The geek’s guide to ab training

Judging by how much guys talk about it, you’d think having sixpack abs was the key to looking sexy, becoming a legit alpha male, and melting the panties off every woman who looks at you.

Of course, long-time readers will already know that the real secret to ultimate sex appeal is having veiny hands. 


Still, good abs are nice to have, for both men and women.  Problem is, most of you seem clueless about how to get them (hint: not situps).  So here’s everything a discerning bro or swolemaiden needs to know about how to get a flat, strong, possibly ripped belly. 

Abdominal muscles, explained

First off, having visible abs is mostly a matter of fat loss, not muscle growth.  That’s because fat is on top of the abs, blocking them from view like the censorship in a Japanese porn vid.  That’s not to say building muscle doesn’t make a difference- it does- but it takes quite a lot of muscle growth to equal the effect of a small amount of fat loss, and if you’re over a certain body fat percentage, having visible abs is simply impossible.

In other words, you need to have some muscle mass to get visible abs, and beyond that it’s really just about fat loss.  As for having a flat belly, that’s all fat loss.    

Ti give you some hard numbers, men will usually get a flat belly at 12-15% body fat, start to show visible abs at 10-12%, and get a full sixpack and/or inguinal crease between 6 and 10%.  For those who don’t know, the inguinal crease is the pair of curved lines that run from the oblique muscles down to the groin, and it’s actually not a muscle, but a couple of ligaments showing through the skin. 


Because their body fat distribution is different- they store more fat in the breasts and hips- women will start showings abs at much higher overall body fat levels.  A flat belly shows up somewhere between 18 and 22% body fat, visible abs between 12 and 16, and a sixpack between 10 and 12.  However, 14% and below is considered essential body fat for women, and getting that lean causes serious health problems.  So most women can’t be healthy and have sixpack abs, although there are a few women who can because their bodies just don’t store much fat around the belly. 

Your abdomen contains many different muscle groups.  There’s the rectus abdominus, which are located front and center, and form the aforementioned sixpack.  There’s the external obliques, located to either side of those, which typically become visible at a slightly lower body fat level than the rectus abdominus.  There are also smaller, more deeply located muscles, like the internal obliques and transversus abdominus.

The thing is, you don’t really need to know about all the muscles at work here.  I mean, there are over six hundred muscles in the human body, and I’m sure as shit not memorizing all of them.  Instead, you should think in terms of movement patterns.  Your abdominal muscles are used for bending forward, bending sideways, twisting, sucking in your belly, and stabilizing your body in every direction. 

Proper ab training requires working   all of those movement patterns.  Note, however, that abs do get worked as a secondary muscle in many other exercises, particularly in their role as stabilizer muscles. 

Abdominal muscles consist primarily of slow-twitch fibers, which have low growth potential, relatively low strength and high endurance, and recover quickly.  Add to that the fact that many ab exercises don’t allow you to add weight above and beyond your body weight, and that means ab work tends to be high-rep, low weight, and with high workout frequency. 

How to train for six pack abs

Unlike other muscle groups, abs are rarely given their own day.  Instead, it’s better to train them a little bit at the end of every workout, in order to train them with the required high frequency. 

You also need a fair amount of variety with your ab workouts, both because you have so many movement patterns to work, and because if you don’t change things up, the muscles will quickly adapt to the workout and stop growing.  Also, variety is fun.  A good ab training plan might include anywhere from four to twelve exercises in order to provide the needed variety. 

Abs are best trained at the end of each workout.  Since they perform a secondary, stabilizing function for other movements, putting them at the end ensures that ab fatigue doesn’t become a limiting factor for your big compound movements like the bench press, squat, etc. 

I prefer to train abs circuit-style.  This gets you done with the workout faster, since abs recover pretty quickly, and it also provides some fat loss.  Now that’s not strictly necessary since fat loss could just as easily be separated from the ab training, but it does ensure you’re getting a decent metabolic effect from your workout, particularly if the rest of your workout wasn’t done circuit style. 

A good volume for ab work is 2-3 sets of 2-3 exercises, at the end of each workout.  Here are a few different ab circuits you can add on to the end of your workouts:

Ab circuit 1

Front plank, 3 sets of 30-60 seconds

Spiderman lunge, 3 sets of 10-12 per side

Bicycle crunches, 3 sets of 12-15

Ab circuit 2

Bosu ball deep squat, 3 sets of 12-20  add weight by holding dumbbells if possible.  Hold one second at the bottom. 

Pushup position plank, 3 sets of 30 seconds

Mountain climbers, 3 sets of 15-20 per leg

Ab circuit 3

Slow myotatic crunch and hold, 2 sets of 10-12 add dumbbells for weight

Dumbell side bends, 2 sets of 8-10 per side

V-sit with Russian twist, 6 sets of 10- Do 3 sets of the Russian twist with each circuit, resting 5 seconds between each. 

Ab circuit 4

Pushups, 2 sets to failure

Side plank, 2 sets of 30-45 seconds per side

Ab suction, 2 sets of 12-20

For each of these circuits, move immediately from one exercise to the next, resting 60 seconds between each circuit.  Try to add weight with each workout for exercises where that’s possible; otherwise, progress by adding reps or time. 

You can mix and match these with your workouts too.  For instance, one week you might do your leg workout followed by ab circuit 1, and the next week you could match the leg workout with ab circuit 3.  This is a great muscle confusion technique to keep workouts interesting and keep your muscles from adapting to the training stimulus. 

These circuits, combined with a solid fat loss diet, are all you need to build washboard abs.  Work abz, cut carbz, get moar ripped.