Posted November 30, 2013 by Katrin Schlee in Fitness

How To Make Your Middle The Centre Of Attention. A serious article on the six pack

how to really get a six pack
how to really get a six pack

The elusive “six-pack”… how often have you stood in front of the bathroom mirror sucking in your stomach and scanning your reflection for those little chiselled parcels that so very rarely agree to make an appearance?

A lot of gym-goers, men as well as women, tend to believe that all you need to do is crunch, crunch and crunch some more in order to get a toned midsection but in reality it is crunching and munching on the right types of food that is the winning combination for excavating your six-pack.  This and, crucially, a rational approach to training your abs based on the principles of hypertrophy.

Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger?  Back in the day some bodybuilders worked their abdominals for 30 minutes every day – today’s pros tend to hit their abs pre-contest only.  The three Cs: cardio, crunches and carb restriction are etched into a bodybuilder’s brain but even the most dedicated wait until their dieting-down phase starts to really begin chiselling their abs.  For the rest of the time they simply do a few low-intensity abdominal sessions as add-ons to other workouts.  This of course is about as effective a strategy as bicep-curling bottles of beer in order to grow and define your arms.

So why is low-intensity crunching such a waste of time?  The answer is simple: You cannot maximise abdominal muscularity via non-progressive, volume-based training: fact!  A growth or maintenance programme is as essential to a well defined abdominal area as it is to any other body part we wish to build or define.  If you faithfully record your sets and reps for each muscle group in your little black training book but have no statistics to show for your abs workouts, you are in serious trouble.

The most frequently asked question by my clients is: ‘How do I get a “six-pack”?’.  This question cannot be answered accurately in a single sentence.

I can categorically state that you cannot sculpt defined abdominal muscles by doing 10 minutes of crunches at the end of a group exercise class.  These 10 minutes are just time-fillers and make people feel satisfied that they have worked their abs.  It also comes as no surprise that many are secretly relieved to shave a few minutes off a 60-minute cardio class by lying down on the floor and simply going through the motions of non-specific abs exercises.  This kind of token effort will, however, not yield the results for those looking to noticeably enhance the appearance of their midsection.  Equally, you cannot create rock-hard, sculpted abs by tacking 10 minutes of high volume abs work onto your normal weight training routine in the gym, a common practice.

Ideally, if you favour group exercise classes over training in the gym, you should add a minimum of two 30-minute classes to your weekly schedule that are entirely dedicated to abs training, classes that will hit the abdominal muscle complex from all angles and, preferably, with the addition of weights/resistance added over time.  These classes also ought to include a variety of core stability exercises.  Any other abdominal sessions led by Personal Trainers on the gym floor or instructors in the studio that consist of endless crunches based on standard movement patterns week in, week out are about as useful as a fork in a sugar bowl (and I don’t have to remind you that a sugar bowl will of course not even feature in your life if you want to torch abdominal fat).

If you prefer hitting the gym, train your abs prior to your cardio workout or, ideally, in a separate training session.  Fully contract your quads, glutes, back and abs and focus on time under tension.  Your abs workout should be completed within 20-30 minutes max.

Without a doubt the three most important factors for yielding supreme results for your abs are principally the same as for all other muscle groups:

1. Intensity

2. Progressive overload

3. A structured, goal-oriented training plan (yes, even for your abs), allowing for  

    adequate rest in between workouts

4. (in fourth place but really a powerful contender for the number one spot) A clean diet

Let’s check out the facts:

1. The buzz word is intensity, not volume.  Endless sets of high reps are not what you would do for any other muscle group over a long period of time, so why choose to do them when it comes to your abs?

2. Muscles will only develop in response to overload.  The human body will not change unless you force it to.  The principle of progressive overload hinges on continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system in order to consistently make gains in muscle size, strength and endurance.  In other words, add weight or resistance to your abdominal workout and increase it over time.

3. Make time for your abs and integrate your abdominal routine into an intelligent weekly plan.  Consider all areas of the abdominal musculoskeletal complex and train each muscle layer to achieve a balanced look and greater stability.  Planning your routine, food intake and time for rest and sleep is a key factor.  Remember, it takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.

4. Eating clean is what will blast body fat and give your six-pack the chance to make an appearance.  Minimise saturated fat and simple carbohydrates.  Lean protein, complex carbs and healthy fats should form the pillars of your diet.  Bulking and cutting phases are important aspects in the quest for growth for all muscle groups and your abs are no exception.  Watch out for a separate article on how bulking and cutting and eating the right balance of macro nutrients will take your efforts in the gym to another level.

The “Six-Pack” or Rectus Abdominis

What is known in the vernacular as the “six-pack” is something we all covet with a vengeance.  The correct term for this abdominal muscle is rectus abdominis.  It is a paired muscle running vertically on each side of the anterior wall of the abdomen.  A strong sheath of connective tissue called the ‘linea alba’ or white line divides the rectus abdominis , and three more horizontal tendinous sheaths give the muscle its familiar “washboard” look in individuals with a low body fat percentage.

rectus abdominis

What is known in the vernacular as the “six-pack” is something we all covet with a vengeance. The correct term for this abdominal muscle is rectus abdominis

What should you do to sculpt your six-pack?

-  Don’t tone your abs!  GROW your abs!

  • Do 8 – 12 sets for your rectus abdominis, completing 10 to 15 reps.  If you are able to do more than 15 reps, increase the resistance.  Rest period: no more than 45-60 seconds.  Pace: slow, focus on each contraction.  Think: quality, not quantity!

-  Do primarily crunching movements to build the rectus abdominis, using a machine or free form movements

  • Ab machines are great if you want to add resistance.  Avoid lying bench crunch machines – they cannot be adjusted to the height of the user and often place unnecessary pressure on the lower back

-  Do Cardio!  45-60 minutes post-workout (steady-state) or first thing in the morning.

If you are looking to shred body fat there are effective ways of igniting the afterburn with short bursts of fat-torching cardio.  Integrate a couple of High Intensity Interval Training sessions into your weekly regime.  Read my HIITs article here on Strensa for the low-down on this super-effective training protocol

-  Pushed for time?  Superset abs with other body parts or do a giant set (all abs exercises back to back without a rest period).


  • Hanging Leg Raise (excellent also for the back):

-       Knee Tuck (both legs)

-       Single Leg Raise (slightly more advanced)

(The HLR can be performed weighted: advanced trainers only)

  • Jack Knife Sit Ups
  • Roll-Outs (using barbell or ab roller)
  • Flat Bench V-Sits

The Top Four Six-Pack Exercises*

1. Weighted sit-ups

2. Weighted incline bench sit-ups

3. Kneeling weighted cable crunch (performed with a rope attached to high pulley weight stack)

4. Lying weighted cable crunch (performed with a rope attached to a low pulley weight stack)

*Note: if you are a beginner, have limited experience with abdominal training or suffer from back pain start with mat-based crunches without any weights and slowly progress to the more advanced exercises.  Incline bench sit-ups for example will place pressure on the lower back and lead to injury if you are deconditioned or your abdominal muscles are weak.

The External and Internal Obliques

The external oblique muscle is the largest and the most superficial of the three flat muscles of the lateral anterior abdomen. The internal oblique muscle is the intermediate muscle of the abdomen, lying below the external oblique and just above the transverse abdominal muscle.

Obliques serve as stabilisers, and are central to almost every compound lifting movement and almost every physical activity.

The External and Internal Obliques

The External and Internal Obliques

Should you train your obliques?

The lower back is most vulnerable when we twist and lift, so in order to protect it from injury it is vital to strengthen your oblique muscles to help control and stabilise your spine when you twist or bend sideways.

-  Do 3 – 5 sets for your obliques, completing 10 to 15 reps.


  • Basic Oblique Crunch (beginner)
  • Bicycle Crunch
  • Russian Twist (with or without weights),
  • Hanging Oblique Knee Raise (weighted if necessary)
  • Moving Side Plank
  • Oblique V-Sit (advanced)
  • Oblique Vertical Hip Thrust (advanced)

The Transversus Abdominis

The deepest layer of abdominal muscles is called the “transversus abdominis.”  Like a corset, its fibres run in an approximately horizontal direction across the abdomen, wrapping around the torso from front to back and from the ribs to the pelvis. This muscle is not capable of producing spinal flexion but it may assist with rotation.  It also helps with respiration and breathing by facilitating forceful expiration of air from the lungs; it helps compress the internal organs and stabilises the spine and pelvis by automatically contracting prior to movements of the limbs.

Research shows that people with chronic lower back pain demonstrate poor control of their core muscles resulting in their limbs moving before the abdominal and lower back muscles are able to actively stabilise the spine.  Learning how to activate the transverse abdominal muscle is crucial, not only for those wishing to alleviate back pain or recovering from injury but also for those with a healthy back wishing to build a strong foundation for lifelong, injury-free training in professional or amateur sports or recreational sport and fitness.

The transversus abdominis

The transversus abdominis

The deep posterior spinal group – interspinales, intertransversales, rotatores and multifidus – (located at the back of the trunk) is parallel in function to the transversus abdominis.

Abdominal Training Starts Within

The evolution of abdominal training has reached a key stage across all sporting disciplines, with the focus being on more than one aspect of training.  We have successfully moved from flexion overload through endless repetitions to building and maintaining a strong, long spine by working on the deep abdominal muscles which act as stabilisers.  Every experienced coach or personal trainer knows that these stabilising muscles need to be activated in conjunction with the muscles in other parts of the body (and notably the back and gluteals) which serves to protect the lower back like a girdle of strength and adds quality muscle tissue to the deep layers of the abdominal wall.

Core stability, body weight and functional training methods abound in the industry and are popular tools that people enjoy using creatively at home or in the gym.  Small group training spaces or functional training zones in gyms have been designed in accordance with this trend.

Stability ball tucks, TRX planks and a wealth of body weight exercises such as burpees, mountain climbers, dragon walks, jumping lunges or pistol squats are performed far more frequently these days and rightly so.  These exercises cause multiple muscle groups to fire up simultaneously, creating better

-  balance

-  core stability

-  control

-  kinesthetic awareness (the body’s abilities to coordinate motion and its awareness of where it is in time and space)

-  proprioception (the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement).

Leonardo da Vinci wrote about human anatomy in De Figura Humana.  He was the first to describe spinal curvature in detail and suggested that the musculoskeletal basis for leveraging movement lay in the lower lumbar spine.  The core strength of the abdominal, back and gluteal muscles, the catalyst of postural endurance, is the root from which all movement originates.

Extending the parameters of abdominal training to include a wide range of exercises in all three planes of movement is serving the fitness community well.  My only personal proviso is that my clients must learn how to activate the deep stabilisers before they drop into planks and crank out multiple sets of mountain climbers.  Incorrect technique during isometric and body weight training can lead to back injury in much the same way as continuous flexion of the spine has done in the past when uncontrolled, repetitive crunches were the staple.

Maintaining good core control and postural alignment means focussing on a ‘neutral’ spine. This is one of the key messages to remember in the context of performing core exercises or body weight training.  Important: this does not just refer to the thoracic and lumbar spine but includes the cervical spine (the neck).

The Half Plank is one of the more common core exercises and can be rendered even more effective by adding some oblique tucks.  Engage your abs, glutes, lats and quads simultaneously to create a pillar of strength that anchors you to the floor.

  • Complete 3-5 sets of half planks with oblique tucks
  • Complete up to 10-15 reps on each side

Further examples:

-  Full Plank

-  Side Plank

-  Standard Push Up

-  Swiss Ball Roll-In

-  Lunge with Twist

-  Back Bridge

-  Hip Lift

-  Lying Superman

-  Frozen V-Sit

-  L-Seat (advanced)

The final word on abdominal training really is that you get out what you put in.  The road to the perfect six-pack runs parallel to the one which leads to other well sculpted body parts.  There are no shortcuts.  Dedication, consistency and intensity will deliver the results you desire within the parameters of what is genetically possible for you.  Gadgets as advertised on late night TV and cutting corners in the gym won’t.  Arnold Schwarzenegger said it best:

For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”

Achieving and conquering requires discipline and the urge to be more, to do more, to improve, and, for the most dedicated, to be the best that they can be.  So write your training plan, put good food in your fridge and dedicate yourself to building your best body.  Veni, vidi, vici!

 Attribution: The anatomical photographs accompanying this article are by Rob Swatski, Assistant Professor of Biology, Harrisburg Area Community College – York Campus, York, PA, United States of America

Katrin Schlee

Katrin Schlee
Head of BODYShoxx® Training Systems UK and Independent Health and Wellness Professional, Kat has worked in the health and fitness industry for over 10 years as a Group Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer and Fitness Writer.