Abs are without doubt the most desired vanity outcome of fitness, especially for men and you see a crazy variation of types of training to achieve the 4, 6, or even 8 pack. While it’s harder for females to achieve a 6 pack then it is males, points covered here will still apply to both sexes
You’ve probably looked at a fitness model at some point and been drawn to their ripped midsection and wondered how they have a defined looking midsection year round. For myself I’ve had a 6 pack since I was about 13 years old and maintain this year round, I don't mention this to boast, but to serve as an example covered here as to why some of us can maintain clear abs, while others lose all definition as soon as they start bulking.
Here I want to delve into some of the less talked about details and a brief overview of my own ab training. Firstly we need to look at 5 very important considerations:
Your genetics play a large role in your 6 pack potential.
Consideration 1- Shape
Firstly the shape of your abs is genetic, this is why some have 2, 4, 6 or 8 visible abs. Also your abs will rarely be perfectly symmetrical, a lot of people including myself have somewhat staggered abs.
In the example above we see two very defined examples of the abdominals. However on the left you see an example of staggered abs, where the right and left side do not align completely. While on the right you see a clearer example of symmetrical abs. It's important to note that no abs will ever be truly 100% symmetrical, but the variation can be wide and is generally nothing to worry about or something that you can change.
Consideration 2- Body fat distribution
This here is the key to why some people have abs year round and others don’t. Everyone has a preset way that their body distributes body fat. Typically for leaner individuals the regions of main bodyfat are the
- abdominals (more common for men)
- love handles / lower back (more common for men)
- Hips / bum (more common for women)
- Thighs (more common for women)
An example is you could have two males both at 10% bodyfat. One guy has a ripped looking 6 pack, but poor leg definition and the other barely has his first 2 abs visible yet has great definition in his quads. Often you’re mislead to think that abs correlate to a certain body fat %, but this is not true and your potential to get and maintain your ab definition is largely genetic. I’ve been to many bodybuilding shows and you really do notice the large variation of body fat distribution throughout the competitors, both men and women.
*It’s one of the reasons the men's physique class is somewhat unfair as it favours those with a certain fat distribution, as the upper legs are covered by board shorts and not taken into consideration.
Usually the places you lose fat last when dieting are also the places you gain fat first when bulking. If you ever hear of the term "stubborn fat" this is typically what is meant.
Current Training Style
Consideration 3- Exercise selection
Someone doing a lot of compound exercises that also work the core such as squats, standing overhead press, rows and deadlifts will already be heavily working the muscles of the midsection. They’re called bang for your buck exercises for a reason. I don't know anything that works my core harder than a heavy set of squats or deadlifts.
On the other hand an individual doing more isolated exercises or a typical bodybuilding split will not be working the core as much.
Consideration 4- Frequency of training
How often you train will also affect how often the core is worked. As you can imagine weight training 6 days a week is going to be hitting the core more frequently than 3 days a week. Typically the more frequently you weight train, the less direct ab work is needed.
Current Body Status
Consideration 5- Injuries / Imbalances
Last but not least are injuries or imbalances you currently have. Additional specialised core work may be needed to help strengthen your weak areas and create balance.
Ignore the 20+ minute ab workouts you see online or on DVD, they are complete overkill
Realistically you should be able to sufficiently work your core within 5-10 minutes max
Your core is part of your postural muscles and tend to do respond better to high frequency
Avoid only do crunches (trunk flexion). It’s important to work your whole core, including your obliques and lower back. Working only one plane of movement can cause imbalances.
If you’re a beginner, developing stability is your number 1 priority. Exercises such as the plank and anti rotational variations work best. This will build a solid stable foundation which you can build on with more advanced exercises later.
Planes of movement
The 4 main planes of movement with your core are below, ideally you want to be using exercises that over the course of the week work all 4 planes. This will help to strengthen the whole core and prevent imbalances.
Ex. Crunches, legs raises
Ex. Back extensions, supermans
Ex. Russian twists, twisting medicine ball throws
Trunk Lateral Flexion
Ex. Side bends, dumbbell side bends
I usually weight train 5-6 days a week, with every workout including multiple compound movements. Due to this my core already gets hit hard each week. However my own solution is for any workouts where my core does not get worked hard, I add in 3-4 sets of exercises that work different planes of movement. Over the course of time this adds up to plenty of volume and a nice stable core. I vary exercises and like to try out new variations to avoid boredom.
Consider your own training and any workouts where your core does not get worked, I would recommend adding in 2-5 sets of core exercises. These can be before, after or another part of the day to your main training, do whatever is most comfortable for you. Keeping the rest periods short for the most part (30 seconds or so), will keep the time required to around 5 minutes.
Days you do work your core by default such as a heavy squat day, additional core work is usually not needed, unless you have an underlying injury or imbalance you are trying to correct. Remember avoid the 20-30 minute core sessions once a week and aim more for frequent (3-6) times a week 5 minutes at a time. This additional frequency will result in better core strength and help your all round athletic ability. Try out a wide range of exercises and make sure to work all planes of movement through the week.
The Easiest Option
I realise this will be confusing to some, especially those inexperienced. Mentions of trunk flexion will mean nothing to you and you’ll likely have no clue where to start. The easiest solution would be to download a smartphone app called “The 6 pack promise” by highly respected trainer Jeff Cavaliere and to perform one of the 5-7 minute programs 3-6 times a week.
This app contains workouts of 5-7 minutes and includes 100+ moves that work all core movement patterns. It covers beginners, intermediate and advanced levels. Exercise videos and a timer are provided, so drop the excuses and get to work!
A final thought I want to leave you with is that your bodyfat levels and distribution will ultimately play the biggest role in how clear and defined your abs appear. For men this will usually range from 8 to 15% bodyfat while for women 15 to 20%. You'll ultimately have to be realistic with your genetics and whether maintaining abs year round fits into your goals. Don't be that person afraid to lose their abs and consequently never eating enough to build any real muscle.