Every guy walking around your gym—even the one with 20-inch biceps—wants six-pack abs.
After all, guys can work out for years, build awesome muscles, and still not see their abs emerge from hiding. That’s because, when it comes to building strong—dare we say, sexy—cores, the amount of time you spend in the gym isn’t the determining factor—following the right strategies is.
So whether you’re a gym newbie, or just have never had success scoring a six-pack with your past gym attempts, here’s everything you need to know to get the abs every guy wants.
1. Work your rectus abdominis
When guys talk about six-packs, they are really talking about one muscle, called the rectus abdominis. “The rectus abdominis runs from our lower ribs down to the top of our pubic bone, and fibrous bands of tissue break up the muscle along the way to give us the six-pack look we all desire,” explains kinesiologist David Cary, C.P.T., a T4 Coach at Equinox in Chicago. So, if you want to sprout six-pack abs, this is the muscle you need to work.
And, since the muscle is designed to bring your lower ribs and pelvis closer together or farther apart, you need to work them that way—with crunches and reverse crunches, Cary says. In fact, research commissioned by the American Council on Exercise shows that the crunch works the rectus abdominis better than other common abs exercises including the plank, sit-up, and boat pose.
But instead of just trying to perform as many reps as possible, slow down and really focus on the quality of the movement—especially the eccentric, or downward motion, of the exercise, he says. “The eccentric contraction is the most important phase when sculpting any muscle.” Plus, focusing on quality over quantity will help protect your back (some experts say crunches can be potentially troublesome for guys with back issues.)
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.
2. Don’t forget your inner core muscles
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.
3. Know your body fat percentage
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.
4. Clean up your diet
Apart from helping to keep your body-fat percentage where it needs to be, eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones) will help you build a strong core worth revealing, says nutritionist Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. After all, while whole carbs like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and fruit will fuel your workouts so that you burn more calories, protein-rich foods like eggs, lean meats, and, fish will help you recover from them so that you build more muscle, he says. Unsaturated fats from almond butter, walnuts, avocado, and olive oil work to help your metabolism function at its best and your body absorb all of the nutrients it needs, White says.
As a general rule, reach for whole foods that contain fiber, healthy fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates, and avoid processed ones that contain added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and tons of sodium. Remember, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.
5. Put your legs to work
When it comes to building a six-pack, many guys don’t think to work any muscles outside of their core. But, to uncover your abs, you need to train your whole body, especially your legs. “Some of the largest and most metabolically consuming muscles in our body are in our hips and legs,” Cary says. “Work your lower body by doing squats, lunges, and dead lifts.” If you can work to engage your core during all of these exercises, even better.
6. Drink more water
While staying hydrated is important no matter your fitness goals, you absolutely have to drink up if you want to see the abs you’ve been working so hard to sculpt. Your body is two thirds water, and you want to make sure it stays that way, Delbridge says. Keeping your water levels up prevents water retention and helps your body rid itself of toxins and excess salt to reduce boat. And if you’re puffy, your abs aren’t going to look as chiseled as they could. When you hit the urinals, your pee should be pretty much clear.