Before I learned of the following technique, I used to train my gut muscles randomly, without any strategy. Then a friend from a national cycling team, taught me this sequence of: working the obliques, the lower and then upper abdominals.
Although I found that I was exhausted the first few times (and subsequently somewhat embarrassed), I had fast results within four weeks. And even though I was training by running and kick-boxing five days a week, I was only training my abdominals using this system, once per week. Within three weeks, I was seeing better results and had a faster recovery time. Most people get good results from training their abdominals three times per week.
The following routine is very basic, simple and most effective when you work out the abdominal groups in the sequence I have provided here:
1. First, work the obliques.
As these are the body's stabilizers, they will tend to assist the other abdominal groups during an abdominal workout. You will want to tire them out so that the other abdominal groups get more work. Side-to-side movements, such as leg-overs will work this area.
2. Next, work the lower abdominal muscles.
As body builders, athletes and formerly pregnant women can tell you, this is a soft area of the body that is difficult to strengthen. Movements such as leg raises will work this area. Again, you want this area pre-fatigued so that you can really work the next stage.
3. Now work the crunch for the upper abdominals.
With the other abdominal groups already fatigued, the upper abdominals have to take on most of the workload. This is like most of a rowing team suddenly stopping and leaving two members to keep rowing. The upper abdominals get far more work than if they were cruising along with the rest of the abdominal "crew."
For optimum training, there should be no more than three seconds in between exercises.
Otherwise, each subsequent group of abdominal muscles will recover and end up "sharing the load" with the other abdominal groups. This means less work and less results. It is better to do less repetitions, with NO rests in between, than perform more repetitions, but have long rests in between sets. The no rest method means more work for each set of muscle groups, but also superior results in less time.
If you are a beginner, start with one set of 3-5 repetitions of each movement and work your way up to three sets of 20. Then, and only then, should you increase the difficulty of the exercise. Remember that the objective here is to improve your life, not shorten it.
If you already have an abdominal routine, try to perform it following this sequence. That is, first do your oblique exercises (side bends, jackknifes, twists) second, do your lower abdominals (hanging leg raises, frog kicks, reverse crunches) and finally, the upper abdominal exercises (crunches, pull-down crunches, machine crunches).
If you are doing several sets of each exercise, try instead to follow the mentioned sequence, rest for a minute and then do the sequence again. You might find yourself tiring out much quicker than with a standard routine of three sets of each exercise.
Doug Setter holds a Bachelor's of Human Ecology. He has served as a paratrooper and U.N. Peacekeeper, has completed 5 full marathons and climbed Mt. Rainier. He consults and instructs clients in weight-loss, muscle-gain, stomach-flattening, kick-boxing and outdoor survival. He is the author of Stomach Flattening and One Less Victim and manages 2nd Wind Body Science.