Whether you’re male, female, a regular gym rat, or a weekend warrior, achieving defined abs is often considered the Holy Grail of fitness. But scoring—and maintaining—a six-pack is no joke. Getting there requires boatloads of commitment and discipline both in the kitchen and in the gym—and it’s easier for some people to achieve than it is for others.
Here’s everything you need to know about what it takes to shred up your midsection, straight from abdominal-sculpting experts themselves.
Genetics, Discipline, And More Discipline
Before you pump out a single workout or switch to kale smoothies for breakfast, your genetics determine your natural aptitude for abs. “Genetics play a role in how much muscle our bodies naturally form and how much fat we store in certain areas,” says Molly Kimball, R.D., of the Ochsner Fitness Center in New Orleans. But that’s not to say you should throw in the towel if your genetics don’t seem to be in your favor: “Your genetic makeup can make it easier or harder to get a six-pack, but it’s not going to make it impossible,” she says.
While you can’t change your DNA, you can change your workout routine and eating habits—two key factors in revealing abs, regardless of your genetics.
Work Out With A Purpose
If you want to ride the fast track to fab abs, zoning out on a cardio machine (hello, elliptical Netflix session) every once in a while just isn’t going to cut it. Generally, you’ll need to sweat it out about five days a week to really make your abs pop. Those workouts should include a balance of strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which will help you build muscle, rev your metabolism, and really see results.
Go for intensity, not time. Instead of spending hours slugging away at the gym, kick up your intensity. High-intensity cardio and strength training whittle away fat to help reveal your six-pack muscles, says Tina Haupert, C.P.T., nutrition coach and co-founder of Designed to Fit Nutrition.
When you alternate between intervals of hard work and rest, you burn more calories throughout the day and better challenge your body’s abilities than with longer bouts of lower-intensity exercise. In fact, research suggests that HIIT is more effective at reducing subcutaneous and abdominal fat than any other type of exercise. Swap out your usual hour-long jog for an interval session and you can torch calories and hit the showers in a half-hour or less. (Not sure what to do? Try one of these seven HIIT workouts.)
Grab a barbell. Strength training, which helps you build muscle, skyrocket your metabolism, and burn fat, is non-negotiable if you want to get ripped—and working with barbells can ramp up the emphasis on your midsection. When you perform staple moves (like squats) with a barbell, your entire core lights up in order to protect your spine, explains Ashley Borden, celebrity trainer on Khloe Kardashian’s Revenge Body. Make the barbell one of your go-to tools in the weight room, focus on big exercises like squats and deadlifts, and use weight that challenges you, and you’ll see those abs shine through, she says.
Turn up the heat with circuit-style training. Circuit training can help you challenge and strengthen different muscle groups while engaging your core and shooting your heart rate up for an all-in-one cardio and strength workout, says Borden. Try this quick but tough circuit the next time you’re short on time but still want to maximize your six-pack progress. Choose a weight that challenges you and perform five rounds of the following four moves with as little rest in between as possible.
- 5 deadlifts
- 10 pushups
- 15 jump squats
- 1-minute forearm plank
Trade crunches for planks. Classic as they may be, crunches only work one of the muscle groups in your core—the rectus abdominis. Planks, though, attack all 360 degrees of your core, hitting muscles like your transverse abs and obliques in addition to those middle six-pack muscles as you work to keep your spine stable, says Borden. When you want to show your core a little extra love, try different planks, mountain-climbers, and even pushups.
Supplement with sleep. To see the most benefit from the work you do in the gym, you need consistent quality sleep. “Getting deep sleep is one of the most overlooked keys to keeping body and belly fat low,” says Borden. When you sleep, your brain releases growth hormone, which helps your body repair hard-worked muscles and maintain a strong metabolism.
When you miss out on sleep, though, you may end up with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which signals your body to hang onto extra weight, says Haupert. We all have different sleep needs, but aim for at least eight hours of shuteye a night to support Operation Six-Pack.
Eat For Abs
While your exercise efforts do make a difference, more than half the battle for abs takes place in the kitchen. “There are guys and girls who pound the pavement, hit the gym, and go to classes all the time, yet still have this layer of fat around their middle because of what they eat and drink,” says Kimball.
Think of it this way: Those few hundred calories you burn off in an hour at the gym can be eaten in a matter of minutes. The food choices you make either catapult you closer to abs or sabotage your progress.
Taking an “everything in moderation’ approach to food can keep your health in order, but it’s probably not going to cut it if you’re trying to see a six-pack, says Kimball. “It’s different for everyone, but for the majority of the population, there needs to be at least an 80/20 commitment to clean eating and, for many, 90/10,” she adds. That means eating for results 80 or 90 percent of the time, and indulging on treats (pizza!) 20, or just 10, percent of the time.
Beyond that, consider the following nutrition guidelines your six-pack bible.
Build well-balanced plates. Your abs eating plan starts with one basic principle: Every time you eat, your plate should contain lean proteins, healthy plant-based fats, and vegetables. Choose proteins like chicken, eggs, and fish, fats like avocados and olive oil, and non-starchy vegetables like spinach and kale, says Kimball. If you’re worried about bloating, steer clear of broccoli or cabbage.
Time your meals wisely. As soon as you start getting nit-picky about calories, you may feel like you’re on a diet—which can drain your motivation and throw off your abs-seeking efforts. Instead, hone in on the timing of your meals and aim to eat every four hours to keep your energy and metabolism steady, says Kimball. “If you focus more on that and the types of foods you eat, the amount of calories you consume will usually be in line with your goals,” she says. After all, you’re not as likely to overeat chicken, asparagus, and sautéed spinach as you are sugary vending machine snacks.
Cut down on carbs. A lot of people wonder whether they should cut down on certain foods when they want to trim down their midsection—and carbs are often the first to go. Why? “Carbs cause us to hold onto fluid,” says Kimball. We store three parts water for every one part carbohydrate—and that retained water may make you feel bloated while softening up the appearance of your six-pack.
High-Protein, Low-Carb Products
Here’s the thing, though: You don’t need to swear off all carbs, kiss fruit goodbye, and give up your morning oatmeal. Just steer clear of sugary foods and white processed carbs, which are the biggest bloat culprits, Kimball says.
Limit the booze. Much like carbs, alcohol causes fluid retention and bloating, explains Kimball. Plus these empty calories do nothing but sabotage your waistline. Stick to one drink a day max if a sleek stomach is top priority, and choose drinks like wine or vodka soda, which contain fewer calories and little sugar, suggests Kimball.
The Bottom Line
Unveiling and maintaining a six-pack is a lot of mental, physical, and emotional effort. “For some people, having washboard abs captures their commitment and dedication to having a certain physique,” says Haupert. But that accomplishment can come at a price—which may involve obsessing over food, avoiding food and drink-related social events, and missing out on fun to hit the gym or get to bed early.
If your sights are set on scoring a ripped middle, be honest with yourself about the effort it will take and ask yourself whether it’s worth the potential sacrifices. You may be up for the challenge, but you can still live a totally healthy lifestyle without having washboard abs. “Many of us have a lot of room for improvement with our habits, so even some tightening up nutritionally and exercise-wise can yield big results,” says Kimball.