Health and Fitness

How to (Actually) Get a Six-Pack in 2021

Sculpting eye-catching abs isn’t all about aesthetics. With the help of experts and the latest science, you'll improve athletic performance, prevent injuries and, yes, look pretty good shirtless.
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For better or worse, the six-pack has become the barometer by which men’s bodies are measured. How we got from Paul Newman on the beach to Love Island’s pneumatic lads in their villa, via Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal celebrations, Marvel’s shredded Chrises, Daniel Craig’s jacked Bond and, of course, Fight Club Brad Pitt (the six-pack that spawned a million gym memberships) doesn’t really matter. Because here we are, and in 2021 a six-pack is still the first thing every personal trainer is asked to magic into existence.

Perhaps that’s because a six-pack is so universal. From bodybuilders to mountain climbers, Instagram thirst trappers to footballers (categories that aren't mutually exclusive) a six-pack marks you out as a guy who eats right, cares about his body, and makes a conscious effort to present himself in a certain way.

And, unlike sleeve-filling biceps or a barrel chest, a six-pack isn’t immediately showy. Instead, abs are a by-product of hard work and self-care, the runner putting in hours at the track, or the climber honing his craft on windy crags at the weekend.

Of course, for most, the six-pack is an endgame in and of itself, “the Instagram holy grail,” as expert PT Adam Shilliday, of Belfast’s Rise N Grind, puts it (there are 12m posts and climbing on that particular hashtag). And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

The most obnoxious goal celebration/most impressive set of abs in football (delete according to taste).
Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / GETTY IMAGES.
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Because whether your six-pack is a byproduct or built deliberately for beach season, there are innumerable benefits to possessing the rock solid abs of a Greek statue. “From supporting sporting performance to building great posture for everyday tasks, everyone can benefit from focusing on core strength,” Halliday says.

Which is why we asked a roster of experts to provide the ultimate (and achievable) plan for carving out grail-level abs.

How (Not) to Get a Six-Pack

Everyone knows how to get a six pack, right? It’s about sit-ups and salads. Except, it isn’t. Here our experts bust some long-standing muscle myths.

You need to train each muscle in your six-pack

The truth is, you aren’t training six individual muscles, but one single slab that sits at the front of the abdomen, as FBB pro bodybuilder Greg Doucette explains.

“Although there are several muscles located in the stomach, the rectus abdominis is the one that’s visible when our body fat is low. This muscle looks like the tops of six cans of beer, hence the name ‘six pack’.” Attaining the six-pack look—or eight-pack, in Doucette’s case—is more about stripping away the wobbly stuff on top, which hides your six-pack, rather than slavishly working each muscle fiber in your abs to failure. On which note…

Paul Newman having abs while not doing sit-ups.
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.
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Sit-ups = six-pack

From Jake Gyllenhaal’s endless crunch regime for Southpaw to that weird guy in your gym who seems to use his membership just to knock out sit-ups in the stretching area, it’s an enduring myth that flexing your abs makes them bigger, stronger and more prominent. Not so, says Shilliday. “You may have heard that if you do 1,000 sit-ups a day you’ll be Miami Beach-ready in three weeks. Unfortunately, no amount of sit ups will help reveal your six pack if your nutrition is not in the right place first.”

It’s an understandable fallacy. After all, you grow all your other muscles, from biceps to quads, by bending and straightening them over and over. But your core isn’t like other muscles, because it’s designed to do a different job—hold you upright and support you as you bend and pivot. Ultimately, that means there’s a limit to how ‘big’ your abs can ever grow through exercise, which means the only way to get them on show is to cut belly fat. Ah, yes, but…

The cobblestoned result of 1,000 daily crunches, but not just 1,000 daily crunches.
Photo by THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY.
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Crunch away your belly fat

Just like focusing on crunches alone won’t make your abs pop , exercising your core won’t get rid of the fat around your stomach, because it’s impossible to burn fat in just one particular area. “Think of it like a swimming pool," Shilliday analogises. "You can’t scoop water out of one corner of the pool and expect it to be magically lower just there. Same works with dropping body fat.”

That means you need to focus on muscle-building and fat-burning moves that work your whole body. Sorry.

You can forget legs day if all you care about is abs

Think deadlifts and squats have nothing to do with your abs? Think again.

As a proportion of your muscle mass, your abs are vanishingly small. And even though planks, sit-ups and crunches feel tough at the time, the amount of effort they require—and therefore calories they burn—is fractional compared to the total-body workout you get by hitting your bigger muscle groups.

“Abdominal exercises make the abdominals stronger, bigger and able to handle more strain,” says Scott Britton, co-founder of the Move Forward Programme and Move Forward Gym, “but being able to see a visible six-pack is obtained through a good diet, overall exercise and strength work.” But really, that’s good news—planks are boring, whereas bench presses, pull-ups, and squats are, if not fun, then at least a lot more interesting.

Arnie as Hercules, proving that strong abs go hand-in-hand with strong everything else.
Photo by MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES / GETTY IMAGES.
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The Six-Pack Diet

The saying goes that bodies are built in the kitchen, and while relying on salads alone will unveil those abs, getting there won’t be a very pleasant experience.

For a more balanced approach, we asked Alex Ruani, a doctoral researcher in nutrition science education at University College London and co-founder at the Health Sciences Academy, to lay her nutritional hacks on the table.

“Usually, for our abs to become visible overall body fat percentages would be at the lower end,” she explains. How low you go is a personal choice, but the less fat, the closer you get to that ‘shrink-wrapped’ look beloved of male strippers and gym-changing-room-selfie-takers (again, not mutually exclusive). “For bodybuilders this can be as low as 5 per cent to 8 per cent, while competitive swimmers can sit at around 9 per cent to 12 per cent.”

Not a professional athlete? Then don’t worry, abs will start to appear before you approach single digits. And you don’t even have to ditch carbs.

“Cutting back on carbs is a myth, for a number of reasons,” Ruani says. The big one is treating all carbs the same. Haribo = digestible carb, which is quickly converted to energy and, if not burnt off, deposited as fat. Lentils = indigestible carbs, full of dietary fibre, and the kind of carb your six-pack can’t get enough of. “This distinction is important because eating more fibre is actually associated with body fat loss and reduced abdominal fat.”

You'll need to drop to around six percent body fat for abs like Brad's.
Photo by 20TH CENTURY FOX.
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The other side of the carbohydrate coin is that avoiding them completely drains your tank of fuel. “You need them to do the cardio and weightlifting needed to support and build a strong and stable six-pack,” says Britton. The trick is picking the right carbs and eating them at the right time: Tizer before bed, no; brown rice two hours before a workout, yes. “Dropping saturated fat and avoiding sugars as the primary source of carbs is key.”

So, carbs are in, saturated fats and sugars are out. What else should you eat? The final word comes from Mr. Six-Pack himself, Greg Doucette.

“You need to be eating in a calorie deficit,” he says, pointing out that no matter what you’re eating, if more goes in than goes out then your six-pack will fall prey to the laws of thermodynamics. “You must burn off more calories through movement, exercise, or even breathing than you are consuming. Whatever you are eating right now, eat less of it.”

Easier said than done, of course, which is why Doucette has developed some techniques to make it easier to stick to the plan.

“Try to eat low-calorie, dense foods,” he says. “What this means is foods that contain a lot of volume, and take a long time to eat, but are low in calories. Instead of eating nuts, that are very high in calories, eat popcorn, because you get to eat a lot more of it. You can’t go wrong with eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. Eating foods that are high in protein and/or fibre while low in fat are also beneficial as they are more satiating and will allow you to fell full for longer.”

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Chris Pratt quit drinking for six months to transform Andy Dwyer into Star-Lord.
Photo by NBC / MARVEL STUDIOS.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Six-Pack?

How long is a piece of string, if that string were looped around your waist? As we’ve pointed out, a six-pack is a numbers game, the key number being your body fat percentage. If you want visible abs, you need body fat in the low double-digits. The speed at which you achieve that feat depends on where you’re at now.

If you’re in the high 20s or above, then we’re sorry to say that those ‘six-week six-pack’ articles have lied to you, barring some kind of surgical intervention. Weight loss is a long and sometimes lonely road, but slow and steady is the best approach—numerous studies have shown that crash diets invariably result in you packing all the weight (and often more) back on again after 12 months. In fact, focusing on carving out a six-pack is probably counterintuitive. The goals we hit are the goals we can achieve, and if you set yourself a target that you won’t get near for a year, you’ll most likely fall off the chicken-broccoli-brown rice wagon after a few weeks of not seeing fast enough progress. Instead, set yourself a goal to drop a five per cent body fat in five weeks, then celebrate that milestone and go again. The regular wins will push you through to a finish line that feels impossibly far away right now.

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For those of you with body fat in the low 20s and high teens, a swift(er) six-pack is more realistic. Again, we’d advise steady, sustainable change, but if you do have a hard deadline—say, you’re in the new Marvel movie and need to get shirts-off ready in a few months, like Chris Pratt – a crash course will get you there.

Step one should be quitting booze. Alcohol is empty calories and creates hormonal changes that encourage fat to cling around your midriff. Stepping onto the wagon can often be enough to put you in the calorie deficit you need. After that, gun for an 80:20 nutrition rule: 80 per cent good stuff, 20 per cent fun stuff. It takes a monastic will to eat only what you should every single day, and building in a bit of buffer for the odd pizza each week will make the whole experience more pleasant and, therefore, easier to stick to (just ask the Rock). After that, it’s just about putting in the work. Because the more you sweat, the sooner you’ll see that six-pack.

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The Best Six-Pack Exercises

Now that your nutrition is on track, it’s time to get moving.

As we’ve already explained, core exercises won’t unveil your abs on their own, but it’s true that the more you work a muscle, the bigger (and hence, more visible) it will become. “Whilst I recommend including compound exercises like squats and deadlift variations in your overall plan, you can get started with some great core workouts,” says Shilliday.

Six-Pack Abs Workout

This circuit is fine as a standalone, but it’s best bolted onto your usual gym routine. Shilliday recommends finishing each session with a six-pack circuit where you’ll work for 40 seconds, rest for 20 seconds, then move onto the next exercise. Repeat the whole thing for three-to-five rounds total.

Side planks

Sets: 3-5

Reps: 40 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

This one works your abs, but also hits your obliques—the muscles at the side of your torso—which makes for a stronger core and more defined six-pack. Start on your side, your weight on your right forearm and the outside of your right foot. Brace your core to lift your hips and hold your body in a straight line. Hold for 40 seconds, then release. Next time round, repeat on your left side.

Dead bugs

Sets: 3-5

Reps: 40 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Lie on your back with your feet in the air and knees bent, shins pointing at the sky. Start with your hands above your chest, then slowly reach back with your right arm, extending your left leg at the same time. Pause, then return, and repeat with your opposite leg and arm.

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Bird dog

Sets: 3-5

Reps: 40 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

More animal-themed abs fun. This one's the inverse of the dead bug—start on your hands and knees, then reach forward with your right hand while kicking back with your left foot. Return, and repeat with the opposite sides.

Heel taps

Sets: 3-5

Reps: 40 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Another oblique-killer. Start on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent. Lift your shoulders off the floor and flex to the right to tap your right shoe, then to the left to tap your left shoe. Repeat. The further your feet are from your glutes, the more this one burns.

Superman

Sets: 3-5

Reps: 40 seconds

Rest: 20 seconds

Your back muscles might not be visible, but a strong six-pack means a strong core from front to rear. Start face down with your arms outstretched, then lift your chest and your feet, holding a man-of-steel-in-flight position for the full 40 seconds. Sing the theme music to yourself to distract from the burn.

Six-Pack Cardio Workout

Naturally, you’ll need to hit your cardio, too.

“If you want abs, get out and move,” says Doucette. “Get off the couch and go for a walk, hike, or bike ride. Choose steady-state, moderate intensity cardio. The longer you can do it, the better. It shouldn’t feel easy, but it shouldn’t feel hard. If you aren’t sore the next day, simply go faster and longer next time. Contrary to popular belief, steady-state cardio will burn the more calories than lifting weights, or doing sit-ups. It’s also more sustainable, and less likely to cause injury.”

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If you don’t have the patience for a 10k run every other day, a quick HIIT circuit—like this one from Britton—has been found to burn the same number of calories. Add this in alongside longer cardio sessions and heavy weightlifting for the best results.

This one’s an EMOM—every minute on the minute. Start with the burpees, knocking out as many as possible in one minute. When the second hand hits 60, move onto the mountain climbers and work for another minute. Every 60 seconds, move onto the next exercise and complete as many reps as you can before collapsing.

Minute 1: Burpees

From standing, drop down and put your hands on the floor, then kick your legs back so you're in a press-up position. (Feeling brave here? Add a press-up.) Jump your feet back between your hands then hop into the air. As you land, sink down and repeat.

Minute 2: Mountain climbers

Get back into your press-up position. Quickly bring your right knee up to your chest, then swap legs. Repeat as quickly as you can without lifting your hips.

Minute 3: Dumbbell snatch

Stand with a dumbbell or kettlebell between your legs (don't have dumbbells? Try a bag full of books). Squat down and grab the handle with your right hand, then drive explosively up with your hips to lift the weight off the floor. As it rises, sink down so you're under the weight and then drive it upwards, straightening your arm. Stand tall, pause, then lower the weight and repeat with the other arm.

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Minute 4: Plank hold

Lie face down with your weight on your forearms and toes. Brace your abs to keep your body locked—there should be a straight line from your head to your heels. Tense your glutes and hold for the full minute.

Minute 5: Sit-up twists

Lie flat on your back with the soles of your feet on the floor. Brace your abs to sit yourself up, then twist to the left at the top of the move. Repeat, and twist to the right.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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