Looking to get a six-pack? For most guys that could be broken 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.
For example, average and overweight guys often already have decently strong and large enough abs. So their main challenge will be to burn some fat off while maintaining their current levels of strength and muscle mass. If you feel like that’s you, you can find our six-pack article for average guys here.
But if you’re skinny (sometimes called an ectomorph), your biggest challenge will be building up a good amount of muscle all over your body—including your abs. (If you’re skinny-fat, see our six-pack article for skinny-fat guys here as you’ll need to deal with small abs *and* bodyfat.)
The good news is that while you’re building muscle, you could also give your abs and obliques a bit more attention at the same time. And with smart programming for ab development, you could build a more functional and resilient core at the same time, giving your core an athletic and naturally effortless look.
Even though you’ve got your work cut out ahead of you to build a ton of muscle, the good news is, in the end, it may be easier for skinny and skinny-fat guys to maintain their six-pack once they have it compared to other guys since they might not struggle as much with staying lean.
Your #1 challenge: getting bigger without getting fatter
Your biggest challenge to getting a six-pack as a skinny guy? That’ll be building lots of new muscle while staying lean. If you’re skinny, right now your body is primed to build muscle, but you’ll still need to put in the work at the gym and be consistent when it comes to eating enough calories and protein.
Skinny guys often fall into the trap of thinking they can do 100 crunches every day, get the abs fired up, and think they’ll get a remarkable six-pack. While they might be able to bulk up the abs a bit, those guys will still be skinny everywhere else so it won’t have the visual look they were hoping for. The truth is that no one is impressed with skinny guy abs (There was a time when I was one of these skinny guys, but you could see my ribs.) People are impressed with an athletic, powerful, and robust looking body that is still lean enough to see abs.
So the goal will be to build lots of muscle, getting your BMI up to the higher range of “normal” for your height, while doing some extra ab/oblique accessory work at the end of your workouts.
Skinny guys will need to gain a lot more muscle than they might think, so being patient is key. Some guys may need to gain 30, 40, and even 50 pounds to reach their BMI goal. I had to gain 27 pounds to begin seeing my abs well.
I’m skinny and yet I can’t see my abs right now
If you can’t see your abs now and you’re very lean, that’s okay, because it’ll get easier to see your abs once you’re bigger and stronger. The reason why is because when you’re muscular, you can store lots of fat on your body while looking way leaner since that same amount of fat would now be stretched out more over the larger muscles.
For example, let’s say there’s a guy who’s 6’1 tall, 160 pounds, and 15% bodyfat. That would mean he’s got around 24 pounds of fat on his body. He can’t see his abs because there is a layer of fat on top of them and his abs are small and untrained.
Now imagine that he’s been working out diligently for 3–5 years, and he’s now 190 pounds at 12% bodyfat. That would mean he’d now have 23 pounds of body fat, and even though his total amount of fat is pretty much the same as before, his bodyfat percentage has dropped quite a lot.
All of a sudden his bodyweight became more shaped by muscle and less by fat, so he’s radically overhauled the look and function of his body.
Plus, because he’s bigger and stronger, his abs and obliques have had to bulk up in size and strength too to support his strength, meaning those muscles will push out more from his bones and look more three dimensional.
How to build enough muscle to get a six-pack
Building muscle as a skinny guy isn’t exactly easy, there are whole programs designed to help solve it (should you want a good program, we co-founded Bony to Beastly and recently launched True Gains), but some good foundational steps could be:
- Eat 0.8–1g of protein per ideal body weight pound every single day. 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.)
- Eat more food than your body needs to gain weight if you’re skinny. When you eat more calories than you burn every day, it’s called getting into a calorie surplus. A calorie surplus will help put your body into a favourable position to build muscle. It’s key not to overdo it though, it’s best to do a small surplus and gain weight slowly to minimize fat gain while optimizing muscle gain.
- Eating more food is notoriously difficult for skinny guys. There’s a great guide here on Bony to Beastly on eating more. Some good tricks include eating more often, eating foods with less water in them like dried fruits and eating baked potatoes, eating foods with less chewing like ground beef over a chewy steak, and drinking calories like milk and smoothies.
- It’s best to stack your surplus around resistance training such as before and after you work out. This is so your extra energy isn’t stored as fat, but is used for a good workout and recovery. So if you aren’t working out today, you likely don’t need to eat that big of a surplus.
- Lift weights at least 3x a week. You don’t want to just get fatter from eating more. Lifting weights will direct that extra energy to building muscle. Make sure to find a program that meets you where you are as a skinny guy and also where you want to build muscle. Many programs are lower-body heavy in terms of work, making your legs bigger than your upper body, so be sure to find a solid program that will make that muscle go where you want it.
- Get enough quality sleep—around 7–9 hours. Getting enough good sleep is crucial when trying to build muscle. Remember, you don’t build muscle in the gym, but after you’ve challenged your body and it begins to recover. You can also improve your recovery 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 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
Dr Contreras wrote an article on T-Nation detailing his experiment trying to figure out the best exercises for the lower abs, internal obliques, external obliques, and the lumbar area of the back. He ranked the exercises based on their EMG score:
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’s also other factors to consider like:
- 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 skinny 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:
What if you want to bullet-proof and develop a rock-solid core at the same time you’re building a six-pack? What if you’ve got an sensitive back? We cover this and much more in our complete core super-guide here.
The final word
As as a skinny guy, you’ll need to be diligent with eating enough protein, calories, and lifting weights to get bigger. Generally, we’d recommend doing a properly designed and balanced lifting program for skinny guys like Bony to Beastly or True Gains to get bigger.
Whatever program you decide to do, it could be smart to add in a couple of sets of ab/oblique exercises at the end of your workout or on your rest day to give your abs a bit more work to encourage them to grow.