Contrary to popular belief, getting a visible six-pack doesn’t take 20 different, complicated, pseudo-gymnastic secret exercises. It won’t happen with sets of a thousand sit-ups. And it sure as hell shouldn’t take up an entire workout.
In fact, if ab work takes up more than 15 or 20 minutes, two or three times a week, you’re likely just spinning your wheels. What we’re about to recommend can be knocked out in 15 minutes or less.
When it comes down to it, getting a six-pack is a simple, coordinated effort to both build the muscle and lean out enough so it shows.
A complete ab workout only needs to check three boxes:
*Hit the entire abs hard.
*Target the neglected lower abs.
*Maximize muscular development in the upper abs with full range of motion + added resistance.
With these goals in mind, here are the three most effective ab builders. No bull – execute them the way we’re about to describe, and these three methods are all you need.
The Set Up
Grab an overhead bar—the type used for chin-ups—with an overhand grip and with your hands a little more than shoulder-width apart. Let your body hang straight down (fully extended).
Alternatively, if your gym has ab strap/sling attachments like these, go for it:
We're going to stick with the "hanging from a bar" version, as everyone has access to something they can grab onto and hang from, but the execution with ab straps is virtually identical.
How to Do It
You’ve got options. The first is a bit more difficult, but it’s worth a shot out of the gate. If it’s too hard for any reason, stick with the second method for at least your first week and work up to it.
(1) Hanging Leg Raise:
Keeping your feet together, extend your legs straight out until they are parallel to the floor (your body forming an “L”). Resist letting the momentum swing your body, especially as you lower your legs.
(2) Hanging Knee Raise:
Hang from a bar with your knees slightly bent and feet together. Simultaneously bend your knees, raise your hips, and curl your lower back underneath you as you lift your thighs toward your chest in a smooth, controlled movement. Raise your knees together as high as you can toward your chest (curling your abs forward, as though you were doing a crunch). You’ll feel a bit like you’re rolling up into a ball.
Once you have reached the fully contracted position, hold this position for a count of two, and then lower your legs slowly and under control back to the starting position. Repeat.
Aim for 3-5 sets, with 10-15 reps per set.
Tips & Key Points
- Keep your upper body mostly stationary -- don’t swing your legs up. Lift them.
- If swaying remains a problem, have a partner gently hold your hips as you raise and lower your legs. Avoid eye contact.
- Common mistakes: moving the legs but not the pelvis as you lift. Your abs should still be crunching, so your body is curling or hunching forward a bit as your legs come up. The top of each rep should have your torso and legs looking more like an “L” than an “L”.
First, the bad news: this one involves that ridiculous looking, half-ball, balance death trap known as the Bosu Ball.
The good news: if we’re willing to recommend bringing the cursed Bosu Ball out of the dog house for this exercise, you know it’s a damn good ab builder.
- Doing a crunch over a Bosu Ball allows for a deeper stretch of the abs at the bottom of each rep.
- The curve of the Bosu ball fits, protects, and stabilizes the lower back much better than the flat floor. This makes the Bosu crunch not only more effective, but also easier on the spine.
- The additional stability it provides by bracing the lower back allows you to safely add weight to the lift to really build your abs (which we'll cover exactly how to do for the best results in just a minute).
- Finally, every Bosu Ball you take up is one less that people are doing stuff like this on:
They must be stopped.
How to Do It
Sit high enough on the Bosu Ball that you bend backward over the ball when you do the “down” portion of each rep. You should really feel your rib cage open up and your abs stretch at the bottom of each rep.
Try to stop just shy of the floor, or at least don’t let the floor bear your weight if you touch it at the bottom of each rep (with your head, neck, shoulders, or hands). We want your abs carrying the stress through the entire exercise – constant tension is the goal.
Don’t feel the need to fully sit-up at the top of each rep – it’s a crunch, and there is a slight difference between sit-ups and crunches. When you sit up completely, your abs get a break (when your torso is vertical). Remember, we want constant tension on the abs. The final 10 degrees of a sit-up are completed by the hip flexors, not the abs, so you’re not missing out on anything. Crunch forward and upward 80-90% of the way -- like going to 1 o’clock instead of all the way to 12 o’clock -- then back down.
This is where the magic happens. The sooner you get comfortable with the basic mechanics and can begin adding resistance, the sooner your abs are going to start popping through.
Grab two 20 lb. weights (kettle bells, plates or dumbbells). Place one weight on your feet to anchor you, like when a partner would hold your feet during sit-ups in gym class.
Hold the other weight at chin or face level, or above your head (the higher up your body, the more difficult).
See the pic below for an example of holding the weight around chin level.
Resist the urge to hold the weight against your chest or stomach.
This is an incredibly common mistake. The weight needs to be significantly further up the body from the abs and hips.
It’s understandable. The more favorable leverage of keeping the weight closer to the hips and braced against the body makes it easier, and it feels cool to grab a big ol' plate and treat it like it's nothing.
The problem is that the results will also be nothing.
The reality is that sit-ups performed clinging to a 45 lb. plate won’t get the job done.
The abs need to act as a lever, lifting the weight as they curl your body forward. If the weight is on or too close to the abs themselves, the exercise becomes too easy to spur any actual ab gains.
Get the weight off your stomach and chest, further from the "hinge" of your hips and abs. Up near your chin is where the party starts.
A Few More Tips
Go a bit lighter with the weight. Don’t “ego lift”. Chin or eye level is ideal; over-achievers can hold the weight above or even behind the head.
Master all those variations before moving up in weight.
Don’t move the weight forward (away from your face) using your hands or arms. It should move up in sync with the rest of your upper body as you crunch -- keep the weight the same distance from your face or chin through the entire rep. It moves with you as you crunch.
If you shift the weight away from your face as you sit up, it will become a counter-balance and make the crunch easier (pulling you up/forward and doing the crunch for you).
After all, we’re not in the business of adding weight to make things easier. 💪
Do 3 sets of 15-20 reps each, or just 10-15 reps each once you’re using added weight.
A point worth stressing: The abs can be trained with weight like any other muscle. Especially if you’re adding resistance. There’s no need to bang out hundreds or thousands of reps and wind up with Hunchback of Notre Dame back problems.
The mistaken notion that abs are “special” muscles that should A) be trained with hundreds of reps, B) be trained daily or C) not be trained with weight, lies at the heart of most well-intentioned ab fails.
That’s just not how muscles are optimally trained – abdominals included.
Hit ‘em hard, hit ‘em heavy, and get out.
Okay, that headline may be a bit harsh. Still, there’s no way around it -- there are two ways to see abs, and anyone serious about seeing them soon should be applying both: cut the fat that covers them and build them like any other muscle.
Strong abs aren't the most important component of a visible six-pack; low body fat is. If you have too much subcutaneous body fat covering your abdominal area, then no matter how many hours of crunches or leg raises you do, you won't be able to see your six-pack.
The most effective action toward achieving those ripped abs is to clean up your diet. When it comes to your abs, training can only get you so far. You need a smart meal plan to lower your body fat percentage and uncover your abs; otherwise, all your hard work in the gym will count for naught.
We wouldn’t leave you high and dry though.
Here are some resources to help:
- Kicking off the list are recommendations for what to eat to get lean and promote muscle gains.
- Make sure you’re getting enough protein - check your specific, individualized protein needs, dialed in for your goals and bodyweight.
- While it’s not the only way to get it done, we get a lot of questions about Intermittent Fasting, and whether that diet strategy has anything to it. Here’s what you need to know.
- Simple tweaks to lifestyle can play a huge role in getting shredded. Check out these 9 ways to get lean (that aren’t cardio or dieting).
- If you have workouts, ab exercises, and nutrition on point and want an extra edge, check out our pre-training product, Untapped.