Principles of Abdominal Exercise

Abdominal exercises are an integral part of any strength and conditioning program. A strong core is important for balance and alignment as well as for preventing lower back injury. In the February 2002 issue of the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning,” John M. Cissik, MS, states that principles of progressive overload, periodization of training and specificity should all be observed with abdominal training and that the same principles apply to abdominal exercises as any other exercise.

Anatomy of the Abdominals

Your abdominal muscles are made up of four specific layers of muscle, each with different responsibilities and functions. The rectus abdominis is the long flat sheet of muscle that runs vertically from the xyphoid process to the pubic bone. The ab muscles that make up your waist are the internal and external obliques. Finally, the deepest layer of muscle located underneath the obliques, is the transversus abdominis. This layer of muscle runs from side to side. In order to work the ab muscles in the most effective way, it is important to understand their design and function.


The rectus abdominis is responsible for flexing the trunk, tilting the pelvis forward and for controlling the curvature of the lower spine. Your oblique muscles enable you to twist your waist and bend from side to side. Your transverse abdominal muscles are responsible for holding the stomach flat and for supporting your internal organs as well as your spinal column. Increasing the strength of each of these layers of muscle will not only improve function but can help prevent injuries when engaging in athletic or exercise-related activities.

Principle of Progressive Overload

Most of us are creatures of habit, and when it comes to exercising, this can be a cause for stagnation or lack of progress. The principle of progressive overload simply means that you constantly challenge your muscles with a variety of exercises and change of intensity so they don’t adapt to any particular routine. To apply this principle to training your ab muscles, you can change the number or reps you do or add on more sets. Add more than one exercise per area you are trying to target. For example, if you are targeting your obliques, after one set of alternating elbow to knee crunches, flip over to your elbows and knees and perform a set of low plank twisting alternating knee to floor touches. You will be working on your obliques in both cases, but varying the approach and thus practicing the principle of progressive overload.

Principle of Specificity

Simply stated, the principle of specificity refers to the fact that if you exercise a specific muscle or body part, you will mainly develop the targeted muscle. For example, baseball pitchers using this principle will do very sports specific exercises to strengthen the shoulder of their pitching arm. In abdominal training, using this principle, you will do exercises that specifically target each area of the abs. For example, to mainly work the obliques you will need to perform twisting type movements; for the lower area of the rectus abdominis, reverse crunches performed by lifting the pelvis off the floor would be a specific exercise. Basic crunches performed by raising the shoulders and upper torso off the ground mainly shorten and target the upper area of the rectus abdominis.

Proper Technique, Breathing and Frequency

As with all exercise, using proper form and technique is imperative for achieving maximum results as well as for preventing injury. When working out your abdominal wall muscles, you will want to be aware of your neck posture and alignment as well as the potential for overuse of your hip flexor muscles. The old fashioned sit ups for example heavily recruit the hip flexor muscles with little emphasis on the ab muscles. Simply by lifting your legs off the ground and bending the knees as you perform a curl up will help eliminate the hip flexors from assisting and ensure significant use of the ab muscles. When performing crunches, whether on a stability ball or on the floor with legs elevated, try to focus on not pulling on the head and jutting out the chin. In order to support your head but not strain your neck, your hands should be gently placed behind your head, without the fingers interlacing. Your elbows should be out wide lined up with the ears with your gaze staying up in order to prevent pulling forward.

Proper breathing technique also assists the movement. Inhale before you lift the torso and exhale on the exertion or power part of the movement. Always remember to keep the abdominals contracted and the lower spine in neutral position, breathing throughout the movement as opposed to holding your breath.

According to Len Kravitz Ph.D., author of the Super Abs Resource Manual, you should train your abdominal muscles at least 3 to 5 days a week; daily workouts are permissable because it is difficult to fatigue the abdominals so much that you need a day to recover.

About this Author

Alison Stellner, owner of Body Tune Personal Training, is a fitness instructor and freelance writer with more than 25 years in the health and fitness industry. Her first professional article was published in “Idea Today Fitness Magazine” in 1993. She majored in music and business administration at the University of Oklahoma.