Many set out to sculpt abs, but few actually do. What separates the ab-seekers from the ab-havers is that the ab-havers understand sculpting a tortoise shell tummy is a two-part process.
On one hand, you need to bulk up those abdominal muscles. And on the other, you need to fine-tune your food choices.
"Visible abs are made in the kitchen and the gym," Libby Landry, CF-L3, CrossFit coach at CrossFit Invictus, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Skimp out on either portion of the equation and you're forever a member of the ab-seeker club.
So, is carving a sculpted middle hard? Actually, with the right approach it's not. In fact, if you train smart and eat smarter, you'll get the abs you've always wanted in as little as 45 to 60 minutes a day for just four days a week, according to Landry.
To help you achieve enviable abs, we put together this guide on how to get a strong and sculpted core. Scroll down to learn the best ab exercises, the diet switches you'll need to make and more.
The Benefits of a Strong Core
The quest for that six-pack aesthetic may underlie your desire for a toned midsection (hey, no shame!). But strengthening your entire core has far more health benefits compared to just sculpting the top layer of muscles, says Alena Luciani, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl.
Your core isn't just made out of those six-pack muscles. Rather, there are many (many!) layers of core muscles. In fact, it's possible to have a visible six pack and still have a weak core.
The muscles that make up your core are:
- Rectus abdominis: The muscle responsible for making your middle resemble a pack of Mountain Dew is called the rectus abdominis, and it's arguably the least important muscle group in your core.
- Transverse abdominis: "Beneath [the rectus abdominis] lies the transverse abdominis — the muscle group responsible for keeping your spine safe and aligned and keeping you upright," Luciani says. A weak transverse abdominis is one of the fastest tracks to injuries and pain, especially of the lower back.
- Oblique muscles: You also have two layers of oblique muscles that help you rotate. These are the bad boys you recruit to be able to do things like put away the groceries or throw a ball for Scout without getting injured.
All these core muscles work together to keep you safe and strong when you move in nearly every plane of motion or do any kind exercise, Luciani says, including movements like push-ups, deadlifts and squats. "If your core is weak it's going to interfere with your ability to build strength in other parts of your body," she says.
In short, if "get abs" is your goal, Luciani recommends rephrasing it to something like, "build a bullet-proof midsection" or "build a core that will keep me injury-free as I get older." Sounds pretty badass, no?
Here, experts break down exactly how to build a stronger core and the best ab exercises for achieving that coveted six-pack.
How to Build Stronger, More Defined Abs
1. Prioritize Compound Exercises
Compound exercises are the best way to strengthen your entire core, including those six-pack muscles. Exercises like the front or back squat, shoulder press and deadlift are multi-joint movements that work the core and other muscle groups at the same time, Landry explains. As a result, these exercises can stimulate muscle growth in the core and the rest of your body, too.
Here's why that matters: You can't spot-train where you want to lose fat, Luciani says. In other words, to get rid of the fat that's keeping your sculpted dreams from coming true, you have to shed fat from head-to-toe, which is how demanding movements like compound exercises can help.
Compound exercises are also going to help with the full-body fat burn because they build more overall muscle, Luciani says.
"Increasing overall muscle mass will increase overall metabolic speed, allowing you to burn more calories even at rest," she says. Ultimately, this means that when you build more muscle, you'll burn even more calories while lying in bed or reading a book.
The bottom line: The best ab exercises are compound movements, so build your workouts around these multi-joint exercises. Even if you're working out only three days a week, you'll gradually start to see some ab grooves appear.
2. Make Time For Isolation Exercises, Too
Unlike compound movements, isolation exercises work only one muscle group. A perfect example: the crunch, which targets the rectus abdominis muscles solely. And while they're less efficient than compound exercises, Landry and Luciani agree that isolation ab exercises have a place in the quest for abdominals.
Because isolation exercises are less taxing on the body, Luciani recommends doing isolation ab exercises like crunches, sit-ups, V-ups and leg raises at the very end of your workout. For example, you could try a four-minute V-up Tabata of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest.
If you're wondering how many hours you should spend at the gym, you might be surprised to hear that four minutes of ab-isolation exercise a day is really all it takes.
"You can also superset an isolation exercise, like a 30-second plank, with a set of heavy back squats," she says. If you go with the latter just remember that bracing (i.e. tightening) your core during a squat is essential for protecting your lower back. If your midsection is too fatigued after the isolation movement to stay engaged for the back squat, rest until it's not.
3. Work on Your Mobility
Mobility is your ability to move a muscle through its full range of motion with control, without pain or compensation. For example, someone who can break parallel in a squat has good hip and ankle mobility.
According to Luciani, improved mobility indirectly supports your efforts to get stronger — whether those strength goals are specifically relegated to your midsection or not.
"Solid mobility allows you to move through a greater range of motion with every movement you do and ultimately get more out of them," she explains. The better your mobility is, the more you'll get out of ab exercises that strengthen and sculpt your core, she says.
You can't spot-train where you want to lose fat. To get rid of the fat that's keeping your sculpted dreams from coming true, you have to shed fat from head-to-toe.
But if you haven't been, you don't necessarily need to use recovery tools. Improving your mobility may be as easy as warming up for 15 minutes before you work out, according to Luciani. "A dynamic, full-body warm-up and quick cooldown after a workout go a long way in boosting mobility," she says.
4. Do Some Cardio
If you love cardio, listen up: Incorporating compound exercises into your workout routine is the fastest way to get abs — not endless hours on the treadmill, as many ab-seekers suspect.
Still, Luciani says aerobic work is an important ingredient in the six-pack journey. Or, more specifically, high-intensity interval training or HIIT — think: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off or 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off.
According to a June 2019 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, high-intensity interval training provided 28.5 percent greater reductions in total absolute fat mass than moderate-intensity continuous training, like running.
That's why Landry recommends trying MetCon or AMRAP-style workouts that allow you to bring the heat. "A workout like 50 barbell thrusters [a front squat with an overhead press] at a light weight, for example, will elevate your heart rate and make you feel gassed as if you've just gone for a quick sprint," she says.
On the hunt for a HIIT or ab workout you can do at home? Do 50 squats to overhead press with a backpack instead of a barbell. Or, try this 20-minute at-home HIIT workout to blast belly fat. You can also give the CrossFit Open Workout 12.1 a try by doing as many burpees as you possibly can in seven minutes. The options are endless.
HIIT Workouts You Can Do At Home
5. Move More Throughout the Day
"Basically, no matter someone's fitness goal, they'll meet it faster if they find more little ways to burn calories and move their body throughout the day," Luciani says. And that stands if your goal is to get abs.
You can get more movement in your day by simply walking more. In fact, according to a September 2019 study in BMC Public Health, following a walking exercise program and sticking to a daily step goal of 12,000 steps can help reduce visceral fat — the type of fat stored in the midsection — in adults with obesity.
By combining a workout routine with additional daily activity, you can improve your body composition and reduce overall visceral fat. Here's what that looks like in practice: If you have a dog, walk them (instead of hiring a walker!), park in the farthest spot away at the grocery store and take the stairs — always.
Sure, these hacks won't deliver the same degree of heart-health benefits as high-intensity training might, but they're good for your health overall and help support your journey to stronger, more chiseled abs.
6. Cut Refined Carbs
What you've heard is true: Six-pack abs require as much dedication in the kitchen as they do in the gym. As Luciani puts it, "You can have the strongest, most chiseled core in the world, but if it's hiding under a layer of fat, you still won't have the six-pack you're shooting for."
Your diet plays a large role in getting abs. The number one thing to do is reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates, which means limiting white bread, white pasta, white rice, bagels, donuts and other processed foods, says certified personal trainer and registered dietitian Charlotte Martin, RDN, CPT, owner of Shaped by Charlotte.
"Refined carbohydrates are empty of fiber and full of sugar," Martin explains. As a result, they cause your blood sugar and insulin levels to spike and drop and don't make us feel full for as long, she says. This can cause cravings and lead to overeating.
"You can have the strongest, most chiseled core in the world, but if it's hiding under a layer of fat, you still won't have the six-pack you're shooting for."
To help you understand why that matters, compare a slice of white toast to a slice of whole grain. Even if these breads have the exact same calorie counts, Martin says due to the lack of fiber in the white toast, you'd be hungry after eating it sooner than you would if you opted for the whole-grain slice.
The rise and drop of insulin levels after eating white toast can result in you consuming more overall calories per day, which works against your overall goal of slimming down.
7. Ramp Up on Protein
"Protein is the main macronutrient responsible for helping our muscles rebuild and repair after exercise," Martin says, citing a May 2019 study in Nutrients. That's why she recommends a protein-forward diet for people seeking six-pack abs.
Protein also has the highest thermic effect of all foods, she says, which basically means your body uses more calories to digest protein than it does carbohydrates or fat.
For example, a 2014 study in Nutrition and Metabolism suggests that in addition to helping preserve lean muscle mass, high-protein diets can increase your metabolic rate by 15 to 30 percent. In other words, a diet high in protein can help your burn more calories at rest.
"Protein is also satiating, so you're less likely to over-indulge on other unhealthy high-calorie foods," Martin says. No more pantry or vending machine trips throughout the day.
However, the source of your protein plays a large role, too, as the study suggests. Choosing lean sources of protein, such as chicken breast, salmon, grass-fed beef, eggs, beans, legumes and low-fat dairy, are going to pay off more than processed meats, like sausage and bacon, and fatty cuts of beef.
To figure out exactly how much protein you need, follow this formula from the American College of Sports Medicine: Divide your weight (in pounds) by 2.2 to convert it into kilograms, then multiply that number by 1.2 and then by 1.7 to determine your optimal protein range.
For example, a 150-pound person should aim to eat 82 to 116 grams of protein per day. Three to four servings per day of quality, high-protein foods like poultry, grass-fed beef, dairy products, legumes, seed and nuts will help you easily reach those needs.
You might be wondering: What about fat? Martin says healthy fats such olive oil, avocado, nuts and cheese can absolutely be part of an ab-seekers diet. "In moderation, healthy fats don't lead to belly fat," she says. Phew.
8. Stay Hydrated
While drinking plenty of water is a good recommendation for anyone looking to fight mental fog, irritation and very dry skin (ahem, everyone), you also need to replenish your body's H2O supply after your sweaty ab workouts, Martin says.
Drinking water can also help you burn more calories and fat. According to a small December 2012 study in Archives of Medical Science of women with obesity, drinking water can support thermogenesis — the process your body undergoes to give off heat — by increasing energy expenditure. Thermogenesis also activates brown fat to help you maintain body temperature, a process which increases calorie burn, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Another reason to stay hydrated is to offset feelings of hunger. "Oftentimes people mistake the feeling of thirst for the feeling of hunger," Martin says. The next time you feel hungry after you just ate, Martin suggests drinking a glass of water. If your stomach is still grumbling 20 minutes later, then chow down.
9. Level Up Your Stress-Busting Practices
It's no big surprise that when you're stressed, you tend to gain weight and tack on belly fat. Sleep deprivation and emotional eating due to stress can cause you to fill up on processed foods loaded with sugar and unhealthy fats.
According to an October 2017 review in Obesity Reviews, reduced sleep, or a disruption in circadian rhythm such as eating late at night to stay awake, can predispose you to poor metabolic health and unhealthy exercise and eating habits. When you reduce stress in your life, you are also better able to maintain healthy levels of the hormone leptin, which aids in regulating your hunger.
That's why Luciani says any fitness goal should be accompanied by a re-dedication to your self-care practices. "A little yoga, a regular bath, meditation or whatever it is that makes you feel less-stressed can go a long way in keeping off body fat," she says.
10. Keep At It!
You might be asking, "Can I get abs in a day?" Nope, sorry. Or, "Can I get abs in a month?" Probably not. As you might guess, there is no guaranteed timeline for how long it takes to sculpt six-pack abs, Martin says.
That's because in addition to your fitness level and percentage of body fat, genetics also play a huge role in where fat accumulates in the body and how long it takes to shed belly fat, she says. "You'll need to be consistent for four to six weeks before you start to see your middle section lean out," she says.
Remember: Even if you don't see visible abs (yet!), it doesn't mean your work to build a dynamite midsection and eat better isn't benefiting your overall health.
Try This 5-Minute Ab Workout
Ready for an ab-solutely fun and quick core workout? Perform the ab exercises below for three rounds. You can easily tack on these moves to the end of any workout for an extra ab burner.
Move 1: V-Up
- Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and legs straight.
- Take a big inhale, and then on your exhale, engage your core and lift both your torso and legs straight off the ground and reach for your toes. Your body will resemble a V.
- Lower back down with control, keeping your core tight and your legs straight.
If you're not able to do a full V-up, you can modify with tuck-ups by drawing your knees in toward your chest as you lift your torso off the ground, finishing with your arms by the sides of your knees.
Move 2: Hollow Hold
- Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and legs straight.
- Using your core, lift your head, shoulder blades and legs off the ground. Keep your biceps by your ears and actively press your low back into the ground to ensure you're engaging your abs throughout the entire exercise.
- Hold this position and remember to breathe.
Move 3: Mountain Climber
- Start in a high plank position, balancing on your palms and toes with your body in a straight line from heels to hips to head. Keep your palms under your shoulders and your back in a neutral position.
- On an exhale, engage your core and drive your right knee up toward your chest.
- Return your right knee to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other side, driving your left knee to your chest.
- Alternate between right and left as quickly as you can while maintaining the plank position.
Move 4: High Plank
- Start on your hands and knees with your shoulders stacked above your wrists and your hips directly above your knees.
- Step your right foot back and then your left foot to balance on your hands and toes. Your body should form a straight line from the top of your head to your heels. Tuck your pelvis in to engage your core and squeeze your glutes.
- Hold this position while maintaining a neutral spine.
More Ab Workouts We Love
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Is Interval Training the Magic Bullet for Fat Loss? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Comparing Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training With High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)"
- Nutrients: "Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- Nutrition & Metabolism: "A High-Protein Diet For Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats"
- BMC Public Health: "Is the Goal of 12,000 Steps Per Day Sufficient for Improving Body Composition and Metabolic Syndrome? The Necessity of Combining Exercise Intensity: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Archives of Medical Science: "The Influence of Oral Water Load on Energy Expenditure and Sympatho-Vagal Balance in Obese and Normal Weight Women"
- Mayo Clinic: "What Is Brown Fat? How Is It Different From Other Body Fat?"
- Obesity Reviews: "Role of Sleep and Circadian Disruption on Energy Expenditure and in Metabolic Predisposition to Human Obesity and Metabolic Disease"