Let’s start with what abs are. You already have abs – everyone does. “Abs” is short for abdominal muscles. Both men and women have four pairs of abdominal muscles. They are the external obliques, the internal obliques, the transverses abdominis, and the rectus abdominis.
These ab muscles move your torso. When you twist, as if throwing a frisbee, bend down to pick something up, crunch forward, or lean to the side, you use this muscle group (1).
Usually, these muscles are covered with a layer of belly fat. When people talk about “washboard abs,” they are referring to when the rectus abdominis is well-defined, and you can see it beneath the skin. To get there, you are going to have to lower your body fat percentage and start building muscle.
7 Tips to Six-Pack Abs
Eat a Healthy Diet
Exercise can help you build muscles, but if you want to show them off, you are going to need to lose weight. Fat is stored in adipose tissue. Your body has adipose tissue in two places: under your skin and around your organs.
The fat that is around your organs is belly fat. Belly fat is bad for your health is linked to many serious diseases. The fat under your skin is the reason you can’t see your muscles, whether it’s on your abs, arms, legs, or anywhere else. (2)
Let’s start in the kitchen. What you eat is the key to a drop on the scale and the results you want. Your food intake should be mostly whole foods with beneficial nutrients. In other words, it’s time to snack on an apple and cut out the chips and the sweets.
What a healthy diet looks like:
- Plenty of green vegetables, such as broccoli and green beans
- Healthy starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes
- Fruits containing vitamins and minerals like blueberries, raspberries, and grapefruit
- Whole grains, like brown rice and quinoa
- Lean proteins such as chicken, tofu, and fish
Each meal should contain a mix of these, with loads of veggies. Wash your meals down with lots of water. Water will keep you hydrated. Dehydrated people perform worse in the gym. And the reality is, to build muscle tissue for your six-pack abs, you’ll need to work out.
Add More Cardio, Especially HIIT
Here’s the thing. You can lose weight through diet alone; however, you will lose muscle as well (3). That is not the goal! To have a fabulous physique, you need to be exercising while reducing calorie intake.
Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio exercise, will get you breathing heavy, your heart rate up, and start burning that weight around your stomach.
There are a lot of different kinds of cardio exercises, but one very effective method is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). HIIT is a style of training that’s been popular with runners for years. It mixes short bursts of intense exercise with short rest periods. For example, sprint as fast as you can for 20 seconds, then walk for 20. (Do these sprints on a treadmill or outside on a track).
HIIT burns calories and according to researchers, it also builds muscle and increases athletic performance in sports. (4)
HIIT workouts for abs:
- Thirty seconds of jumping jacks, followed by 30 seconds of rest
- Forty-five seconds of mountain climbers followed by 45 seconds of rest
- Thirty seconds of jumping lunges, followed by thirty seconds of rest
- Biking as fast as possible for one minute, followed by a minute of slower peddling. (On a road bike or a spin bicycle.)
One approach is to make a HIIT circuit by combining these moves in several sets.
Do a Full-Body Workout
HIIT workouts are fantastic because they do a lot in a short period and you don’t need a lot of equipment to do them. But for muscle growth, you are going to want full-body workouts, three to five times a week. As people build muscles, it increases their fitness and boosts their metabolism.
Full-Body exercises work everything, from your shoulders to your legs. Some movements can be done at body weight. Or you can add resistance bands or weights.
Include sets of these workouts for best results:
- Squats – Whether you squat with a barbell or not, a squat works your back, core, shoulders, and is great for the glutes.
- Burpees – Trainers love them, athletes hate them. Love them or hate them, Burpees were developed for a purpose. They are a full-body workout that you can do at any location without equipment.
- Kettlebell swings – Kettlebell swings work your hips, midsection, chest, quads, and more. Plus, they are fun. If you don’t have a kettlebell, you can use a dumbbell.
- Push-ups build strength in your arms, chest, shoulders, back, core, and bum muscles. Can’t do them on your toes? There are also variations where you are on your knees.
If you are new to full-body workouts, a trainer can help. They can coach you on your form and technique. Also, add in the following abs exercises.
Master Your Ab Workout
As you start eating better and upping your activity level, you will also want to start working those core muscles with an abs workout. Try adding in a regular routine of ab workouts three to four times a week.
Ab exercises you will want to program in for muscle mass and get six-pack abs:
- Isometric exercises like planks
- Russian twists
- Reverse crunches
These movements are also great for circuits. Be sure to check out these 18 belly fat burning exercises to boost fat loss and target all areas of your abdomen.
Eat More Protein and Fiber
As you are revamping your nutrition to lose belly fat, you need to add in more protein and fiber.
Many people eat too little fiber. Fiber has a variety of benefits. For one, it makes you feel full longer. As you are reducing calories at mealtimes, this fact can be a big help. Fiber slows the rate at which your bloodstream absorbs sugar, so it prevents blood sugar spikes and crashes. And there is nothing like the feeling of fatigue during a sugar crash to make you skip your salad and hit the vending machine.
The fiber you should be eating includes whole-grain type breads, brown rice, beans and legumes, and fruit and vegetables (5).
We categorize food into three macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and protein. We’ve talked about carbs already, so let’s look at protein. Like fiber, protein helps you feel full longer. But also supports muscle growth.
Do you want gains in your muscles? Then you need to give your body the resources it needs to rebuild and grow them.
Look for lean meat like poultry and seafood. Or, if you eat a plant-based diet, a protein shake or Greek yogurt can help you hit your protein intake goals. Be careful of dairy products. While they do contain protein, they also make some people gassy and bloated.
Focus on Healthy Fats
Research has shown that unsaturated fats can help you manage your moods, control your weight, and fight fatigue. Also, your body uses these healthy fats as fuel.
Avoid Processed Foods and Sugar
One great trick for losing weight? Cut the crappy carbs. By this, I mean, you want to stick with complex carbohydrates like whole grains and get rid of manufactured simple carbs.
Pastas, bread, and sugary snacks like cookies, all provide tons of calories and very little nutrition. That is the opposite of what you want for fat loss. Though sugars offer a lot of quick energy, they just don’t last.
The Bottom Line
In addition to all of the tips above, I have a bonus tip for you. My advice is to make sure you are also taking a full day off for muscle recovery. Not only do you need a day off from the gym, but you also need to get plenty of high-quality sleep.
Getting the right amount of sleep will not only promote recovery; it will help your mind. People who are sleep deprived have a hard time making the right decisions, which can result in injury. Be smart, and take care of yourself.
It’s not easy to get a six-pack. It takes a lot of effort, discipline, and consistency in the kitchen. You are going to need a strategy to build good habits. But if you stick with these seven steps, your effort will pay off.
- “11.4 Axial Muscles of the Abdominal Wall, and Thorax – Anatomy and Physiology.” BC Open Textbooks – Open Textbooks Adapted and Created by BC Faculty, 6 Mar. 2013, opentextbc.ca/anatomyandphysiology/chapter/11-5-axial-muscles-of-the-abdominal-wall-and-thorax/.
- Vasković, Jana. “Adipose Tissue.” Kenhub, 29 Sept. 2019, www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/adipose-tissue.
- DL Ballor, and ET Poehlman. “Exercise-training enhances fat-free mass preservation during diet-induced weight loss: a meta-analytical finding.” Europe PMC, International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders : Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, europepmc.org/article/med/8130813/reload=0.
- DG;, Laursen PB;Jenkins. “The Scientific Basis for High-Intensity Interval Training: Optimising Training Programmes and Maximising Performance in Highly Trained Endurance Athletes.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11772161/.
- “Why Fiber Is So Good for You.” UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, www.ucsfbenioffchildrens.org/education/why_fiber_is_so_good_for_you/.