Almost every hardgainer while bulking has got this question: how to get abs while bulking? Keeping abs while bulking can be stressful – you worked so hard to get 6-pack abs and now you’re worried they’re going to disappear the moment you start gaining weight.
Fortunately, it’s not that simple and you can keep your abs while you gain weight. Bulking up doesn’t mean getting chubby – especially if you stick with the tips and principles we’re going to outline today.
You’re going to learn how to keep your abs while building mass but also a few important lessons about your core and how weight gain can – and should – work when done well.
How do you get visible abs?
Visible abs are the result of 2 major processes: reducing bodyfat and improving the size/activity of those muscles.
These play off against each other a lot of the time and it’s important to understand how each of them works to get a better idea of how to maintain your abs while you’re bulking up. There’s not going to be any hardcore science here – just simple lessons.
Getting lean is step one to visible abs. It’s the major difference that is going to make most of the difference in most cases – which is why hardgainers who are small but lean may have visible abs without training.
This doesn’t speak to the strength or aesthetics of your abs since it’s possible to be small and uncomfortable with the size of your core. It’s important to keep it in mind, however, since gaining weight does tend to involve a higher bodyfat percent.
This is why most people are concerned for their abs while bulking: aren’t I going to lose my abs if gaining weight means gaining bodyfat?
It’s true that gaining too much bodyfat is how you go from “having abs” to not, and it’s this consideration that outlines the whole question of how to keep abs while bulking. However, it’s not always that simple…
Abs are – like any other muscle – able to grow with a combination of training and proper recovery (sleep and nutrition).
There are 2 camps out there on the internet arguing about abs: the group that says abs are made in the kitchen and those who train abs every day. Fortunately, you don’t have to pick a group – because bigger and stronger abs are more visible.
How do bodyfat and ab size balance out – how are they both important?
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Bodyfat% is a level at which your abs will show up – but the strength and size of your abs will determine what percentage that is for you. There are guys out there with big, strong cores that can see their abs clearly at 15-20% bodyfat while the rest of us may need to get down to 10-12%.
You don’t need to train abs every day, however, as long as you’re regular with them and you’re focusing on compound exercises with postural core demands (like squats and deadlifts).
Higher-volume core exercise – like in sports such as sprinting, gymnastics, and grappling sports – also build strong core muscles that will show through more easily.
Remember that muscles are only as visible and active as their recent movement. When we take time off of regular work – like core isolation exercises – it’s easy to look “soft”.
The muscle tone is the difference here – and it shows up with regular use. Tone refers to the resting and active electrical levels of the muscle and their preparedness for use in the short-term (1). You can increase the appearance and tone of muscle with regular, effective training.
This isn’t just about how big and strong they are, but how often they’re in use and – as a result – muscle tone in the core reflects the kind of life you’re living. Regular exercise, activity, and physical movement build a better-looking and healthier core.
Can You Get Abs While Bulking?
The simple answer is yes, you can keep or build abs while bulking.
The caveat is that it depends on where you’re starting, how you’re planning to bulk, and what your training/food look like.
Keeping abs while bulking needs to focus on patience and the balance of weight gained between fat and muscle. Gaining fat is almost always inevitable on a bulk where we’re looking to build weight and muscle together – but how much?
Dirty bulks and other heavy bulking strategies are likely to really turn up the bodyfat-% and make it more difficult to see your abs. However, other forms of bulk are still available – even normal, balanced weight-gain periods will be fine for your abs if your other habits (training, nutrition, and recovery) are good.
Remember that bodyfat is gained uniformly across the whole body and that means that a few pounds of fat total shouldn’t necessarily cover up your abs.
Even more so, a good bulk should build serious core and ab thickness, making your abs more prominent as you become bigger and stronger. The next points will tell you how to gain weight and keep abs.
Food: Dieting to Keep Abs While You Bulk Up
The way you diet during your bulk is going to determine how much you gain – and what that weight is made up of.
The goal is to gain as much muscle as possible and as little fat as you can – which is always the goal of a bulk, but when you’re trying to maintain your abs you don’t have the same “wiggle room”.
A higher calorie surplus (the amount you’re eating above your maintenance calorie needs) means more fat-gain. To maintain your abs, you want to keep a tighter calorie surplus of around 300 per day, meaning slower weight gain – less muscle gain but also a lower chance of fat-gain.
Protein intake is also directly tied into this balance of fat and muscle gain. While normally you might want a protein intake around 1-2g per kg of bodyweight, even higher levels have been shown to improve muscle-gain and reduce fat-gain during weight gain.
Carbs also drive the muscle-gain process by improving muscle protein synthesis pathways and maintaining energy-availability.
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These are important throughout the day, but specifically in driving better workouts – the key to stimulating muscle growth and portioning nutrients towards recovery and growth, especially at higher intensities.
Select your carbs for both quality and quantity. Nutrient-rich carb sources that provide sustainable energy – like wholegrains, beans, and pulses – are a great place to build a calorie surplus with high-quality foods.
Plant foods and nutrient-richness are great places to start for better carbs and a better muscle-building diet.
Training Abs While Bulking
Training needs to be regular and focused on strength gains at relatively high intensities. More-challenging exercise is the signal for producing muscle growth, both while gaining weight and losing it, compared to lighter efforts.
Training frequency is another great way to support maintenance of visible abs where the ability to build new muscle and keep the ab muscles active to maintain tone add up. Regular exercise through heavy compound lifting and direct isolation exercise drive growth in the rectus abdominus (2).
Make sure you’re working them in conjunction with other movements like side-bending and twisting, as well as hip hinging.
These are the important ways that we maintain the function and strength of abs, so that you’re not just getting better looking abs but supporting better performance and hip-spine health.
Heavyweight Abs Training for Stronger Abs While You Bulk
The best thing about bulking up is the amount of time and recovery ‘resources’ you have to spend on building strength. This is perfect for the abs where gaining weight allows you to build a thick, strong, functional core that looks and performs great.
1. Reverse crunch to deadbug
These are a great exercise for supporting spine health, building ab strength, and easing out asymmetries in hip-core function.
Slow on the way down, pause at the end position, and keep going until your core is on fire. Simple.
2. 8-point plank
This is a much better version than the normal plank by extending the lever your core muscles are stabilizing. This is better for a lot of sport and heavy lifting purposes where you need to keep the core tight against long levers.
It also pushes you to higher intensity in the core instead of spending long times in the same position. If you can hold an 8-point for longer than 20-30 seconds, you should move your knees and elbows further apart or – eventually – add weight.
3. Weighted plank
Work your core with weight and make each set challenging. Weighted planks are a great way to expand on the normal approach and improve the strength and hypertrophy for your core.
Progress these slightly more slowly than you could – it’s better to build surplus strength and volume.
4. Ab rollouts
These are a great exercise – even if you have to start off from your knees or with a little bit of banded assistance. They transfer that same long core training that you get from an 8-point plank but in a way that transfers more easily to other exercise.
5. Weighted v-up
V-ups are great, and the weighted version is going to light your core up and build strength against resistance. This is one of the best exercises for getting a quick core workout done that will build serious ab strength and muscle mass.
You can perform 3-4 sets of these to failure in 5 minutes and leave the gym with plenty of core strength stimulus.
6. Grappler pull-ups
These are a simple exercise for building hip flexor and ab strength with a little bit of extra challenge. They’re more of a finisher with higher-reps working great – but will round out your core function so you’re not missing any important strength or control in the hips or abs.
7. Paused back extensions
These aren’t, strictly, a core exercise but they use your core muscles in combination with the lower back muscles. This is one of their most important roles and it offers a highly transferable form of core training that helps with other forms of exercise.
A lot of the core work here is voluntary and comes from properly activating the core. Spend some time practicing keeping the tightness at the front of your body while you extend with the hips and back.
Add weight when it gets easy – and be strict on the pause when you’re parallel to the floor.
Other Recovery Factors:
The better you manage other recovery factors like your sleep quality/quantity and stress levels, the better your results will be.
These are all the same processes that promote muscle protein signalling and reduce catabolic breakdown signalling. The idea is maximum muscle growth, which relies on you putting these disparate processes together.
The more seriously you take these out-of-training factors, the better. For example, sleep quality/quantity adds up to better human growth hormone levels and reducing catabolic stress hormone levels, producing more muscle and strength while reducing the likelihood of turning your calorie surplus into bodyfat (3).
Improving the quality and consistency of these other factors can drastically improve the quality of your bulk and reduce the fat build-up over the top of your abs.
You can’t specifically target the abs but maintaining healthy habits and reducing the dominance of cortisol, as well as other (often androgenising) factors that contribute to fat-retention in the abdomen.
Frequently Asked Questions
The weight gain process can put your abs at risk but it’s all about how you handle it. We’ve talked before about how to bulk up and – when it comes to abs – the same principles apply here (training abs on a bulk).
The difference is simply that you have to be stricter; you have a specific measure of how much bodyfat gain is too much. If you start losing your abs while you’re bulking, take that as a sign to reflect on the processes around your training and diet to see if your bulk is too ‘dirty’.
Sorting out your out-of-training processes and being patient about the speed of weight-gain are the two best tools in maintaining your abs. These are how you make sure your bulk is as muscle-rich as possible while minimising fat-gain.
If you’re disciplined with your diet and sleep – but aggressive with the intensity of your training abs while bulking – you’re going to maintain the hormonal health and muscle-protein signals you need to bulk more cleanly and build stronger, defined abs the whole time!