As seen in Mens Fitness, Oprah Magazine, The New York Times

Diet Or Exercise For Six Pack Abs: Which Is More Important?

By Tom Venuto

Q: Hi Tom. I'm a man, age 34 and I finally got my body fat percentage down to 6.5%, at least according to skin fold calipers. Now I'm starting to see the outline of my abs. But I'm frustrated because I'm not quite there yet. My abs just don't seem to pop out like a wash board. I wouldn't say I have a "six pack." At this stage my question is, should I keep dieting to lose more body fat to reveal my abs (am I simply not lean enough yet?) Or should I put more focus into continued intense ab training to build up the abdominal muscle size? Thanks.

A: REVEALING YOUR ABDOMINALS is a function of reducing your body fat to very low levels. The lower your body fat percentage, the "thinner" your skin will be (actually the "skinfold" which contains both skin and subcutaneous fat), and the more your abs will show through. Body fat lies on top of the ab muscles, covering them up like a layer of spongy insulation.

BUILDING YOUR ABDOMINALS is a function of training them. With that in mind, the cliche, "Abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym" is not entirely true. It's only true that without the right diet, ab exercises alone are useless because well-developed abs can stay covered up with a layer of fat, not to mention it's possible to out-eat any amount of exercise.

If your body fat test was accurate and you're really 6.5% body fat already, you are extremely lean. At the mid-single digit body fat level, that's always lean enough for a man to show abdominal muscularity. If you're still unhappy with how your abs look at 6.5% body fat, either your body fat is really not that low (body fat testing error), or you need to re-evaluate your abdominal training.

When you're that lean, if you don't have six pack abs that literally "pop out" then it's absolutely a matter of more ab training. It might also mean smarter ab training, which may include working your abs with added resistance (not just your body weight alone).

This question about diet or exercise for six pack abs is nuanced however, and genetics is part of it, so let's look a little closer...

When It Comes To Building Great Abs, There Are Two Types Of People...

Person 1 (Abs are made in the kitchen person): This is the person who thinks, "As long as I get my body fat low, my abs will show. With this kind of belief system, they develop the habit of blowing off their ab training or hardly training abs at all because they think their abs will show just by getting lean (diet alone).

Person 2 (Abs are made in the gym person): This is the person who is not informed about the importance of low body fat in seeing your abs, or they do know about it, but they simply don't put much effort into their diet. They think they can out-train their diet, so they work their abs consistently or even do 30 to 60 minute ab classes every day. But since they ignore proper diet, they never get their body fat low enough to see their abs.

Here's the true secret of revealing your abs and getting your ab muscles to "pop": It's a combination of both - low body fat to UNCOVER them (reveal the muscle that's already under there), and training to BUILD ab muscle that's not even there yet.

Some people find it hard to build their abdominal muscles. I always found building my abs fairly easy. It was getting rid of the fat that was covering my abs that was the difficult part for me. That took me a long time to figure out (it was all about the right diet).

Once I learned how to get ripped just once, the good news is, it was never difficult again. I owned that knowledge for life. It was like riding a bike. Even if you haven't ridden for years, you can still get back on and ride after you've learned how to do it once before.

The question is, which type of person are you? Are you the type one person who sweats away in those hour-long ab classes or does hundreds of crunches and sit ups a day but you still can't see your abs because they are covered up with a layer of body fat? ...

Or, are you like the type two person? Your diet is on point and you're very lean, but you're still not satisfied with your abs because they don't pop like you want them to. But meanwhile, you hardly train your abs at all or you blow off ab training completely.

If you are either of the above, then perhaps you could consider becoming this kind of person:

Person 3 (abs are made in the gym and in the kitchen): This is the person who considers nutrition (exposing the abs and removing body fat) and training (building the ab muscles) as equally important and can recognize which area needs the most work. This third type of person always gets the best results.

Body Fat Percentage Is Not A Holy Grail

I would also recommend not putting too much stock in the body fat test number alone. Body fat testing is not a perfect science. There is a lot of room for equipment error and operator error. Skinfold testing in particular often underestimates your body fat level. If you underestimate your body fat percentage, you might think for sure that your abs should be showing, but in reality you might have more fat to lose before the muscle definition really starts to show.

If you get consistent test results, that body fat number is valuable for tracking your week to week fat loss progress (confirming that you're moving in the right direction). But keep in mind that the margin for error could be two or even three percent.

If we're being honest, beyond tracking personal progress and knowing that you're not in an unhealthy obese category, that body fat number alone doesn't give you much more than bragging rights if it's low. Most people seem fixated on the idea that if you hit a certain body fat percentage, that's suddenly when your abs begin to show.

But that's not the case because people store their body fat differently and two people at the same body fat percentage may not look the same. One guy could show excellent muscle definition at 10% body fat, while another man might not look really ripped until he hits 7% body fat.

In addition, the body fat percentage number doesn't tell you how thick your skinfolds are in your abdominal region. Some people measure and track their overall body fat percentage, but they don't look more closely at the thickness of each individual skin fold.

It's not uncommon at all to have very little body fat in your extremities (arms and legs), but to have the majority of your body's fat concentrated in your abdominal region and especially right around the umbilicus (belly).

If you look not only at your overall body fat percentage but at the actual skin fold measurement over your abs, that can give you a better picture of whether you need to get leaner to reveal your abs more.

Skinfold Thickness Vs Body Fat Percentage...

In this sense, even though there is margin for error in skin fold testing, these caliper measurements can actually tell you more than a method like bioelectric impedance analysis (the "body fat scale"), because they can tell you the thickness of your skinfolds (in millimeters) that cover your abs.

It's an axiom among coaches that you can only improve what you measure. I would recommend continuing to do the skin fold testing, keeping in mind that the body fat percentage is only an estimate and may have margin for error, but also recording and taking note of the skin fold thickness. This will give you one more way to judge your progress over time and also tell you more about where you store your fat. (Again, it's quite common for many men to store the majority of their body fat right on the belly).

Even the difference between the iliac crest (hip bone) skinfold site and the umbilicus (near the belly button) skinfold site can be substantial. A hip bone skinfold of 3.5 mm is ultra lean. That measurement isn't going to drop down to much lower than 2.0 mm to 2.5 mm because that's the approximate thickness of skin, without any fat. I don't remember testing anyone's body fat before and seeing a skinfold of under 2.0 mm except on a few rare occasions when I was using a digital skinfold caliper (the SKYNDEX), and I saw a measurement of 1.9 mm or 1.7 mm.

But consider this: The iliac crest is usually one of the lowest skinfolds. Men and women store fat differently. But in men, two areas hold more fat than others. One is right around the belly button. If you were to draw a circle a several inches in diameter around the belly button, there is almost always more fat stored there even when the rest of the body is very lean. The arms, legs and even the iliac crest have "run dry" but there's still fat in that one spot which obscures muscle definition.

Sometimes the lowermost abdominal area is even starting to show veins, but still there is a "pocket" of fat around the belly button. This is a sign that indeed, you're going to have diet off that last bit of what we might call "stubborn" fat before the abs show completely.

Now on the other hand, if you have veins running across your belly button area and your abdominal skinfold measurement is only two or three millimeters, you are absolutely ripped, without a question. If you're that lean and you're unsatisfied with the way your abs look, it only means you haven't build up those abs enough through training. If you want your abs to pop more, like a "washboard," it's going to take the right training which will probably mean training your abs with weights and progressive overload (not just bodyweight exercises).

By the way, that other "stubborn" fat (for men) is the lower back and sides of the waist (what some people would call the "love handles"). If you reach back and pinch, not just a little at the top, but really grab the largest hunk of skinfold you can back there, how much bigger is that than your iliac crest skinfold pinch? Usually it's a lot bigger and yet that's not even an official testing site for skinfold calipers.

Some body fat tests (like the Durnin skinfold formula) include the upper back, which is known as the sub-scapular skinfold. That site too sometimes is much thicker than other skinfolds including the arms and iliac crest.

What this tells us is that if you want to be completely honest about your level of leanness, you might want to find your largest skinfold and then use that as your benchmark, rather than your smallest skinfold. Even if the skinfold test method you're using doesn't measure the umbilicus site (next to belly button), that is a good place to pinch and observe because it gives you the best indication of how much more fat you really need to lose to see your abs.

Exercise For Six-Pack Abs - The Right Way

To build your abs, literally making them pop out, that requires the right training. I know many people say they work their abs hard and still have little to show for it, but they may either have high body fat or they are training their abs wrong (or both).

I will get into more depth about abdominal training, including recommendations on sets, reps and specific exercises in separate articles. For now let it suffice to say that one of the biggest ab training mistakes is doing easy ab exercises for ridiculously high reps.

I'm not sure what it is about ab training that makes people think more reps is the answer. I suspect it's because so many people believe in the spot reduction myth which suggests that ab exercise will burn fat off the abs. But spot reduction is a myth and studies have shown that it doesn't happen to any significant degree. If you wanted to build muscle, would you do 50 or 100 reps in a row for your biceps? Your chest? Your shoulders? If not, and if spot reduction doesn't work, then why would you do that for abs?

Granted, the abs do seem to respond to training them in a slightly higher rep range, but we're rarely talking about more than 15 to 25 reps, and on certain exercises, the standard rep range for hypertrophy ( around 8 to 12 reps) can be used for ab training with great results as well.

One of the best ways to really build your abs and make them pop is to train them with additional weight or at least choose body weight exercises that are more advanced and will challenge you more.

For example, the crunch can be done on a stability ball holding a dumbbell or weight plate on your chest, making it difficult to do even 15 to 20 reps. That will do far more to build up your abs than 50 or 100 quick sloppy reps with your body weight. The hanging straight leg raise (knees just slightly unlocked) is a body weight exercise, but an advanced and difficult one. Even 10 to 15 reps will challenge you. This will do far more to build your abs than endless reps of leg raises on the floor which don't give you nearly as much resistance.

When you start doing ab exercises with resistance (or advanced body weight ab exercises), you will see dramatically more ab development. However, you can't always expect your abs to have a certain look, such as perfectly even rows of six pack abs.

Muscle Shape And Genetics: What Training Can And Can't Change...

How well you respond to training in general is at least partly related to genetics. Some people are high responders, which is often referred to as being a "mesomorph" body type. Others find that they grow muscle more slowly. If you train properly, you will always gain muscle, but remember there is a genetic component to how fast you gain and how much you ultimately gain.

Even if you have the best genetics for building muscle, it's important to understand and accept that there's one thing you can never change: your muscle shape. Muscle shape, structure and attachments are one hundred percent genetic. When it comes to abs, what that means is that not everyone is going to have six pack abs that line up in perfectly even rows.

The abs, which are technically called the rectus abdominis muscles, are not a single continuous muscle like your biceps. The reason well developed abs are often called a six pack is because these muscles are configured in three rows separated by horizontal bands of tendinous tissue and one longer tendinous band than runs down the middle (called the linea alba).

abs that pop

If you check out the photo, you'll see a bodybuilder with what we would call an "abs gap." That's where the linea alba - the strip of tendon in the middle of the abs - is wider than it is in most people. This guy is definitely ripped and has well developed abs, but the point to understand is that no amount of training will fill in that gap. This an example of muscle shape being determined by genetics.

Here's another example: A person might have only two rows of abs, not three. Below those two rows, where a third row is usually seen, is instead a flat sheet of tendinous tissue. We sometimes call that a "four-pack." And a different person might actually see a fourth row of abs. You could call that an "eight-pack!" Some people might consider that a genetic gift - the best abs possible.

Let me give you one more example: Some people's abs are lined up in even horizontal rows. Others have uneven abs, which you might describe as "checkered." If you did a survey, most people would probably tell you that they think perfectly even rows of abs are the most aesthetically pleasing and most desirable. But this too, cannot be changed through training.

Each person has their own idea of what looks the most aesthetic. The ideal might be the six pack with perfectly even rows. But if you have uneven abs, or only two rows of visible abs, or a wide linea alba, none of these things are necessarily bad. This is simply what you were born with. You can't change the inherent structure of a muscle. You can't build a six pack where no muscle fiber exists to begin with.

When we look at it this way, we could say your abs aren't made in the gym or in the kitchen. You can thank your parents for the abs you inherited.

What you can do is train hard and develop the ab structure you were born with to the maximum. If you have a four-pack, you train and build that four-pack up so it pops out the most it possibly can. Many champion bodybuilders, including Mr. Olympia's have won titles despite not having perfectly even rows of six pack abs. What you can also do is diet hard to strip the fat off, and your abs will still look great.

Building Abdominal Muscle "Size"

In most ways, the abdominals are a muscle just like any other, and they will respond to the same type of training that other muscles do. You train them with resistance and use progressive overload, and they will grow.

But because the muscle structure of the abs is different, the way they grow is different. The abdominals are a long flat sheet of muscle. The biceps, by contrast have a large muscle belly in the middle so they will "plump out" and the circumference of your arms will increase with training.

Abdominal muscles will grow, but that doesn't mean your waist will keep getting bigger the way your arms of legs get bigger with training. You wouldn't want it to anyway, because a bigger waist would only detract from aesthetics.

When you train your abs properly, they do grow out a little bit. Sometimes I joke around and say that well-developed abs look like 6 raviolis lined up and popping off your stomach. They are still flat in shape, but they pop out in bold relief.

So what does proper training mean? The choice of exercise matters, and I'll share some of the best ab exercises in future articles, but it starts with choosing the right weight and reps.

Heavier Weight With Lower Reps Vs Lower Weight And Higher Reps For Ab Hypertrophy

It's true that there are many effective abdominal exercises that only use your body weight. The mistake most people make is sticking with easy bodyweight exercises and never using progressive overload or adding external resistance.

It's not uncommon to see someone build up to 25 or 30 reps per set, and sometimes even 50 or 100 reps in a set. It's true that's one form of progressive overload, but the problem is, at that point, you're out of the optimal range for muscle hypertrophy. When you can do 50 or 100 reps of an exercise, you're training to build more endurance but not as much muscle.

It's a myth that you can burn fat off your abs by doing hundreds of reps of ab exercises. It's also a myth that you will build better abs doing endless high reps. You would get better results if you used progressive resistance. That means adding weight to ab exercises, where that is possible, or moving to more difficult variations of body weight exercises.

I've met some people who can work their abs for an hour straight. Fitness instructors who teach ab classes are a good example. That is some incredible abdominal endurance. In many cases, these people have great abs to match. But that doesn't mean doing hours of ab training every week or that doing hundreds of reps is the best way to build abs. (It might even increase risk of injury).

Hypertrophy in most muscles is best achieved in the 6 to 12 rep range. It can also be achieved with heavier weights in the 3 to 5 rep range if volume is high enough. You can build muscle training with higher reps in the 15 to 30 range as well, if you train to failure.

But even if we agree that the abdominals are a muscle that responds well to training with higher reps, 20, 25 or at most 30 reps should do it. And on some ab exercises, working with heavier weights in the 8, 10, 12, 15 rep range makes the most sense. What that means is, when you get up to around 25 to 30 reps on an ab exercise, you are much better off adding some resistance or at least doing a harder version of the exercise with body weight, if that's possible.

If you're training to optimize abdominal muscle development, and you want to do it in the shortest amount of time, without wasting any time, there is no reason to be doing hundreds of reps of ab exercises in any workout. If your goal is endurance or if you're one of those people who likes to test your endurance and conditioning, that's fine. But once and for all we need to bust this myth that doing endless reps of ab exercises is the answer. It certainly is not.

Build Your Abs But Don't Over-Build Your Obliques

I have one final piece of advice for today - I guess you could even call it a warning - about training abs with weights for fewer reps.

Your obliques are one of the muscles on the side of your waist. Many "ab" exercise hit your obliques and rectus abdominis at the same time, while some exercises like side bends are done to work the obliques directly.

I do not recommend training your oblique muscles with heavier weights if you tend to easily build muscle there. If you build up your oblique muscles too much it can make your waist look larger. Whether it's fat or muscle, a larger waist is consider less aesthetic in the physique world. Personally, I don't do weighted side bends at all for this reason. Instead I train the obliques with twisting or rotational exercises such as the bicycle crunch. Also, planks, especially side planks are excellent for strengthening these muscles, along with the deeper muscles of the core.

Again, genetics comes into play. Some people are born with wider waists and hips. This is their bone structure, not their muscular structure or body fat level. If you are naturally thick in the waist, be especially careful not to overbuild the obliques. Focus on the "six pack" muscles of the rectus abdominis.

If you weren't born with a naturally tiny waist like Frank Zane or Steve Reeves, don't despair. Focus on what you can control. By keeping your body fat low and by building up the width in your shoulders, you can create the illusion of a smaller waist. Jay Cutler, the former Mr. Olympia is a good example. He did not have a genetically small waist, but he blew up his deltoids so much, his waist looked visually smaller.

You may not be able to change your genetics, but you'd be shocked how much you can improve your appearance by training for visual aesthetics. The secret of the physique pros is this: build up the shoulders as much as humanly possible, build the rectus abdominis (six pack) muscles as much as possible, avoid building muscle mass in the obliques on the sides of the waist, and reduce body fat at the same time.

Wrapping Up

I think you can agree with me now that abs are made in the gym (with training) AND abs are made in the kitchen (with diet). Abs are not made with one of the other alone.

I think you can also now understand why the shape of your abs doesn't come from the kitchen or the gym. If you only have a four pack, and not a six pack, you can't change that. If your abs don't line up in even rows, you can't change that either. The shape and structure of your muscles, as well as your ultimate muscle building potential come from choosing the right parents.

Here's the good news: regardless of your genetics, by putting in the work on both your diet and on your training, you can always chisel out great-looking abs that pop, with crisp muscle definition. And you can use what you learned in this article to decide whether you need to prioritize your diet, your training, or work equally on both.

Train hard and expect success!

Tom Venuto,
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
Author of Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss


Related: How Often Should You Workout Your Abs?

Best Ab Exercises:

How To Do Stability Ball Crunches (Rectus Abdominis / Abs)

How To Do The Cable Pallof Press (Core / Obliques)

How To Do The Hanging Knee Raise

Kneeling Cable Crunch

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