How to Get Incredible, Six-Pack Abs (Part 1): Weighted Core Exercises

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We all want amazing, washboard-like, six-pack abs, right? You know, the kind you could wash your laundry on… the kind where you lift up your shirt, and your abs scream “BA-Dow, how ya like me now?” Well the good news is, everybody reading this post can get killer abs… but then the bad news is that most of you reading this post will never get them because you’re not willing to put in the kind of butt-busting work necessary to show a nasty six-shooter… but in case you’re one of those people who are willing to put in the work to transform your mid-section, read on.

Theoretically, getting a six-pack to show is pretty straightforward, and depends on two factors. First, your body fat has to be low enough to make out the outlines of six-pack abs… anecdotally, I find that most people need to start approaching the 10% body fat level to see the outlines of a six-pack forming under the skin. You can refer to my prior post, where I discuss how to lose weight effectively without needless suffering. In future posts, I will detail my process to best track and monitor caloric intake and burn, as well as workout strategies you can employ to maximize caloric burn for each workout session by doing specific exercises with minimal rest, such as High-Intensity Interval Training. Second, your abdominal & core muscles are just like any other muscle in your body in that they require stimulation to grow (i.e. you have to work them out hard). Contrary to some people’s beliefs, 99% of the readers here need to satisfy both of these requirements (not just one or the other), in order to show rock-hard abs.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the second requirement for getting six-pack abs, which is to work them out like there’s no tomorrow. And before we begin working out our abs, it’s important to understand a few guidelines regarding showing phenomenal abs:

  • First, you need to develop strength in your ENTIRE CORE AREA to truly develop amazing abs. Your core consists of the “six pack” area (Rectus Abdominis), the side of your waist (Internal/External Oblique, Transversus Abdominis), and your lower back muscles. The reason that you need to blast your entire core, as opposed to just the front part of your abs, is that your body is part of an interdependent system, so you are likely to get injured or at least severely limit your ab development if you have weak muscles in the rest of your core. For example, I train many people who cannot work their abs hard because their lower back hurts too much when they do situps. This is because their lower back muscles are much weaker than their abs, and thus the lower back is limiting their ability to improve their abs, which totally sucks. To rectify this situation, I always make these people work their lower back muscles through exercises like back extensions, or by making them do a lot of barbell squats which naturally strengthens the lower back. Only after strengthening their supporting muscles do I see improvement in their abdominals.
  • Second, it’s not sufficient to just go through the motions, but you must focus on and “feel” each repetition you perform. Doing an unmotivated set of 20 reps on decline bench situps will result in minimum gains for you. Instead, you must put all your energy and concentration into each repetition, and most importantly, you need to learn to “feel” the contraction in your abs. For example, I can do one rep of a twisting decline situp and pause at the top of the concentric motion (i.e. muscles flexed) and completely “feel” the muscle contracting, straining, and most importantly growing. I concentrate on each rep that I perform, so that I don’t waste any contractions. If you do not “feel” your muscles working properly, you are wasting a lot of your efforts.
  • Third, I believe in using a combination of core exercises using weights and no weights to achieve full development in the mid-section. There is a bit of “theoretic divide” between those who espouse weight-free, super high-rep workouts to improve the core, versus those who believe that the core muscles require weight stimulation to reach their maximum potential. For me, I find that having a good balance between the two works the best, and whether you are a man or woman, you must not neglect weighted workout sessions because just like other muscles in your body, your core needs to be overloaded and stimulated with weights to develop to their full potential. You don’t want to have small, shapeless abs that barely show through your skin, even at a very low body fat level. As such, I employ a core training regimen that combines weighted exercises with non-weighted, higher-rep exercises mixed in, sometimes on the same day, but usually on alternating days.

So this brings us to my core workout regimen. I usually work out my core 3x ~ 5x per week for 15~30 minutes each session, at a very high intensity. As I mentioned above, I usually alternate between my “weighted” days, as well as my “un-weighted” days, and both days’ workout structures are very different in terms of exercises and rest. For example, if I work my core 4x this week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, I would do CORE WORKOUT 1 (with weights) below on Monday and Friday, and I would do CORE WORKOUT 2 (without weights) on Wednesday and Saturday. I have detailed my CORE WORKOUT 1 below, and in a future post, I will provide my CORE WORKOUT 2.

Here are some instructions for my core workout below: be intense, and go to failure on each set that you perform. Your best gains do not come in the 10~15 reps prior to achieving failure, but in the final few reps that you squeeze out after your body fails and tells you it can’t do any more reps. Learn to push yourself beyond your comfort level, and the results will really show in your abs. Rest only as long as necessary to get your heart rate down a bit, so that you can go intensely again on your next set (usually about 60~90 seconds). Be careful not to injure yourself, as this workout is very intense if performed correctly. Also, always check with your physician or doctor before starting any exercise or nutrition regimen, especially if you have prior medical conditions or injuries that contraindicate physical activity.

SAMPLE: CORE WORKOUT 1 (WEIGHTED):

SETS 1~4:   Decline Bench Situps (Weighted):

Form: Grab a weight plate or a dumbbell. I usually use between 80~120 pound dumbbells for this exercise, but I advise that you go much lighter (such as a 10 pounds or 25 pound weight plates). If you use weight plates, cross your arms over your chest, with the plate flat on your chest. If you use dumbbells, hold each side of the dumbbell securely while holding the dumbbell against your chest. The more you can decline the angle of the bench, the more difficult and effective this workout will be. Remember to squeeze your abs at the top of each motion and hold for 1-2 seconds before slowly returning to the bottom. Remember to “feel” each muscular contraction.

  • Set 1: Perform 20 warm-up reps with no weights. Do not go to failure. The purpose is to get blood flowing into your abs and prepare to shock it with weights on your next sets.
  • Sets 2~4: Perform 10~20 reps. Use weights where you go to failure on each set (i.e. until you cannot do any more on your own) in this rep range (10~20). If you really want to destroy your abs and accelerate results, after you go to failure on this exercise, immediately put the weights down and do some more reps without weights until you go to failure again; then, immediately grab the decline bench with both hands and assist your abs in squeezing out even more reps until you can’t do any more. Your abs should be exhausted by the 4th set.

SETS 5~8:   Machine Crunches with Swiveling Seat (Weighted):

Form: Put appropriate weights on the machine and swivel the seat to one side, so that you’re focusing on working your abs, obliques, and serratus. The motion here can be awkward for beginners, as you’re crunching your mid-section in an angle, so it’s especially important for you to “feel” your muscles contract on each rep. Remember to alternate on each set from right side to the left.

  • Sets 5~8: Perform 10~20 reps, alternating sides after each set. Use weights where you go to failure on each set (i.e. until you cannot do any more on your own) in this rep range (10~20).

SETS 9~12:   Back Extensions (Weighted):

Form: Remember to keep a natural arch in your back, and look directly forward while performing this exercise. Cross your arms in front of your chest while holding a weight plate. Hold and squeeze your muscles at the top of the motion. This exercise is excellent for strengthening your lower back, which in turn allows you to use more weights and perform higher reps on your ab exercises. Be careful not to hurt your lower back. If you feel a stinging pain, you should stop this exercise immediately. 

  • Set 9: Perform 20 warm-up reps with no weights. Do not go to failure. The purpose is to get blood flowing into your lower back muscles and prepare to shock it with weights on your next sets.
  • Sets 10~12: Perform 20~30 reps. Use weights where you go to failure on each set (i.e. until you cannot do any more on your own) in this rep range (20~30).

Try this out, and tell me what you think! If you perform it correctly, it will be a butt-kicker, and you will experience significant improvements in strength and muscularity in your core. Also, stay tuned for Part 2 of my core workout (CORE WORKOUT 2), which is fundamentally different in format and execution than this core workout (I expect to post this workout shortly). That’s why I alternate the two different workouts, to shock my muscles… I find that they work really well in conjunction with each other! Here’s to getting beautifully-sculpted six-pack abs!

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Everything looks great and very helpful. I do have one question though. I’ve been told doing core exercises to often can lead to separating (or the appearance of) abdominal muscles. Is this true? if so, what do you think would be the best number of times to work your core in a week?

Paul Kim says:

Hi Justin, thanks for your question. In general, I believe working your core about 3~4 times per week is perfect (this comes out to working your core about every other day). I find that the core muscles (and calves) are a bit different from some of the larger muscle groups in that they tend to recover faster from intense workouts. In fact, there are many people out there who work their core every single day… but in my opinion, you don’t need to work your core every single day, and if you are truly working your core hard with weights, then working it every single day can actually be harmful. What I do is to alternate between my Core Workout 1 (this article) and my Core Workout 2, which does not use heavy weights, every other day. I found the combination to be very helpful. Hope that helps!

danckim says:

What about that machine where you sit and swivel your torso from side to side? Or the leg raises while hanging? Are these a waste of time?

paulkimpk says:

These machines are both good variations to add into your core workouts. Once you get accustomed to the workout program I posted here, try some variations with the Roman Chair and the Oblique Machine that you mention.

danckim says:

What can I do instead if my gym doesn’t have a swivel crunch chair?

paulkimpk says:

Hi Dan, this is a very common issue. What I do at gyms that don’t have the swiveling seat is this… on the normal crunch machine, I take one leg out of the leg rest and twist my body, as if I was on a swivel chair. I then put the leg that I took out of the leg rest near or on top of the leg that is in the leg rest. Then I perform crunches. Since this may be hard to visualize, let me use specifics. When I’m working the right side of my abs, obliques, and serratus, I first take my right leg out of the leg rest and put it on top of the left footrest. Then I scoot my hip to the right side of the chair more and turn my torso to the left, with the right side of my abs protruding forward a bit. Then I perform crunches on the machine. This basically mimics the swivel chair in a “ghetto” fashion… does this make sense?

danckim says:

I see what you mean.

very straight forward and helpful. thanks!

paulkimpk says:

Glad it’s helpful, Arseny. Remember to be focus and “feel” each rep that you perform!

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