Getting a six-pack for most guys could be simplified to:
- Having well developed abs that would be big enough to see
- Having a low enough body fat percentage so that fat isn’t covering those abs up
So, when you’re trying to get a six-pack, it’s crucial to know where you’re currently at to understand what your next step will be.
For example, skinny and skinny-fat guys who aren’t very muscular will have a different path to getting a six-pack compared to a guy with an average or overweight body who already have a bit of muscle but have more fat to deal with.
So, if you’ve got an average body, you’ve likely already got decently-sized ab muscles to start. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t be trying to develop bigger abs and obliques while dealing with your body fat. Plus, while you’re training your abs, you could easily make some tweaks to simultaneously build a more functional and resilient core with an athletic and naturally effortless look.
So even though you’ve likely got good ab size under your layer of fat, it’ll be helpful to do dedicated ab, oblique, and core training (which we’ll cover below) while working on your fat levels.
Your #1 challenge: getting lean enough
But your biggest challenge to getting a six-pack? That’ll be burning fat without losing your current muscle. This is called cutting. You’re not “losing weight,” which would include muscle, you’re “cutting” the fat off and keeping the muscle.
Many people think they can just do 100 crunches every day and get the abs warm and think they’ll get a six-pack. Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as spot-fat reduction, where the idea is that you can just do fat loss in a certain area. (Science has proven spot-fat reduction exists but it’s in such extreme circumstances that won’t apply to us normal folk.)
So the plan of doing crunches to failure, and getting the abs warm won’t be the ticket to getting a six-pack.
You will need to be burning fat, and it will slowly burn off from everywhere, of which the fat on the stomach and lower abs are the second last place to go. (The last place for guys to lose fat is often their lower back, but who cares about lumbar striations.)
The truth is we’re holding onto more fat than we think, so guys will need to be patient as they burn fat. For example, if a 200 pound (91kg) guy was aiming to do a cut of at a maximum pace of 1% of his bodyweight per week, it might take him at least 10 weeks of everything working out perfectly to lean out 20 pounds. Life comes with setbacks and plateaus, and needing to problem solve to keep forward. Just something to keep in mind as you get down to work.
How to burn fat to reveal your six-pack
Burning fat isn’t exactly easy, there could be a whole course about it, but some good bare bones steps could be:
- Eat 0.8–1g of protein per ideal body weight pound every single day. If you’re 200 pounds (91kg) and you want to get down to 180 pounds (82kg), you’d eat 160g–200g of protein—your target bodyweight. (This recommendation is a boosted amount based on research that we overestimate our intake by 25%.)
- Eat less food than your body needs to burn fat. When you eat less energy than you burn every day, this is called a calorie deficit. You can do this either by eating less energy or by burning more energy through exercise, movement—most people do both.
- One way to naturally eat less energy is by eating less processed food. Processed food is extremely easy for our body to get energy out of compared to unprocessed foods. One study showed that people who ate unprocessed foods naturally ate 500 calories less compared to those who were told to eat processed foods. Processed food affects how fast we eat since it’s easier to chew; it doesn’t make us as full since it has less fibre and chewing, and other downsides.
- Lift weights at least 3x a week. (Lifting weights is better than cardio for burning fat, plus it’ll remind your body that it needs to keep that muscle, and it’ll lifting will minimize muscle loss.)
- Get enough quality sleep—around 7–9 hours. Sleeping enough is necessary not just to recover from working out but also to help burn fat (study). To get leaner while keeping your muscles will require that your hormones fire properly. Getting enough good sleep is essential for your hormones to work properly.
Burning fat is trickier than that, of course. There are many nuances to the process, and there are environmental and social pressures. And there are contextual circumstances that every person is dealing with (age, stress, experience, injuries, etc.) This is why burning fat is such a prevalent problem, but even putting that list into practice, you’ll already be way ahead in the game.
Intermittent fasting (time-restricted eating) might help you get leaner without counting calories
Eating less energy than you need often means tracking calories because our body really doesn’t want like being an energy deficit. If you don’t like the idea of counting calories to get into a calorie deficit to burn fat, consider looking at the 16:8 intermittent fasting. It could help you naturally get into a calorie deficit to burn fat.
A 16:8 fast is when you only eat for 8 hours of the day and fast 16 hours a day. If fasting sounds a bit intense, it’s not, as everyone fasts a little bit as they sleep, so we’re just making the fast longer. A common version of 16:8 is to skip breakfast, have your first meal at noon as lunch, and you can continue to eat until 8:00 pm. For those with a stressful job or do best when they eat breakfast, another way is to eat breakfast, but then eat an earlier dinner and then to not eat afterward (you can still have tea or water at night.) That way might even do better with our natural circadian rhythm but might put you at odds with a lot of our cultural norms of late dinners, going out for a date or drinks, etc. You can read more about intermittent fasting with our complete article here.
The Best Ab & Oblique Exercises For Better Size & Athletic Shape
Dr. Bret Contreras did some EMG experiments on the best ab exercises and wrote about it on T-Nation. He wanted to see what exercises best activated the lower abs, internal obliques, external obliques, and the lumbar area of the back. He ranked the exercises with a score:
Best exercises for abs
- Bodyweight Chin-Up (249 score)
- Ab Wheel (143 score)
- RKC Plank (115 score)
- Hanging Leg Raise (300 score)
- Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch (231 score)
Best exercises for obliques
- Ab Wheel (97 score)
- Hanging Leg Raise (163 score)
- Body Saw (143 score)
Based on Dr Contreras experiments and our own experiences, getting an ab roller could be a super simple way of getting great ab and oblique development. The great news is that you won’t need to risk back pain by doing countless crunches. Ab rollers are cheap enough that you buy one for at home, and you can easily add in a couple sets on your rest days at home.
What about bullet-proofing your core while getting a six-pack? What if you’ve got an especially sensitive back? We answer these kinds of concerns in our complete core super-guide here.
The final word
As someone with an average body, you’ll need to burn fat by lifting weights and eating lots of protein and unprocessed food. Then we’d generally recommend doing a properly designed and balanced lifting program for men, and then add in a couple of sets of ab/oblique exercises at the end of your workout to give your abs a bit more attention to grow.