Six pack abs are on the top of people’s wish lists for their physiques. What does it take to actually get them though?
Everyone wants it…the elusive “six pack.”
The hallmark of the fitness elite, the proof that you know the inside “secrets” of getting ripped.
With the amount of people wanting six pack abs, the amount of bad advice out there on how to actually get them is overwhelming.
- Some people say you just have to do special types of ab exercises…and they’re wrong.
- Some people say you just have to get lean…and they’re wrong.
- Some people say you just have to do a lot of heavy squats and deadlifts…and they’re wrong.
- Some people say you have to avoid certain types of foods and take weird supplements…and they’re really wrong.
Like most things related to fitness, the real way to get six pack abs–for both guys and gals–is pretty straightforward.
In this article, I’m going to break it all down for you, and we’re going to start with a little physiology (you’ll see why).
When people talk about “abs,” what they’re actually referring to is the pair of muscles that make up the rectus abdominis: These muscles aren’t the whole story of the full “six pack” look that people want, however.
There are other “core” muscles that must be properly developed as well. Namely the obliques (external mainly), the transversus abdominis (or “TVA” as it’s commonly referred to), and the serratus:
Now, anatomy diagrams are great, but let’s see what this looks like on a real body. First, let’s look at someone whose rectus abdominis is fairly developed, but who lacks the rest of the package:
Yeah, he’s not very lean, but as you can see, he has no v-taper at the waist, no serratus development, and no sight of a TVA line. I think you’d agree that this isn’t a look to aspire to. Here’s another example:
A little better than the last, but with different problems: way over-developed obliques, under-developed rectus abdominis, and no TVA or serratus.
The result is that odd look of abs “floating” in a sea of flat, formless flesh. Now, let’s look at what a properly developed core can do to change the visuals:
Yes, Plitt has far better genetics than the other two examples, but note that he’s not much leaner than the second.
He just has a far better developed core to frame his terrifically developed rectus abdominis and give it that tight, “integrated” look.
My own body is a great example of how core development can change your overall look.
Check out the following picture of me, taken about 2 years ago:
Not a bad look.
I was lean (around 6-7% body fat), and had decent rectus abdominis development along with some oblique, serratus, and transversus abdominis showing.
(Oh 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’.)
Here’s another shot from the same period:
Now, compare those shots to the following pictures taken a few months ago:
Quite a difference, no?
This came from not only building my “abs,” but actually more so from building the rest of my core–my obliques, TVA (which is what forms the “frame” around the abs), and serratus anterior (the finger-like muscles that cover the ribs).
So, with the goal now clearly in mind–a fully developed core, not just “abs”–let’s look at what it takes to get there.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
First, I want to address some of the WRONG advice out there…
No amount of ab exercises alone will give you a great six pack.
No matter how simple or fancy the exercises, they are not the “shortcut to six pack abs.”
Yes, ab exercises are necessary for developing a solid core (more on that in a second), but it takes more than ab workouts to get the look you desire.
Just being lean isn’t enough.
But the reality is you can get very lean and still not have the “six pack” look you want.
The answer is simple: nobody’s core is naturally developed enough to have the deep cuts and pronounced lines that make for a truly outstanding six pack.
Look again to the second example of poor ab development I showed earlier, and to my 2-year-old pictures.
Both he and I were lean when those pictures were taken, but what was wrong with our physiques would have been just as obvious even if we had stripped off another 1-2% body fat.
The full “six pack” look requires low body fat levels and well-developed core muscles.
Just deadlifting and squatting isn’t enough, either.
The reality is these two exercises, even when performed with heavy weight (80%+ of 1RM), just don’t involve the “show” muscles of the rectus abdominis, the tranversus abdominis, and the external obliques as much as people think.
Now, don’t get me wrong–heavy squatting and deadlifting do help build an all-around great core, but they aren’t enough on their own.
What does it take to get a killer core, then?
Having an outstanding six pack and core actually only requires two things:
1. Reducing your body fat percentage.
For us guys, the rectus abdominis doesn’t really start showing until we reach the 10% range, and the rest of the core muscles don’t pop until we reach the 8% range.
For girls, 20% is where the fun begins, and 18% is where their cores really start to shine.
Just know that no matter how great your core muscles are developed, you will not achieve the look you want if your body fat percentage is too high.
If you’re not sure how to get leaner, check out my article series on how to lose body fat fast.
2. Regularly performing the right ab and core exercises.
What are the right exercises? Let’s find out…
Building a great six pack requires that you do both ab exercises that train your rectus abdominis, and exercises that train the other core muscles that complete the look we want.
How to Develop Great Abs (Rectus Abdominis)
The biggest mistake most people make with ab training is they don’t perform any weighted ab exercises.
The result is the ability to do a bazillion crunches or leg raises, but with abs that look small and underdeveloped.
The abs are like any other muscle: they require progressive overload to grow, and that can only be accomplished by adding resistance to exercises.
You don’t have to add weight to all of your ab training, but you must add it to some if you want abs that really pop.
My favorite ab exercises are as follows:
- Cable Crunch
- Captain’s Chair Leg Raise (you can start with knees bent, but you want to work toward legs straight)
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Air Bicycle
- Ab Wheel Rollout
I didn’t just choose these at random–research has actually shown them to be the most effective for training the rectus abdominis and obliques (unfortunately the study disappeared off the Net, but it was led by Peter Francis, Ph.D., at the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University).
I’ve found that abs seem to respond best to a combination of weighted and unweighted work. Here’s how I like to do it:
- 1 set of a weighted exercise like the Cable Crunch, Captain’s Chair Leg Raise, or Hanging Leg Raise for 10-12 reps (you can add weight to the latter two by snatching a dumbbell in between your feet)
- Directly into 1 set of an unweighted exercise, to failure
- Directly into 1 set of an unweighted exercise, to failure
- Rest 2-3 minutes
- 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
Do 3 circuits per workout 2 – 3 times per week, and your abs and obliques will develop. Let’s now look at how we can develop the rest of the core muscles.
How to Develop the Other Core Muscles
Heavy compound weightlifting trains your core better than special “core exercises,” and particularly when performed with heavy weight (80%+ your 1RM).
If you perform each of these lifts every week, and perform them with heavy weight, you won’t need to do any other core exercises.
And last but not least, I’ve mentioned the serratus several times, so let’s talk about that.
How to Develop a Great Serratus
The serratus anterior muscles are the finger-like muscles attached on your rib cage, and they really complete the “shredded” core look.
Here’s another recent picture of me that highlights them (and my super-cute son!):
While you can target the serratus anterior with an exercise like the Dumbbell Pullover, I never found this necessary. The exercises that really helped my serratus grow are…
- Barbell Row
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Ab Wheel Rollout
Any good weightlifting routine will include the first three (and heavy weight will train your serratus better than lighter weights), and Ab Wheel Rollouts are one of the great all-around ab and core exercises.
What do you think about my take on how to get six pack abs? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Nuzzo JL, McCaulley GO, Cormie P, Cavill MJ, McBride JM. Trunk muscle activity during stability ball and free weight exercises. J strength Cond Res. 2008;22(1):95-102. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31815ef8cd
- Martuscello JM, Nuzzo JL, Ashley CD, Campbell BI, Orriola JJ, Mayer JM. Systematic review of core muscle activity during physical fitness exercises. J strength Cond Res. 2013;27(6):1684-1698. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da
- Hamlyn N, Behm DG, Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. J strength Cond Res. 2007;21(4):1108-1112. doi:10.1519/R-20366.1