THE ULTIMATE ABS WORKOUT GUIDE
What does it really take to get your abs to show? What abs workouts are the most effective?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what the best ab workout is and what it really takes to get those six pack abs that you and everyone else is chasing.
That’s why I created for you a complete guide to abs workouts including a primer on the muscles we’re talking about, the best ab exercises for every region of the abs, and tips that really work for how to get abs. No gimmicks, no B.S., just the ‘hard core’ truth!
I’ve broken down this definitive guide into sections designed to help you find exactly the information you’re looking for. I’ll also be answering all of your most commonly asked questions related to abs and abs workouts.
Here are some of the main topics I’ll be covering in this guide to strength training the abs:
Before we begin, let’s take a look at some ab muscle anatomy so we can get our bearings before we start talking more in depth about how to get abs and the best abs workouts.
1) AB MUSCLES ANATOMY
There are four main muscles that comprise the entire core that we’re going to cover in this section.
I’ll break out my famous Muscle Markers so that you can see exactly which areas we’re talking about!
First up is the largest muscle in the abdominal region: the rectus abdominis. When we talk about ‘upper abs’ and ‘lower abs’ these aren’t separate muscles but rather separate regions of this same rectus abdominis muscle that spans almost the entire torso.
It’s also the main muscle that makes up that six pack!
The fibers run vertically north to south, and the rectus is responsible for torso flexion from top down or bottom up.
Next up are the external obliques whose fibers run at an oblique angle (surprise!) from the outer edges of the ribcage down toward the pelvis. These help us to rotate and control that rotation.
They also add that nice ‘frame’ to the rectus abdominis or six pack.
The internal obliques run in the opposite direction from the external obliques, from the outer edge of the ribcage close to the hip, and up and in toward the midline of your body.
The transverse abdominis runs like a weight belt around your waist, and it’s one of the deeper core muscles. When you suck in your abs or perform ab vacuums it’s the transverse abdominis doing the work. It’s an important muscle because it helps drive stability in the abdominal muscles.
The serratus anterior is an ab muscle many people totally forget about, or worse, don’t even know exists.
If that’s you, listen up!
The serratus is important for stabilizing the trunk because it keeps the shoulder blades in contact with the rib cage. Its fibers are ‘woven’ together with the oblique fibers and together they work to control rotation of the trunk.
It is possible to strengthen this muscle with one specific exercise which I’ll show you later in this article!
2) CAN ANYONE GET ABS?
If visible abs are the goal, the answer is YES… with proper nutrition, exercise and discipline, anyone should be able to get some amount of visible abs, even if it’s just the top two or four of the six pack.
Typically, as body fat decreases, the uppermost abs are the ones that reveal themselves first. The first tier of the pack is the one that will poke out and stoke your motivation to keep going.
The remaining packs in the lower abdominal area are the most challenging to see because the lower belly is one of the last places both men and women retain bodyfat… it’s the hardest to lose.
And if your ab muscles are hidden by belly fat, you definitely won’t be able to see them! More on that in a bit.
Now if you’re wondering whether YOU can ultimately achieve 6 pack or even 8 pack abs, the answer could be yes or no.
It depends on your genetics…
WHAT ARE 8 PACK ABS?
The “packs” in 4 pack, 6 pack or 8 pack abs are created by connective tissue in the rectus abdominis muscle. In some areas the connective tissue is pulled tighter than in others which gives the impression of divisions in the muscle.
Some people are born with just 4 divisions, while others are born with 6 or 8. Six of these divisions is the most common in the general population.
This means that there are no 8 pack abs workouts, and not much you can do to get an 8 pack if you weren’t born with it.
But truly, who cares?
A strong lean set of abs looks great no matter how many packs there are. And of nearly ALL the most popular bodybuilders throughout history, none had an 8 pack.
If you want to determine what your genetic abs potential is, you can take the 8 Pack Abs test in my 8 Pack Abs vs 6 Pack Abs article.
3) NUTRITION FOR ABS
It’s important to realize that ab workouts aren’t the only ingredient in the recipe for getting six pack abs.
In fact, core exercises are not even the main ingredient.
Nutrition is the key.
Not sure you believe me? Let’s look into it further…
DO AB WORKOUTS BURN BELLY FAT?
You can’t burn belly fat by doing ab exercises. Period.
Ab exercises will help develop the abdominal muscles and can provide a visual impact that can help you stay motivated (when those top two ‘packs’ starting to pop out).
But spot reduction in which you try to reduce fat in a single problem area, such as the belly, just isn’t possible.
Instead, you’ll need to burn overall bodyfat if you want to see the belly fat that’s covering your abs start to disappear.
So, what you want to know is how to lose belly fat.
Are you thinking, “Ok, I’ll just do more cardio”?
If so, think again.
When doing cardio training in which your heart rate increases, you will definitely burn off some energy which can help somewhat with fat reduction.
But the truth is that you can’t outwork a bad diet.
To get visible abs, you’re going to have to work on your nutrition.
There’s just no way around it!
WHAT SHOULD I EAT TO GET ABS?
So then if nutrition is the key to seeing that six pack, what should you be eating?
There’s a ton of conflicting info out there about nutrition. People like to make it really complicated but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it’s all this complication that keeps people from being able to stick to a plan.
I mean, how many people are going to be food journaling, counting and measuring every day for the rest of their lives?
The truth is there’s a much easier way. Let me break it down for you.
Just take a round plate and imagine it divided up into 40%, 40% and 20%.
That’s 40% protein, 40% fibrous carbs and 20% starchy carbs. Fats are ‘incidental’… use them to cook your food or where they’re found as healthy ingredients in a recipe in cases like nuts, seeds and avocados.
Proteins include meats and seafood, dairy such as cheese and milk, or vegetarian/vegan protein sources like soy, beans, nuts and seeds.
Fibrous carbs are fruits and vegetables.
For starchy carbs, choose unrefined options like whole grains, squash or sweet potatoes.
Simple, right? This is a great way to make sure you’re eating properly to get your abs to show, without spending all your time food logging!
4) HOW TO TRAIN THE ABS?
With the nutrition knowledge under your belt, how do you go about training your abs to make sure you’re getting results?
As we discussed previously, if you have belly fat covering your abs, all the abs exercises in the world won’t make your abs show.
Likewise, even if you’re already pretty lean, if you’re not doing your ab exercises properly and in the right order, you’re not going to get the results you want. If all you’re doing is set after set of boring crunches, you’re definitely NOT going to get there!
Yes, there’s an ideal order that you should work your ab muscles to get best results. It helps make sure you’re doing the hardest work at the beginning of your core training session so you can get the most out of it.
I call it the Six Pack Progression.
My ‘Six Pack Progression’ works the ab muscles in this sequence to get optimal results:
- Lower abs
- Bottom up
- Top down rotation
- Top down
We start out with lower ab and bottom-up exercises in which there is isolated movement of the legs. These movements are a challenge that requires a lot of energy because your lower abs need to support the extra weight of the legs.
Then we move on to mid-range movements and obliques. We do upper abs movements last because even if you’re pretty fatigued by the time you get to this point in the workout, you will still be able to manage them with proper form.
All of the ab workouts in my ATHLEAN-X programs and my Six Pack Promise app follow this exact same sequence!
If you want to see an example of a short workout that follows the Six Pack Progression, you can check out Brutal Six Pack Abs Workout.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU TRAIN THE ABS?
You can train abs 5-6 times per week or even daily, for no more than 10 minutes at a time. The core muscles are involved in almost all everyday movements we do, so unlike other muscle groups, it’s ok to train them this often.
I believe you can get a complete ab workout in just 6 minutes. That’s why I’ve based the workouts in the Six Pack Promise app around a 6-minute time frame.
A small commitment like 6 minutes makes it easier to stay motivated to get the job done, and with abs, consistency is key!
5) WHAT IS THE BEST AB WORKOUT?
Well, I will tell you what the best ab workout is NOT. It’s not endless crunches and a set of the bicycle crunch.
As I explained above, the best ab workouts train all the muscles and regions of the abs in the exact order that I prescribe them in the Six Pack Progression.
Not only would they hit ALL the abdominal muscles and hit them in the right order…
They would also work each of the functions of the abdominal muscles.
Let’s take a look at these one by one.
Spinal flexion is the back-and-forth movement of the spine which controls forward bending such as in a simple crunch.
The abs also control extension stability which helps to pull you forward from spinal extension.
The abs also serve an anti-lateral function to help prevent unnecessary or unwanted lateral (sideways) movement.
The abs also serve the function of anti-rotation, which is to prevent unneeded or unwanted rotation.
The abs and obliques work together to control rotation, which gives us rotational stability.
The abs and obliques also work together to provide rotational power.
6) WHAT ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE ABS EXERCISES?
What makes an ab exercise fall into the ‘most effective’ category?
It needs to target the desired muscles, use little to no equipment, have multiple functions involved if possible, and be difficult to perform incorrectly.
A lot of good abs exercises like leg raises, Russian twists and bicycle crunches are commonly performed incorrectly. In these exercises it’s all too easy to overuse hip flexors or underperform the rotational aspect and completely miss out on the benefits.
That is why you won’t see these exercises show up on this list.
What you will see is an array of exercises that hit the most important functions and regions of the abs. These will have some fail-safes built in to make them much easier to perform correctly, which makes them much more effective.
A few of them work more than one abdominal muscle function and several of them use no equipment, so they can be performed anywhere!
Let’s dive in and I’ll show you my top selections and why I chose them!
If you want to try what I believe is the best ab workout that hits every one of these functions and arranges the exercises in the correct sequence for maximum efficiency, check out my Perfect Abs Workout. It contains all of my favorite abs exercises as well as advanced exercises and a beginner abs exercise alternative for each move.
SIDE BRIDGE TWIST – LATERAL FLEXION AND ROTATIONAL CONTROL
HOW TO DO IT: For this forearm side plank variation, start in forearm plank position with elbow under shoulder, but with feet in side plank position. Lift your trunk up off the ground to create lateral flexion pillar strength using the obliques and then twist the torso with a controlled motion.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise works lateral flexion and rotational control and stability at the same time. Whenever we combine functions, it makes for a more effective exercise. This is also a great bodyweight exercise with no equipment required.
LEVITATION CRUNCH – UPPER ABS
HOW TO DO IT: This one proves that ab exercises don’t have to be elaborate to be effective. Keeping your feet flat, just lift your shoulder blades off the ground and ‘levitate’ your upper body toward the ceiling, hands behind the head and allowing your shoulder blades guide the way. Don’t crank on your neck or pull your head closer to your knees. This doesn’t work the abs.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This crunch variation is a simple and small movement that is very effective for training the upper abs without the need for the neck cranking involved in a traditional crunch. You don’t need a ton of range of motion here. It also requires no equipment at all.
SWIPER – LOWER ABS
HOW TO DO IT: For this reverse crunches variation, the upper body stays on the stays on the ground. Focus on curling the pelvis back and getting it off the ground, bringing your knees toward your chest. Swipe your hands underneath your tailbone as it lifts, which will help ensure you’re doing the exercise correctly and provides an extra challenge for core strength.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This is a slow and easily controlled movement for the lower abs that has a self-check built in to help make sure you’re clearing the tailbone off the floor.
GYMNAST AB TUCK – LOWER ABS
HOW TO DO IT: Use your arms to lift your torso up and focus on unfolding your trunk right at the level of the pelvis, not on moving the legs. This creates a posterior pelvic tilt which is responsible for the spinal flexion that activates the abdominals. While I’m doing it on a captain’s chair, it can also be done on a kitchen countertop corner.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Use your arms to lift your torso up and focus on unfolding your trunk right at the level of the pelvis, not on moving the legs. This creates a posterior pelvic tilt which is responsible for the spinal flexion that activates the abdominals. While I’m doing it on a captain’s chair, it can also be done on a kitchen countertop corner.
SLIDING AB TUCK – ENTIRE ABDOMINAL AREA
HOW TO DO IT: Starting in high plank position and using socks on a slick surface, slide your feet backward and in toward the torso with a slight twist, twisting side to side. Curl the pelvis into posterior pelvic tilt, not by driving with the hip flexors but by using the abdominal muscles.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Starting in high plank position and using socks on a slick surface, slide your feet backward and in toward the torso with a slight twist, twisting side to side. Curl the pelvis into posterior pelvic tilt, not by driving with the hip flexors but by using the abdominal muscles.
7) WHAT WORKOUTS TARGET LOWER ABS?
As I alluded to earlier in this article, getting the lower abs to show is the most challenging piece of the development of a six pack.
This is because the lower belly is one of the last places in the body to hold on to fat.
If you want to see lower ab definition, you need to stay very consistent with a high-quality nutrition plan.
That being said, the best lower abs workouts should focus on three things:
- Using bottom-up abdominal exercises, as mentioned in the section about the Six Pack Progression. Why bottom-up movements? The rectus abdominis is one large muscle, so there is no ‘lower abs’ muscle separate from the rest of the abs. However, when we move from the bottom up, we move the weight of the legs along with our pelvis. That turns the exercise into an effective weighted ab exercise, which provides overload and causes hypertrophy in the lower abdominal area. The lower abs will then stand out and become more visible IF body fat levels are low.
- Focus on moving the pelvis, NOT the legs. If you’re focused on raising and lowering the legs, you’re going to activate your hip flexors and NOT your abs. Move the pelvis and let it take the legs along for the ride during every bottom-up exercise.
- Engage the adductors on lower abs movements. These muscles attach to the pelvis from below, so contracting them creates stability in the pelvis which will make each exercise more effective. To apply this technique, cross your legs at the ankles and squeeze your legs together for both ground-based and hanging lower ab movements.
If you’d like to try a great lower abs workout where you can put all of these tips into practice, take a look at my Best Lower Ab Workout.
8) WHAT WORKOUTS TARGET THE OBLIQUES?
The obliques manage a lot of functions: they produce power, ensure postural stability and produce and control rotation.
They assist with side bending, like in exercises where you’re bringing your knee to meet the elbow. Many single sided oblique exercises also help with or prevent flexion of the trunk.
Unfortunately, this important muscle is often ignored in people’s ab training, or they’re just not trained the right way. People tend to use ineffective exercises or perform good obliques exercises incorrectly.
Let’s look at 3 great obliques exercises you can incorporate into your abs workouts that require only your bodyweight.
HOW TO DO IT: Allow the shoulder that’s on the ground to go fully down and then rotate toward the ground to open up the oblique muscle. This extra rotation ensures that the muscle gets stretched on every rep, making it more effective.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Allows you to move slowly and deliberately to make every repetition count and really burn out the obliques.
HOW TO DO IT: Elevate your feet on a surface such as a chair and raise yourself into side forearm plank position with your forearm stabilizing your weight on the ground. You can challenge yourself by dipping your torso down a bit on each rep.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: It trains the obliques as a dynamic stabilizer which is part of their natural function in everyday activities.
elbow to knee
HOW TO DO IT: Lie straight on the ground with your right arm out for support and body angled slightly back. Bring your left elbow to your left knee focusing on the obliques.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: Lie straight on the ground with your right arm out for support and body angled slightly back. Bring your left elbow to your left knee focusing on the obliques.
HOW CAN YOU TRAIN THE SERRATUS?
As I mentioned in the ab muscles anatomy section, the serratus is woven together with the obliques and works with them to stabilize the trunk and control trunk rotation.
You don’t want to forget about it in your abs training!
There is one great exercise you can do that works the serratus and the obliques together, and that’s the corkscrew.
HOW TO DO IT: Supporting yourself in a captain’s chair, dip and twist your body from side to side, pressing down through your hands.
WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The pressing down of the hands gets the protraction that works the serratus, which the twisting motion hits the obliques.
9) HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET ABS?
One of the most commonly asked questions I get about the abdominals is how long it takes to get visible six pack abs.
This will really depend on how much overall body fat and belly fat you had when you started, how consistent you are with your nutrition and how good your ab training is.
The good news is, there are a few things you can do to speed up the process.
HOW TO GET ABS FAST?
When it comes to how to get a six pack fast, there are three important steps you can follow. Let’s look at them one by one:
STEP 1: FOLLOW THE SIX PACK PYRAMID
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, nutrition should be your foundation when it comes to getting six pack abs. It may help to visualize its importance if you look at my Six Pack Pyramid.
The Six Pack Pyramid contains all the necessary elements for building a six pack, and as you can see, nutrition is the base of that pyramid. Strength training in general is the next most important, followed by ab training and cardio. This is because after ensuring that your nutrition is in check, building muscle mass through strength training is what will help the most to reduce any body fat that is likely covering up your ab muscles.
STEP 2: INCREASE THE FREQUENCY OF AB WORKOUTS
After proper nutrition and strength training are in place, it’s important to increase the frequency and effectiveness of your ab workouts to build a strong core. Be sure to do ab workouts that follow the correct Six Pack Progression as I outlined above.
To get unlimited ab workouts that follow this progression, check out my Six Pack Promise app or the web version ‘Six Pack Shuffle’ feature that comes with your purchase of any ATHLEAN-X program. It’s an ab workout generator that you can use to deal up ab workouts customized to your fitness level and available equipment, all of which follow my Six Pack Progression.
STEP 3: IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF EVERY REP
As you begin to increase the frequency of your ab workouts and are training the abs in the correct sequence, there are a few tweaks you can make to improve the quality of every rep of every ab exercise.
Here are a few of my best tips:
- Make every rep count by striving for meaningful contractions and not speed or number of reps. Go slow and use that mind-to-muscle connection.
- With bottom-up or lower abs movements, focus on lifting the pelvis, NOT the legs, as mentioned in the lower abs section. Squeeze your legs together to make your pelvis even more stable.
- With top-down or upper abs movements such as a traditional crunch, try to focus on lifting your shoulder blades off the ground and don’t crank on the neck. Pretend there is a line just at the bottom of your ribcage and try to fold your body at that line when you are crunching. This gives a much better contraction of the rectus abdominis.
- Breathe properly! Don’t push your abdomen out as you exhale. Instead do the opposite and blow air out while pulling your stomach down. This is called cinching the abs and it activates the transverse abdominis.
When it comes to building abs, all the details matter, and it’s important to remember that the little things can make the biggest impact over time!
And of course, consistency is key.
Get that nutrition dialed in, strength train regularly and perform short but effective abs workouts 5-6 days per week and you’ll be on your way to building that six pack!
If you’re looking for a complete plan to build muscle, lose body fat and get lean visible abs once and for all, check out our ATHLEAN-X programs.
CORE4 ABS ==> Complete Core Training Program
AX1 ==> Train at Home With Dumbbells and Minimal Equipment
Program Selector ==> See which program best fits your goals