Build Your Own 6-Pack

Everything you need to know about abs.
By Shawn Perine

It's probable that niether you nor any of your friends were motivated to read FLEX in the hopes of unlocking the secrets to building a rippling set of abs. But for the second-class-citizen status that the abdominal region receives in comparison with showier bodyparts — such as chest, shoulders and arms — its value in both bodybuilding and sports should not be underestimated.

The truth is that a well-developed midsection can actually have a greater visual impact — especially on the ladies — than horseshoe triceps or capped delts. Plus, a strong midsection and core are crucial for stabilizing your torso during other lifts and sports activities.

With our guide to rock-hard abs at your disposal, you’ll have all the info you need to chisel your own eye-catching midsection.

TRAINING ABS

 BREATHE! 

Inhale at the bottom or “relaxed” portion of each rep and exhale as you contract your ab muscles, holding your breath for a second at the top of the rep as you forcefully contract your ab muscles. If this pattern of breathing isn’t reflexive, focus on it until it is, not only for your ab training, but also for every bodypart.

 QUICK, SLOW 

So what about rep speed? You’ll see some people flying through their sets while others plod through each rep laboriously. Who’s right?

We recommend mixing things up. As long as you’re not letting momentum take over, you can do some reps quickly and others more slowly. The important thing is that you feel what you’re doing, both during and after the exercise. Faster reps have been shown to increase the amount of muscle fiber activity in the rectus abdominis and obliques, which can help you better develop your midsection. We often recommend doing some workouts with fast reps and other workouts with slow and controlled reps. Or, start a set with 5-10 fast reps, and then finish with slow and controlled reps to better feel the abs work.

In other words, let your instincts dictate the pace. You be the judge, just judge wisely.

 FREQUENCY 

According to recent studies, 48 hours is an ideal amount of recuperation time for aching muscles. Keep in mind that training every other day equals 48 hours of rest between workouts, assuming that you are consistent with your training time.

 

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AB ANATOMY 101

 MUSCLES YOU CAN SEE 

These are the muscles that the bodybuilding judges (and the ladies) are looking for when evaluating a physique — the “six-pack” and the diagonal ridges that flank them.

  • RECTUS ABDOMINIS: Muscles that originate at the bottom of the sternum and insert at the pelvis. 
    • Function: Pulling knees up to torso and vice versa.
  • SERRATUS: The fingerlike muscles running from the lats to the sides of the rib cage.
    • Function: To pull your shoulder blades forward.
  • EXTERNAL INTERCOSTALS: Muscles that run diagonally across the rib cage — below pecs and above the external obliques. Not to be confused with the serratus.
    • Function: Assist in deep respiration as they, coupled with the internal obliques, work to expand and contract the rib cage.
  • EXTERNAL OBLIQUES: Muscles that run diagonally down the sides of body, between the rectus abdominis and lats.
    • Function: Twist the body from side to side and flex the spine to the left and right.

 MUSCLES YOU CAN’T SEE 

These are the muscles colloquially referred to as the “core.” Although not visible to the naked eye, they are invaluable for the support and strength they provide not only in the gym, but also in sports activities and throughout the day.

For bodybuilders, these core muscles (sometimes referred to as the “girdle”) are also important because they enable you to vacuum up your abs — something that was prized in bodybuilding in a bygone era and which makes any pose far more impressive.

  • TRANSVERSE ABDOMINIS: Directly below the rectus abdominis.
    • Function: Acts as one of the core muscles to stabilize the spine and pelvis.
  • INTERNAL OBLIQUES: Below the external obliques, running in the opposite direction of the external obliques.
    • Function: Torque the body left and right.
  • INTERNAL INTERCOSTALS: Beneath and between the ribs.
    • Function: Assist breathing by elevating the ribs.

 

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EXTREME ABS EXERCISES

In putting together an ultimate routine for abs, you will hit each of the four visible muscle groups, as well as the core muscles. By the same token, you don’t want to create such a long, arduous routine that you’ll never want to do it. The best way to achieve this is by hitting as many areas of the abdominal region as possible using the fewest exercises. Although on paper, our workouts may seem like a lot (at least more than the set or two of crunches most bodybuilders tack onto the end of their training sessions), performing one of the three suggested routines should take less than 10 minutes to complete. Yes, it’s intense, but it’s effective, and if followed to a T, you will get your 6-pack.

 CRUNCH 

Primary target: Upper rectus abdominis, obliques

Secondary target: Core

>> The crunch is the old faithful of ab exercises — easy to perform and highly effective. But despite being the gold standard, it’s often performed improperly. The idea isn’t to see how high you can lift your torso off of the ground, rather it is to determine how far you can “crunch” your shoulders down toward your hips as you roll your spine forward. In actuality, this is a short movement, but if done at a controlled pace, it will yield dramatic results.

 KETTLEBELL CRUNCH 

Primary target: Serratus, upper rectus abdominis

Secondary target: Core

>> Lie on your back on the floor with a kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand. Ten to 20 pounds should do the trick to start. Extend the arm with the weight so that it’s perpendicular to the floor as you keep your other arm to your side. Place both feet flat on the floor. Push the weight as high as you can using only the muscles of your upper torso.

 FLUTTER KICK 

Primary target: Lower rectus abdominis

Secondary target: Core

>> Lie on your back on the floor with your arms down at your sides and the backs of your hands tucked under your hips. Alternately raise one leg, and then the other, from an inch above the floor to about eight inches above the floor. You’re essentially doing with your legs what you do when you’re swimming. It’s a quick, but controlled, movement. This targets the lower rectus abdominis.

 HANGING KNEE RAISE 

Primary target: Lower rectus abdominis, obliques

Secondary target: Core

>> You’ve probably done these before, which is a good thing, because they work. To do these, you can either use a pair of leg-raise cuffs or simply hang from a chinning bar. Raise your knees up to your stomach and lower them without allowing body momentum to assist your reps. As your strength improves, straighten your knees for added resistance.

 

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 BICYCLE 

Primary target: Upper and lower rectus abdominis, obliques

Secondary target: Intercostals

>> Lie on your back on the floor with your legs tucked up so that your thighs are perpendicular to the floor and your lower legs are parallel to it. Clasp your fingers behind your head or cup the back of your head and alternate pulling each elbow to the opposite knee. Concentrate on curling your torso forward with each rep and returning to the start position with the opposite movement.

 WEIGHTED LYING KNEE-IN 

Primary target: Lower rectus abdominis, obliques, core

Secondary target: Upper rectus abdominis

>> Sit on a bench with a 10- to 20-pound dumbbell (to start) placed between your feet at one end of the bench. Press your feet together and lie back, holding the end of the bench above your head. Raise the dumbbell with your feet by pulling your knees in toward your torso. Extend your legs until they’re straight and withdraw them again. This is a great exercise for your lower rectus abdominis and your intercostals.

 WEIGHTED TWISTING ROMAN-CHAIR SITUP 

Primary target: Upper rectus abdominis, obliques

Secondary target: Lower rectus abdominis

>> Hold a plate either against your chest or behind your head as you perform Roman-chair situps, twisting your shoulder toward the opposite knee on each rep.

 VACUUM 

Primary target: Core

>> Sit on a bench with your back straight and your hands placed on your knees. Suck your stomach in as far as it will go; keep your chest high. Hold this position for 10 seconds while trying to hold your breath for the duration. Relax and catch your breath before repeating. Each hold constitutes one rep.

 

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EXTREME ABS WORKOUTS

 WORKOUT 1 

  • CRUNCHES | Sets: 1, Reps: 20, Target Area: Upper Abs, Obliques  
    • superset with
  • BICYCLES | Sets: 1, Reps: 20*, Target Area: Lower Abs, Core
    • superset with
  • VACUUMS| Sets: 5, Reps: See notes, Targe Area: Core

 WORKOUT 2 

  • FLUTTER KICKS | Sets: 1, Reps: 50, Target Area: Lower Abs, Core  
  • KETTLEBELL CRUCHES | Sets: 1, Reps: 10*, Target Area: Serratus, Upper Abs, Core
  • VACUUMS† | Sets: 5, Reps: See notes, Targe Area: Core

 WORKOUT 3 

  • WEIGHTED LYING KNEE-INS | Sets: 1, Reps: 15, Target Area: Lower Abs, Core  
  • WEIGHTED TWISTING ROMAN-CHAIR SITUPS  | Sets: 1, Reps: 15*, Target Area: Upper Abs, Obliques
  • VACUUMS† | Sets: 5, Reps: See notes, Targe Area: Core

NOTE: Each superset is to be performed three times, with one minute of rest in between.

* Each leg or to each side

† Hold for 10 seconds for each of five sets

SIX-PACK, EIGHT-PACK, FOUR-PACK?

The rectus abdominis is colloquially known to many as the “six-pack,” but some people may display four “rows” of abs, giving them an eight-pack, whereas others (most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger) show just a four-pack. Rather than indicate anatomical variations in the actual abdominis muscles, the number of packs a person displays is determined by the number of bands of fascia (a kind of connective tissue) crossing the abdominal region. Think of rubber bands stretched around a balloon. The bulges in the balloon represent the parts of the rectus abdominis that we see. Just as strips of the balloon are pulled in and obscured by the rubber bands, so too are strips of our abdominals pulled in by the fascia. So, no matter how many sets of crunches or leg raises you do, the number of rows of abs that you have will never change.

 FLEX