Why The Best Ab Workout to Get a Six-Pack Isn’t an Ab Workout
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You’ve been working out and trying to keep an eye on what you eat, but it feels like no matter how many crunches or ab exercises you do, you just can’t get those six-pack abs you see on Instagram or TikTok.
Take Jason Martuscello. He was just like you. He had always been active, playing football and basketball, but in college his weight slowly crept up and he couldn’t seem to get the physique he wanted.
After the untimely death of his brother, he decided it was time for a total lifestyle change. What followed should inspire anyone who wants to achieve six-pack abs and doesn’t know how: Martuscello lost over 100 pounds, trimmed up his six-pack, and even went to grad school to study the science behind training, ab workouts, and lifestyle change.
He got so dedicated that he ultimately pursued a master’s degree in exercise science and conducted pivotal studies on, among other topics,the best exercises for ab fat. His studies on the best ab workouts showed something that has been confirmed by other researchers and trainers. The best “ab” exercises to achieve a six-pack is a combo of:
workouts that burn excess fat off the top of the abs
multi-dimensional exercises that engage the entire core
“Everyone already has a six-pack. However, it’s typically hidden beneath layers of fat,” says Martuscello. “When most people want to ‘develop a six-pack’ they actually want to reduce body fat.”
His point is this: Doing hundreds of crunches isn’t going to get you movie star abs unless you already have a low body fat percentage. First, you have to achieve overall fat loss to reveal the ab muscles underneath — and then engage those muscles specifically. Not with crunches.
How to Get a Six-Pack
When we talk about a six-pack, what we’re actually talking about is the rectus abdominis muscle. That muscle runs down your front of your stomach and has large bands of connective tissue that stretch from left to right across it. When belly fat is reduced and the rectus abdominis muscle is trained, you can see the defined muscle between the connective tendons. That’s a six-pack.
To reiterate: In order to get a six-pack, you have to reduce overall body fat to the point where your midsection is lean enough to reveal the underlying muscle. You also have to develop the rectus abdominis muscle and the other core muscles so they “pop.” And those are actually two separate processes.
How to Reduce Body Fat
The biggest limiter to getting a six-pack is subcutaneous body fat stored around the belly that hides the muscles underneath. Since we can’t control where our individual excess fat is stored — we have genetics mostly to thank for that — trimming belly fat requires reducing overall body fat.
“All excess calories are stored as fat deposits,” says Sachin Vispute, a researcher with Rush University Medical Center who has studied the effect of ab exercises on ab fat. “The most convenient location to store fat is around the abdomen and hips, as large amounts can be stored at these locations.”
It’s worth pausing the fat reduction discussion here to emphasize that lacking a visible six-pack doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not healthy or don’t have a strong core. It just means you have some subcutaneous fat across your stomach. Keep in mind that a certain amount of body fat is necessary for the body to function properly.
“For many women, including myself, trying to achieve that level of leanness can be detrimental to health,” says Noelle Tarr, a certified trainer with Coconuts & Kettlebells, who used to chase that six-pack physique before coming to a different conclusion.
But, if you want to reduce body fat to healthy levels, your three-part plan should focus on:
A consistent workout plan (we’ll get into specifics below)
An eating strategy that emphasizes whole, nutrient-dense foods and more protein
A lifestyle that reduces stress and emphasizes consistent, quality sleep
Your Fat-Reduction Workout Strategy
In order to achieve overall fat loss, you can’t just do ab exercises. The rectus abdominis muscle is not a big enough muscle to burn enough calories, says Vispute.
Research doesn’t point to a definitive style or intensity of exercise as being “the best” at burning belly fat. That said, a well-rounded fitness plan that burns fat and builds muscle should include a combo of strength training and cardio, both performed at moderate and high intensities.
Studies show support for the fat-blasting benefits of high intensity interval training, strength training, aerobic exercise, a combo of aerobic and abdominal conditioning, as well as a combo of high-intensity cardio and resistance training workouts.
The takeaway: Move. If you’re new to exercise, walk. Try to work up to walking faster and longer a couple of times a week. If you frequent the gym and aren’t getting the results you want, switch up your usual 30 minutes on the elliptical machine with circuit training or a bootcamp class. If you’re a runner who only runs, add one or two full-body strength training sessions to your weekly routine.
The study that investigated the high-intensity circuit training (cardio and strength) noted above showed that the men and women who completed high-intensity resistance and cardio training combined with a diet composed of 40% carbs and 40% protein (and 20% fat) for 12 weeks lost the most body fat (6% more) and abdominal fat (8% more) out of the three groups.
You knew a discussion about diet was coming, right? What you eat matters a lot when it comes to burning fat.
Your Fat-Reduction Fueling Strategy
When it comes to overall body fat reduction, diet is as important if not more so than exercise, says Vispute.
To keep you alive and fuel your daily activities, your body uses the carbs (sugar) in your bloodstream and glycogen in your muscles and liver as its preferred energy source. Then, it burns through stored fat, which is harder to access but provides a vast supply of energy. If you’re constantly fueling your body with a steady stream of carbs, you won’t access your fat stores as often.
One of the theories behind intermittent fasting and low-carb diets, like keto or paleo, is to teach your body to better utilize those fat stores instead of relying on an intake of carbs.
Intermittent fasting styles vary, but it’s essentially a time-restricted eating pattern where you abstain from eating and drinking anything with calories outside of your eating window. Longer fasting periods allow your body to access its fat stores; research shows that intermittent fasting can produce clinically significant weight loss.
Low-carb diets may help you lose weight more quickly in the short term. One study put participants on either a low-carb, higher fat and protein diet or a low-calorie, low-fat and higher-carb diet, and found that the low-carbers lost more weight in the first six months but the differences among the groups weren’t significant at 12 months.
There are pros and cons — especially if you’re looking to run a personal record in a half-marathon or need to fuel your body for high performance — but upping the amount of protein and cutting back carbs, especially carbs that come from things like white flour, could help your body burn more fat for a period. Intermittent fasting can provide a fat-burning alternative to low-carb diets, provided you don’t overeat regularly during your eating window.
Overall, it’s important to eat what you know is healthier. Cut out processed foods and limit excess calories from highly processed foods, deep-fried goodies, sugar, and alcohol. Eat lean proteins, load up on fruits and vegetables, and reasonable portions of whole grains.
While drinking more water and staying hydrated is associated with fat loss, what’s more important is replacing higher calorie and sugary drinks with water. Yes, that includes alcohol, which (besides being additional calories) is also linked to eating more and higher-fat foods, disrupted sleep, and generally worse health outcomes.
Your Fat-Reduction Lifestyle Strategy
Research shows that higher stress levels and regularly getting less than seven hours of sleep are associated with weight gain because of their effects on hormone regulation.
You can’t necessarily control all of those things, but you can control some of them.
“If people asked me 10 years ago how I lost 120 pounds, I would have told them exercise and gradually switching my diet. If people ask me today, I would say replace a few friends and turn off your phone,” says Martuscello. And he’s only half-joking. Cut back on stressors that you can control in your life, like who you hang out with and how social media use makes you feel.
If you don’t sleep well or enough, make it a priority to fix this. Create a bedtime routine that includes relaxing without screens for an hour before you go to sleep around the same time each night. Meditate or practice deep breathing if you can’t fall asleep or wake up during the night. Get up around the same time every day and try to get outside to let your eyes soak in some morning light.
It’s also important to get at the root of why you’re reaching for another beer or opening the fridge for a snack, Martuscello says. Are you hungry, which is a good reason to eat — or are you actually bored, stressed, or stalling?
The Best Ab Workouts
The second half of the six-pack protocol involves targeting those core muscles. First, avoid the most common not-useful ab exercise: crunches. Instead, utilize all planes of motion, including front and back, side to side, and rotational.
Some science-backed core and ab exercises that actually work:
Pilates and different types of planks can target the core muscles well. Onestudy found that the long-lever, posterior-tilt plank (which rests your elbows on the floor closer together and farther in front of your body, and then requires squeezing your glutes to engage and tilt your pelvis back) is especially good for developing the six-pack ab muscles.
Suspension exercises, using a TRX, have beenshown to be highly beneficial as well. The roll-out exercise (stand facing away from the TRX suspension point, with your arms straight in front of you, and then roll out by raising your arms above your head) and the body saw (on your stomach with your feet in the TRX straps, form a plank push-up position, and then move your body forward and back).
Hanging exercises, like hanging knee tucks or hanging L-sits, require full engagement of the front core muscles.
Complex full-body, multi-joint advanced motions were shown in Martuscello’sresearch to engage the core most effectively (as measured by electrical activity in muscle activation). That means: squats, deadlifts, medicine ball slams. If you do these with proper form, they will engage your core, Martuscello says, and prepare you for functional movements in life.
The rectus abdominis is just one of eight core muscles and four ab muscles. When you train your overall “core,” you work all of the muscles that wrap around your midsection and back, from shoulders to hips. Core strength and stability is more important than pure ab toning when it comes to injury prevention, performance, and health.
Can I get a six-pack in 30 days?
How long it takes you to get a six-pack depends mostly on your current body fat percentage. It’s unwise, unhealthy, and not doable to trim down body fat more than a fraction of a percent each week. For example, if you’re a woman with 25% body fat (which would make you quite fit and normal), then it could take 10–12 weeks of overall body fat reduction mixed with core strengthening before you get down to about 20% body fat and potentially start to see results. There is no fast way to get a six-pack.
Is getting six-pack abs healthy?
Whether you have chiseled magazine-cover-worthy six-pack abs or not, the ultimate goal should be fitness and improved health. A six-pack may or may not help with that goal. And if getting one requires you to drop to an ultra-low body fat percentage, you may experience other health consequences.
In fact, for healthy adults, the American Council on Exercise recommends that women maintain 20–30% body fat and men maintain 13–24% body fat. Yet, six-packs generally do not become visible until about 16–20% body fat for women and 10–12% for men. A low level of body fat can have repercussions, especially for women, such as menses loss, hormone imbalances, and chronic cortisol production, says Tarr.
“Getting a six-pack isn’t associated with any health benefits,” she says. But exercise is associated with lots and lots of health benefits (whether you lose weight or not).
It’s also important to remember, Vispute says, that a lot of the six-pack abs you see in photo shoots or movies are also the result of lighting and tricks of the trade, like reducing water content in your body, so that muscles are more defined. Extreme dehydration may be associated with kidney injury and heart attack, one case report suggests.
It’s better to get at the core of overall healthy body fat with good nutrition, sleep, stress management, and a mix of cardio and strength exercise — and let your physique follow.