The Abs Rules

We all have a six-pack – all we need to do is develop it and make it show. Here’s how
(Image credit: Unknown)

1. Train the abs like a muscle

“The biggest mistake people make with the abs is that they forget it’s just like any other muscle,” says strength and conditioning coach Nick Grantham. “They’ll go in and do 200 reps of an abs exercise every day and then wonder why they get a hernia.” To build your abs, do ten to 15 reps and increase the intensity by adding more sets. Leave one day in between abs sessions to allow the muscles to recover.

2. Do static holds for core stability

“Your muscles have slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibres but when you hold a weight in a static position you use both sets of fibres,” says Lee Archer, director of Pro Fitness. This means you can improve the overall strength of all the muscles used to stabilise the lower back and hips in one exercise, such as the plank, as long as you remember to hold the position for at least five seconds.

3. Add resistance to crunches to build muscle

“Use resistance you can handle, so start with a dumbbell or medicine ball across your chest and keep the weight close to your body,” says Grantham. “As you progress, you can extend your arms or raise them above your head to create a longer lever and make the exercise harder. If you get into trouble then you can bring the weight back towards you and all of a sudden it will seem lighter.”

RECOMMENDED: Crunch Exercises For Building A Six-Pack

4. Do more than crunch

Grantham trains athletes with an all-round course of exercise. “When I put together a core training programme I look at hitting all of the movement patterns. So I start with a flexion exercise such as a crunch, then I do something with extension like a superman. After that I introduce lateral flexion with a side bend, then I have a rotational exercise. Finally I do a static hold like a plank or a bridge.”

5. Use a Swiss ball

“When you train in an unstable environment you recruit a lot more muscle tissue, putting microscopic tears into it and when it repairs itself this leads to muscle growth,” says Sean Singleton, expertise coach at David Lloyd Leisure. You can also use a wobble board or Swiss ball to progress a core exercise and make it harder, preparing your muscles for adding resistance later on.

RECOMMENDED: Gym Ball Exercises That Everyone Should Be Doing

6. Target your lower abs

“The lower section of the abs is the one that’s most difficult to hit and you will need some specific exercises,” says Grantham. “Most people can reveal a four-pack at the top but it’s getting the six-pack that’s hard. My choice would be a reverse crunch with your legs up on a Swiss ball or just straight up into the air.”

RECOMMENDED: Lower Abs Workout

7. Do core stretches

“Flexibility training is important to recovery because if you stretch the muscle you lengthen its range of motion and open it up so that your blood can re-supply it fully,” says Singleton. Lie face down on the floor with your hands just underneath your shoulders, then push up with your arms to bring your chest off the floor and push your hips into the floor. For your obliques, stand upright with feet apart and go over to one side. For your back, sit on your lower legs and bend forwards, stretching your arms across the floor.

8. Get your diet right

To build muscle you need to eat between 1.5g and 2g of lean protein per kilo of bodyweight every day. “Then you’ll get a six-pack by doing exercises – but you may not see it,” says Grantham. “To see it, a man has to get down to 10% body fat, and to lose fat you’ve got to burn more calories than you take in. Increase the amount of exercise you do combined with a sensible diet.”

9. Prioritise your training

If you want to get a six-pack you’ll need to devote separate sessions to train your abs so that you hit them when you’re still full of energy. Never try to do an abs session before a heavy lifting workout because you can exhaust the muscles in your core, which could be dangerous. However, it’s OK to do an abs session before a run if you need to.

10. Slow down your reps

“Muscle will grow only if it spends time under tension,” says Grantham. “If someone does 30 reps in 30 seconds he’s actually putting the muscles under tension for only 30 seconds. If you get someone else to do three sets of ten reps but each rep lasts ten seconds, they triple the time under tension and get the better strength gains.” Try to count to three on the way up, hold for a count of two, then count to three again on the way down.

11. Train standing up

If you do all your abs and lower-back workouts on an exercise mat, you are switching one side of your body off while you work the other. If you then try to use your core as a single unit during sport or hard cardio effort, it will not have been trained to do this and you risk injuring yourself. So do standing abs exercises that involve rotation using a medicine ball or cable machine, such as the woodchop.

RECOMMENDED: Cable Machine Exercises For Abs

12. Do short cardio intervals

Steady-state training will burn fat but only very slowly over a mammoth session. “If you want to lose fat and keep lean muscle mass then do intervals,” says Grantham. By pairing high-intensity efforts with rest in between, you work for less time at a higher intensity to burn more calories. You also boost your metabolic rate so that you’ll still be burning calories four hours later when you’re sitting watching TV.

Nick Hutchings worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Nick worked as digital editor from 2008 to 2011, head of content until 2014, and finally editor-in-chief until 2015.