Ever wondered why all your ab workouts no matter how long and how intense they are, have little to show for visible ab definition? Why’s that even with all your efforts in giving your all to the best abs workout exercises which you think will help get you a ripped core, leaves you longing for more?
Here’s the thing that most people don’t realize about the ‘secret’ to getting abs is that one doesn’t need to do hours and hours of boring cardio or do ab exercises at the end of each training day in the hopes of getting the perfect abs.
There is a time-tested proven way of getting well-defined abs that can be applied by anyone who has the discipline and willpower to consistently follow the process as explained below.
This will be a long post as I have covered everything you need to know about the abdominal muscle and the best way to get shredded, defined, and clear-cut six-pack abs.
So let’s begin and first understand the structure of the muscles we are trying to build with the anatomy of the abdominal region.
The Muscle Anatomy of the Abs (Core)
To effectively train all the muscles in your abdominal region (also known as core muscles) to get completely developed abs, the understanding of the structure and muscles is of paramount importance. With this knowledge, one can self-access whether an ab exercise chosen to be included in an ab-training program targets the ab muscles in a risk-free and complete manner or not.
You’ve probably seen pictures of fitness models and bodybuilders with different kinds of ab structures with some of them having thick, prominent, and perfectly aligned abs while some of them displaying uneven and asymmetrical abs. While it’s true that anyone can get a six-pack, eight-pack, or four-pack abs, the end result depends on how your abs look will ultimately depend on your genetics and the anatomical structure of your abs which is what makes your abs look different from others.
The kind of genetics you’re blessed with doesn’t matter and cannot be changed but what matters is that there is so much you do to better develop the ab anatomy you do have by choosing the right ab exercises and working hard with them to make your abs look great. Doing that starts with the understanding of the core muscles of the abdominal region so let’s get straight to it.
1. Rectus Abdominis
Rectus Abdominis is the muscle that extends vertically at the front of the core and is made of eight different muscle bellies/packs, thus creating the six-pack look or for some the eight-pack at lower body fat levels. Commonly referred to as the upper abs, and lower abs, these are the different sections of the rectus abdominis and work together as one large muscle group.
You may have heard of this term before as it’s really popular on social media whenever there’s a talk of six-pack abs. This means that when people talk about six-pack abs, they are generally referring to the Rectus Abdominis muscle group.
The lines that separate and compartmentalize the ab region and run through the rectus abdominis are called Linea Alba.
Photo Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=238610
2. Internal Oblique and External Oblique
Oblique muscles are located at either side of the rectus abdominis responsible for twisting and turning the body, divided further into two parts known as the Internal and External Obliques. One can easily make out the difference between these two as the fibers of the external obliques run downward while the fibers of the internal obliques run opposite in the upward direction.
To get the complete six-pack, V-tapered abdominal look or what some call ‘V-Cut Abs’, it’s important to include exercises in your ab training that trains both the internal and external obliques.
Photo Credit: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=789657
3. Serratus Anterior
Serratus Anterior muscles are the often neglected small, diagonal muscles that can be found just under your lower chest and just above your external obliques, wrapping around your rib cage on either side of the abdominal area. These muscles function to stabilize and strengthen the core.
Photo Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=239312
4. Transverse Abdominis
Transverse Abdominis is the deep muscles located underneath the rectus abdominis and the obliques. This makes them the most important abdominal muscles because of their huge responsibility of keeping the entire ab structure together.
The transverse abdominis can be made stronger by lifting heavy weights in all compound exercises for an overall stronger core region. And core stability will provide a stable structure/ foundation in training the rest of your body for building muscle and increasing whole-body strength.
Photo Credit: By modified by Uwe Gille – Gray397.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2601348
The Best Abs Workout Exercises for a Ripped Core
Among the vast sea of ab exercises out there, there are a few among them that target and trains the three main areas of the abs (discussed above) most effectively.
While you are free to choose the ab exercises of your liking, the purpose here is to learn about the best exercises for maximum progressive overload necessary for making your core stronger and improving muscular endurance while hitting the different areas of the rectus abdominis.
There’s a simple pointer/hint for knowing whether one’s targeting their upper abs or lower abs with a particular ab exercise which is this —
Ab exercises that involve a bottom-up movement works best at training the lower abs and the ones that involve your shoulders moving towards your pelvis are best for influencing your upper abs. Do remember that any ab exercise you do will train your entire core as a whole and there is no way to just target the upper abs or lower abs with certain exercises. Your only possible chance is to better influence the abs for strenghtening and definition with a few worthwhile ab exercises.
What are the most effective ab exercises?
The best ab exercises below will benefit both, the beginner level trainees who have an undeveloped core, possibly new to ab training and advanced level athletes who have an experience of a few years under their belt doing random ab workouts without any visible results to show for them.
So, let’s finally familiarize ourselves with the best ab exercises for a ripped core and also understand the reason why we’re crowning the ab exercises (listed below) as the best among many.
1. Heavy Weight Lifting with Compound Exercises
No, there’s no ab exercise called by this name. But there’s a reason why this method is listed as the number one way to get six-pack abs with a stronger core to support all the big lifts in your workouts.
If you’re not using any compound exercises in your workout routines and working only with light weights for higher repetitions, following this approach won’t get you far in terms of muscle growth if that’s what your end goal is. To know more about hypertrophy (muscle growth) training, please read my article Hypertrophy Workout Routine for Bigger and Stronger Muscles.
While doing big compound exercises (the ones that work multiple muscle groups and two or more joints together) with heavier weights, it’s of paramount importance that one keeps the core stabilized to balance the heavy-lift by engaging all the core muscles of the rectus abdominis. Thus, indirectly but effectively training the six-pack muscles. The compound exercises we’re talking about here are the squat, deadlift, and barbell bench press which have been scientifically proven to target your core muscles when using heavier weights (80-90% of 1 Rep Max).
Even if you do no other direct ab exercises and simply follow this strategy of heavy, compound weight lifting while eating in a calorie deficit to lose body fat, you can easily get a six-pack. However, I do not recommend this since just adding a few sets of ab exercises to your intense training are worth the time and effort to reap their benefits for developing the well-structured look of the torso and also keeping the lower back pain at bay.
Easier said than done, but if you have the discipline and willpower to keep doing this consistently, nobody can stop you from being in the best shape of your life.
2. Leg Raise (Captain’s Chair and Hanging)
The core strength training exercise called leg raise works great at strengthening the obliques and the rectus abdominis as shown in this study. The most effective versions of the leg raise ab exercises are the lying leg raise, hanging leg raise, and captain’s chair leg raise.
Captain’s Chair Leg Raise (Beginners) –
The captain’s chair leg raise is the simplest of the three versions. With the weight of your body resting on both your elbows, one can start with the knee raises before progressing gradually to the leg raises as one builds core strength. For more advanced lifters, the hanging and lying leg raise is the preferred choice for effectively developing the ab muscles.
Hanging Leg Raise (Advanced) –
The hanging leg raise is a great exercise for training your lower abs and the transverse abdominis, best suited for intermediate to advanced weightlifters because of the strength needed from the upper body to hold the weight of your legs that act as resistance while doing the leg raise movement. This bottom-up, controlled movement of the legs and pelvis ensures your lower abs are getting the resistance to get stronger and in the process will gradually result in tapering down effect to complete the look of your six-pack at, of course, lower body fat levels.
3. Ab-Wheel Roll-Out
My favorite ab exercise is the classic ab wheel rollouts that have helped me develop all the muscles in my abdominal region including the forgotten core muscle, serratus. Backed by research, ab rollouts work great for both beginners and advanced-level athletes. All you need is inexpensive equipment called the ab wheel roller that you can easily find in many gyms or buy one online for a quick, effective and easy home ab workout.
Training the entire core as a single unit is the most beneficial and most effective way of developing abs which is what the simple and straightforward ab wheel rollouts do. All you need to do is an ab wheel roller found easily in all gymnasiums. This exercise is not for absolute beginners, newly introduced to ab training, and must be included in your ab workouts only once you have built a stable core strength using other bodyweight ab exercises. See the most accurate demo of this exercise well-explained by Athlean-X here.
The standard plank exercise is great for people new to ab training who aim to build endurance and strengthen their core. Planks should be a part of everyone’s ab training to help one build a stable foundation for strengthening your core. Planks make you stronger on the other, more difficult ab exercises you anticipate doing as you get more experienced in your training and engage not only your ab muscles but also your back, shoulders, arms, and leg muscles making them hard to hold for longer than sixty seconds for most people. This challenge is good for your core which is what makes this exercise among the best ones for stronger abs and a well-developed core.
Intermediate to Advanced –
Standard planks that you can hold for up to a minute are only good up to a certain level for true beginners and beyond that provides no challenge or benefits to the core. So if you can easily hold a standard plank for sixty seconds, it’s time to move on to a modified plank, like the Marching Plank, Weighted Plank, Tuck Plank, or the Side Plank Lifts. Aim for maintaining proper form while doing a modified plank for a duration of 60 to 90 seconds.
5. Bicycle Crunch, Reverse Crunch and Side Crunch
Saving the best ab exercises for last, let’s discuss the three dominant variations of the crunch exercise that most effectively works the abdominal muscles than all other ab exercises.
Bicycle Crunch (Beginner) –
The bicycle crunch has been named the best abdominal exercise in this comprehensive 2001 study done by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This ab exercise works perfectly on both the rectus abdominis and the obliques which makes it super effective for developing your six-pack.
Reverse Crunch (Heels to Heaven) Advanced –
One of the supreme and most popular lower abs exercises out there along with Hanging Leg Raise, the reverse crunch targets your core with a bottom-up movement that is both challenging and effective for developing that lower portion of your six-pack which is the hardest to look shredded.
Side Crunch (Advanced) –
The standard side crunch is the simplest and most effective bodyweight exercise to target both the external and internal obliques. In one easy movement, you can train the obliques and rectus abdominis muscles alternating on both sides. Try focusing on full range of motion for a better contraction and muscle activation with each slow and controlled repetition to get the most out of this ab exercise. If for some reason, you’re unable to do side crunches, you can try other oblique exercises like the side plank or ab wheel rollouts as the best replacement exercises.
6. Weighted Ab Exercises
Cable Crunch or Ab Pulldown –
The cable crunch is best done on a weighted machine, in a kneeling down position with a rope attachment, and is most effective when performed at lower body fat levels to train the complete rectus abdominis. The reason for doing so is that it will make your abs look distinct with clear separations of the six-pack region in the final stages of your cutting program. Adding weights to your ab workouts with this exercise will result in hypertrophy in your ab muscles thus helping them to stand out and get a clear-cut ab definition over time.
Weighted Situps –
This free weight exercise is done using the weighted plates (best placed on your chest or above your head) and works similarly to the cable crunch by primarily promoting muscle growth and strengthening the abdominals as you progress towards heavier weights. Just like any other exercise, if you want to build strong abs you will need progressive overload by increasing the weight lifted on these ab exercises as your core gets stronger.
It’s Impossible to See Abs Without Getting This Right
Good core muscle strength is essential for daily life and all kinds of sports activities. There are numerous benefits of improving core stability and strength through resistance training and ab exercises. One of the major benefits of having strong core muscles is the improvement in lower back pain and injuries which the majority of people experience in their lives.
Improving your core strength will automatically translate into improving the quality of your life with no lower back pain, improved posture, better handling and balance in heavy weightlifting, and much more.
You must have heard the old adage, “Abs are made in the gym and revealed in the kitchen”.
This statement comes from the universal truth that one can do a million reps of all sorts of ab exercises but unless they reduce the fat covering the ab with a great diet, they won’t see a single visible ab muscle. It has been scientifically proven with this study that no amount of ab exercises will help you reduce your body fat or abdominal fat. Do not fall victim to all those false advertisements for ab equipments that claim otherwise.
The only way to get six-pack abs is to combine proper training with a great nutrition plan which we’ll discuss below.
Nutrition and Body Fat (Most Important)
There is no shortcut when it comes to having your abs show and pop if you refuse to watch what you’re putting in your mouth, your diet is going to dictate if your abs show or not, no matter how much cardio you do, you’re never going to outrun a bad diet. If your diet is in check, you can see all the rewards of your efforts come into play. What I’m referring to here isn’t a decent diet or even a good diet but a GREAT diet!
The only way to make positive changes in your body fat percentage is to include weight training or any type of physical exercise combined with a reduction in daily calorie intake. Now that the importance of diet is known, your number goal with your nutrition should be to eat in such a manner that makes your body lose fat.
Which is what brings us to this burning question –
How do I calculate my body fat percentage?
To know where you currently stand in terms of body fat levels, you can simply use any online body fat calculator. Or, use the one I’ve personally found to give accurate estimates, which is the Escablo Body Fat Calculator. For using this calculator you would need to take your skinfold measurements using a caliper.
The most important point while calculating your body fat measurements is to test yourself under the same conditions each and every time you take your skinfold measurements. Which is the first thing in the morning on an empty stomach after using the bathroom.
Here is a self-assessment example of skinfold measurements using calipers explained perfectly by Mike Matthews, author of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger and founder of Legion Athletics..
After having a rough idea of your body fat percentage, the only way of losing fat through nutrition is to eat in a caloric deficit. At this stage, I would already assume that you’re tracking your daily calories and macronutrients. If not, no worries. Someone wise once said the best time to track calories was the day you started lifting and the second-best day is, guess what, TODAY!
To learn all about flexible dieting and tracking calories, read ‘Diet for building lean muscle‘. Getting back to our topic, the big question is,
What’s the exact calorie deficit one should eat at to burn maximum fat while keeping all the muscle?
Well, the short and simple answer is this – there’s no exact number and there will never be.
So getting into the specifics with my own real-life experience, I would say that you should aim at eating at a calorie deficit between a mild 15% (slow-cutting approach) to an aggressive 25% (faster fat loss when combined with heavy weightlifting) from your maintenance calories (calculate here).
Keep the macronutrient ratio of 40% Protein, 40% Carbohydrates, and 20% Fat for the best results when eating in a caloric deficit. It’s totally for you to decide as to how many calories you can comfortably reduce from your daily nutrition without starving yourself.
If you are new to counting and tracking calories, read my article about the best nutrition plan for building lean muscle (Flexible Dieting).
The big question on how long you should cut will depend on whether you go forward with the mild or aggressive calorie deficit nutrition approach and on how hard you train in the gym for burning more calories. Stay as long as it takes in a calorie deficit to get to the body fat range of 8-10% for men and 13-20% for women to see visible abs and a ripped core!
While staying in a calorie deficit for this long will comes with its possible drawbacks, this long ‘cutting’ period will also be the only time in your life that you will push yourself to get the body of your dreams. And finally the day you get to your desired body fat levels, from there onwards your fitness journey will get much easier. You can choose to keep your nutrition at either maintenance (for keeping/ maintaining muscle) or surplus levels (for building muscle).
Once you get to the body fat levels where you start seeing your six-pack abs, good advice at this point is to be happy with the results of your hard work. If you wish to enjoy life and not get OCD about food, then staying at a body fat level of 8 to 10% is a reasonable range that can easily be maintained all-year-round.
Don’t bother getting lower than that percentage as it’s not just unhealthy in the long run but comes with a whole set of problems like hunger cravings, testosterone drop, and lower libido along with a full stop to muscle and strength gains.
Cardio is optional and far less important in reducing body fat percentage than you realize if you’re already eating and training right. But adding a little cardio to your regimen (like HIIT) will definitely fast track your body’s fat-burning ability. That said, if you don’t particularly enjoy cardio or lack the time, you can do as much as it takes to achieve your goals and no more.
And just only eating at a calorie deficit won’t suffice.
You also need to lift heavyweights in the gym to avoid losing muscle while eating fewer calories each day. As you get closer and closer to lower body fat levels, lifting heavy will get difficult, wearing you out easily.
But don’t give up and remind yourself of your ‘Why’. Your willpower and discipline to persevere will be tested at this stage and if you follow through with your plan and keep going, you will get to a stage where you’ll be thrilled to see your physique in the mirror with the perfect set of abs that you always wished you had.
Of course, this is hard for most people, but so is everything else in life. Most advice on the internet won’t tell you about this harsh truth because it’s not ‘sexy’ to hear like when you see everyone talking about the next new trending exercise to magically give you a chiseled core and six-pack abs.
Do yourself a favor and avoid the BS. The sooner you learn this truth, the easier it will be for you to get very clear results in the gym with your efforts.
The goal is not just to lose body fat for owning the six-pack look but the ultimate goal for getting leaner is to look the best version of yourself with every area of your body looking ripped with excellent muscle definition.
Proper Breathing Technique
Yes, you’ve read that right! Something as simple and as natural as breathing also influences the effectiveness of ab workouts. Using the proper breathing technique is one of the keys to getting abs. This is not just important for maximizing output from ab exercises but is also applicable for training other muscles.
For accurately sculpting and activating your ab muscles, you want to be sure that you’re breathing out or exhaling while keeping your stomach down by tightening in your core and not pushing it out, while on the way up and breathing in or inhaling as normal on your way down.
Breathing out and pushing out your core at the same time is a wrong and counterproductive breathing technique that can weaken your abs and giving them a bloated appearance.
Breathe out and push in your stomach at the same time on every exertion or the way up.
Range of Motion and Progression
A full range of motion helps in a better contraction of the ab muscles which further increases the chances of training the complete rectus abdominis muscle group.
The best way forward is to keep progressing in your repetitions with each ab exercise or increase the load on weighted ab exercises as your core gets stronger.
To make the ab exercises more challenging, focus on squeezing the abs and performing the repetitions slowly thus improving the quality of the reps and making every rep count.
One doesn’t need any fat-burning supplements for losing fat faster. The best way to get leaner is to do it naturally by simply eating fewer calories than you burn every day. But still, if you’re seeking little help along with way, the only supplements I recommend are these –
Caffeine: This is perhaps the most common ingredient that the majority of people already take daily in the form of coffee because of its mind-blowing effectiveness in keeping the mind alert with an instant energy boost to keep you going for the rest of your day!
Not just that, research has shown that caffeine when combined with Green Tea Extract promotes fat loss and body fat reduction by increasing the number of calories burned when combined with high-intensity exercise.
An easy way to include caffeine in your diet if you’re not a fan of drinking cups and cups of coffee is through Caffeine Pills. Having used them myself and still using them to this date after being a coffee drinker for a couple of years, I discovered that taking caffeine in the pill form is far easier so I never looked back.
With this naturally healthy combination of caffeine and green tea supplementation scientifically proven, you may gain a slight edge by improving your weight loss efforts. So, the choice is yours!
The Perfect Ab Workout Routine (Targeting All Areas)
For the most accurate exercise selection, you need to be sure that you are focusing not only on the upper and lower ab exercises but also including exercises for your obliques in your perfect ab training program.
There are many ab exercises for hitting these muscles effectively so it’s important to include them in your ab workouts as they help complete the look of an overall ripped core with the perfection of that tapered look that most bodybuilders overlook. These ab exercises will work best in conjunction with heavy, compound weight lifting to develop all the muscles of your abdominal region and over time will result in a six-pack as you keep getting leaner.
You will be training abs twice to thrice per week, which you can adjust depending on the number of days you train per week with a gap of 1-2 days in between each ab workout.
Ab training is best recommended to be done at the end of your training day after having finished your workouts. You can either use the circuit training method or use the sets/reps technique for doing ab exercises whichever suits you better.
Circuit training refers to combining three or more ab exercises and doing them without any rest for either the desired number of repetitions or for a set amount of time. When all the ab exercises in the circuit are complete, it means you’ve just finished one circuit.
If for some reason you’re unable to do any ab exercise because it doesn’t feel right or uncomfortable, feel free to replace it with one of the best ab exercises listed above.
The step-by-step ab workout given below is categorized into a beginner level and an advanced level.
If you have little to no experience with ab training, I recommend following the beginner-level ab workout. Whereas if your training program consists of heavy weightlifting or you regularly include ab exercises in your fitness regimen, I recommend following the advanced level ab workout.
What is the most effective workout for abs?
The most effective ab workout is one which doesn’t overtrain the abs and strengthens the rectus abdominis along with the supporting core muscles through the exercises chosen in the ab training program. An effective ab workout doesn’t need you to do countless repetitions but a challenging engagement of your core through the best few ab exercises done no more than 2-3 times a week. So here is the most effective ab workout plan laid out step-by step for you!
The Step by Step Perfect Ab Workout
Total Circuits/Sets –
Circuits: 3 circuits per ab workout or
Sets: 2-3 sets of each ab exercise individually done
Rest Time –
Circuits: 2-3 minutes in between circuits; No rest between exercises or
Sets: 30-60 second rest between each set
Beginner Level Abs Workout –
Captain’s Chair Leg Raise (Bottom-Up Exercise)
As many reps as possible (AMRAP)/ To failure or 30-60 seconds
Standard Planks (Core-Stability Exercise)
60 seconds, Change to a Modified Plank version for better challenging & strengthening the core once you can easily hold a standard plank for a minute.
Ab Wheel Rollout (Obliques/Rotation Exercise)
(AMRAP)/ To failure or 30-60 seconds
Bicycle Crunch (Top-Down Exercise)
(AMRAP)/ To failure or 30-60 seconds
Advanced Level Abs Workout –
Kneeling Cable Rope Crunch or Weighted Situps (Weighted Ab Exercise)
Hanging Leg Raise or Reverse Crunch / Heels to Heaven (Bottom-Up Exercise)
(To Failure with Proper Form or 30-60 seconds)
Ab Wheel Rollout or Side Crunch (Obliques/Rotation Exercise)
I have tried my best to cover everything you need to know about getting a six-pack in this article. These principles have worked for me and I have been able to share them with you so you can learn from my experience and avoid making the same mistakes I did back when I was still an amateur bodybuilder.
Keep in mind that everyone does ab exercises differently and there isn’t any ‘perfect’ ab workout out there that will suit the needs and expectations of all. No matter which exercises you choose, take the time to train and strengthen your abdominal muscles.
Just habitually doing no more than five to ten minutes of an ab workout per day will guarantee the strengthening of your core. That alone is the dominant factor essential for the longevity of your health and well-being, whether or not you have six-pack abs.
And, I promise if you follow these fundamentals and stay on course, you will, and yes you absolutely will be the proud owner of not just a six-pack but an absolutely splendid and shredded physique.
I hope and wish that the information I shared will be helpful to you in progressing in your fitness journey. If you enjoyed this post, please leave your experiences and comments below.
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