A six pack is commonly seen as a sign that you’ve taken time to craft and sculpt your body, taking care with your diet, maintaining dedication with your training and patience with the process. That’s why it’s so annoying when some has a shredded set of abs without trying. This begs the question, how much ab training do you actually need to do to get a six pack?
There are a variety of core training programs floating around which claim to get you a six pack in a number of weeks or sometimes even days. Surely if it was that easy, then we would all walk around tight and lean all year around. If all it takes is 50 crunches a day or a few 30 second planks, then having a six pack would be easy.
Today, we’re going to take a look at exactly how much ab training you need as well as the other influencing factors behind getting a six pack.
What are the abs?
In anatomical terms, the six pack is referred to as the rectus abdominis. These work to flex the spine (bring your chest closer to your pelvis), this is why the go-to ab exercise is often crunches.
Though, there’s more to the core than you probably think. Surrounding the abs and adding to the appearance of the six pack are the obliques situated on the side of the lower trunk, the serratus anterior situated on the sides of the upper trunk around the ribs, and the transvers abdominis which lies underneath the abs. The obliques are what form that V shape often sought after alongside the six-pack and work to rotate or twist the torso.
Contrary to popular belief, the lifestyle factor that’s going to have the most impact on your ability to “have” a six pack is your diet. In fact, you can actually have a six pack without any ab training whatsoever. You see, everyone has abs. It’s just like everyone has biceps, hamstrings, and glutes. However, in order to see them you need to have a low enough body fat. You can still see your abs without training them because they’re always there and an important part of your body. Yet, in order to reveal them you need to remove the layer of fat over the top.
The best way to remove fat is through your diet. The most important factor to any body composition goal is calorie balance i.e. the amount of calories you take in through your diet versus the amount of calories you expend through movement. If you’re taking in more calories than you burn, then you’re going to gain weight. If you’re taking in less calories than you burn, then you’re going to lose weight.
It helps to think of your body as a statue waiting to be made. You are the sculptor with various tools to chisel away at the block of stone, crafting the figure you want to create. The tools at your disposal are your diet and training. The only tool you can’t control is your genetics, but we’ll get onto that later. Using a combination of the two helps to build the figure you’re looking for. Your diet knocks away the outer layer whilst your training crafts and shapes the eventual aesthetics.
Within your calorie balance you also have macronutrients. The three main macronutrients are fats, carbohydrates and protein. Studies have shown that as long as your calories and protein are in check, then the amount of fats and carbohydrates you eat doesn’t matter too much. This means that you can structure your diet to fit your personal preferences.
If you’re trying to get a six pack, then you’re most likely going to be in a calorie deficit (lower calorie intake compared to calorie expenditure). They key to any diet is sustainability. This means not doing anything drastic right from the go. When people first decide they want to lean down, they change their entire lifestyle which works in the short-term but ends up with them falling off the wagon later on. How many people do you know who have tried the latest fad diet only to gain all the weight back on once it’s finished? This is because these diets don’t teach sustainable practices or long-term solutions. If you want a six-pack for life instead of just for summer, you’re going to have to take a different approach.
Here are some simple guidelines to structuring your diet for long-term fat loss that’s actually enjoyable:
- Aiming for 1-2lbs of fat loss per week
- 12 calories per pound of bodyweight (150lb individual would need 1800 calories)
- 1-1.25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (150lb individual would need 150-187.5 grams of protein per day)
- Follow the 80/20 rule where you focus on whole, natural foods high in fibre and nutrients 80% of the time and allow yourself to indulge 20% of the time
- Minimising liquid calories (swap fizzy drinks to diet, lattes/cappuccinos to Americanos, juice to squash, etc.)
- Drink a glass of water with and between each meal
That’s all there really is to it. As I’ve already said, as long as you’re in a calorie deficit, then the rest is just helpful advice to make dieting easier and more sustainable.
If you find that your fat loss starts to stall, then reduce your calories by 200 – all of this coming from fats and carbohydrates with your protein goals staying the same. If you’ve already lowered your calories, then introduce more activity. Not much, again you’re just looking to burn a little more than you already are. This can easily be done through a couple of 30 minute brisk walks each week, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking a little further away from the building you’re trying to get to. Don’t lower your calories and increase your activity at the same time or you’ll just burn out completely.
Once your diets in check, it’s time to take a look at your training. It’s not that those ab workouts have no effect whatsoever, it’s just that they probably aren’t having the effect you think they are. Training your abs doesn’t remove fat from your stomach directly, just like training your biceps doesn’t get rid of fat from your arms. Unfortunately, the current research suggests that spot reducing doesn’t work. Your body takes fat from the places it wants to in the order it wants to. That’s why women and men tend to store fat in different areas. Men hold a more apple shape, storing fat around their waist and back, whilst women tend to have a pear shape, storing fat around their hips and legs.
What training does is influence the appearance of your abs. You can see the difference in people who are naturally lean and those who have tried to see their abs. People who have trained their abs correctly will have a thicker, stronger looking six pack than those who just happen to have them because they’re lean.
Now, the way you need to train your abs is actually not too different than other muscles:
- Maintain correct form and a strong mental connection
- Build up strength in the 6-8 rep range with strategic exercises in the 10-20 rep range to get in extra volume
- Hit them from a diverse range of angles
- Focus on progressive overload
The best exercises for building strength and size (pick one to focus on each session):
- Cable crunches
- Weighted sit-ups
- Ab-wheel roll outs
The best exercises for added volume (pick two to focus on each session):
- Hanging leg/knee raises
- Hollow body holds
- ‘Windscreen wipers’
- Russian Twists
- Bicycle crunches
You may hear some people say “all you need to do is heavy squats and deadlifts”. Whilst these large compound movements do recruit a lot of the abdominal muscles, they’re certainly not all it takes to get good looking abs. You may be happy with how your muscles have turned out once you finally see your abs, and that’s fantastic! Yet, for the majority of people will need some form of training to take their abs to the next level.
In terms of frequency, aim for two sessions a week, picking one compound exercise and two volume exercises each time. For each exercise complete 3 sets, shooting for 6-8 reps for the strength exercise and 12-20 reps for the volume exercises. Once you hit the upper limit of the rep range, increase the weight or swap the exercise to another.
Lastly, we need to touch upon the unfortunate aspect of six packs: genetics. As with any part of your body, the way the muscles in your abdomen are structured will depend on your specific genetics. This is why some people can never truly get a six pack because they simply don’t have the separation in their lower abs, giving them a four pack. It’s also why some people will find out they have an eight pack. You can’t train to get a certain amount of abs; you can only affect the size an appearance of them. Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to get the same six-pack look seen on the cover of fitness magazines. Though, this doesn’t mean you won’t look amazing when you cut down and eventually see your abs. There’s a lot more to losing body fat than a six pack, and let’s be honest, abs look good no matter what.
So, it actually doesn’t take any ab training whatsoever to get a six pack. In reality, it all comes down to your diet and caloric balance. Yet, if you really want to make your abs ‘pop’, then two sessions a week of three ab exercises focused around progressive overload (getting stronger and more capable) is all it takes.
At the end of the day, having a six pack is great, but it’s not the be all and end all. A six pack won’t make you happy, that’s for sure. If you think that finally seeing your abs is the solution to all your problems, then you’re sorely mistaken. It’s not that having abs is bad or awful, it’s just probably not going to give you the feeling you think it’s going to. Sure, it feels fantastic to finally have a six pack, especially if you’ve worked hard for it, but there’s far more to life than how your stomach looks.