By Murtaza Ahmed MD
The six-pack. The holy grail for many health enthusiasts, amateurs, and members of the general public alike. Every health magazine cover boasts a model with washboard abs and those who cast eyes upon them dream that one day they too may possess a rippling midriff. To most people first getting involved in exercise, this is seen as one of the most desirable things to achieve, and for good reason. There is little doubt that a six-pack is ‘sexy‘ and those who possess it often ooze confidence and attract awe.
However, the reality is that most of those onlookers feel that such a thing is unattainable for them, and as a result will never achieve it. Despite following the numerous different programs in each issue of the popular magazines, or paying a personal trainer hundreds of dollars to guide them, many people just can’t seem to reach the top of the proverbial mountain. The look they so crave continues to elude them despite all their efforts and hard work. After continually trying and failing, despite following the plans laid before them, disappointment and frustration often gets the better of people and they give up and go on having never attained something they so desired.
To me this is a real shame, as in all honesty I see the six-pack as something quite attainable by most if they are dedicated and willing to put in the effort. The fact is that many people are willing to put in the effort and simply get let down by the advice and programs fed to them by amateurs or non-qualified professionals. Fraudulent claims such as “10 minute abs” and articles such as “six-exercises to a six-pack” dominate the TV, magazines, and internet, misleading trusting people and often taking their money in the process.
I myself must admit that there was a time when I fell victim to inadequate advice and phony programs. During my early days of training, I followed many different plans but could not attain the look I desired in my mid-section. After years of trial and error, studying anatomy and exercise physiology, I discovered how simple it was to get what I wanted, and this is what I want to share with others.
The fact of the matter is that there is no one trick or secret to developing the perfect look. It is a combination of techniques and discipline, each a different but vital building block needed to complete the structure. Put them all together and voila! Miss one out and the result is a weak physique which will impress no-one. Below, I will explain all of the fundamentals so that you to can go on to achieve the look you dream of.
Anatomy of the Abdomen
The most important, and often most overlooked, aspect of achieving your ideal mid-section is understanding the anatomy of what you are trying to develop. Think about it, there is no way you would try to build a car without understanding all the parts that make it up and how they work, so why should your body be any different. To me there is nothing worse when it comes to exercise than an article or program that tells people what to do without explaining WHY!!! Once you understand the make up of the mid section and functions of each of the muscles, you understand the importance of full development and how to achieve complete development of each aspect.
Many people think the abdomen is mainly made up of the strip of muscles down the middle (the six to eight muscles that give the ‘six-pack’ appearance). In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This strip, known as the rectus abdominus, forms only a small part of the mid-section, and is certainly not solely responsible for the strength or overall look of the abdomen. Concentrate on developing this muscle alone and you will end up with a less than desirable result (although very common when you look around the gym).
The main muscles that you should be aware of are the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, internal obliques, and external obliques. The rectus abdominus runs down the middle, from the chest to the pelvis, and is made up of three or four (responsible for the eight-pack) pairs of muscles separated by a midline band of connective tissue known as the linea alba. The other three muscles can be found to the side of (or lateral to) the rectus abdominus. The deepest of the muscles is the transverse abdominus, which runs horizontally, and superficial to this are the internal and then external oblique muscles, which, as their names suggest, run in an oblique manner perpendicular to each other.
When all the muscles are working in tandem, the end result is a tightening of the mid section and compression of the chest towards the hip. When contracting, the main direction of action of the rectus abdominus is up-down. It has no real role in rotation. An interesting point to note here is that when contracting, the rectus abdominus acts as a whole. It is not possible to contract the top muscles in preference to the lower ones, they instead just activate in a graded manner. So anyone who tells you that certain exercises are for the top abs and other exercises are for the lower abs quite frankly hasn’t a clue what they are talking about (so stop listening).
The transverse abdominus is a deep muscle and, as mentioned, runs in a horizontal direction. It cannot be seen externally and is an important stabilization muscle. The obliques form the bulk of what you see to the side of the rectus abdominus and have an important role in rotation of the abdomen. As the fibers run perpendicular to each other, the external oblique on one side has the opposite effect to the internal oblique on the same side. So if you were to use your internal oblique to rotate in a particular direction, the external oblique on the opposite side would also activate to aid in this movement. When obliques on both sides activate, the net result is cancellation of the rotation effect and compression of the chest directly towards the abdomen.
There are also other muscles to consider such as the serratus anterior (scapula protractors) which are responsible for the finger-like projections seen on top of the ribs under the chest, but the muscles above are the main ones to be aware of. It is vital that any exercise program directed at developing the abdomen consists of exercises that challenge each of these muscles, otherwise the result will be a poorly-balanced physique.
‘Skinny Pack’ vs Six-Pack
The importance of developing a full abdominal section is seen most in those who possess what is commonly referred to as a ‘skinny-pack.’ Some people are naturally thin and as such possess a low body fat percentage despite doing no exercise. The result is that there is no fat over their rectus abdominus and you can visualize each individual member of the six-pack. This look is often seen in endurance athletes also. These individuals are often very happy with their appearance and take pride in showing their six-pack. However, to the trained eye, it appears as nothing but a disappointment. The six-pack formation is very narrow, the muscle bellies are small and underdeveloped, and the obliques are non-existent. This hourglass appearance has been dubbed the ‘skinny-pack’ and is absolutely nothing to be proud of. As I mentioned, there are several aspects to attaining the perfect six-pack. Yes, low body fat is one of them, but alone it is far from impressive.
Complete body development
Just as complete development of the abdomen is necessary to gain an impressive mid-section, complete development of the body is necessary to adequately house the abdomen. When I look around any gym, 90% of the people I see are shockingly dis-proportioned. It seems to be fashionable to build a big chest, arms, and abdomen but totally neglect the back and even more so the legs. This results in a horribly proportioned body that is not pleasing to look at. Please, please, please do not fall into this trap. If you are guilty of this, or are just starting out, it is vitally important that you build a strong back, legs and chest before putting any special concentration into the abdomen. Ignore this advice and you will never gain any true respect or admiration from your contemporaries. Follow this advice and you will find that, without even trying, you have built an impressive mid-section.
This is where almost all abdominal exercise programs go wrong. The fundamental exercises in any abdominal development program should be compound movements. I often wish people would understand the importance and power of these exercises in building a strong desirable abdomen. The basis of most peoples abdominal exercise regimes are variations on the abdominal crunch. Why? I do not know–but I can guess. The crunch is an incredibly easy exercise that requires little effort. As a result, people can do 30, 40, 50, or even 100 at a time. This results in a build up of lactic acid in the muscles resulting in a burning sensation. People mistake this sensation as meaning they have worked the muscle hard, and as a result continue to repeat it week after week.
The fact is that we don’t do more and more press ups to develop our chest, but instead when it gets too easy we use the bench press to allow us to add more weight and drop the reps back down. When pull ups become too easy we strap on weight to make it harder. So why should abdominals be treated any differently?
Although the abdominals act to compress the chest towards the pelvis, one of their primary functions is stability of the core. Along with the back, they are integral to holding the body together. One of the best ways to develop the abdominals, whilst at the same time making them functionally strong, is to challenge their core function. Deadlifts, squats, and cleans are amongst the best exercises you can do in the gym, and when done regularly are capable of building an incredibly strong midsection. They allow you to stress the abdominals with large amounts of weight and provide them with continuous stimulation. Just feel someone’s abdomen during a heavy deadlift and you will understand exactly what I mean. If these were the only exercises you did in the gym, you would have an incredibly impressive abdomen.
If you are not carrying out these compound exercises on a regular basis, you certainly shouldn’t be concentrating on isolating the abdominals yet. First build up your strength and overall physique (along with solid abs) through squats, deadlifts, military presses, cleans, etc. then concentrate on the finer points.
Although compound movements should form the base of any regime, isolation movements can be added in once you are ready to develop different aspects of the abdomen more specifically, or if you want to train the abdomen on ‘rest days’ when you aren’t doing compound exercises. You probably see people doing all manner of crunches, sit-ups, leg raises, etc. when you look around the gym. It may look complicated but it is in fact extremely simple and should be treated as such. There are two main movements you need to target, and as long as you follow this, the choice of exercise is personal.
To target the rectus abdominus, you just need to pick an exercise that brings the pelvis towards the chest. This can be sit-ups, crunches, leg raises off an incline bench, hanging leg raises (a great all round developer!) or anything else you have tried that accomplishes this movement. As I mentioned earlier, exercises don’t isolate the top or bottom of the six-pack, they all work it as a whole, so just pick whatever you like.
An important area that a lot of people neglect is the obliques. They do all manner of crunches, but end up with a severely underdeveloped outer abdomen. It is fairly obvious when you see it. Don’t fall into this trap, or you will forever be playing catch-up. I would actually go as far as saying that for the first few months you should concentrate primarily on oblique isolation exercises instead or straightforward transverse abdominus exercises. Remember that anything that works the obliques is also stressing the whole abdomen, so this way you will end up developing everything concurrently. A good way to achieve this co-development is to add a twisting motion to your normal abdominal exercises. When doing leg raises, bring your right knee towards your left shoulder and vice versa, or during crunches bring your elbow towards the opposite knee. The important thing to note here that most people get wrong is that the twisting motion originates from the torso, not the shoulders or hips.
With all isolation exercises, concentrate on slow controlled movements. Remember that the abdomen is primarily a stabilizer, so by moving in a slow and controlled manner, you achieve optimal development. Don’t bounce up and down trying to get lots of reps out as it is pointless. Fifteen quality leg raises are far more beneficial (and harder) than thirty achieved in an uncontrolled, swinging manner.
You will often hear that a ‘six-pack is built in the kitchen not the gym,’ and whilst there is some truth to this, it is not the whole story. As I have stressed, there is nothing more unimpressive when it comes to a mid-section than the ‘skinny pack.’ If you just dieted your way to a six-pack, you are setting yourself up for failure. The best way is to work on both aspects concurrently.
That being said, body composition is incredibly important for bringing out your six-pack. The average male body fat percentage may be about 15-18% (higher in females), but to really bring out the abdominal section, you need to be heading towards the 10% range. The fact is that doing this can take a real toll on the body. To get below 10% body fat is not that hard, but staying there can prove difficult. Once we get this low, the body feels it is being starved and will take measures to try to get us to increase our fat levels again. This means that you can spend your whole time constantly fighting to stay thin.
The fact is that few people are able to keep a perfect six-pack all year round. Even body-builders only spend part of the year in this shape, as it is simply too hard! Personally, I fluctuate between 8-12% body fat. This allows me to easily attain the six-pack look at the times of the year when I want to, whilst not having to struggle to maintain it all year round. This is why I disagree with a six pack being made solely in the kitchen. If you spend the whole year ensuring you have a solid base, you can easily bring it out whenever you feel like it (it only takes a few weeks). It’s also important to remember that a well-developed mid-section will be visible at higher body fat percentages, and looks impressive even at 12-15% body fat, which is even more reason to pay attention to it.
How to reduce body fat percentage is a whole science in itself, and you can read about how to achieve it in a safe and reproducible manner in my other articles (where to start, what’s in my food?, energy balance, weight loss tips, paleo diet). Once you understand the science behind it, your weight is truly in your control and dropping weight when you feel like it is not a challenge, but simply a decision.
In a nutshell
Attaining a six-pack is the goal of many a fitness enthusiast and regular gym-goer, but often eludes those who go in search of it. Far too often, this is the result of people falling into the trap of following ‘quick-fixes’ or programs devised by people who have no real place doing so. Of those who do attain some definition, many have poorly developed musculature, and even worse may have bodies that are in no way proportionate.
In reality the secret to a six-pack is not that complicated and the result is attainable by almost anyone. Follow these simple principles and you will gain not only an extremely impressive abdomen, but also a well-developed, strong body that will leave others in awe.
- Understand the anatomy – know what you are trying to build before starting construction.
- Concentrate on the whole body and not just the mid-section – train your legs, back, and chest. The abs will appear.
- Compound, compound, compound. Squat, clean, and deadlift your way to a rock solid abdomen. Everything else is only supplementary.
- Isolation exercises are great once you have your base, but don’t become obsessed by them. When you do decide to do them, concentrate on the whole abdomen and you will reap the rewards.
- Learn the art of safe, reproducible weight management (a very powerful weapon), and you will never be more than 4 weeks away from a six-pack.
- Be patient – allow yourself several months to develop your base. Do it properly and it will always be with you.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE – because it is.