Having a decent six pack is the long-term goal of almost anyone who walks into a gym, even if they won’t admit it to you or even themselves.
Type “How to get a six pack” into Google and the results number in the millions and millions.
There are many reasons for this, the benefits of having a six pack are numerous: a better physique, less injury risk, more desirable to men/women, better posture, improved health (to name a few).
The other reason why there are so many articles on Google about six packs is that they are incredibly hard to attain.
The purpose of this article is to look at what the benefits of a strong (and visible) six-pack are, what muscles make up the core, whether diet or exercise (or both) are necessary to build a six-pack, and we will finish with a list of five of the best abdominal exercises.[toc]
What are the Benefits of Having a Strong Core?
There are many benefits of having a strong core, and there are benefits to having washboard abs .
You’re probably wondering what the difference between the two is. Well, somebody with a visible six pack will have almost no body fat and a strong set of abs. Their other core muscles may not be as strong (but probably are). You can have a strong core without having a visible six-pack.
Think of Eddie Hall, one of the strongest men in the world. He doesn’t have a set of washboard abs by any stretch of the imagination, but he has one of the strongest cores on the planet. Without a strong core, he would never have broken the deadlift world record.
There are benefits that are specific to having a strong core, and there are benefits to having visible abs.
If you have a six pack then you will receive both sets of benefits. But if you have a strong core hidden under a layer of body fat, then you will only get performance and some health-related benefits (but these are the most important anyway).
Benefit #1: Improved Metabolism
This benefit is not specific to having an excellent set of abdominals, however, there is definitely some correlation.
Reducing body fat and increasing muscle mass can lead to a small but significant increase in your metabolism.
Increasing your metabolism means an increase in calories burned while at rest, sleeping, and during exercise – which can lead to long-term weight loss/maintenance.
Benefit #2: Reduced Injury Risk
Okay, this benefit is a lot more specific to a strong set of abdominals.
Your ab muscles are part of a group of muscles called your core. The muscles of your core cover your stomach, lower back, and your hips.
By strengthening these muscles you are helping to protect your body from harm.
A strong core can prevent lower back issues, it can protect the vital organs, and can help protect chronic injuries from bad posture.
Benefit #3: Improved Posture
As we mentioned in benefit #2, a strengthened core can help with posture.
The abdominals and erector spinae can help you to maintain a neutral spine during exercise. Whereas weak core muscles can lead to excessive slouching and poor posture.
Not only will many exercises that target the abs strengthen your abs and improve your posture. They will also directly teach you how to have good posture.
If you can hold a plank with perfect form (great ab exercise) then you will know how to keep a flat back/neutral spine – perfect for many exercises.
Benefit #4: Increased Strength
A stronger core and set of abs can have a lot of crossover benefits with other muscles. A strong core can allow you to deadlift more weight, squat more, even bench more!
Most big lifts require you to brace your abs. With a stronger set of abs you are better able to brace and therefore generate more power.
That’s why powerlifters have such strong cores. Weak abs will lead to weak lifts.
Benefit #5: Improved Athleticism
Strength and power are essential for almost any sport, the ability to jump, leap, hop, hurdle, skip, and run is also very important.
A strong set of abdominals can really help you to excel in all of these movements.
Strong abs also allow you to change direction faster, absorb impact (from a tackle) and push/pull better. Building a great set of abs will help you to perform better at any sport.
Benefit #6: Improved Health
In benefit #1 we talked about an improved metabolism, but we neglected to mention some of the health benefits that this has.
Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, strokes, and obesity are all affected by metabolic issues. By reducing body fat enough to see your six packs you are reducing your risk of many metabolic diseases. You are also reducing your risk of cancer, and many other diseases and illnesses.
Benefit #7: Better Body and Self Confidence
Maybe in a perfect world, how you looked wouldn’t have an impact on your sexual desirability, self-confidence, or mood. Or maybe it would? Either way, in this world it does matter what shape you’re in – at least to some degree.
Many people might disagree, but find me an overweight person who wouldn’t feel a bit better about themselves if they had a six-pack. You will look sexier with your shirt off. That’s a fact. People will respond well to that, and your self-confidence will skyrocket.
What are the Core Muscles?
The core makes up most of the muscles in the lower half of your torso, but also extends to the hips and upper back.
Technically, the gluteals, latissimus dorsi, and traps are part of your core, but only just.
The main muscles that make up the core are:
- Transverse Abdominis
- Rectus Abdominis (six pack)
- Internal Obliques
- External Obliques
- Erector Spinae
You could also call your diaphragm and several other minor muscles part of your core musculature, but we’re not going into that sort of depth.
Diet Vs Exercise
A common phrase uttered in the fitness world is that abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym. This statement is completely false. Your abdominal muscles are muscles – in the same way, that your biceps are muscles.
You can increase their strength and size using resistance exercise.
Without exercise, your abdominals will not be strong nor will they be particularly noticeable (even with low body fat). If you want a six pack you need to work for it .
However, without diet, your six pack abs will never be noticeable. Ever. Unless you are taking some form of steroid, or are burning so many calories each day that you can eat whatever you want and still maintain a calorie deficit, you will not be able to get a six pack without following a diet.
For visible abs, a man would need a body fat percentage that is at least sub 12% while a woman would probably require a body fat percentage under 20%.
To get your body fat levels down to this percentage you most probably need to lose some body fat. The way to do that would be through creating a calorie deficit, this is where your total calories burned per day is higher than your calorie intake (how much food and drink you have).
To create a calorie deficit you can either exercise more, eat less, or a combination of the two.
The third option is the best – particularly when you also need to build those abs through exercise. You also need to keep protein high, without enough protein in your diet your body will begin to burn muscle as well as fat, which is not ideal!
It’s hard to say whether diet or exercise is more important than the other. It’s like saying which is more important to live oxygen or food? Both are necessary, and you can’t get anywhere without either.
Diet should probably be your priority because it is an issue for most people, but you need to exercise too.
Big compound lifts (deadlifts, squats, pull ups, bent over rows, bench press etc), cardio, and some ab-specific exercises are all needed to reduce body fat and increase abdominal muscle size and strength.
Why You Can’t See Your Six-Pack
There are many reasons why you can’t see you six pack. It is a sad and discouraging situation when you put a huge amount of effort into getting a well-defined six pack and the results are nowhere to be seen.
Getting a six pack is very challenging; at times excruciating and this is the main reason why everyone doesn’t have a washboard stomach.
Many people tend to approach ab training in the completely wrong manner, spending their time following myth training regimes and more often than not, they end up throwing the towel in!
Having a six pack boils down to smart training, eating clean and having the right amount of rest/sleep.
This article will identify 5 key points why training with the wrong approach can be detrimental to you seeing your abs.
#1 – Too much body fat
This might seem obvious but if your % body fat is too high, then you won’t be able to see your abs. Therefore, if your ‘chunk on your trunk’ is too high you will not be able to see what you are packing underneath.
For men, their body fat range should be below 10% and for women, it should be around the 16% mark.
If your % body fat is too high then you need to increase your energy expenditure and add some cardio HIIT training into your sessions.
HIIT training has the following benefits on burning fat and maintaining muscle mass:
- Burns fat 24 hours after you have stopped exercising
- Increases human growth hormone and testosterone levels
- Improves insulin sensitivity and glucose utilisation thereby reducing body fat storage
#2 – You think that crunches will melt away the fat
A key point to note is that you can’t use spot exercises e.g. crunches & sit-ups; to burn the fat off your stomach area.
This is a training myth and a total misconception that you do a 1000 crunches a day and you will get the perfect six-pack.
There no research available to back this myth and spot exercising doesn’t burn the fat off, that covers your abs.
The only legitimate method of burning the fat off your abs is by gradually burning fat from your entire body.
The best approach for this is to use high-intensity interval training, compound resistance movements e.g. squats and a clean diet.
This three-pronged attack improves your hormonal control of insulin; high levels of insulin caused by a spike in blood sugars is a catalyst for the body to store fat.
Men to do tend to store more subcutaneous fat in the abs area and pre-menopausal tend to store the fat on their hips and thighs.
Unfortunately, the fat covering your abs is usually the last to go and first to come back. It is very stubborn in nature and this makes it all the more difficult for some people to actually see their abs.
Getting abs requires a lifestyle change, a vast amount of discipline and there is no quick fix. Perseverance and determination are absolutely crucial when on the six-pack trail, and again this is why not everyone on the planet has one!
#3 – You are exercising your abs every day
Similarly to the other muscle in your body, your abs need time to rest, recover and build in order for them to expand. Therefore, stop training your abs every time that you go to the gym and think ‘what would happen if you trained your chest every day?’
The answer is; very little growth, as you are not giving the chest enough time to recuperate. Same applies to your abs. The recommended frequency for abs training is between 2-3 times per week, and this allows plenty of time for them to recover and grow.
An added bonus of not training your abs every day is that it frees up more time for you to do more cardio HIIT and compound weight training. This is far more beneficial for the transformation of your abs and is based on training facts and not myths!
The majority of your work out should incorporate the major muscle groups and HIIT cardio, and abs training should really be an add on.
Don’t eliminate working the major muscle groups in the pursuit of a six-pack. Research has indicated that compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, rows, clean & presses actually help to burn fat, stimulate muscle growth and they engage the core harder than isolated ab exercises.
Remember that compound exercises make the muscle grow and the isolated exercises shape the muscles!
#4 – Shaping your abs with the wrong exercises
Crunches and sit-ups predominately work the top part of the rectus abdominis.
Although building up the top and mid-section of the abs is very important, lets us not forget about the obliques, transverse abdominis and the lower abs.
These muscles are not targeted by certain crunches and sit-ups, and the other muscles will start to lag behind if not exercised.
The plank is an excellent exercise for targeting the transverse abdominis, and this muscle keeps everything in the core/waist tight and compact. The obliques run into the pelvis and cause the desired V- cut. A top point is to use a Swiss Ball as this really focuses on the core and also use a variety of exercises such as leg raises, twists, lunges, V-ups, supermans etc.
Remember to work all parts of the core, as well as the rectus abdominis.
#5 – You don’t increase the exercise difficulty
Your abs will not grow beyond the beginner’s stage of training unless you increase the level of exercise difficulty.
Muscle grows and adapts in three ways: by increasing the weight lifted, by increasing the amount of resistance and by increasing the difficulty of the exercises performed.
When developing your abs, crunches and sit-ups are very basic and provide minimal engagement in the core region. Therefore, instead of doing more reps with basic movement, why not use advanced exercises using weights e.g. cable crunches, Swiss ball weighted crunches, Ab V-ups with ankle weight etc.
These types of exercises will kick start your ab muscle growth and will increase your success rate when on the six pack journey.
Top Five Abdominal Exercises (in no particular order)
Some people will tell you that abs-specific exercises such as crunches, planks, and leg raises are unnecessary. That you can get amazing abs from deadlifts, squats, and other compound movements alone. This is half true.
Performing these exercises can definitely help, and are amazing for building core strength.
However, for directly targeting the abs you need abs-specific exercises such as the ones mentioned in this section.
Abdominal Exercise #1: The Plank
The plank is a fantastic isometric exercise that will improve core strength, posture, and abdominal endurance. It is excellent for many sports – particularly combat sports, and can also help improve bracing which will help you squat and deadlift better.
To perform a plank you need a workout mat. Lie on your front with your forearms resting on the mat and your body in a straight line. Keeping your toes and forearms touching the ground at all times, push your body up off the floor and hold it in a straight line. Try to keep your back flat.
Hold this position for 30-60 seconds clenching every muscle (particularly your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abs). Relax and rest, repeat as often as you can.
Abdominal Exercise #2: The Ab Wheel Rollout
The abdominal wheel rollout is one of the best exercises out there for directly targeting the rectus abdominis.
For this exercise, you will need an ab wheel, but it can be performed using a barbell if required.
Place your knees on a mat and hold the ab wheel in both hands. Slowly roll the wheel forwards while keeping your knees in place. Roll forward until your body is almost (but not quite) touching the floor, feel the stretch and then start pulling yourself back to the start position.
Abdominal Exercise #3: Long Arm Crunches
This exercise is great for abs because it places the centre of balance slightly higher up than usual by using your arms as a weight.
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Straighten your arms and have them right by your ears. Hold your hands together. Take a deep breath and then raise your upper torso off the floor until you are looking straight ahead, pause and then slowly lower yourself back down to the original position.
Abdominal Exercise #4: Abdominal Crunch
The most well-known ab exercise other than perhaps the sit-up (which is more of a hip flexor exercise anyway). The ab crunch has been vilified in recent times, called a dangerous exercise that can cause back injury. This is not true, well it could cause injury if (like any exercise) you performed it poorly. To avoid injury just perform it flawlessly.
Lie on an exercise mat with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Place your hands by your ears with your elbows flared out. Take a deep breath and then crunch your upper torso upwards until you are able to look straight over your knees without moving your neck. Pause, and then slowly lower yourself back down again.
Abdominal Exercise #5: Bent Knee Raises
This exercise is fantastic for the lower abdominals, it’s very similar to a regular crunch but instead of lifting your upper torso off the floor, you lift your feet off the floor.
Lie on your back in the typical crunch position (see exercise #4). Take a deep breath and then raise your feet off the floor and bring your knees toward your chest. Pause, and then slowly return your feet to the starting position.
There you have it, five excellent abdominal exercises that you can start performing today!
Remember that you should also be performing cardio, lifting heavy weights, and staying within a calorie deficit (get out that calorie tracker).
Using a proven muscle builder can also help build muscle and enhance your workouts, allowing you to work out at maximum intensity.