If you want to know how to turn your midsection into an eye-catching “beefcake…”
Even if it currently resembles a fluffy “cheesecake,” or worse, a flabby “cupcake…”
Then this article is for you.
You’ll discover what the current scientific literature has to say about the best way to get abs.
Plus, you’ll get access to a step-by-step blueprint that’ll help you get your abs beach-ready.
To get started, let’s cover the question…
What Does it Take to Get Defined Abs?
It takes two things:
- A low body fat percentage so that your abs are visible.
- Well-developed abdominal muscles so that your abs “pop.’
We’ll look at how you can build your ab muscles in a minute.
But first, we need to know…
How Lean You Should Be to See Your Abs
There is no set-in-stone answer.
That’s because we all have a different body fat distribution.
Some people tend to store more of their fat around their midsection, which means they must be leaner to see their abs than someone who doesn’t store much around there.
What’s more, how lean you should be also depends on how much ab definition you desire.
The more well-defined you want your abs to be, the lower your body fat percentage needs to be.
That said, as a general guideline, men need to be below 12% body fat to see ab definition and women below 19%.
The best way to get to such levels is by doing countless crunches, sit-ups, and other ab exercises, right?
The answer is no because…
You Can Not Spot Reduce Belly Fat
For a case in point, look no further than a 2011 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (3)
In the study, scientists had subjects do four hours of ab training a week for six weeks.
But despite those vigorous efforts, the ab exercises caused no belly fat loss or fat loss in general.
The researchers concluded:
There was no significant effect of abdominal exercises on body weight, body fat percentage. . . abdominal circumference, abdominal skinfold, and suprailiac skinfold measurements.
In other words, if you want to get a slim and shredded midsection, doing endless amounts of crunches and sit-ups is not the answer.
But what is the answer?
Here’s What You Should do Instead
Optimize your diet.
That is how you can get rid of excess belly fat.
What follows is a six-step formula that helps you set the most important dietary factors for fat loss – calories and macros.
In other words, you must be in a calorie deficit.
Your macro intake, which represents your daily intake of protein, carbs, and dietary fat, is also essential.
Nailing those down ensures that the weight you lose comes from body fat and not muscle mass.
Plus, it aids hunger control, which helps you stay on track with your diet.
With that said, let’s look at the six-step formula.
The first three steps help you calculate your daily calorie needs based on your personal situation.
The other three teach you how to set up your macros.
Step 1: Calculate Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Your BMR represents the number of calories you burn over 24 hours if you do nothing but rest.
The most precise way to estimate BMR, especially for those who lift weights, is to apply the Cunningham equation (1991)…
Although you do need to know your fat-free mass (FFM).
Here’s how the formula works:
- BMR = 370 + 21.6 x FFM
For example, if your FFM is 60 kilos, the calculation would run as follows:
- BMR = 370 + 21.6 x 60 = 1,666
This means you would burn 1,666 calories per day if you did nothing but rest.
If you don’t know your FFM, the Harris-Benedict equation, which requires only your body weight, is an alternative for calculating your BMR.
This simple calculator helps you use this equation.
Step 2: Adjust to Your Activity Level
To do so, assess how active you are with the options outlined below.
It’s important to be honest with yourself here because 60% of people overestimate their activity level.
So, work with the number that represents your current situation, not what you think it should be.
- Sedentary (e.g., an office job and no exercise)
- Somewhat active (e.g., you commute by bicycle or walk your dogs several times a day)
- Active (e.g., regular exercise and on your feet most of the day)
- Very active (e.g., regular exercise and doing manual labor)
Once you’ve determined your activity level, apply the associated multiplier in the table below to your BMR.
Values by Gerrior et al., 2006
For example, if your BMR is 2,300, and you’re a somewhat active male, the calculation would be 2,300 x 1.12 = 2,576.
Step 3: Create the Calorie Deficit
This is what will cause you to lose weight.
Make sure to set your calorie deficit based on your current body fat percentage.
While obese and overweight people can do an aggressive diet and lose weight fast without risking muscle loss, that’s not the case for those with a low body fat percentage.
To set your calorie deficit, use the following table:
For example, if you fall into the “average” category, maintain a calorie deficit of between 20% and 30% per day.
Let’s say your number from the previous step was 2,576, and we stick to a calorie deficit of 25%.
Then, you would end up with 2,576 x 0.75 = 1,932.
The last figure (1,932) represents the number of calories you would need per day to lose fat while minimizing muscle loss.
(By combining proper exercise and protein intake, you can maintain muscle mass while getting leaner, as we’ll discuss shortly.)
Please note that the calorie deficit guidelines presented above are a maximum.
It’s fine to take a slower dieting approach if you prefer, such as if you then find it easier to adhere to your plan.
However, remember it’ll then also take longer to reach a low body fat percentage.
Step 4: Set Your Protein Intake
Once you know your daily calorie needs, it’s time to set your macronutrient intake.
So, how much protein do you need to optimize fat loss?
The answer is the same as for muscle growth – at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day (0.73 g/lb). (17)
This amount offers you all the pros of protein, but after that point, getting more won’t provide extra benefits.
For instance, one study found no difference in body composition between people dieting on 1.27 g/lb (2.8 g/kg) or 0.72 g/lb (1.6 g/kg) of protein per day for two weeks. (18)
The reason you don’t need more protein on a weight loss diet than on a muscle-building one is simple.
It’s because protein requirements are based on the demands of protein synthesis and the rate of protein breakdown.
Since protein synthesis rates decrease in a calorie deficit while protein oxidation rates stay the same, protein needs don’t increase and may even be lower in a calorie deficit. (19)
Now, we did mention that protein is the most satiating macronutrient. So, from that perspective, upping your intake would aid fat loss, right?
Yes, but once again, only up to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.73 g/lb/d).
Beyond that point, a calorie from protein isn’t more satiating than a calorie from carbs or fat.
A 2019 study found that consuming 1.8 g/kg/d is as satiating as taking in 2.9 g/kg/d (0.82 g/lb/d vs. 1.32 g/lb/d). (20)
This is because of the protein leverage hypothesis, which states protein is more satiating than carbs and fats only until you’ve ingested enough protein for your needs.
The bottom line? To lose weight while retaining muscle, get at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily.
Thus, if you weigh 80 kilos, you need at least 128 grams.
This is the optimal amount to support fat loss and muscle maintenance while maintaining space for calories from carbs and fat.
Step 5: Set Your Carb and Fat Intake
Once you know your daily protein needs, it’s time to work out your carb and dietary fat intake.
We’ve paired them together because the ratio between the two isn’t that important.
Still, both do have their unique characteristics.
A benefit of carbs is that it fuels workout performance.
That’s because glucose is the primary energy source during high-intensity exercises like resistance training. (21)
Dietary fat is essential for many bodily functions.
Besides, dietary fats are an excellent energy source, especially during lower-duration exercises such as swimming, cycling, and running.
Here’s what to do:
Don’t get caught up with a specific ratio between carbs and fat.
Instead, focus on hitting your daily protein intake and get the rest of your calories in a “balanced” manner.
This means that you consume foods from all groups, such as fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds, and so forth.
If you do that, the ratio between carbs and fat will take care of itself.
You’ll consume enough carbs to support exercise performance and enough fat to fuel processes like hormone production and gene regulation.
That said, there are scenarios in which a higher fat or carb intake can be better.
For example, if you’re an athlete with a very high training volume, meaning you train six or seven days per week, then a higher carb intake can be beneficial.
Step 6: Adjust to Your Progress
By now, you know how many calories to consume based on your situation.
And while those numbers tend to be accurate, they remain a guess.
Those numbers can be a bit off due to individual differences.
Besides, calorie expenditure varies throughout your fitness journey due to factors like metabolic adaptations.
That’s why it is crucial to adjust your energy intake based on your progress.
Measure your weight on the scale daily after waking up.
Do this before breakfast but after you’ve been to the toilet (if you need to).
Write down the number and, at the end of the week, add up the daily numbers and divide by seven.
This will give you a weekly average.
If you’re losing at least 0.5% of body weight per week, keep up with your current routine.
If you’re not losing at least 0.5% of body weight per week, drop your daily energy intake by 200 calories.
Once you’ve set your macros, we can start to look at how to optimize your exercise routine for getting abs, which we’ll do throughout the upcoming sections.
But first, let’s start with the question…
Is Core Training Safe?
Over the years, many people have adopted the belief that it’s bad for your back to do dynamic core exercises like crunches and leg raises.
But according to Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras, two leading exercise scientists who assessed the literature on ab training, dynamic spinal exercises are safe if they meet three criteria. (29)(30)
- You must progress gradually to give your body – including spinal discs – time to adapt.
- You should avoid extreme range of motions of the spine under load (e.g., excessive backward bending during cable crunches).
- You should limit targeted core exercises to the end of your workout.
That’s important because doing ab isolation exercises before heavy compound movements raises injury risk by fatiguing the stabilizer muscles before exposing the core to heavy loads.
In other words, it’s safe – and even beneficial – for your lower back to train your core if you maintain proper technique and follow a well-designed workout program.
With that said, let’s go over the anatomy of the core so that you know what you’ll be working with.
The Basics of Core Anatomy
The core is a complex area composed of as many as thirty-five muscles, although you don’t need to know all of them.
In fact, only the following four muscles are relevant for building an impressive midsection:
- The rectus abdominis
- The internal oblique
- The external oblique
- The transversus abdominis
Let’s look closer at each of the muscles.
This is the primary muscle you should focus.
That’s because this muscle is responsible for creating the six-pack.
The muscle’s main action is to flex the spine, such as you do during the crunch.
Besides, you train this muscle during static exercises like the front plank and ab wheel roll-out.
This muscle contracts in such a position to prevent your hips from dropping.
This muscle flexes the spine, like during a crunch.
Plus, it helps increase intra-abdominal pressure, such as when you brace your core.
For the latter reason, this muscle is important for core stability.
When well developed, the external oblique provides definition to the side of the core.
This muscle lies underneath the external oblique.
It has two main functions, which are:
- trunk rotation, such as during the cable woodchopper.
- lateral flexion, like during the dumbbell side bends.
When well developed, this muscle provides definition on the side of your core.
Underneath the internal oblique lies the transversus abdominis.
It’s a thin sheet of muscle that’s essential for stabilizing the core.
That’s why you activate this muscle during almost all movements, especially static ones like the plank.
The Erector Spinae
Besides the four abdominal muscles we covered, it’s good to know about the erector spinae.
The erector spinae refers to a group of muscles that run vertically across your spine.
They extend and stabilize your spine, making them highly active during exercises like the squat and deadlift.
The erector spinae is also involved in many ab exercises, especially those with a static component like the ab wheel roll-out and side plank.
Okay, you now know the primary core muscles.
People often claim that you can develop those with compound exercises.
They argue that compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are enough to develop the ab muscles.
But is that true?
Are Compound Exercises Enough to Build the Abs?
It depends on how developed you want your abs to be.
If you want a moderate level of ab definition, you don’t need direct ab exercises.
In fact, if you’re beyond the beginner phase, it’s unlikely that compound exercises will develop your abs any further.
That’s because most compound exercises – including squats and deadlifts – don’t activate the abs effectively.
This makes sense from a physiological standpoint since your lumbar spine doesn’t flex or rotate during those movements.
For example, one study published looked at muscle activity levels during various exercises, including the back squat. (31)
And while the subjects did the back squat at 90% of their 3RM, ab muscle activation was so low it didn’t even reach 20% of maximum voluntary contraction!
In comparison, the straight-leg sit-up activated the external obliques and rectus abdominis by around 40%, which is more than double the activation produced by the squat.
Thus, the clean and jerk exercise – which includes the movement patterns of a deadlift, a squat, and an overhead press – doesn’t train the abs effectively.
That movement is effective, though, for the erector spinea.
Most Compound Exercises Train Your Abs in a Static Instead of Dynamic Way
That means dynamic exercises allow you to overload your muscles to a greater extent, leading to a more potent growth stimulus.
Thus, if you want to build your abs, focus on dynamic movements.
That’ll help you optimize muscle growth.
Now, that doesn’t mean isometric core exercises can’t be beneficial.
They do have their benefits, such as that they may reduce the risk of low back pain.
But if you want to optimize ab development, you’ll have to focus on dynamic exercises.
Now, It’s Important to Note That Not All Core Exercises Are Created Equal
One reason is that you may not want to do too many exercises that target your external oblique, internal oblique, and transversus abdominis.
The reason is that over-developing those muscles can diminish the V-taper look by widening your midsection.
That’s why it’s best to focus on isolation exercises that target your rectus abdominis, the muscle that’s responsible for having a six-pack.
How to Develop Your Rectus Abdominis
There are two types of movements you must do to develop your rectus abdominis.
The first one is a crunch-type movement. Examples are regular crunches and cable crunches.
Those movements emphasize the upper part of your rectus abdominis.
The other movement you should be doing is leg-raise variations. Examples are hanging and lying leg raises.
Both emphasize the lower parts of your rectus abdominis.
With that said, let’s look at effective variations for both movement patterns.
Three Excellent Crunch-Type Movements
1. Cable crunch.
A great thing about this movement is that you can train your abdominals through a longer range of motion than with a regular crunch.
What is also great is that the cables allow for consistent tension throughout the motion.
Plus, it’s easy to adjust the resistance, which isn’t the case for many ab movements.
2. Swiss ball crunch
The swiss ball allows you to work your abs through their entire range of motion, which is superior for strength and muscle development.
You can use a cable pulley for additional resistance.
3. Partner-assisted decline medicine ball crunch throw
This exercise got a few excellent things going for it.
These include that:
- your range of motion is greater because you perform the crunch on a decline bench.
- the medicine ball increases the difficulty by acting as additional resistance.
- the movement asks for explosivity, which can increase muscle activation.
Three Excellent Leg-Raise Type Movements:
1. Lying leg raise
This movement is especially well-suited for beginners.
Advanced trainees can intensify the movement by holding resistance between the ankles or switching to lying leg raises with partner resistance.
2. Lying leg raises with partner resistance
This movement is similar to the regular lying leg raise. The only difference is that a partner throws your legs down at the start of the movement.
This intensifies the movement by increasing the resistance during the eccentric (lowering) phase.
EMG data from the University of Dortmund, Germany, found that among the 12 exercises outlined below, this movement resulted in the highest rectus abdominis activation. (41)
3. Hanging leg raise
This is a more intensive variation of the lying leg raise.
Aside from this increased difficulty, another key difference lies in the resistance curves of the movements.
The hardest part during the lying leg raise is when your hips are about 90 degrees flexed.
As a result, you stimulate your fibers differently than during the lying leg raise, where the first 30 degrees are the most difficult.
That’s why you may want to do both movements.
One downside is that many people find that their grip strength gives out before their abs do.
If that’s the case, you can do the movement with lifting straps.
What About Planks?
The plank isn’t a great ab builder. That’s for various reasons, the main one being that the movement is too easy for most people.
Unless you are out-of-shape, you can likely hold the plank for at least two minutes.
And for many lifters, to get an adequate stimulus, they need to hold the position for five or more minutes.
That’ll not only require a lot of time but is also ineffective for muscle growth because the amount of tension overload is too low. (42)
There are, however, ways in which you can increase the difficulty of a plank.
One is by doing a “long-lever posterior pelvic tilt plank.”
Research found that this movement resulted in over 100% activation relative to maximum voluntary contraction for the upper and lower abs and the obliques. (43)
To do this movement, do a regular plank but move your elbows forward so that they are more under your eyes (long lever) and squeeze your glutes as hard as you can so that your hips tuck under (posterior pelvic tilt).
Still, while this modification does cause a significant increase in muscle activation, it’s not an effective ab builder.
It’s great for core stability but not for muscle growth.
The reason is that planks work your abs in a static fashion, which is suboptimal.
That’s because an exercise needs both an eccentric and concentric phase to ensure optimal growth.
Sets and Reps
Trainers often claim that you should train your abs with high reps because they are slow-twitch dominant.
That means they have more slow-twitch fibers but fewer fast-twitch ones.
The current literature, however, doesn’t support that claim.
It shows that the abs have a balanced profile of around 55-58% slow-twitch fibers. (44)
As a result, you may want to do both low- and high-rep sets for this muscle.
For example, you could do the cable crunch for six to ten reps and follow that up with some leg raises for fifteen to twenty reps.
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