If you ask enough people this question, you’ll get equally passionate and well-reasoned responses that will be paradoxically both contradictory and logical. Should you do your ab exercises first, last, or in the middle of your other exercises? Does it even matter? You can approach the answer to this question in many ways. As with many questions in life, more than one right answer exists. Unfortunately, it’s also one of those areas in which people just want a simple, straightforward, one-size-fits-all approach.
By now, you know the importance of having strong and capable inner and outer abs. You also know that the inner abs have the primary task of preventing movement or creating stability to allow effective movement. These muscles are designed for endurance because they have to be stable all day long, both in and out of your workout routine. Thus, the textbook answer, based on the scientific and anatomical perspectives, is to train the abs last. If you fry your ab muscles and then hop under a bar for squats, you compromise your ability to use the abs to stabilize the trunk and protect the spine during this total-body lift.
What if you’re one of those people who, when putting your ab exercises at the end of your workout, always skips them or puts in minimal effort? Maybe you run out of energy, run out of time, or simply hate training your abs. This just means that you don’t like the burning feeling you experience in the abs when you train them hard. The science collides with the reality of your preferences, and your preferences usually win. You wind up skipping exercises, doing fewer reps, or giving less than your best effort while performing the movements. This pattern isn’t going to work if you want great abs. In this case, it may be best to break the rules. Yes, break the rules!
How do you break the rules the right way? The key to success with any exercise program is presenting your body with a stimulus that is progressively challenging. If you ask it to work harder than usual, your body will get better at doing what it is asked. Suppose you are fine with working your abs last; it’s a good fit for you and you get great results doing it. At some point, your body adapts to the workout. You can change the exercises, but you can also provide a new challenge in many other ways. If you’ve been doing things in the correct order for a while, try moving your ab exercises to the beginning of your workout to make your abs work little harder during the other exercises. This is another example of when it’s okay to break the rules. However, don’t get the impression that the rules are pointless. The reality is that human physiology is complex, so you may need a bit of wiggle room. Still, you must have a purpose and a reason for doing these workouts. Here’s a quick review of the guidelines that can help you decide when to break the rules:
- Do not break the rules when beginning a new workout or when using a lot of new, challenging exercises. Make sure you can switch on both the inner and outer abs at the right intensity and at the right time, coordinating them with the rest of your body.
- Do break the rules if your abs are a big priority for you, but you find yourself performing your ab exercises halfheartedly at the end. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to put your best effort into what matters most. Use the energy you have earlier in your workout to put top effort into your ab exercises.
- Do break the rules if you’ve been doing the same workout for a few weeks and you need a new challenge, but you aren’t quite ready to change the exercises. Perform your ab exercises early in your training session to make your ab muscles more tired for the rest of the routine.
Why is it okay to break the rules? It’s all about your goals. You want to use a modern, intelligent approach to training and nutrition that doesn’t suck all the joy out of living. You’re not training to become a champion power lifter or a massively developed bodybuilder, or to achieve the highest vertical jump in your neighborhood. You just want to have as little body fat and as much muscle as you need to look fit, showing the abs as your centerpiece. For your goals, you’re not training for maximum strength or power. Therefore, you can deal with fatigued abs when doing the exercises for the rest of your body.
If you put something on your calendar at a specific day and time, you somehow always get it done. Whether it’s a dentist appointment, a job interview, or any other event that matters to you, you put it on your calendar. Too many people start the day with a vague notion that they need to work out at some point during the day. The workout gets knocked around by other priorities, and before they know it, it gets knocked off that day’s to-do list. Give your workouts a fixed day and time. Make them compatible with your schedule. You can do this in many ways, whether you put it on your calendar the night before, plan out an entire week ahead of time, or set up a stable schedule that simply repeats every week. If a real emergency should arise, and these are few in life, you can simply move the workout to a different time on the same day or to a planned day off. Workouts should not simply disappear from your schedule.
Another pitfall people encounter is preserving their workouts when others make requests for their time. Many people worry that they are being selfish, or that others will find them selfish. The following scenarios can help you manage the demands on your time:
Situation 1. When someone asks for a favor of you that isn’t life or death, say, “Sorry, but I have an appointment (or other commitment—choose one) at that time.”
Why it works. You don’t owe someone an explanation every time you don’t want to do something. We seem to have a societal problem with saying a simple no. We feel the need to explain why we have to decline, but we don’t really have to explain. In this scenario, if you say, “I can’t. I have to work out at that time,” some people may think your reason seems selfish. To protect your reputation and your fitness goals, you can simply tell them you have another commitment.
Situation 2. Your supervisor gives you a project that should have been done yesterday, and you already have five projects like it. If you take on this extra work, you’ll have to stay later, work harder, eat junk, and miss your workout. As your workout supervisor, I’m here to tell you that this behavior is not acceptable. You should say, “Okay, I’ll get right on that. However, you’ll need to tell me which one of these other projects can be put to the side so I can prioritize this one.”
Why it works. You demonstrate that you can and will make the new project your first priority, but you won’t do so at the expense of all of your other commitments (both professional and personal). It’s called having boundaries and it’s the only way to succeed in fitness, in business, and in life.
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