The Science of Amazing Abs

Carving an enviable six-pack isn't an easy feat — which is too bad, since it seems that nearly everyone wants a defined set of abs. But too many people view a sculpted midsection as a kind of fitness status symbol, reserved for the genetic elite or those who spend more time in the gym than they do at home. And that's simply not the case.

Abdominal training requires a targeted strategy. Credit: GabiMoisa/AdobeStock/LIVESTRONG.COM

Yes, your genetics and diet influence how much muscle definition and how little body fat you have around your midsection. But the good news is that everyone has abs — regardless of how well you can see them. And that means that everyone can build better abs.

You might have to relearn a few things (nothing worth having ever came easily, right?), but by incorporating the principles below and trying some new exercises, you can build stronger abs than ever before.

What Do Your Abs Even Do?

Ever wonder why sit-ups became such a popular exercise? Often, anatomy books state that the purpose of your abdominal muscles is to flex your spine. As a result, many think that by creating a "crunch" type movement, you'll build your abs the way nature intended.

Unfortunately, most anatomy books are at least 35 years out of date, says Mark Comerford, a researcher, physical therapist and founding director of Kinetic Control, a consulting agency that assists physiotherapists. While your abs do flex your spine, that's only one part of their job. Your abdominal muscles also help…

  • Create movement: If you're standing upright and bend forward at your waist as fast as you can — like a boxer ducking a punch — you'll feel your abs activate; since you're moving faster than the speed of gravity.

  • Counterbalance movement: If you were to start leaning backward from standing, you'll again feel your abs activate, but this time in a different way. Your abs are doing the opposite of what anatomy books tell you. Rather than flexing your spine, those muscles are fighting the extension of your spine to keep you from falling over.

  • Resist movement: Imagine you're standing upright with your arms reaching straight out at shoulder height, hands locked together. If a friend were to push your arms to one side, how would you resist their efforts? Your abs.

In order to build a stronger core, it's crucial to challenge your abdominal muscles in all of these different forms and motions.

Read more: 5 Benefits of Abdominal Strength & Endurance

So Are Crunches Good or Bad for Abs?

In recent years, crunches and sit-ups have gotten a bit of bad press, as fitness experts and rehab professionals began speaking out against the exercise. Stuart McGill, PhD, a spine researcher at the University of Waterloo, found indications that performing too many crunches (or doing them too frequently) could cause a person's spinal discs to push out too far, causing pain and potentially a herniated disc.

Claims like this regarding the impact of crunches are highly debated. Carl DeRosa, PhD, founder of DeRosa Physical Therapy, says that your body position isn't responsible for putting pressure on your discs — it's how tightly you squeeze (or compress) your muscles.

Other experts, like spinal researcher Michael Adams, PhD, says that a person's discs can actually strengthen (like your muscles) and potentially become more resilient to injury as a result of doing abs exercises like crunches properly.

The bottom line: If you have a disc-related injury, crunches might not be the best exercise for you. But for healthy athletes, a few sets (not hundreds of reps) of well-performed crunches can help activate your abs. Just don't rely on them as your sole form of ab exercise.

What Core Exercises Should You Start With?

Almost every movement you do — both during your workouts and in your daily life — engages your core in some capacity. Press a weight overhead, your abs engage. Stand on one leg, your abs are working. Struggle during a tough exercise and "cheat" a little on your form — yep, you'll probably feel your abs coming to the rescue.

These non-abs specific movements hit your midsection indirectly by working your core muscles (the muscles in your lower back, abdomen and pelvis), which are more than just your abdominal muscles.

Perform the following exercises for three to four sets of eight to 10 reps.

Push-Up

Planks are a killer core exercise. Since push-ups are essentially planks crossed with a bench press, you can strengthen your six-pack and build your chest at the same time.

  1. Start in a high plank position, arms slightly out in front of you and your elbows near the side of your body.
  2. Keeping your back straight and abs tight, lower your chest until it almost touches the floor.
  3. Pause, then push yourself back up.

One-Arm Push-Up

This exercise is the king of upper-body pushing exercises, hitting every muscle that regular push-ups hit while placing extra emphasis on your abs and obliques. It's an advanced exercise, so make sure you've mastered regular push-ups and have sufficient core strength before attempting.

  1. Start in the push-up position and put one hand behind your back.
  2. Your other arm will be slightly out in front of you, with your elbow near the side of your body.
  3. Keep your legs wide (the wider they are, the easier the exercise).
  4. Lower your chest down until your torso almost touches the floor.
  5. Pause, then push yourself back up.
  6. After completion, perform the movement on the other arm.

Standing One-Arm Cable Press

If one-arm push-ups are a little too advanced for you, standing single-arm cable presses are the next best thing. Like the one-arm push-ups, this exercise strengthens your upper body, abs and obliques.

  1. Holding a cable in one hand, step out so that one foot is in front of you and the other leg is bent behind you.
  2. Lean forward slightly, pick your back heel off the ground and tuck your elbow in.
  3. Drive the cable in your hand forward, pressing with your shoulder. Return quickly to the starting position and repeat.
  4. After completing the exercise, repeat on other side.

Cable Chop

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your abs braced.
  2. Grab a cable in one hand and pull it across your body.
  3. Then turn your shoulders and hips, as if you were swinging a bat. You have three options for the motion: high to low, low to high or pressing horizontally from shoulder level.
  4. For best results, mix them up and don't forget to switch sides.

Offset Dumbbell Lunge

Yes, you read that right, lunges are included in this list of core exercises. That's because this lunge variation also works your obliques, since you have to fight to keep your torso from leaning to one side.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grab a heavy dumbbell in one hand.
  2. Take a step forward with one leg and lower your body until your knee is bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Step forward with your other leg so your feet are together.
  4. Take a step forward with the opposite foot and repeat the movement.
  5. Continue this pattern as you walk across the floor.

Tight Rotation

  1. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms straight out in front of you, hands locked together.
  2. Rotate your arms and torso as quickly as you can from left to right, keeping the movement between your feet — your shoulders shouldn't extend past your left or right foot.
  3. Move your hips with your shoulders.
  4. After you complete your reps, switch sides.

Read more: The 10-Minute Full-Body Workout You'll Be Doing All Summer

What Exercises Are Best for Six-Pack Abs?

While nearly every exercise will engage your abdominal muscles in some way, it's also beneficial to target ab strength and stability specifically. It's important to give your core a well-rounded regimen, including some ab isolation exercises.

Perhaps one of the best exercises to strengthen your abs is using a stability ball. Incorporating this tool into your exercise will add benefits to your total core, according to the American Council on Exercise. The balance ball involves movements that target the entire functionality of the trunk, including flexion, extension, side-bending and rotation all in a few exercises.

Swiss-Ball Pike Rollout

  1. Start in a push-up position with your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor, shins resting on top of a Swiss ball.
  2. Tighten your core muscles and pull your legs in toward your arms, lifting your hips in the air.
  3. Pause at the top of the rep and hold for one to two seconds.
  4. Lower yourself back down, sliding your legs back over the ball until your arms are extended out in front of you.
  5. Remember to keep your abs braced and your back straight throughout the movement.

Reps: two to four sets of 6 to 12 reps

BOSU Ball Weighted Crunches

Performing crunches on a Swiss Ball or BOSU Trainer can help improve your balance and stability. Added bonus: Since you're on a round surface, you have a greater range of motion.

  1. Position a BOSU ball on the floor with the dome side up.
  2. Lie face-up with your lower back supported on top of the dome, feet flat on the floor and knees bent to 90 degrees.
  3. Hold a weight plate (or dumbbell) in front of your chest. Raise your head and shoulders and "crunch" your rib cage toward your pelvis.
  4. Hold, then return to the start.

Reps: two to four sets of 6 to 12 reps

Stability Ball Plank

  1. Place your elbows on the stability ball, hands clasped with feet hip-distance apart.
  2. Keep your body in a straight line from head to toes.

Reps: two to four sets of 30 seconds

Stability Ball Push-Up

  1. Come to a high plank with your hands on the ball beneath your shoulders.
  2. Exhale, bend your elbows and lower your chest until it touches the ball, then push back up into a plank.

Reps: two to four sets of 10 to 12 reps

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