Abdominals

How to get a six pack flat stomach

In the YouTube video above you'll see personal trainer Jeff Cavaliere demonstrate six core exercises to get a washboard stomach. You'll see the crunch, reverse crunch, a crunch twisting movement for the obliques, the starfish crunch (perform slowly to protect lower back), and more.

There's nothing like a lean, toned stomach as a visible confirmation of your fitness levels. And a six pack is a sign of advanced fitness. Your aim should be to develop strong stomach muscles as well as burn the fat off your stomach to show them off. To achieve a really prominent six-pack, you need to get your body fat percentage down to around 10-12%. This requires a really strict focus on your diet.

My personal training clients in London ask me: How often should you train your abs? I recommend you perform abdominal exercises every other day (certainly not every day), for around 15 minutes a session, as part of your core workout (which should include lower back and glutes exercises). Be sure to train all your core muscles in this session. You can even train your abdominals at the end of a chest & shoulder workout, for instance, or at the end of a cardio workout. As you get stronger, you should challenge yourself with tougher exercises, involving a stability ball (swissball), or medicine ball, or weights in your hands. The principle of progressive overload applies to the abdominals just like all your other muscles, otherwise your muscle will not have a reason to grow.

My personal training clients often ask if it's possible for everyone to get six pack abdominals, and the answer is yes, if you're prepared to do what it takes, especially on the nutrition front. You can't out-train a bad diet, so your top priority should be to eat as healthily as possible, and in particular cut out processed food. No amount of abdominal exercises will burn off a huge beer belly: you need to get your eating right, and perform resistance exercises for your major muscle groups, in order to increase your muscle mass and raise your fat-burning metabolism.

If you really want a six pack, you need to be really vigilant in your eating habits, which means cut out all the junk food, ready meals, takeaways, processed carbs, the list goes on. (If you do hire a personal trainer, make sure before you part with any money or sign on the dotted line, that they will provide you with ongoing nutrition advice as well as exercise, as both are equally important).

The majority of people who work-out in the hope of getting a six pack make several errors in exercise technique. The biggest mistake is performing the exercises too fast, followed by too little variety of exercises. As a personal trainer in London with 11 years experience, I make sure my clients exercise their abs effectively, and work towards a six pack faster than if they trained alone.

Don't neglect core training, even if you exercise major muscle groups like your back muscles on a regular basis. Before your body can generate force safely, you must be able to stabilise the working joints effectively. So for instance, to squat or deadlift safely, you need a strong set of abs and lower back muscles. If you think of your body as a chain, you're only as strong as your weakest link. For most people this is the core. That's why so many people have lower back and lumbar spine problems. A strong core stabilises your spine and pelvis, and enables safe transfer of force between your lower and upper body.

The key features of a healthy core are strength, flexibility, and stability.

Flexibility of your mid-section

Lack of flexibility may not be the fault of the core muscles themselves, but of the anterior muscles which link your pelivs to your legs. This group of muscles are called the hip flexors, because they flex your hip forward. Tight hip flexors are often caused by a life of sitting, at your desk, in the car, on a plane. Over time, all this sitting causes adaptive shortening of the hip flexor muscles, which pull your pelvis and spine out of alignment, and cause compression forces on your lumbar spine. In extreme cases this can result in a slipped disc. Your three hip flexor muscles are the rectus femoris (the biggest of your quadricep muscles), the iliacus, and the psoas major. A systematic programme of stretching can restore proper flexibility to your mid-section.

Flexibility problems can also be caused by tight hamstrings (the muscles of your posterior thigh). Combined with tight hip flexors, this can render your pelvis almost totally immobile, as well as exhacerbate pressure on your lumbar discs. So include hamstring stretches at the end of your workouts, to remedy this.

Health Warning - Hernia Alert!

If you perform any twisting movement with too much resistance, or too sharply, you risk injuring yourself. Specifically, if you're a male, you risk getting an inguinal hernia. This is a hernia in the groin area, where the inguinal canal (which is a natural weak point in the deep muscle tissue of the abdominals near the groin) passes through the stomach lining to supply the testicles with blood. A hernia, which is a protrusion of small intestine through a weakness or tear in the stomach wall, cannot heal itself. You'll need a hernia repair operation, which will mean no gym training for several weeks (or up to 2 months) after the op.

Better still, don't get a hernia in the first place! Only use light to moderate weights when you perform any twisting movement for the abdominals.

The three sets of abdominal muscles

Your abdominal muscles enable you to flex your body forwards and also to the side, as well as suck your stomach in. There are 3 main ab muscles:

rectus abdominis

This long pair of muscles, the main '6 pack' muscle, originates in the pubis and extends upwards to insert into the cartilage of the 5th, 6th and 7th ribs on each side, and the xiphoid process (at the base of your sternum, or breastbone). This muscle flexes your trunk forwards, and compresses your stomach.

The 'six pack' (sometimes 8 pack) appearance is caused by bands of tendon which cross the rectus abdominis horizontally, and divide each muscle into 3 or 4 'bellies'. A long band of fibre runs down the centre of these muscles, called the linea alba. This is visible as the vertical dimple running down the centre of a six pack.

A strong rectus abdominis counteracts the pull of your hip flexors on your pelvis during exercise, and prevents your spine arching excessively (hyper-lordosis).

obliques

The obliques flex the trunk forward and compress the stomach, and also rotate the trunk. They comprise the 'external obliques' (origin at lower 8 ribs, insertion at front of pelvis), and the deeper 'internal obliques' (origin at iliac crest, or pelvis, and insertion at bottom 4 ribs) each of which act with the opposite 'external oblique' for trunk rotation, and also assist in forward flexion.

The obliques are crucial to the health of your lower back, as they insert on the fascia of your spinal erectors (a series of small muscles which ensure an upright and stable spinal column), and take pressure off your spine by creating an extra layer of stability and shock-absorbtion. Remember that the stabilisation role of your core muscles is just as important as the movement role.

transverse abdominis

This is the deepest of the ab muscles, and its sole function is to compress the abdomen, the movement you make when you suck in your belly button. Its origin is at the lower six ribs, and inserts at the tendons of the linea alba (the band of fibre that runs vertically down the centre of the rectus abdominis muscles). The best exercise for the transverse abdominus (sometimes referred to as your TA) is the plank (see below).

Best exercises for the abs:

The plank - lie face down supported just by your toes and your elbows, and form a 'bridge' with your body, and hold this position. This is the best exercise for your transverse abdominis. I once had a personal trainer in north London who could do 4 minutes of plank, which is really advanced. See how long you can do!

"Sit-ups tend to work the upper abdominals to a greater degree, while the hanging leg raises put a greater amount of stress on the lower area." (Arnold Schwarzenegger's Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding)

Crunch - great for rectus abdominis (a good variation is the crunch with your feet and knees raised, but the key is to squeeze hard at the maximum contraction, and return to starting position very slowly)

Oblique crunch - for the obliques

Barbell rollout - kneel in front of a barbell with a 15kg plate fixed at each end. Now grab the bar at shoulder width, brace your abs, and roll the barbell out until your stomach is near the ground, then flex your abs on the return to the start position. You can also use an ab-wheel.

Standing side bends - with a single dumbbell in just one hand, lower the dumbbell to your side and return to starting position very slowly. Great for the oblques.

Plank (or Bridge) - this is an isometric exercise,which means holding a static position with the muscles under tension for a timed set. Face down on a mat, rise up on your forearms and your toes, and make a perfectly straight line with your body. Don't allow your bum to sag down, or rise up. Suck your belly button in towards your spine, and hold the position, remembering to breathe steadily throughout. Perform 3 sets of this, and record how many seconds you maintain each plank. If you can do this near a mirror, you'll be able to check your position is strict. The world record for the plank is something crazy like 4 hours, and the current record is held by some elite squad cop in Beijing.

Hanging leg raises - for lower half of rectus abdominus (easy version is to bend at knees, more challenging is straight leg raise) using overhead bar. Keep the movements slow and deliberate, no swinging around!

Alternate oblique crunch - alternating left leg to right elbow, and right leg to left elbow, this is a more advanced exercise.

Swiss-Ball crunch - perform with someone behind you in case you start to lose balance, and ensure no furniture nearby which could injure you if you fall. Make sure your swissball is blown up nice and full of air, which makes the exercise so much more challenging. And make sure you choose the right size of swissball for your height.