Statistically speaking, it is highly unlikely that you currently have six-pack abs.
If you do, AWESOME! This will still be fun and educational.
If you do NOT always have a shreddy 6-pack (myself included), then the rest of the article might help with your decision-making processes on how the hell to get them.
But first, we have to acknowledge why you want them and whether or not this is a reasonable goal for yourself.
Note: this article is adapted from an old post I wrote on an old website based off of a stellar video by our very own, Eric Helms, which you can find HERE. It has since been updated based on my personal experience, my interactions with athletes, and many discussions with my fellow 3DMJ coaching colleagues.
Let’s go through the main points together…
THE PURPOSE OF ABS (FOR PEOPLE LIKE US)
For individuals who use their body for resistance training of any sort, we must recognize that the main function of the abdominals is for us to avoid injury.
Our core’s purpose is to protect our spine and internal organs from being damaged while we move all parts of our body. There is an incredible amount of muscle, fascia, and other tissues that hold everything together and erect so we don’t crumble and fall all over the place.
Yes, we need SOME mobility, but we really need a WHOLE LOT of rigidity to support our lifting goals.
To move something that is extremely heavy (i.e., to squat or deadlift), we could go even further and say that the main function of the abs is to not allow for trunk movement at all. Eric says it’s more of an “anti-movement”.
We need a superb isometric contraction that can keep us immobile while performing these heavy compound movements.
TRAINING FOR FUNCTION
If you have no problem maintaining an erect spine in all of your difficult lifts without pain, you are probably “strong enough” to not have to do anything too different with your training.
In this case, the isometric work that you currently perform during your heavy movements will serve you well and keep you healthy.
If you DO feel yourself becoming a little loose in the bottom of your squats or start to see a hunch back in your deadlifts or feel extreme low back pain in your bench press, you might need to actively work on improving your isometric core strength, i.e. your bracing ability.
For starters, you could do this by increasing the volume of your current compound movements at lighter intensities. A next step might be to include other moderate-intensity barbell movements such as good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, and bent over barbell rows.
You could also incorporate some more of those “anti-movement” exercises like Pallof press variations.
You basically want to train rigidity against movement from all angles.
“BUT I WANT TO SEE A SIX PACK”
If your core is totally taking care of its primary function and can already withstand the rigors of your heavy weight training, GREAT!
And for some people, that is enough trunk work to have totally ripped abs…also GREAT!
But for many others, these little suckers are still completely invisible to the naked eye…why is that???
Well, we must first be entirely honest with ourselves and take into consideration that we just may be too fat to see them. Here in the 21st century, this is a HIGHLY LIKELY scenario.
If you’ve ruled that out, then there might be another couple of factors contributing to your lack of six-pack features.
Genetics can play a large role in how your abdominal section appears. Just like any other muscle group, it can depend on your insertions, attachments, belly shapes, etc.
THE BAD NEWS: If you don’t have very prominent tendinous inscriptions (the grooves between the individual abdominal muscles), there is nothing you can do about it. If you have two strong ones and the rest are weak, you might just be one of those people with a solid four-pack, even if you ARE fairly lean.
THE GOOD NEWS: There is one thing you can manipulate, and that is the actual size of the abdominal muscles…but how do you do that?
TRAINING YOUR ABS FOR SIZE
In Eric’s video, he very distinctly stands by the fact that you should simply treat the abdominal region like any other muscle group you would be trying to “grow”.
Yes, there might be some theories that you should train the stabilizers differently than the main activators, but what people are actually seeing as a six-pack is going to be the external prime movers. So those should get trained like any other external prime mover.
For most people in most situations on most programs, abdominal hypertrophy training can typically fall within the following ranges (1, 2):
1 to 3 abdominal training days per week
5 to 15 reps per set
30 to 90 total reps per training session
Eric also recommends that you should be training both flexion AND rotation to ensure that you are attempting to reach all of the abdominals and obliques.
Flexion should be trained by rounding your torso downward (like in typical crunches), and from the bottom up (like hanging leg raises).
Rotational movements might include “wood chops” or any type of twisting motion that might also be combined with a flexion movement.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
Honestly, it may mean nothing because you feel fully supported in your heavy compound lifts and you already have the visible abs of a Greek God or Goddess.
1. Nice work! And 2. Congrats on winning the genetic lottery!
For the rest of us, you need to make sure you are prioritizing function first.
Can you withstand the demand of your current training? Are you injury-free? And are you able to maintain a rigid, erect spine against the external forces of squats, deadlifts, free weight rows and standing presses?
If you got that down and still want to look better, follow Eric’s simple prescription as outlined in the previous section and discussed within his video below.
However, don’t forget that the major problem for most people is that THEY ARE SIMPLY NOT LEAN ENOUGH to see their abs. You cannot know whether or not you have unfortunate tendon separation or muscular shape if it is all buried under a layer of fat.
And just to be 100% clear, said “layer of fat” does not mean that you are obese or out of shape.
There are many reasonably lean individuals who simply tend to store their necessary body fat around their midsection (again, myself included). In which case, you might have to accept the fact that highly visible abs will not be there unless you are approaching show-day levels of leanness.
If you fall into this category and attempt to continue being shredded year-round by chronically dieting, you are almost guaranteeing that you will not be able to develop enough abdominal muscle size to improve on them. Not for lack of effort, but for lack of sufficient calories to support the growth of new tissues (3,4).
This is a very difficult pill to swallow for most people. But once it is accepted and you can learn to have a long view, you stand a much better chance at surviving a long-term athletic career overall rather than burning out prematurely due to lack of patience.
The mind game is tough, but it’s just as (if not more) important as the physical one.
Here is the source of this article, “Direct Abdominal Training” by Eric Helms.
And here is a light-hearted and hilariously blunt conversation we had about “silly abs” in one of our 3DMJ Podcast episodes.
The video below displays the entire 2-hour show, or you can CLICK HERE to view it on YouTube with a preset to auto-start at the time stamp where the abdominal talk begins (about 1 hour and 37 minutes into play).
1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., & Peterson, M. (2016). Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 15(4), 715–722.
2. Helms E. R., Fitschen P. J., Aragon A. A., Cronin J., Schoenfeld B. J. (2015). Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training. J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 55, 164–178.
3. Hulmi, J. J., Isola, V., Suonpää, M., Järvinen, N. J., Kokkonen, M., Wennerström, A., … Häkkinen, K. (2016). The Effects of Intensive Weight Reduction on Body Composition and Serum Hormones in Female Fitness Competitors. Frontiers in Physiology, 7, 689. http://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2016.00689
4. Rossow L. M., Fukuda D. H., Fahs C. A., Loenneke J. P., Stout J. R. (2013). Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int. J. Sports Physiol. Perform. 8, 582–592. 10.1123/ijspp.8.5.582