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Updated: Jan 15

building better abs

Building Better Abs

Clients might have specific goals they want to achieve, but this does not negate the fact that every individual still wants or needs to achieve fat loss to reach these goals. You will discover that each client you work with either wants six-pack abs or a toned and tighter core. Clients want to feel comfortable with their body, but also be able to fit in clothes or swimwear with confidence.

A key part of leading each client to achieve a better core is first treating the abdominal muscles the same as you would any other muscle. For a muscle to grow it needs to have enough stress and resistance applied to it to induce micro-tears. Micro-tears signal muscles to adapt or repair, creating a stronger and leaner muscle. This provides your client with the results they want, in this case, six-pack abs. 

Many factors play a role in this besides training your core. The nutritional aspect makes the process of building better abs more successful. One’s body fat must be low to see the ab muscles. Diet is a key part of losing body fat.

Trainers tend to program core workouts differently based on the makeup and location of the muscle group. Clients tend to voice their opinion on how they do not want to have big and bulky abs. Often times you hear clients not wanting wide hips or waists, which is why most avoid adding resistance to core exercises. There is a negative connotation towards using weight when exercising the abs that needs to be defeated. 

Belly fat must be low and adding more muscle mass by using more resistance will help speed up a client’s metabolism. This will lead to more fat loss, creating more visible abs. Everyone has abs and can build them up as much as possible, but without fat loss, you won’t be able to see them.

Abs and Nutrition

Help your clients understand that they can do the best ab exercises in the world, yet still not see the results they expected. This is heavily influenced by the nutritional makeup of their diet. It should be clean and made up of adequate amounts of nutrients according to their specific body. The number of calories and the types of calories matter most, in parallel to their core exercise.

Some healthy foods your client should be eating when trying to get defined abdominal muscles: 

  • Lean meats

  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Complex carbohydrates

  • Healthy fats

Healthy can be a broad term and viewed differently by each person. Therefore, it is vital to be specific on the types of food a client should eat and direct them on how much of that food.

Lean meats to recommend are chicken, fish, beef, and turkey. Berries and melons are great fruit choices and include a wide variety of vegetables. Fruits and vegetables supply some complex carbohydrates, but adding in sweet potatoes, brown rice, and beans will help benefit their workouts also.

Healthy fats, which come in the form of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats have some controversy. Having your clients stick with fats such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed meat, eggs, fish, and flax are the best options to choose from. 

Your client can eat all the best foods you tell them for getting abs, but if they eat more calories than they burn per day, their body will store the excess energy as fat. The goal is to help your client burn as much belly fat as possible while building the abdominal muscles. This will help them achieve a six-pack, more toned, and tighter core.

To burn fat, we need to encourage clients to eat healthy foods, but also burn more energy than they consume through weight training exercise or cardio. High-intensity interval training paired with a well-balanced diet will speed up their results.

Muscle Growth Basics

Resistance training induces muscle growth through tissue damage and repair. The amount of volume and level of intensity a workout has is what will force muscle to tear and adapt over time. Taking this basic muscle growth concept and applying it to ab training will lead to more core strength and muscle gains.

Key Takeaway: Training abdominal muscles with the same mindset and approach of other muscle groups will help your client build better abs. 

In other words, the more volume and stress the core muscles undergo, the more they will grow. The stronger and bigger they become, the more they will pop out. This is true only if your client achieves low body fat through proper nutrition.

One of the biggest misconceptions when adding weight to ab training is that abs will get big and bulky. Often, clients are afraid of adding resistance to an ab workout because they think their waist will also get bigger.

As a personal trainer, you need to inform your clients that these are misconceptions. Let them know that they will not over develop their abs from performing resistance ab exercises. Instead, this will help them achieve a better-looking core. When designing their program, avoid creating an abdominal program made only of bodyweight exercises and high reps. 

ISSA has an exercise database with detailed video demonstrations for abs and core exercises. This can help your programs and keep them from becoming dull and ineffective. 

Abdominal Muscle Group Anatomy

To create an effective ab workout program, study and understand the anatomy of the entire muscle group: 

  • Rectus abdominis

  • Transverse abdominis

  • Internal obliques

  • External obliques

These muscles all work together to maintain posture, support trunk rotation, keep body balance and stabilize the spine.

Posture has a huge impact on ab strength and should always be addressed in a client's program. Clients who are sitting a lot throughout the day will often experience bad posture. Increasing the core muscle activation and strength through training will help improve posture and trunk stabilization.

Core muscles are the midline of the body supporting all movement throughout activities of daily living and exercise. Strengthening the midline of the body will translate to other body part weaknesses and movements adding improvements to overall body function. 

Rectus Abdominis 

This is the main muscle that provides the six-pack appearance. The function of this muscle is mainly postural control. When exercising the rectus abdominis, your client will experience a good amount of flexion in the lumbar spine.

Transverse Abdominis 

This is the deepest abdominal muscle located underneath the rectus abdominis. This muscle helps stabilize the spine and the pelvis. Better stability in this area results in a more active core. 


The internal and external obliques both activate through rotational and side flexion movements. The internal obliques are deep under the external obliques.

The Best Exercises to Get Abs

To successfully train the core, you must target all parts of the abs through a variety of movement patterns. Each exercise should involve each muscle, but depending on the exercise type, some muscles will activate more than others. The reverse crunch exercise, straight leg toe touches, and a dumbbell get up will target the rectus abdominis.

To target deeper abdominal muscles like the transverse abdominis have your client perform forearm planks, dead bugs, bicycle crunches, and static leg raises. These exercises produce a high amount of isometric contractions with the spine staying in a neutral position throughout the duration of the exercise. This helps activate the transverse abdominis muscle more than the others.

Effective oblique exercises are Russian twists, decline oblique crunches, and cable woodchoppers. Any type of rotational movement or side bends helps target the oblique muscles.

To build better abs you want to create a program for your client that is going to be as safe, fun, and effective. Everyone wants quick results, therefore incorporate exercises that target all four muscles at the same time to get even more muscle activation than if you targeted each muscle individually. The best exercises to highly stimulate all ab muscles at once are the Turkish get-up, pallof press, plank, hanging leg raises, and hanging windshield wipers.

Aim to avoid implementing crunches or sit-ups, as these tend to have more drawbacks than they do benefits, especially on the lower back, discs, and vertebrae. When performing crunches, extra tension is applied to the hip flexors and can cause a pull on the lower back region that creates pain in the area.

Head over to ISSA’s Fitness Trainer Certification page to learn how you can become a certified trainer and help clients achieve the body of their dreams. The course will help you grow as a professional and allow you to incorporate the correct anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and body mechanic terminology when communicating with clients.

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