Your 6 six-pack questions answered!

Here are the definitive answers to the question you ask us most: how to build lean, hard abs. The good news is it’s not as complicated – or as difficult – as you might think, but only if you follow the New Body Plan smart sculpting strategy!

What is a six-pack?
The six-pack is anatomically known as the rectus abdominus, and it’s a paired muscle that runs vertically on each side of the front of the abdomen. The muscle pairs are separated down the middle by a band of connective tissue called the linea alba (or white line), and it’s this tissue, and similar lines that that run horizontally across the rectus abdominus, that creates “separation” in this muscle group and the “six” visually-distinct parts of a six-pack.

What does this muscle do?
The rectus abdominus is a very important postural muscle and is responsible for flexing your spine forwards, which is the movement you do when doing a crunch. It also has a role in breathing, stabilising your torso during exercise, and protecting your internal organs from damage.

Why can’t I see mine?
Everyone has a six-pack but most people can’t see theirs for one simple reason: it’s hiding under a layer of belly fat. This is especially true for men, who are genetically predisposed to storing fat around their stomachs, whereas women typically store it around their hips, thighs and bottom. If you have too much body fat then your abs will remain hidden, only making an appearance once your body-fat levels reach a certain percentage, which for men is under the 10% mark.

Is going for a run the best way to blast away my belly?
Afraid not. For many years the theory prevailed that the best – or indeed only – way to shift excess body fat was to do hours of cardio training, such as running, swimming or cycling, in the “fat burn zone”, which is when your pulse is around 60 – 70% of your maximum heart rate (you can estimate your MHR, which is your maximum number of heart beats per minute, by subtracting your age in years from 220).

But if long and slow cardio was the best way to get lean then every amateur marathon runner would cross the finish line with abs of steel, which plainly isn’t the case. While long runs do burn a lot of calories they also increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which encourages your body to break down muscle tissue for fuel and store more of the energy you eat as body fat, while also lowering your levels of muscle-building and fat-burning hormones.

So what is the best way to burn fat?
You need to follow a training plan based on lifting weights, which will promote the release of those body-improving hormones so you build lean muscle and burn fat fast. High-intensity interval training has a similar positive effect on your body composition, and will improve your cardiovascular fitness to boot.

It’s why we include “Fat-Loss Finishers”, such as farmer’s walks, prowler pushes and kettlebell swings, in New Body Plan, to accelerate your rate of fat-loss, especially as you start to get leaner and positive results are harder to come by. You can read more about HIIT, including why it works and how to do it, here. You also need to follow a smart and sustainable approach to eating that’s relatively high in protein and lower in carbs to provide your body with the energy and essential nutrients it needs to perform at its best without taking on excess calories that will get stored as fat.

What lifts are best for building a six-pack?
Heavy compound lifts such as squats and overhead presses work your entire abdominal musculature far harder than equivalent seated moves, such as the leg press or dumbbell shoulder press, because they require your core to stabilise your torso and assist in power transfer between your upper and lower body.

That’s why compound lifts are more effective not only for bigger muscles and less body fat, but also for sculpting a six-pack. There are some abs-specific moves that are worth doing, but sit-ups aren’t one of them because it’s your hip flexors that power the exercise, not your abs. However, the plank and its variations are great for building strength in the deep-lying stability muscles of the core, gym ball crunches hit the top of the abs, leg raises target the lower abs, while knee raise twists work your obliques (side abs). The best way to work your abs during every exercise is to make sure you start each set with your core fully engaged and tight so it’s always working to keep your body stable and your posture perfect.

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