Having a defined six pack is the fitness equivalent of “having arrived.”
You may be strong . . . you may be big (or toned) . . . but all the cool kids have killer abs. And it’s okay if you want some too.
You’re probably wondering, then, what are the best ab workouts and ab exercises?
Well, the truth is that ab workouts are actually the least important aspect of getting abs. Instead, you need to focus on reducing your body fat percentage and getting as strong as possible on compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.
If you’re doing all of that, though, then the right ab workouts can help you get a strong, “aesthetic” six pack even faster. And you’re going to learn what those workouts are and how to do them in this article.
Table of Contents
Here’s the home truth about getting abs:
The primary reason why you don’t have a six pack isn’t because you aren’t doing the right ab workouts or exercises. It’s because you have too much fat covering your abdominal muscles.
Get rid of the fat and you’re close to your goal, if not there already.
In other words, it’s best to think of getting abs as 95% nutrition (how much you eat) and 5% training (how you grow your ab muscles). This is an oversimplification, of course, but it’s more right than wrong.
In other words, you can’t directly “target” belly fat for elimination.
Targeted fat loss, or “spot reduction,” is often promoted on social media, television, and elsewhere, but the truth is you can’t specifically “sculpt” or “slim” any one portion of your body with exercise.
Research has shown that training a muscle does result in increased levels of blood flow and lipolysis (the breakdown of fat cells into usable energy) in the area, but the effect is too small to matter. That is, training your muscles burns calories and can make them grow larger which aids in fat loss and improves muscle definition, but it doesn’t directly reduce the fat covering them.
Spot reduction is a myth.
What is true, though, is that if you have very underdeveloped ab muscles, you may be disappointed with how your six pack looks even after you get lean enough to see them.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about:
Lean, but lacking ab definition.
Many people try to fix this problem by doing myriad different ab exercises, but this approach is wrongheaded.
In fact, the best exercises for training your abs (and every other muscle group) are compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.
For instance, a study conducted by scientists at Nord University found that on average, the barbell back squat activates the rectus abdominis (“ab muscles”) and external oblique muscles just as effectively as the weighted plank and the erector spinae muscles significantly more.
Now, this isn’t to say that ab workouts have no place in your training program. They just tend to be overemphasized at the expense of compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and so forth.
The best way to train your abs, then, is to do lots of heavy, compound weightlifting, along with a handful of ab exercises to put the finishing touches on your core development. And once you’ve been training heavy, compound exercises long enough, you’ll likely reach a point where doing ab exercises simply isn’t necessary.
In other words, if you’re new to weightlifting (you’ve been following a proper strength training program for less than two years), your ab development is likely lagging. In this case, it makes sense to include some ab workouts in your routine to help bring them up to snuff.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced weightlifter (you’ve been following a proper strength training program for more than two years), you probably don’t need to do ab workouts.
One exception to this rule would be if you’re in a situation where you can’t do compound exercises, like during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In this case, it can make sense to do some ab workouts to ensure your core stays strong and to inject some variety into your training.
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Each of the following ab workouts consists of four ab exercises designed to train all the muscles of your core, including your rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominus muscles.
Here are the ones we’re targeting:
You’ll do three sets of each exercise (12 sets total) per workout. For most exercises, you’ll do as many reps as you can until you can’t maintain proper form any longer (to the point of failure). For isometric exercises, like planks, you’ll hold the correct position for as long as possible until you reach failure.
I’ve also provided benchmarks for when you should stop adding reps and either make the exercise more difficult or replace it with a more challenging one.
In terms of frequency, I recommend you do one ab workout per week if you’re already doing heavy, compound weightlifting exercises. If you’re doing home workouts, you may want to do two ab workouts per week (both to maintain your core strength and add some variety to your training).
You can do ab workouts as stand-alone workouts or added onto the end of your other workouts. Personally, I prefer the latter option, as it’s generally more time efficient and ensures you don’t forget to train abs.
You have a few options in terms of how you perform the actual workouts:
- Perform them in a circuit. This means performing all the exercises back to back, without resting between each exercise. This is the most time efficient way to do your ab workouts, but also tends to hamper your performance as your ab muscles won’t have time to fully recover between each set. Thus, I only recommend this approach if you wouldn’t otherwise be able to finish your workout on time.
- Use straight sets. This means doing one set of an ab exercise, resting for a minute or two, doing the next set, and continuing like this until you finish all of the sets for that exercise. Once you’ve completed three sets of one exercise, you move on to the next exercise and follow the same pattern. Performing your ab workouts like this will give you great results, but it can also eat up a lot of time.
- Use supersets. This involves alternating between sets of ab exercises and sets of another exercise, typically after completing your compound exercises. This is my preferred method, as it strikes the best balance between time efficiency and results.
Here’s the best way to do it:
- Do your compound exercises first using straight sets (usually one to two exercises per workout).
- Once you’ve finished your compound exercises, move on to your first accessory/isolation exercise. Do your first set, rest a minute, then do a set of an ab exercise, and rest another minute.
- Continue like this, alternating between your accessory/isolation exercises and ab exercises until you’ve done all the exercises in your program for the day.
Here’s an example of how this might look:
Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets with 2 minutes rest between each set (straight sets)
Barbell Overhead Press: 3 sets with 2 minutes rest between each set (straight sets)
Barbell Curl: 1st set, rest one minute (superset)
Sit-up: 1st set, rest one minute (superset)
Barbell Curl: 2nd set, rest one minute (superset)
Sit-up: 2nd set, rest one minute (superset)
Barbell Curl: 3rd set, rest one minute (superset)
Sit-up: 3rd set, rest one minute (superset)
You don’t need any equipment to do this ab workout at home. If you do straight sets, make sure you rest at least one minute between each set to allow your muscles to recover. Since these exercises aren’t as challenging as weighted exercises, this workout also works well as a circuit.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Plant your feet flat on the floor and wedge your toes underneath something heavy (such as a couch). Cross your arms over your chest or rest your hands against the back of your head (don’t pull on your neck, though).
Curl your torso toward your knees until your back is more or less perpendicular to the ground, then reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
If you’re new to this exercise, aim to get 10 reps per set. Once you can do 30 reps per set, continue doing more reps per set or switch to a more challenging ab exercise like weighted sit-ups.
Lie down on your stomach with your feet straight out behind you and your elbows resting on the ground (as if you were reading a book). Your elbows should be under your shoulders and your forearms should be resting on the floor.
Press your toes into the floor, lift your hips off the ground, brace your core, and squeeze your glutes so that your back is completely flat. Don’t let your butt lift up or dip down—your body must stay rigid and in a straight line.
Here’s what makes the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) Plank different from the regular plank: without bending your back, hips, or knees, try to pull your elbows toward your toes, contracting your core as hard as you can.
Hold this position for as long as you can, aiming for 30 seconds to start. Try to last a little longer every time you do this exercise. Once you can hold this position for 90 seconds, keep increasing your time or switch to a more challenging ab exercise.
Lie on your back with your hands resting against your temples. Lift your legs off the ground and bend your knees to 90 degrees, so your shins are parallel with the ground. Flex your abs and lift your torso off the ground, moving your elbows toward your knees until you can’t move your torso any further. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position.
If you’ve never done this exercise before, aim to get 20 reps per set. Once you can do 30 reps per set, increase the difficulty of the exercise by bringing your knees toward your elbows when you crunch and straightening your legs as you lean back. When doing this variation, always keep your feet and shoulders a couple of inches off the ground.
Sit down on your butt with your knees bent, your feet on the floor, and your hands on the ground at your sides. Without bending your back, lean backward, lift your feet off the ground, straighten your legs, and push your arms straight out in front of you, all at the same time. Your body should look like a “V” from the side.
Hold this position for as long as possible, aiming for 30 seconds to start.
Once you’re able to hold this position for 2 minutes, switch to a more difficult ab exercise like the L-sit.
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Bodyweight ab workouts can be effective, but you’ll get an even better ab workout if you have access to just a few pieces of equipment. This home gym ab workout is significantly more challenging, so it’s best to do the exercises as straight sets or supersets (if you’re short on time).
Grab a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you. Flex your abs, and without swinging your body, lift your legs in an arc until your toes (or shins) touch the bar. Don’t worry about keeping your legs perfectly straight—having a slight bend in the knees is fine.
Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Aim for 10 reps per set to start, and work up to sets of 20 reps. Once you can do 20 reps per set, slow down your reps to make them more difficult. And once you can do 3 sets of 20 slow reps, add more reps or switch to a different ab exercise.
Sit on your knees with the ab wheel on the floor in front of you. Reach down and grab the handles of the ab wheel with your arms fully extended, brace your core, and roll the wheel away from you until your body is parallel to the ground, keeping your back straight.
Reverse the movement by pushing your hands into the handles and dragging the ab roller back toward your knees, until you reach the starting position.
Aim for 15 reps per set to start. Once you can do at least 30 reps per set, increase the difficulty by lifting your feet off the ground or (even harder), resting on your feet instead of your knees (so you start in a push-up position).
Once you can do at least 30 reps on your feet, start slowing down the reps to make them more difficult. And once you can do 3 sets of 30 slow reps on your feet, either add more reps or switch to a different ab exercise.
Grab a chin-up bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you. Flex your abs and lift your legs until they’re parallel with the floor (no swinging!). Don’t worry about keeping your legs perfectly straight—a slight bend in the knees is fine.
Aim for 15 reps per set to start, and work up to sets of 30 reps. Once you can do 30 reps per set, increase the difficulty by slowing down your reps as much as possible. Once you can do 30 slow reps per set, make the exercise harder by pinching a 5-pound dumbbell between your feet. Every time you do 3 sets of 30 reps, increase the weight by 5 pounds.
Once you’re using enough weight that the dumbbell starts slipping out from between your feet, switch to a different ab exercise.
Sit between a pair of push-up handles with your legs straight in front of you. Grab both handles and lift your butt off the floor. Once your elbows are locked, lift your feet off the ground and hold your legs at a 90-degree angle to your torso (so that your body makes an “L” shape).
Try to hold this position for 30 seconds per set to start. Once you can hold this position for 90 seconds, increase the difficulty by lifting your feet higher, so that your body makes more of a “V” shape, and again work up from 30-second to 90-second holds.
Once you can hold a V-Sit for 90 seconds, increase the difficulty further by moving between an L-Sit and a V-Sit every 20 seconds for as long as you can without letting your body touch the floor.
The most effective way to train your abs is to train them like any other exercise—by using gradually heavier weights over time (progressive overload). Thus, if you really want to burnish your six-pack, it’s ideal to do exercises that allow you to incrementally add weight over time. And that’s just what you’ll get in this ab workout.
Sit on a sit-up bench with your lower legs secured between the rollers. If you haven’t done this exercise before, start with the bench on its lowest setting. Hold a weight (such as a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate) against your chest that allows you to do at least 10 reps per set but not more than 20.
Work your way up to 20 reps per set with the same weight, and then make the exercise harder by increasing the angle of the bench slightly each workout until it’s on the steepest setting.
Once can do 20 reps with your starting weight at the steepest angle, add 5- to 10-pounds (depending on the weights you have available) and work up to 20 reps with that weight. Keep increasing the weight and reps in this manner (double progression).
Make sure you keep the weight high on your chest and don’t flex your back too much (this isn’t dangerous, but it shortens the range of motion and makes the exercise easier and less effective.
Attach the rope attachment to a cable machine and set the pulley to about eye level. Grab one end of the rope in each hand and kneel down about three feet away from the machine. Pull the rope down until your hands are in front of your forehead and your elbows are at about a 90-degree angle to your torso.
Flex your abs and bring your elbows toward your thighs. Keep curling your torso until your face is almost touching the floor, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Use a weight that allows you to do at least 10 reps per set but not more than 20. Once you can do 20 reps with that weight, add 5- to 10-pounds (depending on the machine) and work up to 20 reps with that weight. Keep increasing the weight and reps in this manner.
Place your back against the back pad on a captain’s chair station, grab the handles, and rest your forearms on the arm pads. While supporting your body weight on your arms, let your feet hang straight down.
Flex your abs and lift your legs up in an arc until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Don’t worry about keeping your legs perfectly straight—a slight bend in the knees is fine. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
To start, aim for 15 reps per set with no added weight. Once you can do 30 reps per set, pinch a 5-pound dumbbell between your feet. Once you do 30 reps with 5 pounds, add 5- to 10-pounds and work up to 30 reps with that weight, and continue progressing like this until the dumbbell starts slipping out from between your feet. Then switch to a different ab exercise like the hanging leg raise.
Lie on your back with your hands resting against your temples. Lift your legs off the ground and bend your knees to 90 degrees, so your shins are parallel with the ground. Flex your abs and lift your torso a few inches off the ground.
Straighten your right leg, keeping your foot a couple of inches off the floor, while twisting your torso so your right elbow touches your left knee. Then bring your right leg back to the starting position and straighten your left leg, twisting your torso so your left elbow touches your right knee.
Continue to alternate sides for as long as you can. Aim to “cycle” for 30 seconds per set to start, but try to go longer every time you do the exercise. Once you can do 90 seconds of air bicycles for 3 sets, switch to a different ab exercise.
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The easiest way to answer this question is to consult this chart:
This chart assumes an average of one pound of fat loss per week, so your results may vary slightly if you lose fat slower or faster than this.
Here’s how to use it:
- Locate the column (vertical division) at the top with your current body fat percentage. (Don’t know your body fat percentage? Use the Legion Body Fat Percentage Calculator to estimate it now!)
- If you’re a woman, follow that column down until you hit an orange cell, and if you’re a man, follow it down until you hit a yellow cell.
- Trace that row (horizontal division) to the left-hand margin and look at its number, and that’s approximately how many weeks it’ll take you to get six-pack abs.
Most men need to be at least 12% body fat before they can see their abs clearly, and most women need to be around 24% body fat.
To get “six-pack-level” abs, most men need to be 10% body fat or lower, and most women need to be at least 20% body fat.
And to make your abs really “pop,” most guys need to be at least 8% body fat, and most women need to be at least 18% body fat.
In case you don’t know, “11 abs” is a shorthand description of what many women consider the apogee of ab development: clear vertical lines separating their ab muscles, but faint or no horizontal lines.
Here’s an example of “11 abs” from Jenny, who used my Thinner Leaner Stronger program to lose 7 Pounds of fat in 3 months:
This gives the impression that there are two strips of muscle running down the front of your abdomen, which resemble the number “11,” rather than a traditional “six pack.”
The good news is that getting “11 abs” is actually easier than getting a six pack. All you have to do is reduce your body fat percentage to around 20 to 25% and strengthen your abs with heavy, compound exercises (you don’t even need to do dedicated ab exercises).
Basically, the process for getting “11 abs” is the same as getting a six pack, except you don’t have to work as hard. 🙂
+ Scientific References
- Stallknecht, B., Dela, F., & Helge, J. W. (2007). Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 292(2). https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00215.2006
- Kostek, M. A., Pescatello, L. S., Seip, R. L., Angelopoulos, T. J., Clarkson, P. M., Gordon, P. M., Moyna, N. M., Visich, P. S., Zoeller, R. F., Thompson, P. D., Hoffman, E. P., & Price, T. B. (2007). Subcutaneous fat alterations resulting from an upper-body resistance training program. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(7), 1177–1185. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b0138058a5cb
- Van Den Tillaar, R., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2018). Comparison of Core Muscle Activation between a Prone Bridge and 6-RM Back Squats. Journal of Human Kinetics, 62(1), 43–53. https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0176