How to Get Six Pack Abs at 12%+ Body Fat (No Crazy Dieting)

By on May 11, 2018

I do not believe that you need to be sub 10% bodyfat in order to get visible abs. In fact, I know this to be true. I don’t know my precise bodyfat percentage, but I know it is at least 11% and probably higher.

Likewise, it is widely reported that Chris Evans was at around 12.5% bodyfat for his role in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Captain America gets six pack abs

And with that in mind, I don’t really see the need for cutting down to extremely low bodyfat percentages. It isn’t fun. It doesn’t provide any real functional benefit. And it’s arguably not sustainable in the long run. If you’re a model or a professional bodybuilder that’s different, but otherwise… why bother?

So the question is: why do some people have visible abs at 15% while others have to get down to 8% to start seeing them show?

Why Your Abs Aren’t Showing Yet and What to Do About It

There are several reasons for these individual differences. One major explanation comes down to genetics and fat distribution. We all have unique bodies that deposit more fat in different places. If you store fat around your mid section, then you are more likely to struggle to see those abs. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as ‘spot reduction’, so you can’t easily fix that to bring out those six pack abs.

But what you can do is to make your abs stronger.

This is the slightly controversial part of my argument. A lot of people will tell you that abs are ‘made in the kitchen’. That this is the only consideration for getting a washboard stomach.

But here’s my counter argument: stand in front of the mirror and then contract your abs as hard as you can. They’ve become more visible right? (Constantly tensing is the easiest way to get six pack abs!)

Stronger abs poke through more effectively than weaker/smaller ones. And that’s all the proof that I think you should need. Train harder and your abs will eventually look like this all the time.

Train harder to get six pack abs yes, but also train smarter.

Train the Rectus Abdominis

Your ‘abs’ are not actually one muscle but several muscle groups that make up your midsection. The part that most of us think of though is what is known as the rectus abdominis. This is a plate of muscle that runs down the front of your lower body and that has four-to-eight visible segments. This is our ‘six pack’ (whether you have more or less than six is also purely genetic) and this is what you need to train in order to make your abs ‘pop’.

Six pack abs training

To train this well, you need to understand its function: which is to counteract the action of the posterior chain and prevent you from snapping backward. Likewise, it is what you will use whenever you bend at your torso when leaning forward.

The rectus abdominis is not involved in movement at the hips however.

So if you’re doing huge numbers of sit ups and you are pivoting at the hips, then you are wasting your time and this will not help you to get six pack abs any more than the hip adductor. The same goes for leg raises performed incorrectly.

Instead of bending like an ‘L’, you should be aiming to curve your body forward like a ‘C’. So the crunch is more effective than the traditional sit-up in many cases, because it’s easier to focus on really engaging the abs and bending them.

The next problem is that this area can be a little stubborn to grow. Like your calves, you use your abs all the time so getting them to come out more is going to require some coaxing.

Bruce Lee abs

Here are two options:

  • Add more weight – use ab crunch resistance machines for instance, or perform leg raises with weight between your knees/feet
  • Increase volume and frequency (also how you get calves to grow) by training daily or near-daily (like Bruce Lee)

Another option is to do both these things with my old favorite ‘the mechanical drop set’. That might mean performing weighted leg raises/using a resistance machine to failure, then performing regular leg raises, then frog kicks (just bringing the knees up), then sit ups. By the end your stomach will be begging for mercy. In short, there’s nothing to stop you treating this body part like any other part of a bodybuilding routine. You get six pack abs in just the same way you get biceps: with targeted, progressive overload and intensity techniques.

Don’t just do sit ups at the end of every workout, you’re wasting your time!

Train the Transverse Abdominis

The other part of this equation is the transverse abdominis. This is ‘nature’s weight belt’: a band of muscle surrounding the stomach and keeping everything packed in tightly. When you ‘suck in your gut’, this is the muscle that you use to do so. It is also very important for preventing injuries.

If your transverse abdominis is strong, then your stomach can appear flat even when you are carrying some extra weight there!

The clue is the ‘sucking in your gut’ part. If your transverse abdominis is weak, then your gut will hang out. If your transverse abdominis is strong, then your stomach can appear flat even when you are carrying some extra weight there!

The problem is that very few people (outside of bodybuilding) train this muscle specifically. And it’s not just a vanity muscle either: it is crucial for keeping your body rigid and supporting you through heavy lifts. If you are interested in calisthenics or in lifting heavy weights, then you should definitely consider the role this muscle plays.

Seeing as the transverse abdominis is involved in keeping your body rigid and sucking in your gut, it does get some love from the plank. Problem is that the plank is a really boring and easy exercise. And the variations aren’t a whole lot better.

planche for abs

Until you get to planche that is: a calisthenics move that has you balancing on your hands with your legs floating in mid air. This takes serious core strength and building up to it is a great way to strengthen the mid section generally.

Similar is the pull up front lever.

OR press ups for super-high reps. I used to swear by high-rep push ups as the best way to get six pack abs. That’s because it’s not only a great tool for developing the transverse abdominis, but is also a great form of resistance cardio.

Of course you should also train with ab vacuums: which means focussing on bringing your navel in toward your spine and holding. This is an important training method for pro bodybuilders that allows them to create that hollowed out look. It is critical for ‘classic aesthetics’ (before GH guts became all the rage).

Finally, you can try usnig a trick recommended by Arnold Schwarzenegger in order to train the transverse abdominis to ‘remember’ to do its job, while also improving posture (which will likewise immediately help flatten your stomach).

I won’t go over it again here, just watch the video below – it’s short:

Finishing Touches to Get Six Pack Abs

You should also spend some time training your obliques while you’re at it. These are the muscles that you see on either side of the abs, and which are used to bend the torso sideways and ‘torque’ as you twist. They add a lot more detail to your mid-section to make it significantly more impressive to behold. (And likewise, a great set of serratus muscles will complement the obliques nicely.)

Some people worry that training the obliques with side bends will result in a ‘thickening’ of the waist. I don’t most people need to worry about that, but if you are concerned, focus more on torque motions instead with bicycle sit ups and wood-chopper exercises.

Now of course on top of all this, you should also be sure to diet and to bring your bodyfat percentage down as low as you can go comfortably. Add in some CV for good measure.

Diet is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to six pack abs

I’m certainly not saying that diet isn’t a very important part of getting six pack abs. I’m just saying it’s not the be-all and end-all. Exercise also plays an important role, and especially if you know which moves to focus on.

The best part is that when you train your abs this way, they become an outward sign of truly functional strength and performance: rather than a sign of malnourishment!

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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.

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