A tight and lean stomach is a great feature to have. “Washboard abs,” “abs of steel,” “six pack” – call it what you will, visible abdominal muscles are a highly coveted attribute for many, and there are definitely good reasons for that.
Besides the obvious physical appeal, six pack abs signify a person’s level of health and strength, as well as dedication to their diet and exercise program. It’s no wonder the elusive six pack is a desirable trophy for those interested in changing their physique and getting in shape.
However, six pack abs by themselves are not real indicators of anything except for low body fat levels.
Visible abs are often a natural by-product of strength and physical health, but if they are the result of extremely restricted eating and endless cardio, your six pack won’t do much for you, other than make you look good shirtless.
Unfortunately, despite what Dr. Oz says, there are no miracle pills that will give you six pack abs (or if there are, they probably come along with a whole host of nasty side effects). Instead, to gain that impressive physique in a healthy way, you’ll need to build a foundation of strength and overall physical health before taking further steps to get those washboard abs.
In this post, we’ll first take a look at what the “abs” actually are and what they do for the body.
Then, we’ll examine how strength and overall physical health make for the best six pack foundation.
Finally, I’ll let you in on the “secret” to building six pack abs (hint: it’s really not so secret).
What is the “Core”? Abdominal Anatomy of the Six Pack
Anatomically speaking, we all have six pack abs. They may not be visible, but they are there.
“The core” may mean different things depending on who you’re talking to. But usually, the core refers to the muscles that surround your midsection, and in this article we’ll deal specifically with the abdominal muscles in the front of the body.
The primary muscles of the front of the abdomen include:
- Rectus Abdominis
- External Obliques
- Internal Obliques
- Transversus Abdominis
Below, I’ll describe the function of each of these muscle areas, so you can better understand how they work together to create a strong, functional core.
The “six pack” is actually made up of only one muscle, the rectus abdominis.
This is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles so, when not hidden by fat, it’s the most visible.
The top of the rectus abdominis is attached to the sternum (the breast bone) and the ribs, while the bottom is attached to the top of the pubic bone. Needless to say, that’s quite a large muscle!
The action of the rectus abdominis is simple. It’s instrumental in the motion between the pelvis and the chest. In this motion, you can either pull your chest down toward a stable pelvis, or vice versa. The classic sit-up and the hanging knee raise both engage this muscle.
And just as it brings your chest and your hips together, it also can be used to prevent them from moving away from each other.
Think about what happens when you hold a plank. Once you get tired, your back starts to arch (bend backwards) and you lose your form – that’s the rectus abdominis fatiguing so much that it fails to do its job.
The external obliques are the most superficial muscles on the side of the trunk, and are only visible when they are developed and you are quite lean.
They run from the ribs down to the pubic bone and the iliac crest (top of the pelvis).
The muscle action is side bending toward the same side (the right external obliques bend you sideways toward the right), and rotation toward the opposite side (the right external obliques rotate you to the left).
When both sides contract at the same time, they help the rectus abdominis to do its job (bring the pelvis and chest toward each other).
These are important muscles in controlling motion and providing stability when you transfer energy from your lower body to your upper body, and vice versa. From throwing a punch, to kicking, to swinging a bat, and even running and walking, the external obliques help make these motions powerful.
The top of the internal obliques attach to the lowest three ribs, and the bottom attaches to the iliac crest and the fascia of the low back.
The internal obliques are deep muscles, beneath the external obliques. Therefore, they’re not visible, even in the leanest people.
These muscles assist the rectus abdominis and external obliques when both sides contract, and helps with side bending and rotation toward the same side when only one internal oblique is working.
The tranverse abdominis is the deepest of the abdominal muscles, and its main attachments are to fascia, both in the front, and in the back of the body.
Its function is to compress the abdominal contents, the “drawing in” action of making your stomach as small as possible. The primary action of the transverse abdominis is to stabilize the spine prior to movement. This, along with the multifidus muscle in the back, keep the spine safe from excessive movement whenever we use our arms and legs for anything.
When working well and normally, this muscle “turns on” automatically.
The Core – More Than Just Aesthetics
As you can see, the “abs” are a group of muscles whose functions can get quite complicated if you study each one of them in detail. However, it’s not necessary to understand every attachment and fiber orientation in detail.
Quite simply, the core needs to be be strong, flexible, and coordinated to help us in our every action.
Together, these muscles help us flex, extend, sidebend, and rotate our trunk in all directions, as well as keep the trunk a stable base from which to use our extremities. Along with the hips and low back, the abdominal muscles keep us strong in our center, so that we can use our arms and legs powerfully and without hurting our spine.
Want a Six Pack? First, Build a Foundation of Strength
As mentioned earlier, you could get a six pack by starving yourself and working out half the day on cardio machines or running, but that’s not only crazy, it’s simply not sustainable.
What many people don’t realize is that the pictures they see of athletes and models with a lot of muscle definition are taken at the peak of their condition, and they don’t actually look like that year round.
There are also tricks with lighting composition and that invention of the devil, Photoshop, but that’s for another discussion.
There are some people that maintain their incredible abdominal definition year round, but they are a rare breed, and likely full time athletes, not regular joes. As such, they aren’t the best role models to follow – unless, of course, you have that same 6 to 8 hours a day to train and maintain a regimented food schedule.
For regular people with a job, a family, or other responsibilities, that kind of lifestyle really isn’t feasible. But that doesn’t mean a lean physique is out of reach.
Although extremely low body fat levels are really only attainable with an accompanying extreme lifestyle (read the next section for more on that), abdominal definition is, in many cases, a side effect of being strong and healthy.
So how do you build that foundation of strength?
There’s no one magical exercise that will give you the kind of strength I’m talking about, but there are certain kinds of movements that engage the core dynamically, that work a whole lot better than crunches and sit-ups.
What do all these types of movements have in common? None of them are “isolation” exercises, and basically, to do them with good form, you need to use your abdominals to maintain your posture and stability throughout the motion.
Let’s take a look at some exercises that will help you build a strong and healthy core.
Core Strength Exercise #1 – Hollow Body Hold
The Hollow Body Hold is probably the most fundamental hold in the GMB method. Master this hold and you’ll gain tremendous control of your core, which translates well for other bodyweight exercises.
I recommend incorporating the Hollow Body Hold into your daily exercise practice. Start at whatever level you’re at, and progress as you get comfortable with each level. Work up to a 1-minute hold.
Core Strength Exercise #2 – L-Sit
The L-Sit is another fundamental exercise in our method, and it’s included in each of our Level One programs. We wrote a very detailed article on the L-Sit, but this video will give you a good foundation in this exercise.
Be sure to start with the tuck hold, and progress in the manner recommended in the above video.
Core Strength Exercise #3 – Jumps
Jumping is a great way to build core strength in a more dynamic fashion. This allows you to engage the core through its full range of motion. The key is to practice jumping with proper form.
Follow the tips in the video to start incorporating jumping into your daily exercise practice.
The Keys to Getting Visible Abs
After spending time strengthening your core, gaining a strong level of control over your entire body, and improving your overall health, you should start seeing some definition in your abs. At this point, however, some people find they need to do a bit more to reach their target physique.
Before I go into the details about how to take this next step, I want to reiterate that visible abs are not necessary for health. Sometimes, chasing that particular goal can actually do the reverse.
If you have a particular reason for wanting a visible six pack, that’s fine, but understand it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and patience.
And please be smart about it. Overdoing things will just hurt you, and your physique goals.
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again.
Diet is THE KEY to reducing bodyfat and seeing those sexy abs. If you really want a six pack, you are going to have to make changes to your diet and your habits.
You can read our full nutrition recommendations at this link, but for bodyfat reduction in particular, you must create a caloric deficit in the body. That means expending more calories than you consume.
Working out is a great way to expend more calories, but if you’re already carrying around an unhealthy amount of bodyfat, you also need to consume fewer calories. Doing this properly will force your body to begin using stored fat as fuel.
Finding the “Perfect” Diet Plan
There are countless “diet gurus” out there that claim to have the answer to miracle fat loss. Don’t drink the Koolaide, okay? What I said earlier still holds true, even at the most extreme levels of fat loss – there is no miracle pill or berry that will do this for you, and there’s no one correct diet plan for fat loss.
What is nearly universal, and is true of almost all popular diet plans, is the caloric deficit aspect. But caloric deficit does not mean starving yourself (in fact, doing so could have adverse effects).
The only real way to speed the process along is by ensuring that what food you do consume is quality fuel for your body.
Getting quality fuel means eating less crap (sugar, processed foods, and salt) and more of the good stuff (veggies and protein). This fundamental approach can take you a long way towards your goals.
There is also the currently en vogue method “intermittent fasting” (we especially like the IF/Carb cycling approach in Nate Miyaki’s Feast Your Fat Away program) to consume fewer calories at times that your body doesn’t need as much fuel.
Carbs are not bad. Fat is not bad. Protein is not bad.
Keep it simple and eat real food when possible. Eat as much as you need but not as much as you feel like. Use some common sense and most of all, be honest with yourself.
Do You Really Want a Six Pack?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be lean and look good, and having visible abdominal muscle lines may be one of those benchmarks that make that a reality for you.
But make sure that is truly what you want. Do you want to actually be strong and capable in moving your body for all the activities that you want to do, or do you just want to look a certain way? And again, there is no judgement in whatever you prioritize.
Just remember, having “ripped abs” doesn’t necessarily mean you are strong and healthy, just as not having them doesn’t mean you aren’t strong and healthy.
Obtaining six pack abs can be done with a lot of different methods of training and eating. We recommend a gradual and steady approach that combines nutrition, physical training, and a proper mindset.
Having those three factors in place will give you an incredible headstart on it all.
Getting super lean is no easy task. It requires a level of time and dedication most of just can’t afford. What is within almost everyone’s reach is the progressive building of control over your body, through which you’ll build strong and functional abs.
For the nutrition side of things, which is obviously a big factor, we always turn to nutrition expert Nate Miyaki.