The Best Abs Workout Guide On The Internet For Sculpting A Six-Pack

Shirtless man performing abdominal crunch exercise on floor
(Image credit: Matthew Leete / Getty Images)

There is no shortage of abs workouts on the internet. But which of the dozens, if not hundreds, of abs exercises should you focus on? Which are a waste of time? And how often should you train your abs anyway?   

To help you make the most of your time, we consulted Nick Mitchell, the founder and CEO of Ultimate Performance. Mitchell is a highly respected fitness industry veteran who’s single-handedly responsible for more six-packs than you’ve had hot dinners.

With Mitchell on board, we’ve drawn up this comprehensive abs workout guide, suitable for complete novices and experienced exercisers alike. Below you will learn all about the muscles that make up the classic six-pack, the truth about belly fat, why you should build your abs workouts around compound exercises, and how to directly train your abs over the course of five weeks to guarantee progress.

Buckle up, we’re going in.

How To Get Abs

We all have abs, but for most they’re hidden beneath a layer of body fat. To reveal your abdominal muscles, most men need to have a body fat percentage of around 10% (it’s around 15-20% for women).

“If you can pinch more than an inch around your midsection, following a specific fat-loss plan will help to reveal your abs,” Mitchell says (there are more complex and up-to-date ways to measure body fat). 

That said, it’s not just about how lean you are. “Anybody with low body fat can have abs, no matter how strong or muscular you are,” Mitchell continues. “But abs on a skinny guy who can’t bench his bodyweight just isn’t impressive. For a set of abs to be truly special, you need a good level of strength and muscle across your whole body.” 

In Mitchell’s book, that means strength training.

The Abdominal Muscles Explained

Before diving head first into an abs workout, it’s worth considering which muscles make up the six-pack musculature and the various functions of the abdominals in order to train them effectively. 

The six-pack is made up of four muscle groups: 

  1. Transversus abdominis: This deep-lying muscle holds your ribs in position and stabilizes the pelvic region. 
  2. Rectus abdominis: This sheet of muscle is divided into segments, providing the six-pack look. 
  3. Internal obliques: These broad muscles frame the six-pack, enabling side flexion and rotation.
  4. External obliques: Similarly involved in side flexion and rotation, these lateral abs muscles also pull the chest down and compress the abdominal cavity to help brace your core.

“Working in unison, the abdominal muscles that make up the six-pack region have two key functions,” says Mitchell. 

  1. Movement of the spine (flexion, side-bending and rotation)
  2. Stabilization of the spine (resistance to flexion, side-bending and rotation)

Both functions should be drilled rigorously and regularly. “However, complex compound exercises such as back squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and pull-ups should form the cornerstone of your training plan if you want eye-catching abs,” says Mitchell. 

That’s because you can’t squat, deadlift, overhead press or pull-up without working your abs. “These movements tend to involve heavy loads exerted on the body, which requires large amounts of muscular force,” Mitchell elaborates. “And it’s this transfer of muscular force through the body that best helps develop abdominal musculature.”

The Best Abs Workout For Beginners

If this is the very beginning of your six-pack journey, it’s best to start simple and build slowly. “If abs are your goal, the majority of your training should be focused around the major compound lifts and working to get progressively stronger,” says Mitchell. 

However, if your heart is set on training your abs in isolation, there are a few things Mitchell suggests you try to keep in mind. 

1. Keep It Simple

“Most abs exercises I see people perform outside of my gyms are too advanced and often butchered in their execution,” he says. “I prefer to limit the options to two or three proven exercises, then focus on getting progressively stronger.” 

2. Consistency Is Key

“Treat your abs like any other body part split,” says Mitchell. “Think of training them just like you would for your chest or back. The last thing you should be doing is changing your workout or exercises every single session.”

3. Focus On Flexion 

“Beginners, in my view, should primarily focus on abdominal crunches,” says Mitchell. This is because they drill one of the main functions of the abdominal muscles—spinal flexion. “Crunches are a common exercise but rarely are they done right.” 

4. Finetune Your Form 

“To make the most of this effective exercise, I recommend using an abdominal crunch pad, or ab mat, that you should be able to find in most commercial gyms,” says Mitchell. “This allows for a greater range of motion—and a greater range equals greater stimulation, a greater challenge and, ultimately, a greater six-pack.” 

5. Vary The Point Of Attack

“While you shouldn’t mix up your exercises too often, I do recommend switching up the angle of attack so you don’t hit a plateau,” says Mitchell. “Perform crunches on the floor, on a bench with a slight incline and on a decline bench to keep progressing.”

6. Add Resistance

“At some point your bodyweight is unlikely to present enough of a challenge to keep you getting stronger,” says Mitchell. “That’s why it’s crucial to add load. I like to hug a dumbbell into my chest to make it more challenging. Alternatively, replicate the movement with the rope attachment on a cable machine to provide resistance.”

How To Do This Abs Workout

To put this six-step plan into action, Mitchell has devised a simple five-week abs workout built around the abdominal crunch exercise

Progressive overload is achieved by slightly adjusting the number of reps, tempo, resistance and angle of attack over the four weeks. After four weeks, Mitchell suggests adding a second exercise, performed as a superset with minimal rest between sets. 

You can add these core finishers to the end of your regular training session or use them as short and sweet standalone abs workouts. If doing the latter, add a five-minute pre-workout warm-up to minimize the risk of injury. 

Crunch Tips

In order to make the most of this five-week abs workout, Nick Mitchell stresses your form and technique needs to be spot-on. “You need to maintain constant muscular tension while demonstrating a high level of control, intensity and range of motion,” he says. 

It sounds simple enough, but all too often, Mitchell says, the abdominal crunch exercise is botched: “I’m always seeing people launching their body weight through their hips and not contracting their abs enough.” He suggests following these pointers. 

  • Focus on shortening and squeezing your abs muscles on the way up.
  • Think about drawing your rib cage towards your pelvis.
  • Exhale deep and hard as you contract your abs.
  • At the top of the move, pause and squeeze your abs for two to three seconds.
  • Focus on lengthening and stretching your abs as you slowly descend.
  • Maintain tension across your abs as you lower under control.

Week 1

1 Incline abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the incline crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Tempo 3111 Rest 60sec 

Set a weight bench to a shallow 10˚ incline and use an ab mat under your lower back to increase the range of motion for the exercise. Keep your feet flat on the floor, cross your arms and tuck your chin in to your chest. Curl your upper body off the bench until your torso is almost upright, maintaining tension in your abdominal muscles throughout, then lower under control. To achieve the 3111 tempo, lower for a count of three seconds, pause for one, drive up for one, pause for one. 

Week 2

1 Weighted incline abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the weighted incline crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Tempo 3112 Rest 60sec 

Perform the exercise as above while holding a single dumbbell against your chest to increase the level of resistance. Hold the weight in both hands, with your elbows tucked in to your body. Pause for a count of two seconds at the top of the exercise, contracting your abs muscles hard to increase their time under tension. 

Week 3

1 Weighted abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the weighted crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 12-15 Tempo 3112 Rest 60sec 

This exercise should be performed flat on the floor, increasing the difficulty level. Position an ab mat under your lower back, keep your feet flat on the floor and hold a dumbbell across your chest as you curl your upper body up. Pause for two seconds at the top of the exercise, contract your abs hard, then lower slowly. Inhale as you lower, exhale as you curl up, and perform each rep with complete control. 

Week 4

1A Weighted abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the weighted crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Tempo 3112 Rest 30sec 

Perform the abdominal crunch on the floor, using an ab mat and dumbbell to increase the range of motion and resistance. Once all reps are complete, rest for just 30 seconds, then move on to exercise 1B. 

1B Decline abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the decline crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2212 Rest 90sec 

This exercise mirrors the incline abdominal crunch, but should be performed on a weight bench set to a shallow 10° decline so you have to fight that little bit harder against gravity. Note that the tempo is slightly different here too. Lower for two seconds, pause for two, drive up for one, pause for two. Rest for 90 seconds, then return to exercise 1A to start the second superset. 

Week 5

1A Weighted abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the weighted crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Tempo 3112 Rest 30sec 

Perform the abdominal crunch on the floor, using an ab mat and dumbbell, as detailed above. 

1B Decline cable machine abdominal crunch

Ultimate Performance trainer demonstrates two positions of the weighted decline crunch

(Image credit: Richard Butcher / Future)

Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2212 Rest 90sec 

Position the head end of a weight bench next to the pulley station of a cable machine. Set the bench at a shallow 10° decline and the cable machine with a rope handle set at its lowest position. Lying on the bench, again using an abmat, grasp the handles of the rope so that your hands are next to your head. Keeping your elbows locked in position, contract your abs to curl your upper body off the bench until almost upright. Keep the weight stack light to ensure good form throughout this technical exercise. 

The Best Abs Workout Plan

Now you know how to use the crunch to progressively strengthen your core. Your next challenge will be introducing functional abdominal movements to further improve your core stability, while providing cross-over benefits for all your other lifts and any sports you play as well.  

At this stage, your abs workout exercise selection should be determined by your general strength and fitness level. The hanging leg raise, for example, is an excellent, advanced core exercise, but if your grip doesn’t allow you to hang on to a pull-up bar long enough for an effective set, it won’t provide the stimulus you need.

“You would be better off picking an exercise that allows you to target your abs in a more isolated manner without other body parts breaking down first,” says Mitchell. 

So, which exercises should you pick? Mitchell recommends including one or two moves for every major core function. “That means exercises that include flexion of the spine, such as crunch variations, side bends, rotational movements and something that will present an adequate stabilization challenge.” 

Here, Mitchell has picked his go-to abdominal exercises for each major core function, based on ability levels from beginner to advanced. 

Beginner Abs Workout Exercise Options

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Spinal flexionLateral flexionRotation
Bodyweight incline abdominal crunchSuitcase carry (unilateral farmer’s walk) Seated cable wood chop (horizontal cable)
Abdominal crunchSide bend performed on floor/benchRow 1 - Cell 2

Intermediate Abs Workout Exercise Options

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Spinal flexionLateral flexionRotation
Weighted abdominal crunchIncline side bend (performed on 45° incline back extension bench)Standing cable wood chop (horizontal cable)
Bodyweight decline abdominal crunchRow 1 - Cell 1 Row 1 - Cell 2

Advanced Abs Workout Exercise Options

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Spinal flexionLateral flexionRotation
Weighted decline abdominal crunchHorizontal side bend (performed on flat back extension bench)Standing low-to-high cable woodchop
Cable machine abdominal crunchRow 1 - Cell 1 Standing high-to-low cable woodchop
Reverse crunchRow 2 - Cell 1 Row 2 - Cell 2
Hanging leg raiseRow 3 - Cell 1 Row 3 - Cell 2

Common Abs Workout Mistakes

Selecting exercises unsuited to your current strength and fitness level, Nick Mitchell says, is one of the most common abs workout mistakes. At best this will hamper your attempts to strengthen your six-pack muscles, at worst it could lead to injury. Here are some other pitfalls that could be scuppering your best-laid abs workout plans. 

Targeting The Wrong Muscles Altogether

The abdominal crunch is a common culprit for this misstep. “Most people fail to perform this exercise with anywhere near the level of control they should be,” says Mitchell. “I often see people launching their bodyweight through their hip flexors, or craning their neck.” Instead, keep your chin tucked in to your chest and focus on moving at a slow and controlled tempo. 

Inconsistent Exercise Selection

Dozens of abs exercises exist, from beginner-friendly planks and suitcase carries to advanced Pallof presses and wood chops—yet variety isn’t the spice of life when you’re devising the most effective abs workout. “Resist the temptation to switch up your abs exercises every single session,” says Mitchell. “Consistency and progressive overload is key.” 

Becoming Over-reliant On Your Bodyweight

Part of the fun of abs workouts is you can target your core muscles any time, anywhere. All you need is your bodyweight to challenge them through full flexion, lateral flexion and rotation. “Yet, at some point, you need to add resistance if you want to get stronger,” says Mitchell. Hugging a dumbbell or weight plate to your chest is always a good place to start. 

Working Through Only One Plane Of Motion 

Your six-pack muscles are designed to do more than simply look good in the mirror. They are responsible for spinal flexion, trunk stability and the transfer of strength and power from one side of your body to the other. Therefore, you need to train them accordingly. “For starters, that means building your workouts around the major compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and pull-ups,” says Mitchell. 

Abs Workout FAQs

How often should you train your abs?

“Most muscles generally recover 48-72 hours after training, which means you’ll want to train your abdominal muscles two to three times per week,” says Nick Mitchell. “It’s counter-intuitive to train them more frequently than this because you may disrupt the recovery process, and this can detrimentally affect your other workouts.” 

How long should abs workouts last for?

Don’t get hung up on time. Instead, think about efficiency. 

“You don’t need to spend a whole hour or session training abs,” says Mitchell. “It’s unlikely you’ll be training at the intensity required to elicit gains for the whole session.” In fact, he says, two-thirds of your workout should be spent performing compound exercises that challenge your whole body, with only one third spent on isolation movements. 

“Considering that most Ultimate Performance PT sessions last between 45-55 minutes, an effective abs routine within a well-designed training program should take no longer than 10-15 minutes,” says Mitchell. These are generally performed at the end of a workout after most of the heavy compound lifting has been done.

What can and can’t abs workouts help you achieve?

“Training abs can give you a stronger core, and a more developed, muscular abdominal look,” says Mitchell. “However, it cannot give you a leaner, chiseled look.” That can only be determined by how you hold on to body fat, which in turn is primarily influenced by your diet, and secondly by your activity levels.

“Contrary to what many people believe, training abs endlessly in the hope that it helps burn belly fat is complete nonsense,” says Mitchell. “The best way to see your abs is to lose fat from all over your body through sustainable diet management, such as by staying in a calorie deficit long enough to reduce your body fat down to a suitable level.” 

What’s the difference between abs workouts and core workouts?

The terms abs workouts and core workouts are often used interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings. “Simply put, the abdominal muscles form a part of the ‘core’, which comprises the abdominals and spinal muscles,” says Mitchell. “These muscle groups work in unison during most compound exercises to provide rigidity and stability to the spine.” 

An abs workout will typically focus on training the abdominal muscles directly, whereas a core workout would usually involve training both the abdominal and spinal muscles together, often within the same exercise. “As a result, there is certainly some cross-over, whereby some abdominal exercises also serve as core exercises, and vice versa,” says Mitchell.

Regardless of the confusion, both abs and core workouts are beneficial for your abdominal muscles. “Training the abdominals directly helps improve their size and strength,” says Mitchell. “Training with ‘core’ movements helps develop the skill and strength of both the abdominal and spinal muscles simultaneously.” 

Sam Rider

Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.