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July 20, 2022
It's every guy's dream to have a chiseled set of six-pack abs. So you've been busting your ass in the gym, dialing in your nutrition, and working relentlessly until your fat loss and hard work lead to washboard abs. Months of day-in and day-out hard work pass, and finally, the day your abs make an appearance arrives.
You look in the mirror to see the abs you've been working so hard for. But, wait!? You only have a set of 4-packs abs! Where are the other two? You quickly try to come up with a plan to make your missing ab muscles visible so you can get the 6 or 8 pack of your dreams.
But before you craft a core routine designed to turn your 4-pack into a 6-pack, you'll want to read this post, as you may be trying to obtain a goal your body isn't genetically set up to meet. In fact, having a set of chiseled abs doesn't necessarily mean you'll have 6 pack abs, and we'll tell you why.
This article will discuss:
The best place to start is to discuss what the abdominal muscles are. The abdominal muscles are composed of four muscle groups, the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and internal and external obliques, located on the anterior and lateral sides of the body surrounding the stomach region.
The rectus abdominis muscle is a set of two different muscles that run down the front of the stomach in a parallel fashion. This set of two muscles is what makes up the commonly referred to as "six-pack abs".
But didn't we just say the rectus abdominis muscles are a set of two muscles, not six? We'll get into more detail about how this happens below but basically, the different "packs" are caused by two connected muscle bands that run horizontally across the stomach area.
Regardless, the rectus abdominis muscle's main function is to give stability to the spine as well as flex the spine.
The transverse abdominis is a powerful yet often overlooked abdominal muscle that is vital for health and washboard abs. This muscle acts like a natural corset and wraps around the anterior and lateral sides of the human body.
Located below the internal obliques, the transverse abdominis is the deepest abdominal muscle. But just because you can't see it doesn't mean it won't help contribute to the development of your overall abdominal structure, so make sure to incorporate transverse abdominis exercises into your routine, asap!
The internal and external obliques are two sets of muscles (2 internal and 2 external obliques) that are located on the sides of your body.
These two muscles work together by working opposite of each other. In other words, the right internal and left external obliques will contract together while the left internal and right external obliques contract together.
Apart from stabilizing the core, which all the abdominal muscles do, the obliques help to rotate the body as well as assist in lateral flexion. Oblique exercises are another must for well-defined ab muscles.
Wondering how many abdominal muscles you really have? And if the rectus abdominis muscle is just two muscles, why do we see 4-pack abs, 6-pack abs, 8-pack abs, and even occasionally, 10-pack abs?
The appearance of more than just one muscle is due to the structure of the rectus abdominis muscle. As mentioned, this is a very long muscle group that runs from the ribs down below the belly button, down into the pelvis. Its sole purpose is to help stabilize the spine as well as flexion the spine.
If you look at the middle of the rectus abdominis, you notice a distinct line that seems to separate the two muscles of the rectus abdominis. This is caused by what's known as the linea alba, connective tissue running vertically down the middle of the stomach.
Next, if you look at the outer edges of the abdominal muscles, you see another line. This is caused by another connective tissue band known as linea semilunaris.
Finally, we get to the appearance of blocks that run down the stomach in pairs. These blocks are caused by other pieces of connective tissue running horizontally, thus giving the ab's definition.
With this in mind, whether you have 4-pack abs, 6-pack abs, or 8-pack abs is 100% genetic, no matter how many sit-ups you do. This isn't to discourage you from working toward a chiseled stomach. It's just to help you set obtainable goals for your body when you're creating an aesthetic workout routine. You'd be surprised how much genetics affects your aesthetics.
For example, if you're born with 4-pack abs, we would suggest you learn to love those 4 abs because it is likely impossible for 2 more to make an appearance. Regardless of how many abs you have, just know you're a beast for getting to the point where your abdominal muscles are visible.
Also, know that it has nothing to do with your diet or training. The number of visible abs you have is determined by your genes.
First, let's note that we said visible abs. We all have abdominal muscles regardless if you can see them or if they are residing under body fat.
This means that in order to see your nice toned abs, you just need to lose weight, perhaps follow a cutting workout and diet plan, and shave off some abdominal fat, right? Partially yes, but unfortunately, it's not that simple.
The notion that all you need to see your abs is to have a low body fat percentage is wrong and stems from the phrase "abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym."
Diet will reduce your body fat to a point in which you can see your abs. But for visible abs to exist once your body fat percentage reaches a certain point, it is the gym, and not the kitchen, that will get you there.
Ab muscles are just like all other muscle groups in that they have the ability to grow and accumulate more muscle mass. At the same time, your ab muscles also have the ability to not grow and remain small.
This means that in addition to losing weight and having a lower amount of body fat, you will also need to concentrate on trying to build muscle too.
One of the most common mistakes many make when "getting abs" is resorting to dieting. This may or may not be what you need dependent on your present body fat percentage and how muscular you are.
In other words, if you are a "skinny" guy with an unimpressive chest and little shoulder development, you'll likely just find an unimpressive set of two rectus abdominis muscles once you lose weight.
This is why it's vital to have a training program and exercises (like these dumbbell ab exercises) to promote muscle hypertrophy and muscle growth. It's also why we dislike the notion that "nutrition is 80% of fitness and the gym is 20%". That's just nonsense.
With that said, nutrition definitely does play role in having six-pack abs. Specifically, following a good nutrition plan will dictate if you can see the ab muscles underneath your belly fat. You can do as many upper ab exercises as you'd like, but if enough body fat exists, they'll remain hidden. Just keep in mind that you shouldn't ever let your body fat percentage go too low. Essential body fat is important for overall health.
A low body fat percentage for showing off abs varies person-to-person, but you will likely need to be under 15%. However, depending on how developed your ab muscles are, this may or may not be low enough abdominal fat.
Further, it depends on what you consider defined abs. If you want to look healthy and flat with some visible lines, you can get away with a little bit more body fat.
But if you want more defined abs, you'll have to burn more body fat to allow your ab muscles to protrude further out. Pairing core exercises and resistance training with high intensity interval training is a great way to blast fat, lose fat, build muscle, and lower your body weight. No matter the definition you're striving for, weight loss is essential for seeing your abdominal muscles.
It's important to note that generally speaking, the individual blocks of ab muscles are relatively the same size in relation to the entire muscle. Also, remember that while you can build muscle for a more defined stomach, this won't impact the number of abs you have. Again, that's genetics.
A person with 4 packs abs will have 4 blocks high up on the abdominal muscle above the belly button and then a large flat section that runs down into the pelvis.
In comparison, a person with 6-pack abs will have 6 blocks of abs with the 3rd level generally coming down to the belly button or slightly past. There is a flat section that runs down into the pelvis.
While we're are it, a person with 8-pack abs will have 4 layers of blocks. The 4th layer will generally be located under the belly button.
And believe it or not, there are some people who even sport 10-pack abs. Seriously.
As you can see, your abs can look wildly different from each other. While you might assume the more abs there are the better, not everyone feels this way as aesthetics are highly personal.
If you do have a 4 pack and are feeling down, there's one more thing to consider:
We'll give you a second to go do a quick Google search to confirm what we just said.
You may be shocked once you look at pictures, but yes, the god of bodybuilding actually sported a set of 4 packs abs! Needless to say, it didn't slow the Terminator down and proves that you don't need 6 pack abs to have a killer physique. In fact, if you take a look at the Arnold split, you'll see he worked his abs during each of his workouts. Did he have a killer stomach? Yes. Was he able to change his genetics and turn his 4 pack into a 6 pack? No.
Remember what we said above about building muscle mass? The abs are not the only muscle group in the human body and you can definitely enhance your aesthetics by focusing on building pure muscle with a whole body perspective.
There are some things you can do to enhance the aesthetics of your 4-pack abs or any number of packs. The main thing is to remember you have more abdominal muscles than just your rectus abdominis.
If you look at Arnold Schwarzenegger's 4 pack, you will see that they're surrounded by very large and developed obliques. Due to this, it gives the impression of a very well-developed set of abdominal muscles as a whole.
In other words, if all you do is focus on your rectus abdominis muscles, they will be the only thing you have to show. If you have a 4 pack and underdeveloped obliques, it will make it very hard to identify the lower region as it will just look like stomach rather than muscle.
However, if you pay attention to Arnold's 4 pack, his obliques are very well defined and run down the side of his stomach into his pelvis. This gives a defined visual that abdominal muscles exist and the obliques will create the "sides" of the lower abs. Without these defined obliques, that area will just look like a belly and that's it. Looking for some oblique workout inspiration? Cable ab exercises are a great option for hitting the internal and external obliques.
Further, don't forget about one of the most important muscle groups for optimal aesthetics, the transverse abdominis. This muscle is largely responsible for what's known as the "Adonis Belt".
The Adonis belt is the "muscle" that creates a V on your pelvis. This "muscle" is actually caused by the inguinal ligament, a ligament that runs from the pubic tubercle to the anterior superior iliac spine.
Similar to strong obliques, the Adonis belt will provide a strong visual for the lower ab muscle and enhance your toned abdomen. Having those lines will really make your entire abdominal region pop. And sometimes, the best transverse abdominis exercises, like the dead bug, for example, are the simplest.
Most guys who complain of only having 4-pack abs don't have very developed lower abs. Therefore, while you can see the upper abs protruding out, the lower portion is lacking. Without the connective tissue there to define the lower blocks, this area just looks like the stomach.
If you want to have better abs, develop this region using lower ab exercises so that it can protrude as a big single block. Again, we refer you to Arnold's 4 pack abs. Take a look and you'll notice that the lower region still protrudes out.
While you can't develop more connective tissue, you can still develop an impressive set of abs if you follow the above tips.
So you know that you need to develop better abs, but how are you going to do it? It's actually easier than you think. Stop doing sit-ups, and do these exercises instead.
The best set of abs doesn't belong to bodybuilders but rather powerlifters or Strongman. While you may not be able to see them due to their higher levels of overall body fat, underneath that fat lies some absolutely massive and strong abs. In fact, if you follow a powerlifting program, you'll likely notice how quickly you gain additional ab strength.
Remember that the core's main job is to support the torso under stress - stress that occurs under a heavy squat or pulling a massive deadlift. If these guys didn't have powerful abs, they'd keel over and snap in half.
Even movements like pull-ups, pull-up progressions and variations, and chin-ups require extremely high levels of core activation in addition to working the entire body. This is why you see new lifters swinging back and forth due to their inability to maintain the core.
However, many of these guys do minimal core-specific training as their big lifts provide more than enough stimulus for ab development. Therefore, if until now you have only been doing high rep movements with your big lifts, throw in some strength training and see what happens.
It doesn't matter if you have eight-pack abs or four-pack abs, the barbell rollout will train all the ab muscles with a high level of activation. Multiple studies have shown that rollouts elicit the highest activation levels of the abdominal muscles as a whole1.
In other words, if you only performed one core exercise it should be rollouts.
Planks vs. crunches may be a widely debated topic, but the incline reverse crunch is all you need to hit your upper ab region. Studies have shown these are going to give you the most bang for your buck when you want to target this region1. When setting up a bench, use a 30-degree angle.
To flatten out the lower region, throw in some hanging leg raises. When you perform these, be sure to tilt your pelvis up as your hip joints move into flexion. Many lifters only bring their legs to parallel which works but will actually target the hip flexors instead.
In order to get volume on the lower abs, we like to also use leg raises from a bench. Lay down on a bench with your hips slightly hanging off so that your legs can drop all the way to the floor. Keep your legs straight and pull them up to about a 45-degree angle.
To load this movement, hold a dumbbell in your feet or have a partner push your legs down.
You want to include some rotational movement in the transverse plane as well if you want to really make your abs pop. We love the wood chop exercise due to its ability to utilize various angles. For full abdominal training, you want to include three movement patterns: decline angle, incline angle, and parallel.
Real talk: Having 4-pack abs instead of 8-pack abs isn't really a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. Not all toned abs will look the same, and that's okay.
Use the exercises and tips we highlighted above, remembering that too much body fat will hide your hard work, regardless of how many wood chops you do.
The formula for abdominal muscles boils down to having less body fat and using the best exercises to build each muscle within the abs family. Follow that, and your washboard abs will make an appearance in no time.
Escamilla RF, McTaggart MS, Fricklas EJ, DeWitt R, Kelleher P, Taylor MK, Hreljac A, Moorman CT. An Electromyographic Analysis of Commercial and Common Abdominal Exercises: Implications for Rehabilitation and Training. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 2006;36(2):45-57. doi:10.2519/jospt.2006.36.2.45
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