Should skinny guys do ab workouts?

Skinny guys need to grow their muscles everywhere, including their abs and obliques. So they should think about doing a workout program that would include some direct work to their abs if they want them to be big and powerful looking.

There’s a belief that the main compound movements like the deadlifts or squats will hit the abs enough to make them grow. This is partially true—the abs will grow to the strength and size needed to do their support role in those lifts.

The problem is that in those big, compound exercises will only be using the core, abs, and obliques mainly as stabilizers.

But only doing the big movements will leave a lot of ab size and ab strength gains on the table. The abs and obliques won’t get the work they need to grow visibly large and powerful looking.

For that to happen, you’ll need to do exercises that hit the abs well and then make sure you do enough volume (sets of exercise per week) to tell them to grow.

To be clear, you’re workout should be built around these big, compound movements—exercises like the overhead press, bench press, chin-up, deadlift, squat variations, and the carry. But it’d be a good idea to throw in some direct ab work afterward.

And if you plan on bulking to get bigger, you’ll also need to make sure that you don’t gain weight too quickly, to avoid covering up your abs with fat. If you can’t see your abs right now, and you’re skinny-fat, which means being skinny while also having some fat on your belly/gut, you may want to check out our article on the pot-belly fix since you will need to deal with the belly-fat too.


The Best Scoring Ab & Oblique Exercises

Dr Contreras (PhD in sports science), decided to run some personal experiments on the abs, obliques, and the spinal erectors. He hooked up some EMGs (electromyography) to his body and tested the electrical force used by the muscles to see which exercises hit the muscles the hardest. (You can read his full write-up here on T-Nation.)

Here’s what he found.

Turkish Get-Up: The best all-around exercise for the abs and obliques

The Turkish get-up scored 133 (decent) for the abs, and 191 for the obliques (highest scoring oblique exercise).

Dan John, revered strength coach, loves the get-up and writes that:

“The get-up highlights weak links and poor linkage. My old training partner, John Price, used to always remind me, “An athlete is only as good as the weakest link.””

Think about including it in your workouts. The only downside is it is a complicated movement (down below we recommend skinny guys start with simpler lifts). But starting with a light weight to practice could be worth considering. It’ll challenge you to improve your mobility, allow you to move much more Spiderman-like, while simultaneously giving your abs and obliques a solid workout.

The seven top-scoring ab exercises

  1. Bodyweight Chin-Up: 461
  2. Hanging Leg Raise: 300
  3. Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch: 231
  4. Ab Wheel Rollout from feet: 191
  5. Ab wheel Rollout from knees: 145
  6. 50lb Turkish Get-Up: 133
  7. RKC Plank: 115

The seven top-scoring oblique exercises

  1. 50lb Turkish Get-Up: 191
  2. Hanging Leg Raise: 163
  3. Body Saw: 143
  4. Ab Wheel Rollout from feet: 130
  5. 45-lb Bar Barbell Press Sit-Up: 121
  6. 100-lb Side Bend: 108
  7. RKC Plank: 104

Two quick points:

  • It shocked both Dr Contreras (and us) that chin-ups were the best ab exercise. (See our chin-ups article for another surprising benefit to chin-ups.) Interestingly, the weighted chin-ups made the abs fire less than the bodyweight version. So bodyweight and with a locked-down core is the key here for ab development.
  • Regular crunches didn’t make the top-scoring list. This is good news too since now we don’t need to weigh the benefits of getting a great six-pack with putting our back at risk for an injury. (Read more about back-pain in our core training super-guide here.)
  • Dr Contreras mentioned he wasn’t ranking these based on safety, injury risk, or any other metric other than how well they hit the muscles. As a skinny guy, you won’t need to start off with advanced exercises right away to see fast growth.

How can a skinny guy integrate these principles into his workout?

Well, the first thing you’ll want to be doing is making sure you include chin-ups in your workouts. It’s an excellent compound exercise for your back, biceps, and abs.

Start with simple variations of exercises

On the training side, you should start with simpler variations as a skinny guy. This is because simpler variations will allow you to:

  • Hit the abs and obliques more effectively as you get to practice in doing the movements. If you go too heavy, you may have other muscles compensate.
  • Reduce the risk of injury by matching your current strength levels. As a skinny guy, you will need to start simple and build up strength.

An example of going from easy to hard

Let’s take a look at how we could progress towards the ab wheel rollout progression. Once you can do one variation with perfect form and it begins to feel easy, you can move onto the next.

  1. Push-up plank with perfect form for five breaths (in and out). Breathing will work your obliques while making the exercise more difficult since the stability won’t be coming from the air. To be clear, “bracing” is a good technique while lifting weights for safety, but right now we’re trying to work out the core.
  2. Regular elbow Plank with five breaths in and out
  3. Large swiss ball rollout for ten reps
  4. Don’t have a Swiss ball? Try the Long-lever plank
  5. Small (or more deflated) swiss ball rollout for ten reps
    1. For the long lever plank, go out even further or hold for more breaths in and out.
  6. Deadbug for ten reps
  7. Ab wheel rollout from knees for eight reps

Keep the reps in the 8–20 rep range for better gains (and to keep your back safe)

Staying in the 8–20 rep range will prevent you from going too heavy, putting your back at risk, while also getting the hypertrophy (size) benefits from doing a bit more reps. The only problem with higher reps is they’re a bit more painful from the burn, but nothing you can’t handle, right?

There’s a limit though. If you can do more than 20 reps of an exercise, it’s time to increase the difficulty. This means either adding weight or choosing a more difficult variation of the exercise.

Once you start getting closer to 30 reps, you start losing the muscle-building effects and continue to move further into the endurance territory. And for muscle-building to be effective, you need to be close to failure, usually within a couple of reps.

For example, a lot of skinny guys might do a set of 30 crunches, but where is their limit? It could be 40 crunches. So by only doing 30 crunches, they could be ten reps away from failure, too far away from failure to stimulate muscle growth.

Let’s say someone decides to do the ab wheel rollouts, and they can barely get in 8 reps with perfect form. They know they’ll be within a rep or two of failure, perfect for telling the abs to grow.

You can trains abs 3–5 times per week and work up to the MRV of 25

Dr Israetel holds a PhD in sports physiology. Based on his experience, he finds that the abs can handle a maximum recoverable volume of 25 sets per week. This is the maxiumum.

In his guide on abs, he also writes that most beginners could train their abs three times a week while those who are more advanced could work their way up to 5 times a week.

What you want to do is the minimum amount of work to see growth. That way, you can slowly increase the volume as your ab growth slows.

Let’s say you’re working out 3x a week. You could start by doing two sets of abs at the end of every workout for a bit more attention. That would get you six weekly sets. After a few weeks, you could increase that to 3 sets per workout, and get up to 9 weekly sets.

Eventually, to increase the volume, you will want to start training abs on more days. Let’s say you do some ab work five days a week, starting with two sets would get you ten weekly sets. Each week you could try adding another set to your day. Five weeks later you’ll be doing five sets of abs five days a week, and peak at the maximum recoverable volume. The next week you could drop down to a couple of sets, and let your abs recover and reap the gains.

Do your ab training at the end of your workout and/or on rest days

When it comes to building muscle, you should focus on compound movements like the chin-up, bench press, overhead push press, and deadlifts. Afterward, you can give your abs a bit more attention.

If you do your ab training first, it will tire out your core before you do the big, compound movements. Do those challenging compound movements first when you’re feeling fresh and ready to lift.

Training isn’t everything you’ll need for results

Let’s not forget that exercise is only one aspect of building up muscle. While exercising causes “muscle protein synthesis,” to happen in your body, the process of building muscle, you’ll need to eat lots of protein for your body to have something to work with.

If you’re as skinny as I was (dangerously underweight in terms of BMI), the biggest change you’ll need to make is eating properly for muscle growth. Check out this article on how skinny guys can build up abs, as it covers a bit more on the nutrition side.

A postural warning with ab training

Posture is a big deal, and not just because it affects your stiffness, how well you can move, and risk of developing an injury. But also because it affects the way you look and how others see you. There’s no point in having a great six-pack if it looks like you could be the double for the hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Eric Cressey is a legend in the strength and conditioning world, and our very own Marco interned with him. Eric writes that one of the upsides to ab training is that it can help you fix anterior pelvic tilt (when it looks like you get a pot belly or gut from bad posture.)

But he cautions that while ab training can help with the pelvic tilt issue, it could depress the ribs, and give someone a hunchback, with their upper back being too rounded. This is clinically known as kyphosis.

If you sit a lot, you may already have a bit of kyphotic back. So be aware of your posture as you continue to train the abs. You may need to sit less and walk more and do t-spine drills or other mobility work to keep your upper back in a neutral position. This will help you to continue to look and feel your best.


Summary

  • Skinny guys should train their abs because they’ll need to build muscle everywhere.
  • Compound movements, like the deadlift, will help the abs and obliques grow a little bit but won’t push them to be as big and strong as they could be.
  • The overall best ab and oblique exercise were the:
    • Weighted Turkish Get-Up
  • The seven top-scoring ab exercises were
    1. Bodyweight Chin-Up: 461
    2. Hanging Leg Raise: 300
    3. Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch: 231
    4. Ab Wheel Rollout from feet: 191
    5. Ab wheel Rollout from knees: 145
    6. 50lb Turkish Get-Up: 133
    7. RKC Plank: 115
  • The seven top-scoring oblique exercises
    1. 50lb Turkish Get-Up: 191
    2. Hanging Leg Raise: 163
    3. Body Saw: 143
    4. Ab Wheel Rollout from feet: 130
    5. 45-lb Bar Barbell Press Sit-Up: 121
    6. 100-lb Side Bend: 108
    7. RKC Plank: 104
  • Skinny guys should think about:
    • starting with simpler variations to ensure they hit the abs well and to reduce the chance of injury
    • keeping the rep-range between 8–20 (not too heavy, not too light)
    • training the abs 3 times a week, and could work up to 5 times a week
    • working up to a maximum recoverable volume (MRV) of 25 total sets across the weeks
    • doing the ab exercises at the end of your workout
  • Don’t forget that you’re skinny because of a gap in your nutrition. Don’t forget to take a critical look at other muscle-building factors, like how much protein you’re eating, or how much sleep you’re getting.

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