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The Abs 101 Workout for a Shredded Six-pack

Check out this quick primer on abs anatomy and get your midsection looking sharp.

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Man Training Abs
Matthew Leete / Getty
Man Training Abs
Matthew Leete / Getty

Picture this: Two guys strolling the beach, checking out bikinis, both of them regular gym-goers. One has 18″ arms, a billowing chest and…a baby-smooth midsection. The other guy’s arms barely stretch the tape to 16″ and his chest, while defined, doesn’t cast nearly the shadow as his buddy’s. But from pecs to pelvis this guy has a crisp six-pack, edged with a clearly defined pair of obliques and some nice serratus action going on.

Now, which guy’s physique do you think is going to draw more attention from admiring eyes? To paraphrase ZZ-Top: Girls go crazy for a sharp-abbed man.

With this abs primer and three-part workout at your disposal, you’ll have a better understanding of your own abs anatomy and possess the tools to develop an impressive six-pack of your own, not to mention grab the attention of the fairer sex.

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While the Rectus abdominis is colloquially known by many as the “six-pack,” some people may display four “rows” of abs, giving them an eight-pack, while others (most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger) show just a four-pack. Rather than indicate anatomical variations in the actual abdominis muscles, the number of packs a person displays is determined by the number of bands of fascia (a kind of connective tissue) crossing the abdominal region.

Think of rubber bands stretched around a balloon. The bulges in the balloon represent the parts of the Rectus abnominis that we see. Just as strips of the balloon are pulled in and obscured by the bands, so too are strips of our abdominals covered by fascia. So, no matter how many sets of crunches or legs raises you do, the number of rows of “abs” you have now will never change.


While it goes without saying that proper breathing is important during your training for every bodypart, during abs work it’s especially important. When you follow up a deep inhale with a forceful exhale you actually work your intercostals—muscles that lie over, under, and between your ribs. In effect, you’re training them. Strong intercostals give you the ability to take deeper breaths, which helps move oxygen to hard-working muscles. Think of dynamic breathing during your abs workouts as a Catch-22 with benefits.

Abs Anatomy

Before delving into the routine that will turn abs of dough into abs of steel we should provide a refresher course in the anatomy of the muscle groups which together we commonly refer to as the abs.

Muscles You Can See

Rectus Abdominis

This is the ol’ six-pack; the muscle group that turns heads, of both interested ladies and envious guys. The rectus abdominus originates at the bottom of the sternum and inserts at the pelvis, and is responsible for pulling your knees up to your torso and vice versa. It’s important to keep in mind that when we talk about training the upper and lower abs it’s all part of the same muscle group, just different ends of it.

External Obliques

The external obliques run diagonally down the sides of your body, between your rectus abdominus and lats. They’re the ones that give the torso that detailed look that indicates a well-conditioned athlete or contest-ready bodybuilder. The function of the external obliques is to twist the body from side-to-side, and therefore are utilized throughout every day, not to mention during every exercise that requires lateral stabilization.


These are the fingerlike muscles you find running from your lats to the sides of your ribcage. Because of their positioning and connections, they need to be trained differently from the other muscle groups of the abdominal region.

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Muscles You Can’t See

Transverse Abdominis

The transverse abdominus lies directly below the rectus abdominus and while it’s invisible to the eye, training it will pay off big dividends for those looking for a slimmer waistline. Think of the muscle as a girdle that covers the front of your lower torso, keeping organs from distending out past your ribcage. Having control of your transverse abdominus can make a marked difference in the appearance of your midsection.

Internal Obliques

Lying below the external obliques are the internal obliques which, while not visible without a scalpel (ouch), serve a similar purpose to the external obliques. They actually run in the opposite direction of the externals to provide a powerful set of torso muscles that can torque the body left and right with great force and precision. There isn’t a sport, from hockey to baseball to golf, that doesn’t employ the internal obliques extensively.


These muscles actually run beneath and between the ribs, and aid in inspiration and respiration.

The Workout

In putting together the ultimate abs routine, you want to make sure to hit each of the four visible muscle groups. But, by the same token, you don’t want to create such a long, arduous routine that you’ll never want to do it. So, a combination of thoroughness and efficiency is key, and the best way to achieve that is by figuring out a way of hitting the most areas of the abdominal region using the fewest exercises.

As you probably know, there’s a wealth of abs exercises at our disposal that cover every square inch of the midsection. But for our purposes we will limit your workout to six of our favorites, to be performed in three different pairings twice a week, followed by what we call “Gut Busters” [see Exercise Descriptions].

That’s six workouts a week—a lot to be sure—but the right amount if you want standout abs come June 21. Also keep in mind that each of the three distinct workouts should take you a total of around five minutes—brief, but intense and effective.

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Exercise Descriptions

Hanging Knee Raise
Grab a pullup bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip, making sure your arms are completely straight and your feet are off the ground. This is your starting position. Brace your core and use your abs to raise your knees toward your shoulders. Pause when the tops of your thighs reach your chest. Return to the starting position. This aims at the lower rectus abdomens.

Alternate Knee Crunch
Lie on your back on the floor with your legs tucked up so that your thighs are perpendicular with the floor and your lower legs parallel with it. Clasp your fingers behind your head or cup the back of your head and alternate pulling each elbow to the opposite knee. Concentrate on curling your torso forward with each rep and returning to the start position with the opposite movement. This hits the upper rectus abdominus, obliques, and intercostals.

Flutter Kick
Lie on your back on the floor with your arms down at your sides and the backs of your hands tucked under your hips. Alternately raise one leg, then the other, from a position of an inch off the floor to about 8″ off the floor. You’re essentially doing with your legs what you do when you’re swimming. It’s a quick but controlled movement. This targets the lower rectus abdomens.

Kettlebell Crunch
Lie on your back on the floor with a kettlebell (or dumbbell) on chest. Twenty-five pounds should do the trick to start. Bring both feet in so that they’re flat on the floor. Keeping the kettlebell against your chest, tighten your core and use your abs to crunch up, raising your torso off the ground. Pause at the top before returning to the starting position.

Bench Knee-In
Sit on a bench with a 10-20lb dumbbell (to start) placed on one end between your feet. Press your feet together and lie back, holding the end of the bench above your head. Raise the dumbbell with your feet by pulling your knees in toward your torso. Extend your legs until they’re straight, and withdraw them again. This is a great exercise for your lower rectus abdomens and your intercostals.

Weighted Situp
Hold a plate either against your chest or behind your head as you perform situps.

Cat Camel (Gut Buster)
Get on all fours with your back straight, but your stomach relaxed. Suck your stomach in as far as it will go while curling your spine. Hold this position for 30 seconds with minimal breathing.


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Want a copy on the go?

Workout 1

Monday - Performed for four rounds, with one minute's rest between rounds.


Workout 2

Wednesday - Performed for four rounds, with one minute's rest between rounds.


Workout 3

Friday - Performed for four rounds, with one minute's rest between rounds.

Exercise 7 of 9

Bench Knee-In

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