3 Cardinal Rules of Six-Pack Abs

We're not going to sugarcoat it (neither literally, nor figuratively): Getting six-pack abs requires overhauling your diet and kicking your workouts up a few notches. Luckily, if you follow these three cardinal rules, you won't need to spend a ton more time in the gym. You can train smarter, eat cleaner and sculpt your abdomen with hard work and consistency.

Killer abs are just three cardinal rules away. (Image: gruizza/E+/GettyImages)

1. Eat Clean and Lean

If you're looking for a sculpted midsection, the first thing you need to do is clean up your diet. The easiest place to start is cutting highly processed foods from your diet. These items (think: chips, cookies, candy, etc.) often have little nutritional value but tack on a lot of calories. Also avoid bottled juices, soda and booze.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is key to losing belly fat. Choose lean sources of protein like chicken and fish in order to stay full and encourage muscle growth. And fill your plate with plenty of fibrous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Fiber is great for weight management, as it slows your digestion and keeps you feeling full, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

2. Exercise Properly and Target Your Core

Your core muscles aren't just your abs! They also include your lumbar spine, pelvis obliques and hips, all of which are crucial in sculpting your midsection, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. While you can't spot reduce belly fat (sorry!), increasing strength training and incorporating ab-specific exercises will help get you closer to your six-pack goal.

Creating a well-rounded strength training routine builds muscle mass, which helps burn body fat more quickly, according to the Mayo Clinic. Essentially, your body composition is one huge determining factor when it comes to the speed of your metabolism. The more muscle in your body, the faster your metabolism and the more calories your body burns.

Core isolation exercises will also help develop strength in your abdomen, giving you a more sculpted look. Incorporate some or all of the following exercises into your strength training regime to give your abs some extra attention.

Plank

  1. Start on all fours with your hands directly beneath your shoulders, then extend your legs out straight behind you. (It's like the top of a push-up.)
  2. Hold your body in a straight line from head to hips to toes. Don't allow your hips to hike or sag.

Reps: 2 to 3 sets of 30 seconds

Leg Raise

  1. Lie flat on the ground, arms at your sides.
  2. Keeping your legs together, raise them up toward the ceiling until they're perpendicular to the floor (or as high as you can go while keeping them straight).
  3. Lower back toward the ground, hovering a few inches above the ground before you lift back up.

Reps: 2 to 3 rounds of 10 to 12 reps

Dead Bug

  1. Lying on the ground, raise your arms toward the sky and lift your legs into a 90 degree angle, bent at the knees (tabletop position).
  2. Straightening your left leg, lower it to an inch above the ground. At the same time, lower your right arm straight above your head, alongside your ear.
  3. Bring back to center and repeat with the opposite arm and leg.

Reps: 2 to 3 rounds of 10 reps on each leg

Side Plank Dip

  1. Lying on your right side, place your right forearm on the ground and stack your left foot on top of your right.
  2. Raise up into a side plank with your hips coming off the ground.
  3. Dip your hips down and tap the ground lightly (or go as far as your mobility and strength allow) and then come back up to side plank.

Reps: 2 to 3 rounds of 10 reps on each side

Plank to Pike

  1. Come into a plank with a towel beneath your feet.
  2. Contracting your abdominal muscles, hike your hips up toward the ceiling until your body forms an inverted "V" shape.
  3. Keeping your legs straight, lower your hips back into a plank.

Reps: 2 to 3 rounds of 10 reps

Plank Jack

  1. Come into a high plank, hands beneath your shoulders, body in a straight line.
  2. Jump your feet apart a few feet like a jumping jack and then jump them back together.

Reps: 2 to 3 rounds of 30 seconds

3. Don't Neglect Cardio

Once you've sculpted those ab muscles, losing body fat is key to making them pop. And cardio is a great way to burn calories and help shed belly fat. Aim to incorporate two days of cardio into your weekly exercise regime (in addition to the strength training workouts recommended above).

While any type of cardio will burn calories, opting for a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session maximizes your time and effort. This type of exercise spikes your heart rate by alternating between bouts of maximum effort and recovery.

Whether you're running or using an elliptical (or any other cardio machine), alternate between 30 to 60 seconds of hard work (ex. sprinting) and one to two minutes of active recovery (ex. light jog or walk). This format will add some heart rate variation, giving you the metabolism-boosting benefits of HIIT.

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