Ab-Natomy: Perfect Abs Training to Bring Out Your Six Pack, Enhance Performance and Eliminate Lower Back Pain

By on July 10, 2014

Everybody wants to know how to get perfect abs it seems, so writing a post on getting a six pack should be a sure fire way to get people to read the blog. Score.

get perfect abs

But I’m not really interested in getting a visible wash-board stomach by doing lots of crunches (which also doesn’t work BTW). What I’m interested in is learning how the myriad of muscles that make up our core actually work together in order to help support our spine, stabilise us through every kind of movement and greatly enhance our strength and power. And it just so happens that when you understand how those muscles work together, you also know how to get the ripped mid-section much quicker.

Muscle Versus Body Fat

Before we dive right in to all the different muscles in the core, it’s first important to recognise the role of body fat in creating visible abs. If it’s aesthetics you’re interested in then the single most important factor is the amount of fat covering your stomach. If you have a sub 10% body fat then you will have visible abs. Unfortunately you can’t ‘target’ fat loss – meaning you can’t exercise in such a way that you lose specifically the fat around your stomach. Instead you simply have to keep exercising until your body decides to burn fat from your stomach (the order that the fat comes off is determined by your genetics and as far as we know can’t be changed). Exercise that burns fat is cardiovascular exercise – meaning it’s prolonged and it forces you to breathe heavily. Examples are running, swimming, jogging etc. Not all cardiovascular exercise is made equal though, for the most efficient cardio I know CLICK HERE. Diet is also a very important part of weight loss, but fortunately I have you covered there too. CLICK HERE for the Bioneer diet for muscle gain, weight loss and general health.

While losing body fat is the best way to ensure your abs are visible, that’s not to say that building muscle isn’t a good idea too in terms of aesthetics. Not only can building muscle in your core help to pull in your stomach and remove a pot belly, but it can also help your abs stick through. In other words, if you build a more defined six pack, then it can still be visible with a slightly higher body fat percentage. More to the point though, building all the muscles in your core and throughout your legs and back will help to give you more strength and stability and will protect you against injury. This is what it means to have ‘perfect abs’ and it’s when you have a truly functional core that it will truly look impressive.

The Muscles of the Abs and Core (And How to Train Them)

The Rectus Abdominis

When most people think ‘abs’ this is really the muscle they’re thinking about. The rectus abdominis is the flat ‘sheet’ of muscle on the front of the stomach that contains the six separate segments making up the six pack. Here is a common misconception: these are not six separate muscles but just bumps on the face of one larger muscle.

The job of the rectus abdominis is basically to pull your body forward. This is what allows you to bend over forward (and to crunch) and it’s what prevents your back muscles (like the erector spinae – see below) from pulling you over backwards and making you double over.

To train the rectus abdominis then and get the six segments to poke through your stomach fat, you need to use exercises that bend the body forward. This is why so many people will desperately do crunches over and over, but the problem is that crunches don’t activate the rectus abdominis very much because you’re only training a very small range of movement. Instead then you should use exercises that allow you to move the muscle through a wider ‘arch’.

The Myotatic Crunch

For this Tim Ferriss recommends something called the ‘myotatic crunch’. Here you lie backwards over a Bosu ball or an exercise ball and then sit all the way up – it’s the same movement but you’re going through a much wider angle of movement meaning you’re training the muscle much more.

Other Exercises for the Rectus Abdominis

Other exercises that will more effectively target this area include ab rollers, hanging leg raises, vertical leg crunches and bicycle crunches. If you’re just relying on crunches – then it’s time to stop!

The Transverse Abdominis

While everyone likes to focus on the rectus abdominis, it’s the transverse abdominis that often gets overlooked and requires more attention. This is a band of muscle that runs around the middle of the stomach deeper below the surface. Along with the obliques, erector spinae and a membrane called the thoracolumbar fascia, its job is to hold everything in together keeping your back upright, holding in your gut and generally providing support.

If you are looking to get rid of ‘belly fat’ then strengthening the transverse abdominis can be a good way to do so as it will pull everything in and flatten your stomach as a result. Likewise this can also help to improve your posture and reduce lower back pain. It can also prevent injury and training these muscles together will provide you with what’s known as ‘nature’s weight belt’.

Stomach Vacuums

So how do you train the transverse abdominis? Well the most popular method is to use something called ‘stomach vacuums’. Here you breathe out, then pull your stomach in towards your spine and pull your diaphragm upwards in order to make a concave ‘vacuum’ in your stomach. This is an exercise that you can use anywhere and it was popular among bodybuilders during the ‘golden era’. Just take a look at Frank Zane’s abs for an idea of what this could do for you.

Perfect Abs With a Piece of String

One trick you will occasionally read about for improving the transvers abdominis even more, is to create a partial vacuum, then tie a piece of string around your stomach while it is pulled in. The idea is that when you ‘let go’ you will feel the string press against your stomach which will remind you to hold the transvers abdominis again. Throughout the day you will be using a slight isometric hold on the muscle and over time you will firm it up and end up with a flatter stomach. Some reports claim this can help give you a flat stomach in weeks.

I’m not so sure. For one, too many people stop breathing when they use a stomach vacuum which isn’t good for you. Likewise static holds aren’t always great for hypertrophy. That said, I tried this myself for a few days (though I used a dressing gown cord) and I think I did notice some improvement. Better yet, this forced me to fix my posture (it’s much easier to maintain a vacuum while upright) which in turn helped me get rid of the lower back pain I’d been feeling for ages. I didn’t use this all day though, but just during periods when I was working and at times when working out (which encouraged me to use contraction through my whole body rather than just in the target muscles – think vastly improved press up form). I recommend this technique to be used in short bursts, but not for whole days at a time.

Other Exercises for the Transverse Abdominis

Another exercise from Tim Ferriss is the ‘cat vomit’ exercise. Here you rest on all fours, pull your stomach up towards your spine, hold, then release and repeat. Finally, exercises that force you to tense your whole body – such as plank or Superman press ups (press ups with your arms stretched out in from of you) – are also great for the transverse abdominis. You can actually use plank in conjunction with cat vomit too.

Whatever you choose, I highly recommend working some transverse abdominis training into your routine for visible ab results and better core stability.

The Inner and Outer (Internal and External) Obliques

The obliques are the muscles you see running down the sides of your abs, below the ribs. These have the jobs of helping you to torque your body (twist) from left to right, as well as bending sideways. Not only is training these going to help give you a narrower waist and a much more ripped looking mid-section with lots of detail (the external obliques will anyway), but they will also further help stabilise your spine and provide you with lots of power in your punches.

To train the obliques you simply need to utilise exercises that involve twisting your waist. Examples include bicycle crunches, around the worlds (drawing a circle with your legs while hanging from a bar) and the wood chopper (twisting against the resistance of a resistance band or cable pulley).

The Erector Spinae

The erector spinae are a pair of muscles on your lower back, the job of which is to keep your spine upright. These are the muscles that help to keep your posture correct, as well as the muscles that often hurt in the morning because they’ve been overworked during the day.

My eyes used to roll over when I heard people mention ‘posture’ (boooring!), but that was before I realised just how critical it was in giving you an awesome appearance (you need the right stance to get perfect abs) and the optimum performance. Standing up straighter will immediately flatten your stomach, and it will prevent back pain in the mornings for a lot of people. You’ll also find it has the psychological effect of making you look – and feel – much more confident and optimistic.

Unfortunately most of us spend all day sitting slumped in office chairs and leaning forwards. This stretches our erector spinae causing it to become weaker, while also shortening our hip flexors. Correcting your posture at work and talking more is the number one way to fix this, but you can also try working some targeted training into your workout routines.

Exercises for the Erector Spinae

There are some risky exercises for the erector spinae such as ‘good mornings’, but I prefer to train them with compound movements or bodyweight. The number one way to train the erector spinae? Deadlifts! Which are also great for your legs and get a good hormonal response. Otherwise try using back extensions, either off the edge of something, or while lying flat on the floor.

The Quadratus Lumborum

The quadratus lumborum is another muscle in your back which starts at the lower point and travels up to the middle. These are the muscles you will use while bending over sideways, along with a little help from the obliques. Again they will further aid that ‘corset’ technique in holding everything in and in place for real core power, balance and stability. You can train them with side plank, or side bends (holding a dumbbell in one hand and bending down to the side). Many people also use these exercises to train the obliques (to a lesser extent).

The Role of Your Shoulders and Pecs

As mentioned, sitting at a computer all day is very bad for your posture as it involves leaning forward. At the same time, having your arms up in front of you will also cause your shoulders to roll inwards and your pecs to tighten. This, along with a focus on training the muscles on the front of the body and ignoring those on the back, can lead to the hunched pose called ‘kyphosis’.

To avoid this you need to stretch the pecs and deltoids, which you can do with good old pec flyes, and you need to train the specular retractors. Their job is to pull your shoulders backwards which will force you to puff out your chest and further ensure the curvature of your spine and a nice, flat stomach. Fortunately they’re relatively easy to train as most rowing exercises and bodyweight moves like the reverse press up will train them.

The Role of Your Hips, Glutes and Pelvis

Sitting also has the unfortunate effect of shortening and tightening your hip flexors (such as the quads and the psoas) – the ones attached to your pelvis that allows you to lift your legs up and aid in bending forwards. At the same time, being sat on your gluteus maximus (your butt muscles which happen to be hip extensors) all day will weaken and stretch them. This results in an imbalance that leads in turn to the pelvis being pulled forward creating a ‘pelvic tilt’. This is an uncomfortable position that again puts straight on the lower back and creates an unattractive ‘waddle’ when you walk.

It also doesn’t hurt to strengthen the whole package by training the gluteus medius (the part of your buttocks responsible for abducting the hip – moving the leg out to the side) and the hip adductors (such as the adductor brevis or adductor magnus). This will help your gait while running and walking, which I’ll be getting to soon on this blog.

Using Stretching to Fix Posture

On top of using these exercises to strengthen your core muscles, you can also stretch to try and remove any shortness/tightness. To make sure you actually do it though you’ll probably want to include the stretches as part of a warm up/cool down routine instead of thinking you’ll do them every evening. Unfortunately most people just don’t stick to that kind of homework.

How to Get the Perfect Abs

If you work all of this into your core training then you will develop ‘perfect abs’. This means training your rectus abdominis with exercises like the myotatic crunch, but also remembering to train the transverse abdominis, the obliques, the erector spinae, the quadratus lumborum and even the hips and upper body. Then throw in some CV training to strip away the fat and eat a healthy diet high in lean protein and low in junk.

That’s how you’ll get amazing abs that don’t just look great, but also support you through every movement, prevent back pain, improve posture and give you extra power in every other exercise you attempt. This is how you train your abs for function, and when you train for function, the appearance is going to reflect that.


About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Peter says:

    Hello Adam,

    Thank you for this article !

    What would be the sets and reps for the exercises you mention ?

    Thanks you

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