How to get a six pack

How to get a six pack

By Emma Fredriksson // Bachelor degree in sport science and Physiotherapist student March 2018

Glossary
Body fat percentage - how many percent of one's body weight that consists of fat
Hip flexors  - the muscles that flexes the hip, for example when lifting a knee
Hypertrophy - muscle growth
M. Transversus abdominis - the inner ab muscle (the core stability muscle)
M. Obliquus internus abdominis - the inner oblique muscle
M. Obliquus externus abdominis - the outer oblique muscle
M. Rectus abdominis - the vertical muscle  (the six pack)

You may have heard the expression “abs are made in the kitchen”, or that diet is 80% if your goal is to get visible a six pack. These expressions are partly true - to get your abs to show you must have a low body fat percentage, which for many people (especially for women) means a very low bodyweight. How low body fat percentage you must have is hard to say, it is individual and depends on how your abs are anatomically built and how well developed they are. Therefore, it is not only a question about how fit you are, but also how you eat and what genes you have. It is also easier for men to build abs (and all the other muscle groups) than it is for women, since men have the right hormones on their side.

Now that we have clarified the basics of the importance of the right diet and genetics we can jump forward to the training part. To explain the training you must have a basic knowledge about the anatomy of your trunk. If we ignore the muscles of the hip (the hip flexors), that also affects the ab training, we have four ab muscles:

M. Transversus abdominis - the inner ab muscle (the core stability muscle)
M. Obliquus internus abdominis - the inner oblique muscle
M. Obliquus externus abdominis - the outer oblique muscle
M. Rectus abdominis - the vertical muscle  (the six pack)

These muscles have different functions where the two Obliquus rotates and side-bends the trunk, think of exercises like russian twist and side lift, the Transversus Abdominis muscle mainly works statically when you do the plank for example. The six-pack muscle Rectus abdominis is mainly responsible for flexing the trunk and is the muscle you use when you do crunches. Sit-ups, where you go all the way up, also activates the Rectus Abdominis muscle, but the muscles at the front side of the hip (the hip flexors) are of greater importance in this exercise.

If you want to build some visible abs the best exercises are the ones that flexes the trunk, especially if you add extra weights. Regular crunches are fine, but since it is a body weight exercise it is hard to make a progress since you only can do more reps, not lift more weight. For that reason exercises as cable crunch and crunch in the machine are preferred since it is easier to increase the load with these exercises. Regarding the reps and sets the recommendations remain the same as for other muscle groups: 8-12 reps and 3-4 sets for hypertrophy (muscle growth), which is another reason why body weight exercise are not to prefer - you usually manage to do more reps than that. If your six pack training is what you prioritize it is great if you train your abs 2-3 times a week, where at least one of these sessions consist only of ab exercises. It is good if you also can add some exercises for the Transversus Abdominis muscle since it has a significant role for back health as well.  

Here is an example of a good ab session:
Cable crunch              M. Rectus abdominis                        10x4
Crunch in machine     M. Rectus abdominis                        10x4
Hanging leg raises     M. Rectus abdominis + höftböjare    10x4
Russian twist              M. Obliquus int  + ext                        10x4
Plank                          M. Transversus abdominis                To failure x4

In conclusion, it is important to remember that to get a six pack you must keep a healthy diet. “Abs are made in the kitchen” is not a bad expression. Besides having a good diet (and having the genetics on your side), ab training with exercises that flexes your trunk is to prioritize. Train your abs just like you train other muscles, and have patience -  your abs will grow in no time!

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