Or, don’t have a limp noodle for your abs and core.
Read time: 5 minutes
The coveted six-pack abs are actually the product of two mechanisms, fat loss and muscle gain (and muscle gain is actually a type of strength gain).
The abdominals, along with the other muscles of the core, are indeed muscle, so they need to be built up through heavy weight lifting just like other muscles.
You’re not going to sit there and move your arm up and down for five minutes to get massive biceps, why would you do the same for abs?
At the same time, you will not be able to see the individual ab muscles with a layer of fat over them, so we need to also lose fat.
Another caveat is that we can’t lose fat in a targeted area no matter what we do, so we must lose fat all over.
This will eventually uncover the abdominal area, depending on a variety of factors including individual ones.
I know that for me, fat accumulates first over the abdominals and the oblique area, and when I cut down the fat in this particular area is the last to go.
This is frustrating, and if I wanted quick results, I know it ain’t gonna happen quick, Jack.
No belt, surgery, exercise or other contraption will lean out our stomach area faster.
We just have to stick with it and and work here to see results, like all worthwhile things in life.
This means that if we want strong and robust six-pack abs and a performance enhancing core, we need to train them and train them hard while dieting and staying disciplined.
The diet component is about 80% of getting great abs.
Training them heavy with the correct movements is the other 20%, but an important 20%.
A lot of people diet down without doing heavy core work (while doing some half-assed core routine thrown on at the end of workouts) and are disappointed to see less than ideal development of the core musculature.
This can be remedied, again, by working the core like we would any other muscle we want to build bigger.
Let’s take a look at what muscles comprise the abs and core, and what these muscles actually do.
Core Anatomy and Function
For our purpose, the “core” and “abdominals” will be the area from the bottom of the chest to about the hips (front, side and back, so yes we will be counting the lower back [spinal erectors] as the core).
Some like to add in more muscles to this, others will take some away, but the fact remains the same that the core bridges movements of the upper body and lower body and can help create power for total body movements, provide stability, and prevent injury.
The muscles we’re concerned with:
Rectus Abdominus (abdominals, abs, six pack) – What people talk about when they say six-pack, or abs, usually because of the six notches divided by linea alba on the front between the bottom of the chest and top of the hips. The main purpose of the abdominals is to bring the rib cage to the hips.
To test this, lie on your back, legs up on a bench or ball. Lift you thorax (rib cage), and try to touch the bottom of your rib cage to the top of your hips. Don’t move your head forward, it should travel with the ribcage off the floor. Do this for ten reps. You should feel the abs, and only the abs, burning.
Important note: Most people have relatively weak abdominal muscles because they use inferior movements like sit-ups and leg lifts, which bring the hip flexors into play too much, so check your ego when doing proper crunches for the first time, because they’re hard. Sit-ups, traditional leg raises, and any movement that involves the hips (hip flexion, or closing the angle between your legs and upper body) are inferior for building the abs and only work them isometrically (meaning, they isometrically contract for stability while you are working your hip flexors). This is remedied by doing crunching movements, which completely takes the (very strong) hip flexor muscles out of the movements.
External Oblique – On very lean people this looks like a sheet of muscle sitting beside the abs. This muscle is responsible for trunk side flexion and rotation. A lot of people think this muscle will give them a wide waist, ruining any chance at a good V-taper, but this worry is usually null because this muscle doesn’t really have the potential to get that big. A wide waist is usually determined by genetics first, and then fat accumulation second.
Internal Oblique – Under the external oblique. Assists with side flexion and trunk rotation. Not a big visual contributor to core aesthetics, but it’s important and will get trained when working the other core muscles.
Transversus Abdominus – Very deep core muscle under the internal oblique, provides stability of the core and can assist with side flexion and rotation. Not a big visual contributor to core aesthetics, but important nonetheless, and will get trained with our core work.
Erector Spinae or the spinal erectors (lower back) – this muscle is made up of the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis and is responsible for trunk extension (opposite of the abs, responsible for movements such as back extensions, deadlifts, RDL’s, etc.), and assists with trunk side flexion and rotation. Strengthening these muscles, along with the rest of the posterior chain will help protect the lower back from getting injured.
Alright enough with the science, let’s get into how to actually get a midsection that turns heads and performs just as well.
Here are the Best Movements for Eye-Popping Abs and a Strong Performance Enhancing Core
For the abs:
Crunches – These should be done like stated above, isolated to bring the rib cage to the hips, nothing more, nothing less. This will be our bread and butter movement for building big knobby abs that are beautifully developed.
Hanging crunches – Just like above, but the opposite with bringing the hips to the rib cage. These emphasize the lower abs, a problem area for many people. These can be done hanging, or with ab straps if you’re uncomfortable with hanging.
Bar Rollouts (can also be done with an ab wheel) – These really kill the abs, and can cause them to get really sore because they emphasize the negative or eccentric portion of the movement.
Front Plank – A good stability exercise for the abs, usually held for time.
For the obliques:
Side Bends – You can start with bodyweight, then progress to using a broomstick, then to using a dumbbell.
Twists or Rotations – Can be started with bodyweight or a broomstick, and progressed with a weight plate.
Russian Twist – Like a twist but done on the ground in the crunch position with a weight plate. These are good because you can work up to some heavy weights.
One-handed DB Farmer’s Carries (for distance or time) – Walk for a distance or stand for time carrying or holding one DB. These are great for building isometric stability and strength of the oblique.
Woodchops – You can do these with a cable, or a weight plate, or any other weighted device like a hammer or kettlebell. These differ from twists in that you rotate downward, instead of strictly side to side.
Side Planks – Another isometric exercise that emphasizes stability. These can also be held for time.
For the spinal erectors:
Back Extensions – These can be done on a machine, stability ball, or some other improvisational technique, but they work the erector spinae intensely along with the posterior chain, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Supermans – Much like planks, these are an isometric stability exercise for the lower back.
Note: A lot of these movements will work the whole core and abs together.
Abdominal and core movements best left in the lifting graveyard:
Sit-ups – Sit-ups put your lower back in a precarious position, I’ve known a couple people who hurt their lower backs doing them. They’re not even a good ab exercise, so they’re not worth the risk. Sit-ups are inferior for even working the hip flexors.
Leg lifts – The same as with sit-ups, leg lifts are no bueno for your lower back, putting all types of weird pressure on it. Leave these where they belong, six feet under.
Good-mornings – Way too dangerous for the average lifter. These must be done with EXTREMELY good form, and even then the injury risk is high because of the torque created by the load being on your shoulders. Bruce Lee jacked his back doing these. Stay far away. RDL’s or other deadlift variations are a much better option.
Suggested Reps, Sets, and How to Add in Core to Your Lifting Program
To get a robust core, you want to work your core like any other body part you want to gain size and strength in:
2-5 sets per movement.
5-12 reps per set.
Use weights for progression.
I also suggest you add in an exclusive day for core. This will help you give maximum effort for development. Just throwing on core at the end of a workout is not ideal.
Compound Movements That Help With Core Strength, Size, and Stability
Compound movements can also contribute to the abs and core, and should be added into your routine if there are no existing injury contraindications.
Deadlift Variations (Traditional Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, Suitcase Deadlifts, Trap-bar Deadlifts etc.) – work the erector spinae and posterior chain (hamstrings, gluteals, And erector spinae) intensely. A weak posterior chain is a ticking time bomb for posture and lower back problems, not to mention a strong posterior chain usually means more explosive power and strength.
Squat Variations (back, front, overhead) – The core stability and strength needed for front squats and overhead squats is insane. Even the back squat, the most stable of the three because the bar is resting on the back, requires tremendous core strength. If you’re not squatting, you’re missing out.
Military Presses and Dumbbell Variation (sometimes referred to as just “Presses”) – Much like front squats, military presses require insane core strength and stability, and are also one of the best movements for overall upper body strength. Being able to barbell press your bodyweight should be a coveted strength goal of just about everyone.
Olympic Lifts and Olympic Lift Complexes (Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Push Press, Thrusters, Hang Cleans etc.) – These movements work just about every muscle in the body, and build total body power. One look at a lean Olympic lifting athlete, and you’ll know how much Olympic lifts work the core.
Bodyweight Movements (push-ups, pull-ups, etc.) – For beginners, bodyweight movements can develop the core, along with the targeted muscles.
Note: Doing any of these movements with a single limb (like one armed variations) while standing work the core more intensely than two-armed versions (to provide stability for the uneven weight), so including one-armed snatches and cleans, overhead squats, presses, and assorted kettlebell work can help bring core development, strength, and stability to the next level.
Just for Shits and Giggles, Other Forms of Physical Activity That Intensively Work the Abs and Core
Sprinting – Sprinting works the abs and core hardcore, in which the core helps with transferring power throughout the whole body.
Plyometric training – Plyometric training uses the full body to build explosive power, and the core helps with this.
Strongman training – Strongman training uses every muscle in the body to pick up, pull, or push heavy ass sh*t, so yes, the abs and core are being worked hard here.
Certain forms of conditioning – Hammer and tire, prowler push, Bodyweight TRX, throwing things, etc. all can contribute to abs and core strength.
Martial Arts – Martial arts kick the core’s ass. Punching, kicking and defense movements, as well as grappling, require tons of core strength and stability.
Sports – Just about every sport requires a strong and stable core to translate power. Some that hit the core hard (and it’s not limited to just these, of course) are baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, racquetball, handball, volleyball, and gymnastics.
The Diet Component
Like I said previously, the diet component is about 80% of getting great abs, and it’s really simple, but it will take some hard work and dedication.
If you have some fat to lose, diet down to see the muscles while maintaining heavy core work to uncover what’s hiding under the fat.
You need to do this by going into a negative energy balance, cutting out processed foods that are high in sugar and salt, and eating 4-6 small, clean meals with plenty of protein every day.
Get proper rest, including sleeping 7-9 hours a night.
Be sure to drink plenty of water.
You can read how I did this here.
If you’re skinny or lean, build up your core, and other muscles, with heavy weights by eating slightly more and upping your protein intake a bit. Don’t get fat though! that’s the opposite of what we’re after.
Be sensible about it, and maintain a small calorie surplus.
See this post for more info on gaining muscle on the abs and core as well as throughout the whole body.
There is absolutely no reason to have a weak ass core and puny little abs.
Using heavy core weight lifting movements, lifting with big compound lifts, and even getting in some different forms of training such as strongman and conditioning work can help build that strong, robust, injury-free core you’re looking for.