Ab workouts are a dime a dozen but this article is going to teach you everything you need to know about building a lean, cut core.
Having a chiseled six pack is the fitness equivalent of “having arrived.”
You may be strong…you may be big…but all the cool kids have killer abs. And it’s okay if you want some too. 🙂
There’s a problem though. And it has everything to do with why we don’t see many people with lean, defined cores.
You see, when millions of people want something bad enough to keep them up late at night Googling, wallet in hand, you can take a wild guess what comes next.
Yup…the siren calls of savvy marketers lurking in the shadows. Or, maybe more fittingly, soaring overhead, looking for confused or weakened prey to feast on.
Alright, alright, that’s a bit dramatic, but here’s my point:
The problem is the sheer amount of awful, misleading, and downright detrimental “six pack” advice out there.
- Some people say you just have to do special types of ab workouts every day…and they’re wrong.
- Some people say you should just squat and deadlift and you’ll have great abs…and they’re wrong.
- Some people say you have to eat certain types of foods and not eat others…and they’re wrong.
- Some people say you just have to have a low body fat percentage…and they’re wrong.
- And some people say it’s all in the supplements…and they’re just lying.
In fact, it comes down to doing just two things well:
- How to Get Abs in 2 Simple Steps
- The Best Ab Exercises
- How to Create the Ultimate Ab Workout
- Can Supplements Help You Get a Six Pack?
- The Bottom Line on Ab Workouts
- What do you think about ab workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
- Want more ultimate workouts? Check out the following:
Table of Contents
Getting a six pack is easier said than done but it’s not complicated. In fact, it’s extremely simple.
1. Lose the belly fat.
I figured I’d start with the obvious.
The primary reason why you don’t have a six pack is 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. This begs the question, however, of how you actually go about doing this.
First, you can’t directly “target” belly fat for elimination.
Targeted fat loss, or “spot reduction,” has long been–and still is–a hot button pushed to sell fitness books, magazines, DVDs, supplements, and more.
One workout is for “slimming” your thighs and another is for “sculpting” your midsection. This food is supposed to reduce belly fat and that food can somehow make your hips leaner.
I wish it were that simple.
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.
Training your muscles burns calories and can cause them the grow, which aids in fat loss, but it doesn’t directly reduce the fat covering them.
You see, fat loss is a whole-body process.
You maintain a calorie deficit, which forces your body to reduce its total fat stores. Reductions occur everywhere, however, with certain regions leaning out quicker than others (more on that in a minute).
That range is 15% body fat and below for men and 25% and below for women.
Here’s a handy chart that puts some visuals to these numbers:
As you can see, abs start to show around 15% and 25% for men and women, respectively, and really start to shine at 10% and below for men and 20% and below for women.
Now, I mentioned earlier that certain areas of the body lose fat faster than others.
Unfortunately, the fat covering the abs, and especially the lower abs, is incredibly stubborn. And no, I’m not talking about personality but physiology.
There’s a science-based reason why fat cells in certain areas of the body are much harder to shrink than others and there are specific strategies you can use to improve this.
Check out this article I wrote on stubborn belly fat to learn more.
2. Develop your core muscles
It’s commonly believed that people doing a lot of heavy, compound lifting (squatting, deadlifting, overhead pressing, etc.) have no need for ab workouts.
I disagree. And to understand why, let’s quickly review the muscles that make up the “abs.”
First, there’s the rectus abdominis, which is the muscle group most associated with a “six pack”:
Then there are several other core muscles that complete the look, including the obliques, transversus abdominis (or “TVA” as it’s commonly referred to), and serratus:
Don’t discount the importance of developing these muscles in addition to the “pretty” rectus abdominis.
Case in point: here’s an example of what (kinda) developed “abs” with a poorly developed core looks like:
It’s not a horrible look but there’s no v-taper at the waist, no serratus development, and no sight of a TVA line.
Some people have the opposite problem–their rectus abdominis is under-developed and the rest of the core is overcooked.
Here’s an example:
This is what happens when your obliques are over-developed, your rectus abdominis is lacking, and you have no TVA or serratus.
Let’s now see what good all-around core development looks like:
Sure, the model (Greg Plitt) has far better genetics than the other two guys but he’s not much leaner here than the second. He just has a perfect balance of overall muscle development between his rectus abdominis and other core muscles.
I don’t have Plitt’s look but I have personal experience working to build a good set of abs. Check out the following picture of me from a few years ago:
I was about 7% body fat here and, as you can see, had alright core development. It’s worth noting that I was squatting and deadlifting heavy every week and was doing some supplementary ab training, but not what I lay out later in this article.
(And in case you’re wondering why I don’t have a proper “six pack” but only a “four pack” instead, that’s purely genetic, and can’t be changed. Some people’s rectus abdominis is formed better than others’.)
Within a few months of taking that picture, I started the ab workout I am going to share in this article and here’s a shot of me from a little more than a year later:
This rather dramatic improvement was the result of not only training my “abs” but also building up the other core muscles.
The Real “Six Pack Shortcut”
There really is nothing else to having “shredded” abs.
When you’re a man or a woman, you need to be lean and you need great core muscle development.
You get lean by dieting properly and you get defined core muscles by training them using both compound and isolation movements.
I’ve seen and spoken to a lot of people with small, underdeveloped abs that can do a tremendous number of crunches and post some seriously impressive plank times.
The problem here is the core muscles are like any others in the body: they require progressive overload to grow. And that requires an emphasis on weighted exercises and improving performance over time.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in their ab workouts is not doing any weighted ab exercises.
As you’ll see, I recommend that every ab workout you do contains at least a few sets of weighted exercises.
Before we talk about creating workouts, though, let’s look at individual exercises.
There are an almost endless variety of ab exercises and far too many opinions on what’s better than what. Fortunately, however, you only need to focus on a handful of to fully develop your core.
The exercises below are based on a bit of research as well as my personal experience with my own training and with working with thousands of people.
There are plenty of other ab exercises you could do but they’re probably unnecessary if you just stick to the list below.
The Big Compound Movements
They’re also the absolute most important exercises for total-body muscle growth and strength. If you’re not doing them every week, and if you’re not going heavy, you’re leaving a lot of progress on the table.
The cable crunch is one of my favorites because it’s weighted and targets the entire rectus abdominis.
You can use it to hit the obliques as well by doing twisting reps where you touch your right elbow to your left knee, following by a regular straight rep, followed by one where your left elbow touches your right knee, back to the middle, and so forth.
Captain’s Chair Leg Raise
This exercise is one of the best for developing both the rectus abdominis, including the “lower abs,” and obliques.
You can start with knees bent but you want to work toward legs straight. Then, as you get stronger, you can add weight by snatching a dumbbell in between your feet.
Remember to actually flex at the waist and contract your abs, rather than simply using your hip flexors to bring your legs up.
Hanging Leg Raise
This exercise is similar to the captain’s chair leg raise but requires more effort to keep your body stabilized.
Again, you can start with your knees bent but want to work toward straight legs. You can add weight by snatching a dumbbell in between your feet.
Don’t let this simple exercise fool you–it’s a great inclusion to your ab workouts, and is particularly good at training the obliques and TVA.
Ab Wheel Rollout
I’m generally not a fan of workout gadgets and gizmos but the ab wheel is cheap and effective.
If you want to include this exercise in your ab routine, here’s a high-quality wheel:
You can add weight to this exercise with a weighted vest.
The rules for ab training are very simple:
1. Combine weighted and unweighted training.
A core with deep, defined cuts requires a lot more muscle development than most people think. And a “periodized” approach to ab training is the most effective way to accomplish this.
2. Train your abs frequently.
Optimal training frequency is a subject of never-ending debate, but as a general rule, smaller muscle groups recover faster than larger ones.
And compound exercises like the squat and deadlift necessitate more recovery than isolation movements like the biceps curl or side raise.
Thus, like the calves, I’ve found that the abs can take more of a beating than the larger muscle groups.
I’ve found that 2 to 3 ab workouts per week, in addition to compound lifting, is the “sweet spot” for maximizing results while preventing overtraining.
And in terms of placement in a weekly regimen, put 1 to 2 days of rest in between your ab workouts. Personally I do Mon, Weds, & Fri if I’m doing three workouts per week or Tues & Thurs if two.
3. Make sure you’re progressing on your exercises.
Like any training, the goal with your ab training is to get progressively stronger and fitter over time.
The weight added for your weighted exercises should be on an upward trend as should the number of reps you can do on your unweighted exercises.
So, with those “rules” in place, let’s look at how to create your ab workouts.
The workout layout is simple. You will be doing exercise “circuits” consisting of 3 exercises done back-to-back. You will rest in between these circuits and repeat them.
Here’s how you build the circuits:
1. Do 1 set of a weighted exercise like the Cable Crunch, Captain’s Chair Leg Raise, or Hanging Leg Raise for 10 to 15 reps.
This means that if you can’t get at least 10 reps, you’re using too much weight. Once you can do 15 reps, however, it’s time to add 5 pounds.
2. Go directly into 1 set of an unweighted exercise and do it to failure.
3. Go directly into 1 set of another unweighted exercise and do it to failure
4. Rest 2-3 minutes in between circuits.
For example, here’s one of my favorite circuits:
1 set of Cable Crunches, 10-12 rep range
Directly into 1 set of Captain’s Chair Leg Raises, to failure
Directly into 1 set of Air Bicycles, to failure
Rest 2-3 minutes
I’ll usually do these ab circuits in between sets of major muscle groups to save time. For example:
- 1 set of deadlifts
- 1 ab circuit
- Rest 60 to 90 seconds
- 1 set of deadlifts
- 1 ab circuit
- Rest 60 to 90 seconds
And so forth.
A good goal to work toward is 3 ab circuits per ab workout (and 2 to 3 workouts per week). As you’ll see, this is tougher than it sounds!
No natural substance can just “burn fat” outright, regardless of how complex or pseudo-scientific the explanations are.
Supplement companies often talk about increasing fat oxidation rates, preserving lean mass, supporting the thyroid, inducing thermogenesis, inhibiting enzymes related to fat storage, inducing enzymes that cause fat loss, manipulating hormone and neurotransmitter levels, reducing water retention, improving nutrient partitioning, and more.
Well, the truth is, these are all aspects of fat loss, but this type of marketing is little more than an attempt to dazzle you with terminology and scientific half-truths in hopes that you just accept the claimed benefits at face value.
When you take a cold, hard look at the science of fat loss, you’ll find that proper supplementation can help but can never make up for poor diet and training habits.
If you stick to the advice in this article, you won’t make those fatal diet and training mistakes and will be able to actually benefit from supplements that speed up fat loss.
Just about every fitness “guru” and workout program promises to give you a great six pack fast but few can actually deliver on this promise because it’s just not as fast and simple as people want to believe.
There are no “weird tricks” or “hacks” or anything else. If you want a lean, sexy stomach, you’re going to have to eat right, train right, and be patient. If you’re willing to commit to months of this, and not days, then you can get to where you want to be.
You now know everything needed to finally get that six pack, so get out there and get to work!
What do you think about ab workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Bishop PA, Jones E, Woods AK. Recovery from training: a brief review: brief review. J strength Cond Res. 2008;22(3):1015-1024. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31816eb518
- Vispute SS, Smith JD, LeCheminant JD, Hurley KS. The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat. J strength Cond Res. 2011;25(9):2559-2564. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fb4a46
- Kostek MA, Pescatello LS, Seip RL, et al. Subcutaneous fat alterations resulting from an upper-body resistance training program. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(7):1177-1185. doi:10.1249/mss.0b0138058a5cb
- Stallknecht B, Dela F, Helge JW. Are blood flow and lipolysis in subcutaneous adipose tissue influenced by contractions in adjacent muscles in humans? Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007;292(2):E394-9. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00215.2006