It’s in every commercial or advertisement trying to convince you to buy their fitness related product. A set of well defined abs, for many who have it, they may not even be able to explain to others how to attain it. Like Peyton Manning said in one of his commercials “Unless you're under 25 or a professional athlete, it’s probably not gonna happen.”
As funny as it sounds, it portrays the difficulty many have in trying to attain a set of well defined abdominals. Many who sport a 6-pack are either young with a fast metabolism, an athlete who is able to spend hours everyday undergoing strenuous training, or they simply have great genetics.
In all of these cases, the owners of these six packs wouldn’t always be able to guarantee the less fortunate keg holders that their routine would work for them (except for the pro athlete with the implausible for the working class American training routine). A great abdominal program takes into account every aspect of training and nutrition as well as removing common errors and fallacies from exercise routines.
Many infomercials would have you believe that a great looking stomach can be achieved by a few simple movements, and then they make excuses as to why their movement is better than the next guys. The simple fact is that making improvements to your abdominals is a whole body training and nutrition endeavor. You can’t just focus on your stomach and ignore every other muscle group as infomercials will have you believe.
For those that are skinny and don’t perform weight training on a regular basis who still sport the coveted six pack, you must remember as discussed earlier that this is genetic. Your abdominals are postural muscles and research has shown that improving your core muscles may not lead to an increase in performance. However, there is research that points to standing, free weight exercises improving core performance. This is no guarantee that doing crunches and free weight exercises alone will get you the abdominals you’re looking for; but it can improve midsection development which will put you down the right path.
Performing curls on a machine while sitting down does little to develop your midsection and stability. Also, keep in mind that your obliques play a role in abdominal development as well, they are important midsection stabilizers that are involved in movements that require midsection rotation (ex: swimming, running, batting, golfing etc.). Now this is not to imply that training your obliques alone will improve your ability to perform these movements, but is important to develop your obliques if you hope to improve your abdominal muscles.
The next step to a great six pack involves the form you are using for your exercises, all too often lifters perform leg raises but only manage to feel a burn in their hip flexors as they raise their legs. It is also common for people to perform hanging leg raises and swing back and forth. The two most common movements performed for the abdominals are crunches and leg raises; here are tips on the proper form for both for optimizing tension time so you’re targeting the right area:
Crunches - The best way to perform crunches for maximizing range of motion is to use a decline bench. For beginners/intermediates, traditional techniques often have people lifting using their arms or their hip flexors. All too often you’ll find people swinging their upper body into the upright position. If you were to picture yourself performing a crunch, your upper body should not remain flat, it is called a ‘crunch’ because your upper body should be rising and simultaneously curving to form something that resembles a ‘C’ shape.
Once you are able to do this you will maximize tension in your abdominal area. This curvature of the upper body is what many abdominal machines attempt to simulate, however, you can simulate it easily on your own: simply extending your arms out in front of you as if you’re walking like Frankenstein, and then curve your upper body off the ground and reach forward. You will notice a big difference in the tension on your stomach if you were performing the exercise incorrectly before.
Leg raises - For leg raises it is common for people to perform it on a flat surface and to put tension on their hip flexors as opposed to their abdominals. The two ways to avoid this would be to either a.) Perform leg raises while simultaneously raising your upper body into the crunch position using the technique listed above. b.) Perform leg raises on a bench; put your tailbone on the edge of the bench, and lower your legs below 90 degrees (below bench level) before raising them. This will increase the tension on your abdomen while decreasing the tension on your hip flexors, if you still feel tension in the anterior part of your hips; slide your buttocks off the bench a bit further.
The next thing to consider when it comes to improving your midsection is the rep range of your exercises. Many are under the impression that the more reps you can perform the better you will be able to burn fat in your midsection. While a high number of reps can improve the blood circulation in your midsection, spot reduction (reducing body fat in a specific area) through weight training is still considered to be a myth. The only known connections between weight training and fat loss involves: increased post exercise metabolic rate, increased hormone levels leading to an increase in fat utilization, caloric expenditure, and the higher metabolic rate associated with muscle mass.
This list however is the reason why weight training is always recommended for those seeking fat loss, and the reason abdominal exercises are classified under weight training for the purposes of this article is because you are using your own bodyweight to improve a muscle group, and no amount of weight used to cause contractions in a muscle group has a link to reducing body fat in the specific area that the contractions take place.
So unless you’re attempting to improve your endurance for track and field or an athletic event, performing 500 crunches a day alone will not be beneficial to you in your quest to improve your abdominals. Another reason why the abdominals, along with your calves, are such a hard area to improve is because the make up of muscle fibers that populate these areas is largely based on genetics.
Type II muscle fibers are responsible for increasing in size (hypertrophy) as they are the ‘fast-twitch’ muscle fibers for more explosive movements. Type I muscle fibers are ‘slow twitch’ and they are built for endurance, so more often then not they make up a large percentage of the fibers found in highly used muscle groups like the abs, lower back, and calves. This is the reason why many lifters try everything under the son to improve their midsection and can’t find answers.
So when it comes to choosing an appropriate repetition range for your abdominals, shoot for something between 12-20 reps and don’t go any higher. If you feel like you need to do weighted movements to get your reps that low, then do so; but be sure that your form is in check and that it’s not an issue.
Usually after I give an overview of the exercises, technique and rep range needed to improve the abdominals. Then reiterate how tough it is to battle against your genetics, people wonder if there is even a sure fire answer. Many who seek to gain a six pack have never been able to attain one, or have lost their washboard midsection due to age or poor eating habits.
Well I can assure you the biggest piece to the puzzle will be your nutrition. You still need to improve your lean body mass, stabilization, and attempt to hypertrophy your midsection as much as possible to achieve results. However your ability to control your body fat through your diet will be the biggest factor of them all.
For advanced lifters who are in need of a more detailed approach to fat loss for revealing their hard earned abs, the article: Ultimate Fat loss for Natural Bodybuilders will aid you in making the best decisions. For those who are new to weight training and nutrition, the best method to keep in mind is to consume fewer calories than you are expending. You can use any online calorie calculator to determine the amount of calories required for maintenance.
To determine your diet, undercut that number by 300-500 calories and consume roughly 45% of your daily intake in carbohydrates, 30% in protein, and 25% in fat. As you lose weight, re-calculate your daily calorie requirement based on your new weight to continue your progress. It is not uncommon to hit plateaus along the way, a great way to break through a plateau would be to either increase your cardiovascular activity, or temporarily halt your negative caloric state in an attempt to gain muscle before continuing your weight loss.
The reason putting your caloric restriction on pause would be beneficial stems from the fact that your metabolism can drop if you’re cutting calories for an extended period of time. This will cause you to either restrict calories (or increase expenditure) even more, or put your calories back to normal/surplus in an attempt to gain muscle mass.
An increase in muscle mass will increase caloric expenditure at rest and make losing weight easier; also, the mere attempt to increase muscle alone through a healthy increase in calories will return your metabolism back to normal for the next cycle of caloric restriction. Based on your progress, you can spend a few months attempting to gain muscle mass before continuing caloric restriction again. Getting into the best shape of your life will definitely not be an overnight process.
Below is a list of my favorite exercises and the proper form for each one:
Hanging Leg Raises
This is one of the exercises I feel (outside of my genetics, and long history of abdominal work) is most responsible for my abdominal development. Performing hanging leg raises with straps/arm hooks from a pull up bar is far superior to performing the same exercise on anything where your back is supported. As you perform the exercise, avoid swinging your legs in an attempt to use momentum to perform a repetition. Beginners can bend their knees to gain a mechanical advantage to perform the lift; advanced lifters can finish off every set by rotating their hips to one side and continuing the raises to focus on their obliques.
Another one of my favorites that I feel best stimulates the entire abdominal area, and limits the person’s ability to cheat, is the ‘V’ crunch. Begin by lying flat on your back with your hands above your head and your feet extended. As you raise your upper and lower body simultaneously (in an attempt to touch your hands to your toes) focus and moving your upper and lower body with your upper and lower abdominals to get the best contraction.
Decline Crunches/Abdominal Twists
The decline crunch is best for maximizing tension through a wider range of motion. Proper technique will have you raising your upper body into a ‘C’ position as opposed to a sit up that utilizes your hip flexors. This crunch position is best for maximizing the load on your upper abdominals, and since your goal is hypertrophy and not muscular endurance; keeping the repetitions under 20 per set by using weight can be done as well.
The abdominal twist exercise is best performed with a relatively light plate (5-10lbs) held away from your body with your arms straight, body in the crunch position, and on the decline bench. Rotate at your waist as far as possible to your left and right while locking your hips; you should feel the contraction on the outsides of your abdominals (your obliques).
When you combine the appropriate exercise routine, abdominal exercises and a nutrition program together you will maximize your chances of achieving the coveted six pack. All three of these aspects must be held in high regard, as one won’t work without the other. However, as many may already know, your nutrition will be the most important factor in slimming down your waistline to allow your hard earned muscle to appear. There are those who are in good enough shape to burn off a 600 calorie burger; but what took you 10 minutes to eat will take you an hour to burn off. In the end it is more effective to cut your total calories for the day as opposed to becoming a tri athlete overnight.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
" There are those who are in good enough shape to burn off a 600 calorie burger; but what took you 10 minutes to eat will take you an hour to burn off. In the end it is more effective to cut your total calories for the day as opposed to becoming a tri athlete overnight."
I think this is a particularly salient point. It is much easier to simply not eat something to begin with or practice portion control then to eat like a glutton and attempt to burn off all the calorie excess through exercise. You will never make any progress with that approach to dieting ;)
Great article! Just what I was looking for. Great point on emphasizing genetics while at the same time not excusing the need for overall training and nutrition discipline. Great outline for proper form.
-note to editor: change "son" to "sun"