What's the Secret to Getting Six-Pack Abs?

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 flat 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. Do they 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, either—all you need is your body and the proper training knowledge.

But first, it’s important to understand the anatomy of the rectus abdominis. This muscle group, more commonly known as the "abs", 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 "six-pack" (but more accurately, eight-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 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.

Training for Abs of Steel

If strengthening your core and making those abs pop is your goal, there are a few things you'll need to keep in mind as you train. 

1. 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 everyday 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. 

2. 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, know that you do not have to drastically change your diet (or limit certain foods or food groups) to lose the belly bulge. Simple, healthy and clean eating habits (not deprivation) will help you drop excess weight from all over the body.

3. Be realistic. For visible abdominal definition, your body fat percentage has to be pretty low—that's about eight percent body fat for men and 14 percent body fat for women. To put this in perspective, "healthy" ranges of body fat are 14 to 17 percent for men and 21 to 24 percent 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.

4. Train the abs like you would any other muscle. You should strength train all of your major muscle groups, which typically involves one to three sets of eight to 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, eight to 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 one to two 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 three to four abdominal training sessions per week.

5. 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 four to six 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.

There are many exercises you can add to your strength training routine to target the core. These five are a great place to start. 
  • 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. If you're just starting out, set up with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders and your knees on the ground. The goal here is to have a flat back. As you get stronger, step the feet back into a full plank, maintaining a straight line from your heels to your head. 
  • 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. To perform, sit on the stability ball, then lean back so your lower back extends over the surface of the ball. Contract the abs to come back to the top and repeat. 
  • Seated Twist with Medicine Ball. You don't have to hold a weight to feel this exercise, which also works the obliques. If you want the extra challenge, hold a medicine ball at your chest with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Lean back to about a 45-degree angle, or until you feel your abs begin contracting. From this position, twist from the core to the right, back to center and then to the left. 
  • Reverse Crunch with Ball. To perform this exercise, you'll need a stability ball placed between ankles and calves.  Squeeze the ball into place, then roll onto your back, keeping your knees at 90-degrees. As you exhale, pull the knees toward the chest, then inhale as you return to start. No, it doesn't target your "lower abs," but this is a great variation for regular crunches. The ball adds a challenge, but you can also 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 low 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. 
  • Back Extensions. Simple and straightforward, you'll feel the back working after just a few of these! Begin by lying face down on a mat with your arms straight by your sides. Brace the core and peel your head and chest off the mat, squeezing the back muscles at the top of the movement. Lower back down slow and with control. 
  • Swimming. This Pilates exercise is a great for the entire core, especially the lower back. Lying face down with the arms extended long overhead and legs straight, raise your right arm and left leg three to four inches in the air. Exhale and switch, raising your left arm and right leg. Continue "swimming", keeping the core tight throughout. 
  • 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!