The smart way to sculpt a six-pack

Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire.

Almost everyone who trains regularly wants to have a rock-hard six-pack. But the reality is that hardly any one does. Why? It rarely a problem of not training hard enough, but more a question of not training 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. As with training every muscle group, quality sets and reps of the key moves are far more significant to your success than the quantity.

This leads in to the second most-common misconception that cranking out very high rep sets are the only way to bring out your abs. The problem with these two views is that the longer your set or workout lasts, the harder it is for you to maintain the level of consistency, intensity and focus that is so essential to maximising muscle mass development.

I’ve lost count of the number I’ve times been in a gym and see a guy crunch up and down quickly without control then quit when their lower back gives in, well before their abs have been asked to any work of substance whatsoever.

Recruiting the abs
The rectus abdominis (abdominals) flexes and extends the spine – it’s really important you think about this and let it truly sink in before you even consider crunching. Because when most people ‘train’ their abs they’re far more 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 remember this at all times to ensure you train them just like you work these other muscles. If you’ve read my previous articles you’ll know that maximal stimulation of the working muscle is essential for development. This needs to be considered when setting up to train your abs because, as when you train any other muscle, you must lengthen the muscle first, then create tension on it, then contract the muscles 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 first, before you consider adding any additional resistance to the exercise.

Improving your range
When I start working with a new client the overwhelming majority have a poor range of abdominal movement and they can’t fully engage their abs, so the muscle group is underdeveloped. As with any programme design, 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 the one you can do perfectly. If this is only a very basic version of one, 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; these need to be worked up to. When I add abs exercises into a client’s programme, I start with a small arsenal of exercises: the abs crunch on a Swiss ball, kneeling barbell rollouts, 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.

Master the movements
Take the Swiss ball crunch. For the first week you start off lying over the ball and working 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 half way for a week, and so on.
As you master the movement pattern you will shake less and the contraction comes easier. I like these stages to be performed slow and controlled for maximum benefit.

Once you can do consistent crunches you can hold a light dumbbell across your chest. Remember, to develop your abs additional load needs to be added at some point, as with any other muscle.

The kneeling barbell rollout is a tough move, but one at which you will progress quite quickly.
From a technique perspective you must start off with a very small movement range – don’t attempt to drop down fully to the floor, 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 yourself you should feel your abs lengthening until you can’t lower any more. At this point contract your abs hard to return to the start position. Use a wall as your marker, and just kneel further away as you get stronger.

Minimise momentum
The incline bench reverse crunch is a foundation exercise to the hanging leg raise because it focuses on the lower abs. The reason I like this exercise is that people can focus hard 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. If this sounds like you then starting with the reverse crunch is essential.

Place the bench at a 30-degree incline, lie on your back with your hands over head holding onto the bench. Bring your knees up until your thighs are bent at right angles. 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, the tension should be placed maximally on your abs at all times. Done right  you’ll find this exercise very hard indeed, and you’ll see why I use it prior to the hanging leg raise.

The right reps and tempo
When it comes to training frequency I get most people to train their abs at least twice per week. Beginners will do mainly foundational exercises, while advanced clients and athletes will perform the more advanced versions. For 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 10 to 12 rep range, so long as they can keep 100% tension on their abs. And I keep the tempo pretty slow: I’m a big fan of tempos around 3030 or 2020 when training abs. Using slow tempos ensures pure focus on the abs through the concentric and eccentric phase of each movement.

You need to get lean
The truth is that you will only start to see your abs when you are lean enough.  It’s common for many people 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.