All the information you need to sculpt a chiseled six-pack, including training principles, workouts, exercises and a seven-day meal plan
Want hard abs? Of course you do – and getting them may be more straightforward than you thought with these tips from top trainer Mark Coles
Almost everyone who trains regularly wants to have a rock-hard six-pack. But the reality is that hardly anyone does. Why? The problem is rarely that they don’t train hard enough. More often it’s that they don’t train smart enough.
The biggest misconception most people have when training abs is that more is better. But the time you spend working on your abs has very little impact on how long it takes you to get a six-pack. Just like every other muscle group, quality reps of the key moves are far more significant to your success than the quantity. This leads to the second most common misconception, which is that cranking out very high-rep sets is the only way to bring out your abs. The problem with both of these ideas is that the longer your set or workout lasts, the harder it is for you to maintain the levels of consistency, intensity and focus that are essential to maximising muscle mass development.
When I’m training clients, there are six key principles I rely on to help them build a six-pack effectively and safely. Keep on reading to discover what they are – and then you too can get on the fast track to having the hard abs you’ve always wanted.
1. Recruit the abs
The abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) flex and extend the spine. It’s really important to think about this and let it truly sink in before you even consider crunching. Because when most people “train their abs”, they’re likely to be recruiting other muscles – typically the hip flexors – and hardly paying their abs any attention. You can tell from a distance because they will be swinging up and down with every rep, using momentum to power the movement and never the muscles.
Your abs are a muscle group just like your quads or chest or back, and you need to ensure you train them just like you work these other muscles. I always tell clients that maximal stimulation of the working muscle is essential for development. Always consider this when setting up to train your abs because, again, they’re like any other muscle: you must lengthen the muscle first, then create tension on it, then contract the muscle to its shortest position.
The lengthened position of an abs crunch is way further than most people go, and the contracted position is way shorter than most people can get to. Work on improving your range on a given abs move first, before you consider adding any additional resistance to the exercise.
2. Improve your range
When I start working with new clients, I find most have a poor range of abdominal movement and can’t fully engage their abs, which means the muscle group is underdeveloped. So when I design their programme, I start by taking them back to basics, correct any problems, and then work them through my method of strategic progression.
The best abs exercise is one you can do perfectly. If this is only a very basic version of one move, then so be it. Hardly anyone I work with is ready for the hanging leg raise from day one, for instance. The same goes for any loaded abs exercises – you need to work up to these. When I add abs exercises to a client’s programme, I start with a small arsenal of exercises: the abs crunch on a gym ball, kneeling barbell roll-outs, and incline bench reverse crunches.
Each exercise has a progression, but it’ll take you a good couple of months of hard graft on these moves before you’re ready for the advanced versions.
3. Master the movements
To start with, take the gym ball crunch. For the first week you lie over the ball and work on the stretch component of the exercise. Most people can’t help but shake at this point, which is why they struggle to achieve a full contraction.
Following this, you would then work on contracting up halfway for a week, and so on. As you master the movement pattern you will shake less and the contraction will come easier. I like these stages to be performed slow and controlled for maximum benefit. To develop your abs you need to add load at some point, and once you can do consistent crunches, you can hold a light dumbbell across your chest.
The kneeling barbell roll-out is a tough move, but one at which you can progress quite quickly. From a technique perspective you must start with a very small movement range – don’t attempt to drop down fully to the floor, because you’ll end up with a flat nose.
Just like any exercise, progression is key and you need to always feel tension in your abs. As you lower you should feel your abs lengthening until you can’t lower any further. At this point, contract your abs hard to return to the start position. Use a wall as your marker, and kneel further away as you get stronger.
4. Minimise momentum
The incline bench reverse crunch is a foundation exercise for the hanging leg raise because it focuses on the lower abs. I like it because it allows people to focus on their abs and take out any swinging from their hips. If you watch most people performing the hanging leg raise, they’re swinging back and forth and certainly not making a meaningful contraction. With this in mind, starting with the reverse crunch is extremely useful.
Place the bench at a 30° incline and lie on it on your back with your hands over your head holding on to the bench. Bring your thighs up until your knees are bent at 90°. This is the start and end position of the exercise, and in between there should be no swinging at all. The objective is to lift your knees to your chest, flexing your abdominals as hard as you can.
As you lower your legs, maximum tension should be placed on your abs at all times. When it’s done right this exercise is very hard indeed, and you’ll see why I use it as a pathway to the hanging leg raise.
5. Get the reps and tempo right
Training frequency is important, and I get most clients to train their abs at least twice a week. Beginners will do mainly foundational exercises, while advanced gym-goers and athletes will perform more advanced versions.
When it comes to rep ranges, most people aren’t strong enough to train their abs properly for high-rep sets. I like to always start off with three or four sets in the ten-to-12 rep range, so long as they can keep 100% tension on their abs.
Finally, I keep the tempo pretty slow. I’m a big fan of tempos around 3030 or 2020 when training abs, so you’re taking two to three seconds to lower and raise. Using a slow tempo ensures focus on the abs through the concentric and eccentric phase of each movement.
6. Get lean
You will only start to see your abs when you are lean enough. Many people find they train their abs year-round and never get a six-pack, because it’s covered in a layer of belly fat. If you’re going to put so much effort into training your abs, put the same level of effort into getting lean, otherwise you’ll never get to see all your hard work in the gym pay off.
Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham
Six-Pack Workout Plan
How should you train your abs? Simple: tackle one plane of motion a day. Add these mini-workouts to your existing routine, or do them separately.
Exercises designated 1A and 1B should be done as supersets. Complete all reps of 1A, then move straight on to 1B with minimal rest. Rest as indicated after completing all the reps of 1B, then start again.
Day 1: Anti-Extension
With these moves, you resist extension at your lumbar spine and build strength in your lower back.
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 0sec
Get into a press-up position holding the handles of the suspension trainer. Think “wax on, wax off” and circle each hand outwards one at a time, keeping your abs tight. If you don’t have access to a suspension trainer, use a pair of small towels on a smooth floor.
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 60sec
Get into a press-up position holding the handles of the suspension trainer, let your hands slide away from you above your head, keeping your core and glutes braced so you don’t fall too quickly. Pause at the top of the move, then reverse. Increase the challenge by moving your feet under the TRX anchor point.
Day 2: Anti-Rotation
The trick here is to resist torque on your torso, spurring your obliques into action.
1A Kneeling Pallof press
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 0sec
Kneel on the floor holding a cable machine handle or one end of a resistance band in both hands close to your chest. Push out – you should feel resistance trying to tug you to the side. Pause for one second, then pull your hands back in. You can also do this move standing, or hold at full extension for extra isometric strength.
1B One-arm chest press
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 60sec
Lie on a bench holding a dumbbell in one hand, angling it in slightly to protect your shoulders. Keeping your feet on the floor and your shoulder blades together and tight, press the dumbbell overhead. No bench? Do this move on the floor – but don’t support yourself with your free arm.
Day 3: Hip Flexion
This has gained a bad reputation in abs work, but done right – with a neutral spine – it will make you more efficient in any other movement. Here’s how to do it properly.
1A Gym ball roll-out
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 0sec
Start in a tuck position with your shins on a gym ball. Push backwards until your legs are straight and your hands are in front of your shoulders, then brace your core to return to the start.
Sets 3 Reps 10 Rest 60sec
With your forearms resting on a gym ball, move them slowly in a circle as if stirring a pot. Complete all the reps in one direction before reversing.
Day 4: Anti-Lateral Flexion
These moves resist sideways motion with your lower back – useful whether you’re carrying a suitcase or hoisting it into an overhead locker.
1 Landmine press
Sets 3 Reps 10 each side Rest 30sec
Wedge one end of a barbell into a corner or weight plate, then grip the other end in both hands. Press it overhead and turn slightly to one side, then the other.
2 Suitcase deadlift
Sets 3 Reps 5 each side Rest 45sec
Stand next to a heavy dumbbell, kettlebell or – if you’re feeling confident – barbell. Squat and grip it in one hand, then lift it as if you’re doing a deadlift, driving your hips forwards to stand up straight. To increase the challenge, switch to a suitcase carry. Walk 20m with the dumbbell, then switch hands.
Stand with your feet slightly apart, holding a kettlebell or heavy dumbbell overhead. Bend sideways at the hips, bringing one arm down your shin to keep your balance, keeping the dumbbell directly overhead with your arm locked. Stand up straight to finish the move. For more of a challenge, perform your windmills with an unloaded barbell.
Leg-elevated side plank
Get into a side plank with your weight supported on one hand or forearm and your feet stacked on top of each other (or both on the floor if that’s too difficult). Lift your top foot, keeping your body in a straight line, then lower to return to the start.
The one-arm row works your obliques well, but taking away the bench is an abs-torcher. Start in the top press-up position with your feet wide and holding a dumbbell in each hand. Row one dumbbell up to your armpit, pause, then lower. Try to complete all the reps without the dumbbell touching the ground, then repeat on the other side.
One-arm rack press-up
The Rocky-style one-arm press-up will work your obliques if you’ve got the strength to do it: if not, do this version. Start with your feet apart and one hand on a bench, table or barbell. Lower until you touch the surface with your chest, then press back up. Do all your reps on one side, then switch.
TRX Tuck Split
Get into a plank with your feet in the TRX loops and your hands on the floor. Bring your knees towards your chest, pause for a second, then lower and bring your feet out to the sides.
With your feet in the TRX loops and your hands (still) on the floor, bend at the hips to bring your feet towards your head until you’re in an inverted V-shape. Pause for a second at the top, then lower.
Bent-arm leg raise
Hang from a bar with your arms bent at 90°. Raise your legs – knees bent if necessary, but preferably straight – pause at the top, then lower.
Start in the top press-up position in front of a box, bench or sofa, then “walk” one hand at a time up on to it, bracing your core. Walk back down, then start the next rep with the other hand. Want some extra chest work? Add a press-up between each rep.
Seven-Day Abs Meal Plan
This week-long eating plan will keep protein high and calories moderate to burn fat and build muscle.
| Breakfast | 200g grass-fed beef mince, 20g almonds, 100g spinach | | Lunch | 200g turkey mince, 100g green beans, 1 sweet potato | | Snack | Apple, 1tsp almond butter | | Dinner | 200g skinless chicken thighs, 100g pak choi, 60g quinoa |
| Breakfast | 150g oats, 2 scrambled eggs, 1 banana | | Lunch | 200g chicken breast, 60g basmati rice, 100g broccoli | | Snack | 100g Greek yogurt | | Dinner | 200g prawns, 1 sweet potato, 100g spinach |
| Breakfast | 2 unsmoked bacon rashers, 2 eggs, 100g broccoli | | Lunch | 250g cod fillet, 60g quinoa, 100g pak choi | | Snack | Protein shake | | Dinner | 150g tuna steak, 100g rice, 100g green beans |
| Breakfast | 200g grass-fed beef mince, 20g almonds, 100g spinach | | Lunch | 200g chicken breast, 60g basmati rice, 100g broccoli | | Snack | 100g Greek yogurt | | Dinner | 200g skinless chicken thighs, 100g pak choi, 60g quinoa |
| Breakfast | 150g oats, 2 scrambled eggs, 1 banana | | Lunch | 200g turkey mince, 100g green beans, 1 sweet potato | | Snack | Apple, 1tsp almond butter | | Dinner | 200g prawns, 1 sweet potato, 100g spinach |
| Breakfast | 150g steak, 25g cashew nuts, 1 egg | | Lunch | 250g cod fillet, 60g quinoa, 100g pak choi | | Snack | Protein shake | | Dinner | Cheat meal, 1 glass of red wine |
| Breakfast | 2 unsmoked bacon rashers, 2 eggs, 100g broccoli | | Lunch | 200g wild-caught tuna, 100g mange tout, 60g rice | | Snack | Banana, 1tsp almond butter | | Dinner | 250g chicken, 1 sweet potato, 100g broccoli |
How To Burn Fat All Day
Make sure your metabolism is firing on all cylinders and you’ll expose your abs faster by reducing your body fat percentage. Here’s how to make sure it’s in tip-top shape – every minute of the day
6AM Drink water
Getting properly hydrated not only improves physical and mental performance – which raises your game in and out of the gym – but has also been shown to have a direct effect on the mechanisms of carbohydrate and fat metabolism, which translates to an increase of a quarter in the rate of thermogenesis. Result? Your body’s a more efficient fat-burning machine.
7AM Skip the toast
Muscle tissue is insulin-sensitive, soaking up carbs at this time of day – but, according to research in the journal Cellular And Molecular Endocrinology, so are fat cells. What this means is that while both will be absorbing carbs, in the case of fat cells that carbohydrate will be converted to fat and stored. Have eggs instead – their omega 3 fats also improve insulin sensitivity.
8AM Chill out
Commuting is always stressful, and research from Australia’s Deakin University showed that acute stress can increase the desire to consume sugary foods. Plug in to Marconi Union’s eight-minute trance track “Weightless” (or any tune with a BPM of 60) – it’ll synchronise with your heart and brainwaves, enabling you to ignore bag-spreading seat-hoggers.
10AM Get up
Sitting is the new smoking – associated with increased risk of diabetes and obesity – but it’s more than just not using calories. Sitting actually changes the body at a genetic level, with gene expression changed when sitting. Your prescription? It’s not brain surgery – just get up for at least five minutes every hour.
Fasted cardio is trendy – but the opposite is the smart choice. Research from Michigan State University shows that eating carbs and protein before training improves the work rate and duration of exercise, increases the amount of fuel used and shifts the balance towards fat usage. Even better, the effect can last for a day or more after the training session.
7PM Eat carbs
Heard you shouldn’t eat carbs after 6pm? This may be dead wrong. Research in the journal Obesity shows that eating the majority of your carb intake in the evening encouraged lower body fat levels in test subjects. The night-time carb eaters also reported feeling more satisfied with their diets (and it undoubtedly makes socialising easier too).
9PM Drink early
Alcohol inhibits fat usage by putting pressure on the liver – and if drunk shortly before going to bed, it can affect growth hormone output. Often called the “hormone of youth”, growth hormone increases fat metabolism and aids muscle recovery, but research in the journal Metabolism shows that consuming alcohol before bed can reduce output by around 70%.
11PM Go dark
Light exposure alters sleep depth and duration, which can alter hormone production and make you more prone to fat gain. Poor sleep also changes appetite by disrupting the “hunger hormone” ghrelin, according to a Harvard University study, while research from the Mayo Clinic shows that it increases calorific intake, but not expenditure.
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