Six Pack Abs: The Workout Routine
The how and why of this routine is laid out below, but if you just want to know how to grow your abs efficiently, try adding the below to your normal workouts. If you’re not doing any lifting, you’re probably better off starting a beginner lifting program.
- Bicycle crunches (15-20 reps per set)
- Captain’s chair leg raises (12-15 reps per set)
- Contralateral arm and leg lift (5 second hold, 15-20 reps per set)
You can view videos of how to perform these ab exercises with perfect form below.
Your goal should be to do 15 to 20 sets of the above movements in a given week.
Examples of how this could work:
- Do 2 sets of all 3 movements 3 times per week (2*3*3 =18 sets per week).
- Do 2 sets of any 2 movements 4 times per week (2*2*4 = 16 sets per week).
- Make sure to rotate the exercises (e.g. do #1 and #2 one session, then #2 and #3 the next session, then #3 and #1 the following session, and so on).
- Do 1 set of all 3 movements 5 times per week (1*3*5 = 15 sets per week).
Keep track of your weekly set volume so you can increase or reduce the amount of work volume done depending on how your body responds after 4-6 weeks. This does not mean you’ll have a 6 pack in 4 to 6 week, just that you should have a good idea whether or not this volume is sufficient or not after this amount of time.
The Different Abdominal Muscles
Before you learn how to get great abs, you need to understand the four major muscle groups that compose the abdomen. This will help you understand why you are doing the recommended ab exercises, identify your personal weakpoints, and attack them accordingly.
Image Source: Repke Fitness
This is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle (i.e. furthest away from your skin). It is located underneath the muscles that make up a six pack (that’s your rectus abdominis, which we’ll cover next) and helps stabilize the pelvis and lumbar spine. When you’re squatting and keeping your spine in a neutral position, you can thank your transverse abdominis (TVA). In additional to being an important aid to functional movements, a strong TVA can help maintain a tighter, flatter abdomen.
The TVA is the foundation upon your strong core will be built. Yes, that means six packs too.
The rectus abdonis is what most people think of when they consider abs. There are a pair of these long muscles from the pelvis to the rib cage, connected by tissue called linea alba. This muscle pulls the pelvis and rib cage toward another, flexing the back in the process. It can also prevent this movement when flexed.
As rectus abdominis strengthen, they tend to grow outward, giving the appearance of “six pack” abs. The six lumps are an inherent part of the muscle, each lump connected by tissue.
This muscle is the primary mover of the crunch.
External Oblique Muscles
External obliques run from the rib cage to the corners of the pubic bone on either side of the rectus abdominis. These muscles perform the important task of helping pull the chest downward, as well as twisting the trunk from side to side. This muscle is the primary mover of V-sit Russian twists.
Internal Oblique Muscles
Internal obliques are located underneath the external obliques, also on either side of the rectus abdominis. They are activated in the opposite way as the external obliques: to twist the trunk to the right, the right internal oblique and left external oblique activate. As with the external obliques, internal obliques are also the primary mover of V-sit Russian twists. Okay! That’s it. Now let’s talk about the ingredients for six pack abs.
How to Get Six Pack Abs
Body Fat Percentage = Visible Ab Muscles
Let’s get right down to it: if your abs are hidden beneath a layer of fat, they can’t be seen. This is why diet and nutrition are an essential component of six pack abs.
Most men will start to see some muscular definition (including abs) around 15% body fat. The closer to 10%, the more definition the abs will have. For women, some ab definition starts around 20-25% and gets more pronounced as the body fat percentage decreases.
There are a number of different ways to measure body fat, which is outside the scope of this article. Check out the links above to see images of different body fat percentages in men and women. That should give you a close enough idea to know where you stand. After all, you can check if you have abs simply by looking in the mirror, regardless of what your body fat percentage is.
Nutrition & Diet
Okay so you know you have to lose some fat but aren’t sure how to do it. If It Fits Your Macros is a popular diet regiment that only requires you track calories, protein, carbs, and fats. By manipulating these, you can gradually lose, gain, or maintain weight. It does require an email address to get your results, but I promise its worth it. For tracking, use apps like MyFitnessPal.
Ab Exercises: How Often?
Of course, exercising the muscles of the core is an essential part of having six pack abs (or just a strong core, which is also great for lifting and life in general).
Ab workouts can be incorporated at the end of your normal workouts. 15-20 sets per week should be sufficient to grow abdominal muscles for untrained athletes all the way to more advanced lifters (via the smart folks at Renaissance Periodization).
A “six pack” will then begin to appear, assuming your body fat is in check.
For best results, target all four major muscle groups of the abdomen. These can be found below in just three exercises.
The 3 Best Ab Workout Exercises
A study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise determined that the most effective ab workouts utilize exercises that require constant abdominal stabilization and trunk rotation.
The top ab exercises identified by the ACE study were:
- Bicycle crunches
- Captains chair
- Exercise ball crunch
- Vertical leg crunch
- Reverse crunch
However, they were not measuring activity of the Transverse Abdominus. Luckily, another study by the University of Tsukuba did exactly that.
The best exercise for the TVA? The elbow and toe with contralateral arm and leg lift. Not sure what that is? Check out the how-to video for each exercise below.
Below you’ll find recommendations on how to do the top 3 exercises – that’s all you’ll need to hit all four major abdominal muscle groups.
Exercise 1: Elbow and Toe with Contralateral Arm and Leg Lift
This is an excellent exercise for engaging your Transverse Abdominus, your deepest layer of abdominal muscle.
Exercise 2: Bicycle Crunches
Bicycle crunches rule because they actually work all 4 ab muscle groups at once! Since we’re trying to be efficient in the gym (or wherever you exercise), these should be a staple of your ab workout routine.
Exercise 3: Captain’s Chair Leg Raises
These hit the rectus abdominus as well as the obliques. In fact, this was the most effective oblique exercise in the ACE study. The second most effective? The bicycle crunch, above.
And there you have it: how to train the 4 major abdominal muscle groups, ideal frequency, and other special considerations for getting your hard work to show.