No matter how strong your core is, you aren’t going to see a six-pack if your muscles are hiding behind a big layer of fat, says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia. “Each individual is going to be slightly different, but the ideal range of body fat in men is eight to 20 percent,” he says. Get below six percent and you could compromise your health.
To make sure you stay safe, put one hand underneath the small of your back, crunch your head and shoulders up just a handful of inches, hold for about 10 seconds, and release back down, advises Stuart M. McGill, Ph.D., director of the spine biomechanics laboratory at the University of Waterloo. This move basically ensures that you aren’t rounding your back so that your weight doesn’t drop into your low spine, per McGill.
Start on your back, bend your knees up with shins parallel to the floor and extend your arms to the ceiling. Straighten your left leg and extend your right arm back to about 6 inches off of the floor, and then come back to the original position. Then, repeat the exercise on the opposite side. Just be sure to keep your abs engaged throughout this move to really work your muscles!
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To do it: Start with feet in a wide stance, knees bent, arms up on guard. Keeping your lower body still, quickly lean your upper body to the right, then come back through the center and lean to the left. Repeat lean back to the right. Next, lower your upper body, from the right around to the left side, making a half circle with your torso. Return to start position. That’s one rep. (Tip: it helps to keep a steady rhythm with this move, think—or say aloud—1, 2, 3, weave to help you keep your tempo). Repeat 10 times total, alternating starting on the right and left sides.
Even though your rectus abdominus is the muscle you want to see when you look in the mirror, your inner core muscles, including your internal obliques and transverse abdominis, are the foundation for your six-pack. “You would not build a mansion on a weak foundation, so don’t try to build a six-pack on a weak core,” Cary says. This is when you’ll want to try out some more creative core workouts like planks, dead bugs, core twists, and farmer’s walks, he says. All of these tap your core’s ability to stabilize, rather than crunch, your core.
Health fats is another valuable source in order to get lean muscles such as fish oils, raw nuts, olive oils and nut butters into your eating routine. These sources will keep your insulin levels stable, which is very salient if you will likely lose stomach fat and uncover well defined abs. I am not saying to go out there and eat a whole sack of Planters Cashews.
Lie on your back with knees bent to 90-degree angles. Straighten your arms by your sides, and lengthen your fingertips. Press the backs of your shoulders against a mat, and slide them down away from your ears. Focusing on the deep waist muscles, inhale and slowly move your knees to the right, then exhale and return to starting position. Repeat on the left; that’s 1 rep. Do 5–8 reps.
Directions: Begin each of these workouts with a five-minute warmup, or go through the moves after you’ve done your usual cardio or strength training when you’re already warm. Each should also begin with 20 reps of what Fitzgerald calls “transverse pullbacks”—where you pull your navel toward your spine, as if bracing yourself against a sucker punch—as a way to activate the muscles for the work you’re about to ask of them. You’ll also need some dumbbells for some of these moves.
Go beyond crunches. Sims prefers exercises that challenge you to stabilize your core against imbalance or gravity, like a hands plank with dumbbell pull-through and ab roll-outs using a core-training wheel. "They challenge the entire core by resisting movement instead of creating it," she says of these moves, which she recommends doing in sets of 10 three times. You can repeat the series several times a week.
2. Cut out or greatly curtail your consumption of refined sugar. Not all calories are equal when you're trying to lose weight and develop a six-pack, Herrington says. For example, 200 calories from a robust serving of beans or from a sugary cookie provide vastly different amounts of nutrition. A serving of beans would typically contain good amounts of protein, potassium, magnesium and dietary fiber, while a cookie packed with sugar is mostly empty calories, Herrington says. She advises staying away from foods like white bread, cakes and pies and white crackers that are laden with refined sugar. You should also eschew sugary sports drinks, fruit juices and sodas, in favor of plain water or milk. "The biggest thing I advise people to avoid is added sugars," Herrington says. "If you want to cut out body fat, cut that out. Refined sugar isn't doing you any good. You get a temporary boost of energy, then you crash and crave more. It's like burning money; it's a waste." Eating too much refined sugar is also linked to fatty liver disease, obesity and diabetes, she says.
A. Well it doesn’t have to be. I obviously can’t match the stuff fitness professionals, models and actors do. I try to do the most I can in aspects I can control and so should everyone. Don’t stress over things out of your control. Accept them, embrace them, leverage them and become the strongest version of yourself you can. What’s the worst that can happen? It’ll take a little longer? Meh. In the end, it will all be worth it.
Try adding four or five to the end of your workout to challenge your core a little more, or turn them into a standalone workout—try doing 12-15 reps of each exercise and then repeating the circuit (of four or five exercises) three to four times, to start. If you feel tension in your lower back during any of these exercises, stop and reset, making sure your abs are really engaged and that your back is not arched. You can also try starting with fewer reps. If you still feel discomfort, skip that exercise and try a different that allows you to keep your spine in a safer position. (It's also helpful to read up on which abs exercises tend to be irritating for lower-back issues beforehand if that's a concern for you.)
To do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell on the back of your shoulders. Lower your body toward the floor, sending your hips back and down and bending your knees. Push through your heels to return to start position, keeping your back flat and head up throughout the movement. Try to do 8-10 reps for 3 sets (resting 45-60 seconds between sets).
Protein — The building block of muscle and that mystical term for most beginners. If you don’t consume enough protein while staying in a caloric deficit, you’re going to lose a lot of muscle mass along with that fat, drastically reducing your TDEE. More muscle means you can get away with eating more because muscles store glycogen which in turn give you energy. Also, more muscle makes you look more fab. Ever wondered why those people who go on a crash diet and lose a lot of weight gain it all back when they return to their old eating habits? Now you know!
Bicycle: This exercise works your obliques as well as your rectus abdominis. Lie on your back, hips and knees bent at 90-degrees, chest curled over ribs, hands behind your head. Extend the left leg out while bringing the right knee in towards the chest and rotating the left shoulder toward the right knee. Keep the arm from crossing the face. Rotate from the trunk through the center to the other side without dropping your chest. Move in slow, controlled movements without shifting your hips.
Lie face-up and place your lower legs on a Swiss ball. Extend your right arm overhead and bend your left arm at a 90-degree angle; then grasp the upper portion of your right arm so you form a cradle for your head. Flexing your toes and holding the ball in place by contracting your hamstrings, crunch forward to the finish position. In this position, increase the tension on your abs by attempting to pull the ball towards you with your hamstrings. Return to the start and exhale. Your rectus abdominus can flex only about 30 degrees (strictly), so when you perform this exercise it may not be necessary to lift your shoulders off the floor to achieve peak contraction. You can make the exercise more difficult by pulling harder with your hamstrings, maintaining peak contraction longer and by holding a weight in your free hand.
A common belief in bodybuilding is that a beginner can make progress lifting rocks. This is not to offend the brutally huge strongmen you see on the MET-Rx World’s Strongest Men on ESPN who lift those 350-lb. Atlas Stones but is to emphasize the point that beginners can make progress on just about any program, using just about anything for resistance, even small Flinstone pebbles. But just because beginners can have success with minimal effort and nonspecific workouts, this doesn’t mean that their training protocol will also work for an experienced athlete, or for someone who wants to go even beyond a “slightly visible” 6-Pack!
The crunch is the most popular abs exercise because anyone can do it. But that doesn't mean it's the best exercise for training your middle. "Crunches flex your trunk," says David Jack, owner of ActivPrayer in Phoenix, Arizona and creator of Men's Health MA40 Workout. "But the main function of your core is to prevent movement and resist force through your torso."
When it comes to improving core stability, the plank has your back (and your front!). By working your transverse abdominis — the deep core muscles that wrap around your middle — as well as your back, shoulders and glutes (yes, you should activate your butt, too), you get a full body burn in one isometric movement. But the best thing about planks: You can continuously switch them up and make your muscles work even more. Check out these creative twists on a typical plank routine and you’ll see what we mean.
Refresh your abs workout with these 25 core exercises. They'll challenge your abs from all angles, making you stronger in everything you do and giving you a body you'll be proud to show off shirtless. And for a complete fitness program that will not only build your abs muscles, but also melt the fat that covers them, try Anarchy Abs from Men's Health. You’ll get five 30-minute calorie-torching workouts that employ a unique blend of metabolic training, traditional strength training, and gymnastics fundamentals to strip away fat from head to toe.
“These days, I do a fair amount of Pilates and yoga to focus on the strength of my core. You don’t have to be a crazy cardio bunny to lower your body fat percentage (to get those abs to show)—bodyweight exercises can be really effective. Yoga and Pilates help me focus on overall strength, not just my core, and it helps make sure I work my back, too. Most people forget about that, but you need a strong back to help support a strong core.” —Dorothy Beal, @mileposts