As such, rep and set schemes likewise need to be minimal.