Let’s be real: Six-pack abs are a pretty dumb fitness goal. First and foremost, having a stomach that has ridges is not a barometer of health. In fact, in many ways it is quite the opposite. To have six-pack abs you need to have somewhere around the order of 6% body fat. Sounds good, right? Not exactly. Extremely low body fat (that’s below 5%) can put a strain on the system, causing testosterone to drop, the immune system to struggle, brain fog, splotchy skin… the list goes on. In other words, great abs are a vanity goal.
So you still want to give one a go? We get it, that six-pack is aesthetically pleasing and make anyone look damn good in a swimsuit. But be prepared to work for it. There is a very high bar you’ll need to hit repeatedly for workout dedication and dietary discipline.
So the first step to a six-pack is watching what you eat, and sticking to lean meats, vegetables, and cutting out all sweets and most carbs. The second step is committing to an intense ab-focused strength-training routine — not the twice a week deal you do now, but three to four times a week, with determination and focus — to see your abs transform themselves. The good news: Many of the moves don’t require machines or extra weights, so you can do them in the convenience of your own home.
The final ingredient to building your six-pack is a solid dose of daily cardio. Developing your overall fitness will help train your body to use energy more efficiently, and teach it to start torching calories the minute you begin to move. And that’s key because you can have the strongest abdominals in the world, but if they’re covered with a layer of fat, you’ll never see them.
Follow this 7-point checklist to take your six-pack fantasy one step closer to reality.
Step 1: Eat Less Fat, and More Protein. Protein helps your body build muscle and recover from tough workouts. It also has the highest thermogenic property of the various food categories (carbs, fat, etc), meaning pound per pound it requires more energy to burn, helping you lose weight faster.
Step 2: Count Your Calories (Seriously) Yes, your meals should be filled with high-quality nutrients and low on processed crap. But at some point, a calorie is a calorie, and to lose weight, you need to take in fewer calories than you expend. The average guy needs about 2,500 calories to maintain his weight. Shoot for 200 less than that a day to help hit your target safely. (For easy reference, that means cutting out the bowl of chips before dinner, or skipping dessert.)
Step 3: Pick Exercises That Hit Multiple Muscle Groups. Crunches and sit-ups have their place, but exercises that involve multiple muscle groups give you more bang for your buck. Two of the best ones, which should be performed to the point of temporary muscle failure (i.e., you cannot do another rep), are planks and reverse crunches.
Plank: Start lying face-down on the floor, torso propped up on your elbows. Engaging your core, raise your body up onto your forearms and toes, making sure your body forms one long line from shoulders to feet. Hold this position as long as you can, working your way up to 90 seconds.
Reverse crunches: Lie on the floor on your back, knees bent at 90 degree, feet raised several inches off the ground. Contract your abs and hike hips off the floor, keeping your spine rounded. Raise knees high toward the ceiling. Relax and repeat as many times as you can.
Step 4. Make Your Cardio Workouts More Intense (And Shorter) Cardio is an essential component to getting your six-pack, because it speeds up the weight-loss process. Despite what you’ve probably read about moderate intensity cardio being the best method for burning fat (which is true), the fastest way to achieve overall calorie burn is HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), which goes like this: 60 seconds of biking, rowing or sprinting as hard as you can, followed by 30 seconds of rest. Repeat 10 times.
Step 5. Hanging Leg Raises. Don’t be fooled by its name — hanging leg raises are one of the best abdominal workouts you can do. The move works those deep, lower abdominal muscles that basic exercises like crunches miss. Start by hanging from a bar, legs straight. Engage your core and raise both legs straight in front of you (if this is your first time, it’s likely you will not be able to lift them very high — that’s OK). Repeat until failure.
Step 6. Prioritize Hydration. It’s true, all the water in the world isn’t going to make your abs pop overnight. But it’s also true that drinking at least 8 glasses of water (or other non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages) a day helps boost your energy levels so you can commit to your next workout. It also helps prevent water retention, which can give your gut a bloated appearance.
Step 7. Vary Your Routine. Even though you’ll need to do some ab-specific exercises along with general strength and cardio work, you’ll see better results if you alternate the moves you do, as each one works the abdominals in a slightly different way. A few to add to your repertoire:
Pronated Leg Raises. Lie flat on your back, legs straight, hand tucked beneath your lower spine for support. Engage your abs and raise legs to about 45 degrees. Lower. Do 10 times.
V-Holds. Sit on floor, knees bent, hand tucked under your knees. Engage your core and slowly raise your feet off the floor several inches. Once you find your balance, extend your legs in front of you, creating a V-shape with your body. Hold 60 seconds.
Bicycle. This favorite of aerobic classes everywhere gets your heart rate up with working your obliques. Start on your back, knees bent, hands behind your head. Raise your head and feet off the floor and begin cycling your legs back and forth as it you re riding a bike. Bring opposite elbow to knee as you go. Do 60 seconds, rest 20 seconds, and go again.