A timeless visual confirmation of physical fitness is the classic six pack. Some of my personal training clients in London come to me with questions like: “how fast can I get six pack abs?” and “can I get a six pack in time for my summer holiday on the beach?”
How fast you achieve a six pack depends on how effectively you train, and how effectively you eat. One without the other, and you’re doomed to failure.
Abs exercises for a six pack
Although the classic six pack is just one of the core muscles, the rectus abdominis, you need to develop all your core muscles to support this six pack muscle, and to ensure optimum strength and injury prevention, particularly in your lower back.
The key foundation exercise for the rectus abdominis is the crunch, which entails trunk flexion, known to most people as the sit-up. Make sure you perform the movement slowly and smoothly, as it’s quality of movement rather than quantity of reps that counts.
If your neck hurts the next day, it means you’ve put your neck in a poor position during the exercise. You need to keep looking up at the ceiling rather than tuck your chin into your chest. In addition, a neat trick is to push your tongue to the roof of your mouth during the exercise – this really works to stabilise the neck and prevent strains.
Once you’ve mastered the crunch, add the reverse crunch, which involves hip flexion, where you keep your upper back and head on the floor, and crunch up with your legs to flex your abs. Again, keep the movement slow. A variation of this is ‘scissor kicks’, but make sure your belly button is sucked down to engage your core so as not to strain your lower back.
If you have access to an overhead bar, the hanging leg raise and its variations is a great progression of the reverse crunch.
Don’t forget your obliques
Your obliques are the abdominal muscles which lie deeper than your rectus abdominis, and enable rotation and lateral flexion of your trunk. So include in your routine a range of exercises such as oblique crunches, dumbbell side-bends, and Russian twists. You can find demonstrations of these exercises on YouTube. Remember: keep the movement slow and smooth, and do as many reps as it takes to feel a burning sensation.
Include the plank in your routine, as it activates your deepest abdominal muscle: the transverse abdominis. Whenever you laugh, cough, or suck in your stomach, you’re activating your transverse abdominis (TA). Time yourself and see if you can beat your previous record. 3 sets of the plank is ideal, with a 1 minute rest in between.
Progressions from the plank include the plank with one leg or one arm raised, and even more challenging is plank with right leg and left arm raised, then do the other side too.
What to eat for a six pack
The key to achieving a six pack is to eat healthily and exercise right. Healthy eating means cut out all the junk food and processed carbs, and stick to lean protein, plenty of veg, some fruit, and some complex carbs like oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and bulgar.
Fat burning exercises
To burn existing body fat from your stomach so that your six pack will show, you need to do major muscle group exercises to build muscle, which in turn raises your metabolism and burns off body fat. Abs exercises alone will not burn the fat from your abs, as you cannot spot-reduce fat from your abs like this. So you need to focus on big exercises like barbell squats, barbell deadlifts, barbell or dumbbell chest press, and pullups.
Avoid gizmos, diet pills and crash diets
Millions have been spent on abs machines and gizmos, which often lock your body into poor postural positions and do more harm than good. So avoid the infomercial abs exercise machines. The only exercise equipment I recommend for abs is the swissball (also known as the stability ball or exercise ball), which can add variety and extra challenge to your workouts.
As for diet pills and crash diets, avoid them like the plague, as they’ll harm your health and lead to ‘starvation mode’ where your metabolism slows to a crawl which is the last thing you need when you’re trying to burn excess body fat.
How often should I train my abs?
I train most of my personal training clients in London once a week, and recommend they do two additional sessions on their own every week. So you should be training your abs three times a week, with a wide variety of core exercises.
How many reps should you perform for abs? It’s more a question of how effectively you perform each rep (slowly to maximize time under tension), and how the exercise feels (you should feel a burning sensation, and work through it for another 5-10 reps).
It doesn’t matter too much where your abs exercises appear in your workout. Some people do them at the end of a workout, some have a dedicated core workout, some squeeze in some abs exercises in between other exercises. Do whatever works for you, but make sure you don’t skimp on any of the abs muscles: rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis.
As with all muscles, unless you make the exercises progressively more challenging over time, your abs will stop responding and adapting. The 3 main ways to stimulate more growth are to add resistance (cables, barbell plates, ankle weights in your hands), to slow down each rep to maximize time under tension, and to add variety to the movements (bigger/smaller range of motion, new angles, new combinations).
Your six pack and your genetics
Some people are luckier than others with their abs-building genetics, but don’t use this as an excuse not to work hard on your abs. Some people develop a 4 pack, some a 6 pack, and a small percentage of people are able to build a visible 8 pack. The precise shape, degree of separation, and size of your abs is partly determined by genetics.
Dominic Londesborough is the author of this blog and a personal trainer in London