Sculpting six-pack abs is a lofty goal. It can often feel like everyone else’s method is just plain ineffective for your own body type. And that’s probably because it is! So, what’s the secret to achieving a six pack?
The first thing to know is that not all of the factors that influence whether or not you can actually see your abs are under your control. “If you’re wanting to see more muscle definition in your abs in general, you definitely have to pair how you’re eating and drinking with exercise,” says Kara Liotta, CPT, and co-founder of KKSWEAT. “Unfortunately just the core exercises alone likely will not do it.”
Meet the experts:
Kara Liotta, CPT, is a Brooklyn-based fitness trainer and a co-founder of KKSWEAT, a training studio with digital and in-person classes. Jamie Costello, CPT, is a certified personal trainer with the Pritikin Longevity Center with multiple specialties. Rachel Nicks, CPT, is a Lululemon studio trainer and founder and CEO of Birth Queen.
For example, body composition (or the ratio of body fat to lean muscle mass you have) is impacted by diet and exercise, sure, but also genetics. “Most women would need to achieve a range of 15 to 19 percent body fat (BF),” says Jamie Costello, CPT, of the Pritikin Longevity Center.
“The best way to approach ab workouts is to think holistically about your core and train 360-degrees around the core of your body, as opposed to thinking just about a 6-pack, which is super unattainable for most people,” says Liotta. (Read: It’s not easy or even realistic for a lot of women.)
Curious to see what it really takes and if it’s attainable for you? Here’s what fitness trainers recommend to sculpt six-pack abs and hit a body fat percentage to make them pop.
1. Crank up the cardio.
Aerobic exercise is a great way to burn fat. The more cardio you do, the more belly fat you stand to lose, according to a review of 16 clinical trials that looked at the connection between the two. And since there’s no such thing as spot training a muscle group, you can lose overall body weight, too.
“Cardio is a great tool to shed stress and pounds. Both help build and define strength,” Rachel Nicks, CPT, a Lululemon trainer, explains. She recommends moving the saddle back and keeping your hips still while spinning and using the rower and ski machine to target your abs.
When you do cardio consistently as part of a fitness routine that’s also focused on core and muscle building, you’ll start to see your body composition shift and more tone and definition from head to toe—abs muscles included. Just ask Kourtney Kardashian!
2. Add HIIT workouts into the mix.
What is HIIT? Well, for starters, it’s short for high-intensity interval training, and it may just be the fastest track when it comes to how to get abs. That’s because the fitness technique combines cardio AND strength training in one quick, effective workout, a.k.a. it really gets your heart rate going.
“The beauty of a HIIT class is that it gives you the benefit of body fat loss, as well as putting on lean mass,” says Steve Uria, certified trainer. “I would say, if you start doing HIIT three to four times a week you will see a noticeable difference in your body.”
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3. Exercise your abs muscles consistently.
“Every workout should involve core training,” says certified trainer Anna Kaiser, founder of AKT Fitness and the woman behind the abs of stars like Kelly Ripa and Shakira. Just know that exercise alone isn’t enough to give your muscle definition because core workouts won’t decrease belly fat necessarily, according to a small study that looked at 24 women who did abs exercises five times per week for six weeks; you also need to follow a healthy diet.
Although targeted exercises in the area will increase your muscular endurance, a PubMed study found that six weeks of this type of training alone does not unearth washboard abs. It fact, just focusing on core exercises will have little to no effect on reducing abdominal fat but it will increase your core strength. You’ve probably heard it before, but a six pack is really built in the kitchen.
Still, the only way to build muscle and achieve that definition is through exercise. When working out your abs muscles, it’s important to not just focus on your rectus abdominis (i.e. six pack). You want to strength train your entire core, which includes your internal and external obliques, transverse abdominals, and internal stabilizers, by doing moves that sculpt from every angle (like in this abs workout from Kaiser).
Try this core workout from celeb trainer Autumn Calabrese:
4. Eat more protein.
If you’re already active, chances are you’ve likely heard that protein is an important part of the recovery process between workouts as it helps your muscles rebuild and get stronger. But did you know that increasing your protein intake could also help you change your body composition by decreasing body fat?
It doesn’t even take a whole lot of extra protein to make a big difference. Adding just 15 percent more protein into your diet could do the trick, according to one study. Here are the best high-protein foods to start eating now if you’re not already. Almond-Sunflower Seed Protein Cookies, anyone?
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5. Hit your daily H2O goals.
Staying well-hydrated isn’t just good for your skin and system overall, some research suggests that it can actually help you burn more calories and lose more body fat too.
Drinking approximately 17 ounces of water can boost your metabolic rate by up to 30 percent for anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes as it boosts your energy expenditure, according to research. The same study found that you burn 23 calories for ever 17 ounces of water you drink, just FYI.
6. Reduce your intake of sugar and processed food.
You remember that childhood story about the grasshopper, who only had just enough to get by, and the ant that stockpiled every bit of food it could to save for the future? Yeah, well your body is basically the ant in that fable. It stores any excess fuel from food it’s not burning right away as fat to be broken down for energy at a later date.
This process happens very quickly with foods that are high in sugar and/or calories like sweets, packaged goods, and even drinks, like soda and wine. So, consuming them in moderation is a key if you’re interested in figuring out how to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time in order to create more definition in your six-pack region.
Plus, belly fat, in particular, can be impacted by hormones such as cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone. In fact, stress has been linked to higher levels of abdominal fat in non-medically overweight women, according to research.
7. Opt for complex carbohydrates over refined carbs.
Here’s some more food for thought: Refined carbohydrates, like white bread, flour, and rice, can send your blood sugar levels on a roller coaster ride making you feel hungry and reaching for more food to balance yourself out.
What’s more, people who ate higher levels of refined grains vs. whole grains also had higher levels of belly fat than those who didn’t, according to research, while the opposite was true for people who consumed higher quantities of whole grains vs. refined options.
Instead, reach for complex carbohydrates, which have a low-glycemic index, meaning they won’t spike your blood sugar, and they’ll make you feel fuller for longer because they are also good sources of fiber. Plus, they’re the easiest nutrient for your body to break down when it needs energy.
8. Fill up on fiber.
Eating a high-fiber diet is good for your overall health. But if you are specifically interested in how to get abs and your six pack to pop, adding just 10 extra grams of soluble fiber daily can reduce belly fat.
Study participants who did so saw a 3.7 percent reduction in abdominal fat over five years without making other changes.
How long does it take to get abs?
Now that you know what the experts recommend, you’re probably wondering when you’ll unearth your six-pack abs. “The timeframe will be dependent on your body’s genetics and hormones,” Liotta says. “You can certainly reduce your refined sugar intake to speed up the process so that you’re pairing diet and exercises instead of just relying on crunches.”
While there’s no way to predict how long it’ll take you to see results, if you’re consistent with your pelvic floor exercises, which is a personal fave of Nicks’, trying adding another 5-10 min of core work daily, “and truly in a week you will certainly feel a major difference.” “If you have a magical week of rest, hydration, balanced diet, no stress, cardio, and strength training it could be a week. AND everyone is different,” Nicks says. You’ll be thanking her by the end of the month!
5 Awesome Abs Exercises To Sculpt Your Core
If you don’t already have a go-to core routine, here are the five best exercises for sculpting strong abs, from trainers.
- Start on your forearms with your knees on the ground.
- Interlace your hands, aligning your elbows under your shoulders, and tuck your toes to lift your shins off of the floor. Keep a slight tilt under of your tailbone to lengthen your lower black and create and clean line in your body.
- Hold the position while engaging your glutes and quads, as well and not doming your upper back.
- Come back to your knees to rest.
2. Side Plank
- Lay on your side with your forearm flat on the floor, bottom elbow lined up directly under your shoulder and both legs extended out in a long line.
- Come up on one side, lifting your hips off of the floor and balancing on one forearm with your opposite hip in the air. Your body should make a straight line from your head to your feet.
- Feet can either be staggered for more stability, or stacked for more of a challenge.
- Hold the position while engaging your glutes and quads.
- Come back to your knees to rest.
3. Leg Lowers
- Lie on your back and neutralize your pelvis and engage your pelvic floor and core.
- Bring your legs straight up above your hips.
- Slowly lower your legs on an inhale
- Re-engage and lift your legs on an exhale.
- Bring your legs back to the ground to rest.
4. Mountain Climbers
- Start in a high plank, shoulders over wrists, pelvis tucked, and ribs drawn toward hips.
- Drive your right knee toward your chest, then the left in a quick, alternating motion.
- Pull your right knee back toward your chest and pause.
- Repeat the pattern starting with the left knee.
- Come to your knees to rest.
5. Heel Taps
- Lie face up with your feet on the ground, tailbone tucked, and your knees bent.
- While keeping your lower back on the floor, touch your right heel with your right hand by squeezing your right side.
- Do the same on the left.
- Rest and repeat.
Samantha Lefave is an experienced writer and editor covering fitness, health, and travel. She regularly interviews pro athletes, elite trainers, and nutrition experts at the top of their field; her work has appeared in Runner’s World, Bicycling, Outside, Men’s Health and Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and more.
Caroline Shannon-Karasik is a writer and mental health advocate based in Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to Women’s Health, her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including The Cut, Tonic, Narratively, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and DAME. She is currently writing a collection of essays.