When you tone a muscle, you’re actually increasing the size of the muscle tissue. You’re doing so, however, at a lesser degree than bodybuilders or those looking to put on significant muscle mass. If you want to tone your abs, take cues from a bodybuilder's workout but lower the intensity and include exercises that effectively target your rectus abdominis, which is the major muscle in your abs.
How Toning Works
A workout designed for muscle toning should be high-volume, consisting of many different exercises that are each done for multiple sets. The idea is for each workout to overload the muscle tissue. Your rectus abdominis should be exhausted and damaged at the end of a training session. This damage that your muscle tissue experiences is what’s responsible for stimulating it to heal back while increasing in size. Remember that toning only works when you follow a healthy diet and full-body exercise program -- otherwise, enviable muscles might be buried under fat.
Because it’s during the rest days that your abs will heal and increase their tone, it’s important that you organize your workout schedule to allow them adequate recovery time. Most commonly, 48 hours is enough. Your schedule could abdominal workouts three days per week, such as Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and rest days on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. However, if you’re scheduled for a workout and are still feeling fatigued, it will do you good to push your workout to the next day.
Battery of Exercises
For your abdominal workouts to be effective for toning, they’ll need to consist of enough exercises to adequately overload your rectus abdominis muscle. Bodybuilders often do six to eight exercises for each muscle group, but three to five sets is adequate for toning. According to a 2001 study funded by the American Council on Exercise, the most effective exercises for targeting the abs include the bicycle crunch, Captain’s chair, crunches on an exercise ball and straight leg crunch.
Sets and Repetitions
Complete each of the abdominal exercises for two to three sets until exhaustion. The number of repetitions in each set should depend on the exercise you’re doing and your current strength levels. You should be fatigued at the end of each set. Ideally, your abdominals get tired within 10 to 25 repetitions. If you can do 25 repetitions of an exercise, increase the intensity of the exercise by holding a medicine ball or other weighted implement. Keep your rest periods between sets short to help stimulate muscle growth. Be ready to jump into the next set 30 to 60 seconds later.