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How to Get Six Pack Abs

Fitness Secrets for a Flat, Toned Tummy

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Whether you're just starting an exercise program, or you've been at it for years, there is one thing on everyone's wish list: a toned stomach. Well-defined abdominal muscles are glorified as being sexy, healthy and youthful. You may have seen one once—the rare person who seems to know the "secrets" of perfect abs. Does he know something that you don't? Is it possible for you, a regular person, to achieve the abs of your dreams?

You may be surprised to learn that you can train less and see better results—yes it's true! And you don't have to buy any special equipment. All you need is your body and the proper training knowledge.

But first, it’s important to understand the anatomy of the rectus abdominis (or abs, for short). They run down the front of the torso, from the center of the ribcage to the pubic bone. It's a common myth that the abs are made up of several different muscles (such as upper and lower abs). The fact that the word "abs" appears to be plural doesn't help this case. But in fact, it is one long sheet of muscle that just happens to look like several small muscles. This is due to a unique feature called "tendinous inscriptions." These inscriptions run across the muscle and down the center, giving it that "6-pack" (but more accurately, 8-pack) appearance.

"If the abs are one muscle," you may be wondering, "then why do certain exercises seem to target different areas?" Actually, all abdominal exercises target the entire muscle, but during some exercises, you just happen to feel it in one region of the muscle a little more.

The abs are grouped with a few other muscles that are collectively referred to as the "core," which also includes your obliques (which run diagonally across your middle), transverse abdominis (a long muscle that runs horizonally beneath the rectus abdominis), and lower back (erector spinae muscles along the spine). Some experts also consider the hips to be part of the core. Many people focus on training the abs but forget about these other muscles, which are also important. A good rule of thumb is that every time you train your abs, you should also target the obliques and lower back as well.

When it comes to training for abs of steel, here's what you need to know:

Burn fat. You may be surprised to know that most people actually DO have strong, defined abs…they just happen to be covered by a layer of fat. This is because the abs are actually involved in balance and stabilization during all kinds of every day movements and exercises. All the crunches (or other exercises) in the world won't burn the fat on top of the muscle. To accomplish this, you need a combination of regular cardio (aerobic) exercise and a healthy diet to create a caloric deficit necessary to lose weight. Your SparkDiet and exercise program will help you achieve your weight loss goals.

Don't crash diet. Some people will swear that a key to their flat abs is what they eat—or don't eat. Whether they omit dairy, milk, wheat, sugar, or something else, you do not have to drastically change your diet (or limit certain foods or food groups) to lose the belly bulge. Simple, healthy eating habits (not deprivation) will help you drop excess weight from all over the body.

Be realistic. For visible abdominal definition, your body fat percentage has to be pretty low—that's about 8 percent body fat for men, and 14 percent body fat for women. To put this in perspective, "healthy" ranges of body fat are 14%-17% for men and 21%-24% for women. It may be impossible for some people to reach such low percentages without going to extreme measures. Remember that women are genetically predisposed to store more fat around the belly and need minimum levels of body fat to be healthy and menstruate. You'll have to decide if washboard abs are worth going to extremes or not. For most people, simply flattening the stomach and losing a few extra pounds is a realistic, attainable goal.

Train the abs like you would any other muscle. You should strength train all of your major muscle groups, which typically involves 1-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions per exercise. There is no need to do 50, 100 or thousands of crunches each day. In fact, if you are doing your exercises correctly, 8-15 repetitions are all that you need to feel the muscles working and get results. The key is to focus on your form, by deeply engaging your abs throughout each movement. This is commonly described as "pulling your naval towards your spine," or "scooping" the abs inward and it will help you engage more muscle fibers (especially the transverse abs), making each repetition more effective.

Just like you should allow your biceps, for example, to rest 1-2 days between workouts, the same is true for the abs. They also need time to rest, recover and rebuild to get stronger. Aim for no more than 3-4 abdominal training sessions per week.

Vary your program. Every exerciser should add variety to their exercises to keep the body surprised and continue seeing results. Try to change up your exercises (both cardio and strength) at least every 4-6 weeks, if not more often. This will help prevent plateaus and allow you to progress from easier to more advanced exercises as you become stronger.

Here are some of my favorite abdominal exercises. Be sure to read and follow the instructions for each to ensure proper form and effectiveness.
  • 15-Minute Abs Workout Video. This video shows several effective exercises, but 15 minutes of abs is a lot of work! Try working your way up to finishing it gradually, and allow for plenty of rest between sessions.
  • Modified Plank. This yoga pose is a great core strengthener—especially when you need a break from crunches.It strengthens the deep transverse abdominis muscle, which can help reduce back pain.
  • Crunches on a Ball. As boring as they may seem, studies show that crunches done on a stability ball are the most effective exercise for the abs.
  • Seated Twist with Medicine Ball. You don't have to hold a weight to feel this exercise, which also works the obliques.
  • Reverse Crunch with Ball. No, it doesn't target your "lower abs" (we busted that myth above), but this is a great variation to regular crunches. The ball adds challenge, but you can do this with just bent legs and no ball.
  • Pilates. This gentle, yet effective, form of exercise focuses on strengthening the body from the center. It involves precision and concentration. With practice, individuals can expect better core strength, flatter abs, improved posture and a more balanced body.
Don't forget the lower back! Include at least one lower back exercise every time you work your abs. These muscles work together all the time. Strong abs help prevent lower back pain, but so does a strong back. Remember that when focusing on that muscle group, you should feel the muscles working—which is not the same as back pain. Do not attempt any exercise that actually hurts your back in any way. Pulling the abdominals in tight will offer greater support for the back during each of these exercises. Here are my top picks:
  • Back Extensions. Simple and straightforward, you'll feel the back working after just a few of these!
  • Swimming. This Pilates exercise is a great for the entire core, especially the lower back.
  • Slow Swimming with Ball. This advanced move targets the whole core to help you balance on the ball as you engage the erector spinae.
There you have it—the real "secrets" to getting toned, flat, and strong abdominals. Now that you understand the abs and how to train them, you are equipped to reach your goals. Soon your friends and family will want to know your secrets!

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Member Comments

  • Well, I don't want to be unhealthy, so I am not going to go for "abs". And if lowering her body fat so much means a woman won't menstruate, I think it is a horrible idea for women.
  • I'm wondering why, in none of the abs exercisers rowing isn't mentioned. This exercise works all the major muscle groups and, for those who suffer with OA, does not put excessive strain on their back, knees or hips.
  • NERUAL0
    Great article, http://deadsimple
    fitness.com and http://www.sparkp
    eople.com are the only two websites that have the exact information I've wanted for so long. Big thanks!
  • KBELCHERE
    Hi, Coach! I just read your article on Spark People about getting rid of belly fat. Great advice! I did have a question (it may actually be a dumb one!). You said that only cardio exercise burned belly fat, which I have heard before, but I am not sure which exercises you mentioned are cardio. I think I understand that working with the balls and doing Pilates are more for toning, maybe after you've gotten rid of your big belly, right? What kind of cardio exercise do you recommend? I like walking, but not running, yoga, dancing and want to try Zumba and am open to Pilates. Can you give me some direction, here? I know you must be crazy busy so thank you, thank you, thank you AND CONGRATULATIONS ON THE ARRIVAL OF YOUR NEW BABY!
  • TIWARIRS
    comments will be offered after a week
  • A good article. But shedding fat upto 8% is well below a healthy rate of fat in body. Abdominal may look great but the face will look like a piece of dry date with such a low content of fat in the body.
  • PEACENCARROTS
    Thank! Great article.
  • My goal (dream) is 20% body fat, so to see that I'd have to be 14% to have serious ab definition is in some weird way comforting. I guess that since its so unattainable, not because of impossibility but because to do so would mean living a lifestyle that would not make me happy, that it makes me appreciate the semi flat abs I currently have. Funny how such a small thing can be so eye opening.
  • I have so much blubber over my abs muscles no one would realize that under all that fat are developed muscles used for singing. However, to get all that fat off would require extensive cardio workout, a caloric intake of no more than 1200 calories and rigorous strength training. I wish I could do the exercises shown, but I can't and I know I can't. But at least I know that doing 50 crunches a day isn't the answer.
  • Martial arts are good exercise for the midsection because every movement begins there, since the upper and lower body drive each other and the midsection ties them together. These movements are best done as an intense activity/rest cycle, which is a good way to exercise if you want to tone muscles as well as burn fat. These fit in well as part of a bigger program, which should probably include weights, long walks, etc. They don't require equipment or even much space. You can do them during television commercials.

    Diet is a really big part of how your abs look, as this article points out. There was a time when I went beyond just having a six pack and had an entire keg, even though I was doing a lot of intense exercise and working construction all day. Diet discipline is essential to a flat stomach, at least for most of us.
  • As a follow-up to my comment below, it looks like "confusion" starts even before you read this article, lol! The title of the Spark email that contained a link to this article was:

    How to Lose Weight from Your Belly

    There is no way to spot lose fat from ANYWHERE on your body. Your body pulls out fat from wherever it deems appropriate, and you have virtually no control over that.
  • I've read this article a couple of times and I think the confusion begins right in the title. It reads:

    How to Get Six Pack Abs
    Fitness Secrets for a Flat, Toned Tummy

    Those are two different things. Six-pack abs may be concealed under that flat, toned tummy. But the muscle definition will only show if the body fat drops below a certain percentage. You certainly have to work hard to develop the muscles to that degree, but they still won't show unless you're willing to lose A LOT of your body fat. That actually requires rather specialized diet constraints that most non-athletes wouldn't be interested in.
  • FLIPFLYFALL
    @Chris3874 It's 14% for women because women have breasts, which increase the fat percentage. The idea is that the extra adipose tissue for women is in the breast, rather than around the stomach. It's generally considered harder for women to lose the stomach fat than for men, because of the tendency for women to store fat in the midsection/thigh/
    hip area, so while the fat percentage is higher for women than men, it can also be more difficult to lower that percentage enough to see the abs.

    In my experience, the cardio and the food choices are much more important to be able to see my abs than the strength training, although I do think that having strong abs (and core in general) is just as, if not more, important.
  • Going to do these when felling better.
  • GIGIKIT nailed it!!!! AWESOME WORKOUT! I do some of these already but after 4 years I needed something new. THANKS A BUNCH!

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

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