Humans are creatures of habit, doing certain things over and over again because they feel comfortable, such as eating regularly at a favorite restaurant, driving the same route to work or doing the same exercise, set and rep schemes for a particular bodypart. Unfortunately, that last habit may be a big problem. Getting into a rut with any muscle group isn’t ideal, but it may be especially troublesome for abs. You don’t need a PhD in exercise physiology to know that to make a muscle grow bigger and stronger you need to continually tax it with heavier loads or more repetitions, yet many of us often squeak by on a few sets of crunches tacked on to the end of a workout. Three sets, 20 reps each, rest and repeat.

This five-week program solves both problems, breaking you out of a rut and introducing progression to your middle-management plan in the form of the weights you use, reps you complete and your rest periods between sets. Building well-defined abdominals doesn’t happen by accident; it takes hard work and a carefully planned approach. Operating in a comfort zone may suffice in your personal and professional lives, but if you’re after a ripped sixer, complacency is your enemy. Break the pattern right now.

Slam-Dunk Guidelines

Our five-week plan requires you to train your midsection three times a week, resting at least 48 hours between sessions. If possible, do abs on days you’re not training a major bodypart.

>> Start by choosing one Group A exercise. This group includes one move for each of the major regions of the abdominals – upper abs, lower abs and obliques. Group A exercises add resistance to your bodyweight, meaning they’re the most challenging moves in the workout and should be done early when you’re fresh. Since resistance levels can be manipulated one plate at a time, even beginner-level bodybuilders can perform these moves using a lighter weight.

The key with this exercise is to choose a weight with which you can do only 10 reps to focus on building strength in your abs. If you can’t complete 10, the weight’s too heavy; conversely, if you can do more than 10, the weight’s too light. Selecting the right resistance is critical to manipulating intensity during the program.

>> Next, pick one move from Group B. These intermediate-level exercises are slightly easier than Group A moves. Some Group B movements use added resistance – again, manipulate loads to fit your needs if you’re a beginner.

Like Group A, this group has one exercise dedicated to lower abs, one for upper abs and one for obliques. Although you may want to alternate which area of the abs you focus on as you progress through a workout, it’s not required. In fact, one way to prevent the abdominals from becoming accustomed to a particular mode of training is to keep changing up the order of the moves.

The key with the second exercise is to choose a level of difficulty (via resistance or body position) that enables you to complete exactly 15 reps. The higher rep target works the abs in a slightly different way than that of the Group A move, building the ridges and valleys that make up a taut midsection. Hence, choosing the right resistance is an important factor in allowing you to achieve the target rep goal.

>> Last, select a Group C exercise. These are beginner-oriented bodyweight-only moves, but if you’ve been training hard thus far, they’ll still be challenging. Again, there’s one exercise for upper abs, one for lower abs and one for obliques, so the one you choose should be determined by which areas you’ve trained so far and what you want to focus on.

These moves turn up the fire even more by working in a higher rep zone. Aim for 20 reps per set; if that’s too easy, we list ways to make them more difficult under each exercise description. At the higher rep range, your abs will feel the burn much sooner as you train them in a slightly different manner to emphasize muscle endurance.

>> Rest periods for ab training vary by individual, but start with a timed 60-second interval to determine if that’s adequate. The abdominals are a fairly small muscle group that recovers quickly and doesn’t require the same amount of rest between sets as larger bodyparts. You don’t want them to recover fully before the next set.

>> At your next ab-training session that week, select an exercise from each group you did not perform in the previous training session(s). If you did the lower ab machine from Group A on Tuesday, pick one of the other two Group A moves on Thursday. On your last abdominal training day that week, perform the remaining exercise. This strategy ensures that all areas of your abs get worked first when your energy levels are highest and through all the training zones: heavy for 10 reps to focus on strength, moderate for 15 reps to build size, and with bodyweight only for 20 reps to make the abs burn and build muscle endurance.

>> Write it all down. Keep a training log of the weights you used and exercises you selected; this will help you manipulate your training over the next five weeks. Tear out the workout sheet at right so you can follow along with the program each week.

The Next Level

We promised an ab workout that accounts for progression over time – that is, as your abs become stronger, you want to keep challenging them for continued progress. Here’s how you’ll do that in Week 2 and beyond:

>> On all Group A moves, add one plate each week and still try to complete 10 reps per set. Increasing the resistance weekly makes the abs work harder. If you can’t do 10 reps, no problem – the key is to increase the weight and try to do as many reps as you can. This is why choosing the right weight in Week 1 is so important. Do this on all three sets for all Group A exercises.

>> On Group B moves, reduce the rest period between sets by five seconds each week. During Week 2, rest just 55 seconds between sets. The third week, reduce the rest interval by another five seconds. Continue with the resistance and rest intervals the same as in Week 1. In the second week, do 21 reps instead of 20, and increase that by one rep each week. By the fifth week, you’re doing 24 reps for all sets of each Group C exercise.

Dial It In

While the keys that drive our five-week program are variety and progression, it would be a mistake to think that’s all that’s required to build washboard abs. Pay particular attention to your diet – monitoring carb and fat intake, total calories and following a smart supplementation program – while including four 30-minute cardio sessions a week to strip off bodyfat. Only through a combination of these elements can you truly bring out a ripped six-pack.

At the end of five weeks, your abs will be much improved – and the proof will be in the mirror as well as in your advancing strength. You can return to this program at a future date, but it’s not intended to be followed indefinitely. Just make sure whatever plan you follow challenges you.

The M&F Five-Week Six-Pack Slam.

>> Select one exercise from each group, fine-tuning the resistance or your body position so you can just complete the targeted number of reps. For your next two workouts each week, choose an exercise not yet used. Follow this format throughout the five-week program.

Group A: Strength Builders

    Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week5
Choose one: Sets Reps Reps Reps Reps Reps
Double Crunch Machine 3 10 up to 10 up to 10 up to 10 up to 10
Lying Cable Crunch 3 10 up to 10 up to 10 up to 10 up to 10
Standing Oblique Cable Crunch* 3 10 up to 10 up to 10 up to 10 up to 10

>> Instructions

Week 1: Choose a resistance with which you can complete just 10 reps.
Week 2: Add one plate to the weight used the previous week, trying to get the same number of reps (do as many as possible).
Week 3: Add one more plate to what you used in Week 2.
Week 4: Add another plate.
Week 5: Add another plate.

Group B: Size Builders

    Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5
Choose one: Sets Reps Reps Reps Reps Reps
Hanging Knee Raise 3 15 up to 15 up to 15 up to 15 up to 15
Decline-Bench Crunch 3 15 up to 15 up to 15 up to 15 up to 15
Cable Woodchop* 3 15 up to 15 up to 15 up to 15 up to 15

>> Instructions

Week 1: Choose a resistance or level of difficulty with which you can complete just 15 reps.
Week 2: Reduce your rest period between sets by five seconds, aiming to do the same number of reps as the week before for all sets.
Week 3: Reduce your between-sets rest period by another five seconds.
Week 4: Remove another five seconds from your rest period.
Week 5: Cut your rest period by five more seconds.

Group C: endurance Builders

    Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5
Choose one: Sets Reps Reps Reps Reps Reps
Reverse Crunch 3 20 21 22 23 24
Supported Crunch 3 20 21 22 23 24
Oblique Crunch * 3 20 21 22 23 24

>> Instructions

Week 1: Choose a variation of this bodyweight move that allows you to perform just 20 reps.
Week 2: Do one additional rep on all sets using normal rest periods and the same resistance you used in Week 1.
Week 3: Add another rep to all sets.
Week 4: Do one more rep on all your sets.
Week 5: Add another rep to all sets.

Group A) Strength Builders

>> Choose one of these three Group A exercises, which are considered advanced moves because you can add resistance simply by changing the pin on the weight stack. Be sure to fine-tune the resistance so you hit the target rep (10) by adding/subtracting weight. For your ab workouts later that same week, choose one of the other moves each time. (Note: If you’re not advanced, simply use a lighter resistance with which you can complete the recommended number of sets and reps.)

SETS + REPS | Do three sets of 10 reps the first week. Over the course of the next five weeks, add one plate (about 10 pounds) each week (so that by Week 5 you’ve added four plates), still trying to reach 10 reps but doing as many as you can.


Target | Upper abs

Lie faceup directly in front of a low-pulley cable with a rope attached, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grasp the rope with a neutral grip, placing your hands by your ears and locking your arms in this position for the duration of the set. Contract your abs to curl up as high as you can, squeezing at the top, then lower to just short of your shoulder blades resting on the floor between reps.


Target | Upper, lower abs

Sit inside the machine with your back flat against the pad. Hook your feet under the ankle pads and secure the shoulder pads firmly over your upper torso. Grasp the handles with both hands. With your head in a neutral position and eyes focused forward, crunch your upper body forward while simultaneously lifting your legs toward your upper body. Hold the peak contraction, then return to the start. Don’t allow the weights to touch down between reps to keep constant tension on your abs.


Cable Crunch

Target | Obliques

Stand about 2 feet away from a cable stack, your right shoulder facing the pulley. Attach a D-handle to the high cable and grasp it with an underhand grip, bending your arm about 90 degrees and locking it in this position for the duration of the set. Using your obliques, crunch down laterally as far as you can, holding the peak contraction briefly. Complete all reps for one side, then switch.

Group B) Size Builders

>> Choose one of these three Group B exercises, which are considered intermediate moves. Again, fine-tune the move to hit the target rep (15): for the decline-bench crunch, increase or decrease the angle of the bench; for the hanging knee raise, increase or decrease the bend in your knees; for the cable woodchop, add/subtract resistance. Select a different move for the week’s second session, then do the remaining exercise in the final workout.

SETS + REPS | Perform three sets of 15 reps the first week. Over the course of the next five weeks, reduce your rest period between sets by five seconds each week (so by Week 3, you’ve cut 10 seconds off your rest period), still trying to do 15 reps each set. After five weeks, return to the normal rest period with which you can perform 15 reps – at this point, you should be able to do a more challenging variation of the move than when you started.


Target | Upper abs

Set an adjustable bench to a moderate decline and sit squarely on it, with your feet secured under the ankle pads. Cup your hands lightly behind your head and lean backward. Contract your abs to curl up to a point just short of perpendicular to the floor; try to avoid pulling through your hip flexors. Round your back as you rise to increase the abdominal contraction, then lower under control.


Target | Lower abs

Perform this exercise either hanging from a high bar (using straps if you lose your grip before your abs fatigue) or on a vertical bench that supports your forearms. With an overhand grip, hang at arm’s length, bending your knees 90 degrees and locking them in this position. Without swinging your body, contract your abs to bring your knees as high as you can into your chest and lower under control, coming to a stop at the bottom so you don’t generate momentum before the next rep. Note: If you can easily hit the target rep, straighten your legs to make the move harder.


Target | Upper abs, obliques

Stand erect with your feet outside shoulder width and knees slightly bent alongside a high-pulley cable (with a D-handle or I-handle attached), your right shoulder facing the pulley. Reach across your body with your left hand and grasp the handle, placing your right hand on top. Keep your arms straight but unlocked throughout the set. Rotate your torso at the waist to the left by contracting your left obliques, pulling the handle down in an arc across your body to a position just below your knee. Keep your left arm as straight as possible. Return and repeat for reps. Do both sides.

Group C) Endurance Builders

>> Select one of these three Group C exercises, which are considered beginner moves done with just your bodyweight. Again, make slight adjustments in how you perform each exercise to fine-tune the degree of difficulty so you hit the target rep. For your next two ab sessions that week, choose one of the other moves each time.

SETS + REPS | Do three sets of 20 reps the first week. Over the course of the next five weeks, strive to do one more repetition per set each week, so that after five weeks you do 24 reps on each set (keeping the resistance and the rest periods unchanged). After five weeks, increase the level of difficulty of each move as you start again at 20 reps per set.


Target | Lower abs

Lie faceup on the floor with your hands by your sides, feet up and together, thighs perpendicular to the floor. Contract your lower abs to roll your pelvis upward and raise your hips off the floor; your knees should be over your chest in the top position. Return to the start under control. Note: Do this move on an incline board to make it more difficult.


Target | Upper abs

Lie faceup on the floor with your heels up on a flat bench, hips and knees bent about 90 degrees. Cup your head lightly with your hands. Contract your abs to rise as high as you can, bringing your shoulder blades off the floor without pulling on your head. Lower under control. Note: To increase the level of difficulty, don’t allow your shoulder blades to touch down at the bottom of each rep.


Target | Obliques

Lie on your left side, legs stacked with your knees bent, using your right hand to cup your head. Crunch up as high as you can, keeping the move in the lateral plane as much as possible to emphasize the obliques, and lower under control. Note: To increase the level of difficulty, simultaneously raise your feet a few inches off the floor.