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How Often Do I Need to Run to Get the Six-Pack of My Dreams?

Spoiler (and common sense) alert: Running does a lot more for your butt than your abs

No matter how much you train your eyes not to glance their way, it can be next-to-impossible to ignore the sinewy physiques of the runners who stride past your car while you’re stuck in traffic. Of course, no one could blame you (unless you’re being a creep about it; read: DON’T BE A CREEP ABOUT IT) — not only are their bodies in motion, which naturally pulls your eyes in their direction, but they’re often wearing clothing that’s either brightly colored, tight-fitting, or in many cases, barely there.

If you’re not a regular gym goer, these casual, unscheduled interactions with runners are often your best opportunity to sneak a peek at a shiny set of six-pack abs. “Man, if I had time to run like that,” you lie to yourself, “I’d have abs like that, too!”

It’s a reasonable enough assumption — after all, running does entail a shit-ton of continuous movement — but it’s also wrong. Running will not give you abs. We only think that because we typically struggle to grasp the difference between how muscles are formed and how muscles materialize. 

What Muscles Does Running Build?

To the extent that running is good for building muscles, nearly all of the research, evidence, and frankly, common sense identifies the posterior chain muscles of the body’s lower extremities as the muscles that are being developed during running. They’re the primary providers of the propulsive force behind your run (see what I meant about common sense?). This is true whether you’re training on a treadmill or galloping through nature. So to the extent that running would be expected to actively develop any of the muscles in your body, the majority of that development would be isolated in your legs, including your glutes (aka butt).

But Does Running Help to Build My Abs at All?

Theoretically, yes, running will provide more development for your abdominal wall than doing nothing at all. However, what you’re asking about is how to sculpt abs worthy of fawning admiration. These are two totally different things. Case in point: A 2009 study compared the levels of muscle activity in the trunks of two groups — triathletes and non-exercisers. The muscle activity levels of both were measured as participants performed basic midsection-specific exercises, and then again as they ran. 

The study had two major findings: First, there was a greater level of overall midsection activity in the athletes than in the non-athletes during all exercises, including during the running portion. Second, there was only one set of results that suggested running was a superior exercise for any part of the midsection when compared with resistance movement that targeted the same muscle group. Unfortunately for our purposes, it was the lower back.

In other words, if you were praying that your new running addiction might allow you to skip some of your midsection training, you might be able to omit back extensions from your training. However, there was no evidence within the study that running provided any muscle-building activity in the abdominals that could even come close to competing with the core-strengthening benefits of a basic curl-up movement.

But If I Run, Training My Abs Will Help Me to Run Faster, Right?

Again, it would be logical for you to think so. Strong abdominals are routinely proffered as a postural prerequisite, meaning that they can help you maintain efficient form throughout your training. Yet, when a study was performed to determine precisely how essential powerful abdominals are to running performance, the results were inconclusive. This doesn’t mean that having a visible six-pack won’t improve your posture and enhance your performance in other realms of fitness; it simply may not be the secret to moving you from the couch to the starting line at the Boston Marathon in six months or less.

Who Cares About Running Performance? I Just Want a Great Set of Abs!

Okay, I’m with you. While running will almost certainly not provide you with abs to die for all on its own (unless you have a truly killer set of genetics working in your favor — in which case, kudos to you), consistent running is one of the most reliable body-fat melters out there. If you can get your nutrition in check, set aside time to target and train all of the muscles of your body and then run on a regular basis, you’ll be able to carve out a set of abs worthy of admiration from me, and from everyone else stuck staring at you while we’re locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic.