Skinny-fat and looking to get a six-pack? The formula for getting six-pack abs can be simplified down to:
- Developing big and strong enough abs so that you can see them
- Keeping a low body fat percentage, so there isn’t a layer of fat covering the abs
- Being fit enough and active enough to prevent stubborn-belly fat from building up.
The gameplan to getting a six-pack will depend on if you’re skinny, skinny-fat, average, or overweight.
- Getting abs if you’re skinny
- Getting abs if you’re average/overweight
Average and overweight guys often already have fairly large abs. So their biggest challenge will be to burn some fat off while maintaining their current levels of strength and muscle mass.
For skinny guys (ectomorphs) who are already lean, their biggest challenge will be building up a good amount of muscle all over your body—including their abs—without gaining too much body fat.
But if you’re skinny-fat, you’re in a position where you need to:
- Build up your ab size and strength
- Burn off regular sub-cutaneous fat
- Likely improve your fitness and become more active to burn off stubborn belly fat. I’ve found through coaching that many skinny-fat people often sit too much and get less than 7,500 daily steps, making them “sedentary.”
Your #1 challenge: building muscle while burning fat
Skinny-fat guys can’t bulk like skinny guys. And they can’t cut like overweight guys.
They need to do “body recomposition” where they change their muscle-to-fat ratio by simultaneously building muscle while burning fat. If you’d like to learn more about this, see our article on if skinny-fat guys should bulk or cut.
The biggest downside to body recomposition is it’s slower (comparatively). For example, you can’t build muscle as fast as compared to a bulking diet. And you can’t burn off fat as fast as compared to an aggressive cut.
But you can wake up every morning a little bit leaner and a little bit more muscular and opt-out of the frustration of getting fatter every time you bulk or getting weaker every time you cut.
How to build enough muscle to see a six-pack while burning body fat
Building muscle as a skinny-fat guy isn’t exactly easy, there are whole programs designed to help solve it (should you want a good program, see our program True Gains), but some good foundational steps could be:
- Eat 0.8–1g of protein per ideal body weight pound daily. If you’re 150 pounds (91kg), you’d eat 160g–150g of protein—your target bodyweight. (This is our “boosted” protein recommendation based on research that shows we tend to overestimate how much protein we eat.) Eating more protein will help you
- Eat less energy than your body needs to burn fat. When you eat less calories than you burn every day, it’s called getting into a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit will make your body begin to burn fat.
- Stack your calories around lifting weights. Eating most of your calories before your workout and after your workout will improve nutrient partitioning. If you’re working out infrequently, say 3x a week, and your last workout was on Friday, you don’t need to be eating big meals on Monday morning.
- Lift weights—and experiment with a higher frequency. Lifting weights will direct more energy to build muscle. If you work out more frequently, you can send more of those calories to a good place. Let’s say you’re working out 3x a week right now, and you could divide up that work over 5 or 6 workout sessions. You’d get leaner gains, your reps would be higher quality, and your workouts would become half as long (and less tiring.) The main downside is if you visit a public gym and need to park, get changed, etc. So it works best if you have a home gym or your gym is right next to where you work.
- Get outside in the sunshine for a daily walk. Skinny-fat people typically are sedentary (under 7,500 daily steps), and that is correlated to diabetes, heart disease, etc. And it’s also associated with stubborn belly fat. This type of fat doesn’t respond to typical calorie deficits and will be burnt off through increased activity. Sunshine improves blood flow, vitamin D is correlated with testosterone, which helps you to build muscle and stay lean, and sunshine stimulates POMC—a pre-cursor hormone crucial for your body to work properly.
- Get enough quality sleep—around 7–9 hours. Getting enough good sleep is crucial for general health, and it’s importance increases as you do body recomposition. This will help you improve your hormones to maximize muscle building and fat-burning. Melatonin is one hormone that is badly affected by artificial light at night (TV, bathroom lights, etc.), and you can protect it by wearing blue blockers so that artificial light at night doesn’t disrupt your hormones. See our super-guide here.
Building muscle can be really difficult to do, especially for skinny-fat guys. There are nuances to understand, and environmental and social pressures to fight against that will stand in your way. And each guy has to deal with his own unique situation (age, stress, experience, past injuries, etc.) Even though there are lots of things to learn, even by putting that short list into practice, you’ll already be in a great position.
The Best Ab & Oblique Exercises For Better Size & Athletic Shape
There was an article on T-Nation detailing an experiment trying to figure out the best exercises for the lower abs, internal obliques, external obliques, and the lumbar area of the back.
The top-scoring EMG exercises for building up the abs
- Bodyweight Chin-Up: 249
- Ab Wheel Rollout: 143
- RKC Plank: 115
- Hanging Leg Raise: 300
- Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch: 231
The top-scoring EMG exercises for building up the obliques
- Hanging Leg Raise: 163
- Body Saw: 143
- Ab Wheel Rollout: 97
EMG isn’t perfect
There are also other factors to consider:
- loading up the muscles while they’re stretch
- range of motion
- time under tension
- exercise variety
- and making sure the exercise hits where you want it to
For example, the v-sit Russian twist (video) has a huge range of motion for building up the obliques. The flutter kicks (video) might hit the lower abs better than other exercises. And it’s good to include lots of variety in your movement for optimal gains.
The good news is that if you’ve got a sensitive back, you won’t need to risk back pain by doing countless crunches to get a six-pack. The ab wheel rollout was one of the top exercises for both abs and the obliques, and it’s cheap enough that you can buy one for at home. That way, you can easily add in a couple of sets on your rest days at home.
However, depending on how much muscle you need to build and how much of a beginner you are, you may find some of these exercises like the hanging leg raises and ab rollout too difficult (I know I did.) A good program will work you through the right progression. Many skinny guys might do well with a progression like this, moving onto the next exercise after a few sessions when they’re feeling confident:
Another one is doing L-sits on a kitchen counter. You can begin with keeping your knees bent for a few seconds. Then as you get stronger, you can do them straight out. Then you could transition to hanging leg raises.