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How to Get Abs

Everything you need to know to get a six-pack—from diet tips to the best abs workouts to try.

Thousands of crunches alone won’t do it. And while the prevailing pro advice is that “abs are made in the kitchen,” dieting alone isn’t the way to get there, either. When it comes down to it, getting a six-pack is a coordinated effort to both build the muscle and lean out enough so it shows. “To make any noticeable aesthetic changes, it’s about 80% diet and 20% what you’re doing in the gym and the two need to support each other,” says Kristen Ziesmer, MS, RD, CSCS, sports dietitian and personal trainer and owner of Elite Nutrition and Performance in Columbia, SC. “If you’re doing some crazy workouts and not eating enough, you won’t be building muscles. If you’re eating right, the workouts need to match.” Here’s how to make all that happen.

Assess the Situation

It’s like that old tree-falling-in-the-woods adage: If you build the abs, but there no way to see them, are they really there? Realistically, for most men to have a visible six-pack, he needs to be somewhere in the 8 to 12 percent body fat range, says pro natural bodybuilder Joe Franco, founder of Team Franco Bodybuilding coaching services. “This really can vary because we as people carry body fat in different areas.” That said, if you’re up way above that, you’ll have some reducing to do—and you aren’t going to see that core definition overnight.

Set a Baseline

What you eat is clutch, but before you go making a major overhaul, you should see where you’re at. Keep a diet log for a few days (an app like MyFitnessPal can help), keeping track of what you eat, when you eat it, and how much of it you’re downing. “If you’re eating a lot of refined carbs, pre-packaged and processed foods, and not eating whole foods that are coming from the ground, you’ll need to make some changes,” Ziesmer says.

Modify, Don’t Overhaul

Both experts agree: Making massive diet changes, particularly in sudden reduction of calories, isn’t the way to go. “I’m not a fan of aggressive diets for the facts of, one, you lose muscle tissue during the process, and two, even if you hit your goal of achieving great abs with a fast reduction, you most likely won’t keep them long, or worse, have a bad rebound and gain the weight back plus,” says Franco. Start by cutting down (or eliminating) empty carbs such as sugary drinks and junkfood and making smart swaps, such as brown rice for white, or shifting portions so you’re eating more veggies versus starches, and cut down on portion sizes gradually.

Get Cooking

“If you’re eating out a lot, it needs to end,” says Ziesmer. “It doesn’t mean you can’t eat out, but it can’t be all of your meals.” The reason: You simply don’t have enough control over what’s going into your food if someone is making it behind closed doors. Start by packing lunch a couple of days a week. If you’re really not a chef, learn a few simple recipes, such as how to grill chicken or broil veggies—and get more ambitious as you feel more confident.

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Mind Your Macros

Most people think if you want to lose a lot of weight, you should cut out carbs. Newsflash: Veggies are carbs, too! In fact, it’s a bad plan to cut ‘em all out, even if your definition is narrowed to starches and grains. “Carbs are the body’s fuel,” Ziesmer says. “if you’re not eating enough, your body won’t have the energy to burn off fat, or to build the muscle to get those abs.” Not to mention, when people cut out entire food groups, they tend to undereat—which triggers starvation mode. In that case, “the body’s response is to burn muscle first because it wants to hold onto fat.” Ziesmer recommends designing your meals with lean protein (poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and beef or meat with “loin” in the name) and high-quality carbs such as veggies and whole grains, and focusing your carb intake surrounding your workouts when your body will need the energy most, both to get through the session and rebuild afterwards.

Test Your Timing

You’ve probably heard ad nauseum that eating six meals a day is optimal for weight loss. The reality, though, is simply not to wait so long between meals that you’re totally famished. “That’s when you’ll overeat, like chowing down on chips when you get home from work.” says Ziesmer. “Eat a healthy snack before you get to the point that you are too hungry and make poor decisions.” For most people, that means eating every 3 to 4.5 hours or at most 6 hours.

Reassess As You Go

Finding the right nutrition scheme isn’t a perfect science, and is especially challenging if you’re going it alone (which is why consulting a dietitian is smart if you’re serious about getting ripped). If you discover that something you’re doing isn’t working for you, tweak things until you’re getting the results you want and you’re following an eating plan you can live with.

Build Muscle to Burn Fat

Even if your diet is on point, In a quest to get abs, the gym cannot be ignored. “First and foremost, strength training is key, including big lifts, such as squat, deadlifts, and presses,” Franco says. “These work multiple muscle groups and have a more profound effect on the body for gaining muscle and increasing the metabolism.” You should lift a minimum of three days per week, up to six, giving muscle groups at least one day off in between for recovery. Keep it heavy in a moderate rep range, 10-15, for up to four sets.

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Lift Free

While a split routine is an option if you have the time and inclination, you’re much better off choosing free-weight moves over those hulking machines. “Any time you can do something standing rather than sitting is preferable because you have to stabilize your core,” Ziesmer says. (Read: Ab training without even trying.)

Mix Up Your Cardio

Calorie-burning, heart-pumping cardio also has a place in your ab-revealing program. Both experts recommend a mix of high-intensity interval and steady-state sessions, two to four times per week, depending on how much excess weight you have to lose. For intervals, sessions as short as 10 minutes are enough to start, as in a 30-second/30-second sprint-walk scheme (“Sprint like a lion is chasing you,” says Ziesmer) and go for 25 to 30 minutes for those steady-effort sessions.

Target Your Training (Sort of)

A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that ab exercises are something you should do every day, a la 100 crunches for breakfast. Wrong-o. “You have to give those muscles a break just like any other muscle group,” Ziesmer says. “If you can work your abs for 5 minutes every day, you won’t be working them hard enough.” Part of the problem, too, is that people don’t typically focus on what they’re doing for every rep. “On the exertion portion of any ab movement, you want to pause for a beat,” says Franco. “Breath out and tighten the abs, and control the movement and do the exercises slowly.”

The following 7 basic-but-effective ab routines, designed by Franco and Ziesmer, work the core muscles from all sides, for well-rounded training.

Workout 1:

Rest for 30 seconds between sets.

15 crunches x2 (slow, controlled, and no more than 4-6 inches up)

15 reverse crunches x2

15 hanging leg raises x2 (bent or straight legs)

10 side crunches, each side, x2 (cross opposite ankle on bent knee, and crunch sideways toward knee)

20 crunches x1

Workout 2:

Rest for 30 seconds between sets.

15 crunches x2

10 twist crunches, each side, x2 (drop your knees to one side and crunch up)

15 Reverse crunches x2

15 Roman crunches x2 (elevate feet on a bench, knees at 90-degree angle)

20 rope pulldown crunches x1

Workout 3:

Do each for 45 seconds, with 15 seconds in between:

Reverse crunches

Sawing planks (aka body saws)

Russian twists

Back extensions

x3 or 4

Workout 4:

Start at the low end and work up by 10-second increments as you get stronger.

30-60 seconds marching planks

30-60 seconds side planks (each side)

30 bird dogs (do on Bosu for a greater challenge)

20 Roman chair leg raises (bent or straight legs, or a mix)

x3 or 4

Workout 5:

30 deadbugs with stability ball

20 stability ball roll-ins

20 stability ball pikes

20 rolling plank on stability ball (aka stir-the-pot)

x3 or 4

Workout 6:

Start at the low end and work up by 10-second increments as you get stronger.

30-60 seconds stability ball plank

20 stability ball crunches

60 lying heel taps

30-60 seconds V sit (aka boat pose; heels on floor, or feet up with knees bent or straight)

x3 or 4

Workout 7:

Start at the low end and work up by 10-second increments as you get stronger.

30-60 banana holds (aka hollow body holds)

20 hanging reverse crunches

20 spiderman push-ups

30-60 seconds in and out planks (alternately step toes out to the side)

x3 or 4

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