It will be rare to find a client that doesn’t want to know how to get perfect abs. As a personal trainer and fitness expert, you need to know the science and research behind what it takes to get six pack abs. This includes knowing how to answer questions like if extra time in the gym is the answer. Or, is it a specific ab workout they should be doing? Answers to these questions include the role genetics plays in stored body fat and visible belly fat, hypertrophy ab workout, choosing the right ab exercise, and more.
Here, we’ll break down the science so you can educate clients on how to look and feel their personal best—not achieve the “best look” according to everyone else. Next time your client wants to know how to get perfect abs, use these strategies to guide them.
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Fat Loss is Key
Fat loss is a key element for developing perfect abs. So, if six pack abs is what the client is looking for, the first thing you need to evaluate is their existing body fat percentage. The abdominal muscle is only viewable as a client gets their fat percentage lower. Make sure you evaluate your client’s body composition during their fitness assessment. Also, take a good look at their current food intake and lifestyle habits. Methods to boost fat loss include:
- Increase protein intake- This helps suppress a client’s appetite, giving them feelings of fullness, while also providing them with a good amount of lean meat for energy and muscle growth.
- Get ample sleep- Good sleep hygiene helps individuals with energy to get them through a tough workout but also connects to appetite control and keeping a healthy diet.
- Drink a lot of water- Hydration is key to maintaining the right fluid balance and seeing accurate numbers on the scale. It also helps with appetite, energy, and more.
- Maintain a negative energy balance or caloric deficit- To lose body fat, you simply must be expending more energy than you’re burning. This is the case regardless of all else.
Ultimately, diet is of utmost importance. A recent 16-week study of postmenopausal women comparing a diet-only group to a diet (-3500 weekly calories) and exercise group indicated similar results. Subcutaneous and intra-abdominal fat was reduced by 12.5 and 12.0 percent in the diet-only group, and 16.0 percent and 14.6 percent in the diet and exercise.
This goes to show the power of a good diet if your clients want to develop perfect abs.
As a side note, a body fat percentage where a client can see ab muscle definition might not be desirable by all clients. First, it can be tough to get there. But also, some clients won’t like how their face looks. Or, they’re body might become disproportionate, depending on where they store their fat. wFor example, a female who wants a muscular core that has definable lines around the linea alba will probably mean she’ll lose fat elsewhere- as in her chest area. Why? Breasts are made of fat, and exercise combined with caloric restriction decreases total body fat loss. The bottom line is make sure you and your client discuss what it takes to get the core definition and have key check in points to make sure they continue to feel positive about their body.
Genetics Can’t be Overlooked
It’s important to note that not everyone can have a six-pack. The truth is that genetics determines the number of “packs” or definable muscles in the rectus abdominis. One of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, never obtained an actual six-pack, yet his abs looked fantastic.
What determines a “six-pack”, or six well-defined rectus abdominis muscles, are the size of the muscles and the thickness of the linea alba. The latter is a fibrous connective tissue that contains no nerves or blood vessels. Its purpose is to space, provide stability, and give structure to the rectus abdominis musculature.
The linea alba originates at the xiphoid process and inserts on the pubic symphysis, and its length will depend on the length of the torso. The depth of the depressions between each rectus abdominis muscle will depend on the size of the muscle and the width and thickness of the linea alba tissue, both genetic and out of the clients' hands. Can these muscles increase in size? Yes, with progressive overload, the abdominals can hypertrophy.
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Abdominal Hypertrophy is Necessary
Resistance training and direct abdominal work is also key for developing perfect abs. Every time someone heavy squats, deadlifts, rows, pulls upward or downward, the core musculature contracts to stabilize and protect the spine.
One specific resistance training exercise that has shown to increase the size of the oblique muscles is Olympic weightlifting (6). This research corroborates what many of us have noticed upon entering CrossFit gyms: lean, jacked athletes who all have chiseled abs.
Other research analyzing hypertrophy of the core musculature has indicated the hypertrophy is sport and activity specific (3, 5). In other words, the more you engage in a specific exercise that trains a core muscle, the more the muscle will grow.
Make sure your clients understand that some abdominal muscles on one side may appear and be larger than another side (4). These asymmetries are perfectly normal and suggest that one side of the body activates to a greater degree.
So how much resistance training is needed to grow the core musculature? Dr. Mike Israetel recommends a minimum of 16 sets (per week) of 8 to 20 repetitions, sometimes using load and sometimes using higher repetitions (1). Using and progressing the load is important in developing a hypertrophy program. As with about every other muscle in the body, to increase the size of the muscle you often must increase the load to progress.
The Right Exercises are Necessary
The rectus abdominis is a sagittal plane (forward and backward) pelvic and trunk flexor. This is why an ab crunch is the most go-to ab exercise. But, any exercise that resists flexion of the trunk or flexes the trunk or pelvis helps the client work toward developing their perfect abs.
In addition, any movement that resists lateral spinal flexion or laterally flexes the spine works the oblique muscles. The transverse abdominis is not seen and lies underneath the other muscles. This muscle is designed to stabilize the spine and maintain intra-abdominal pressure, especially during breathing (2), which makes these movements necessary for core toning and training. One of the most common transverse abdominis exercises is seen during a forearm plank.
The largest of the abdominal muscles is the rectus abdominis so a greater return on investment is likely to be yielded by focusing on sagittal plane flexion of the trunk and pelvis (4).
Our favorite weighted exercises for developing a defined abdomen include:
- The bar rollout
- Weighted crunches
- Loaded carries
- Seated spinal flexion with bands or pulley weight
- Russian barbell twists
Each of these exercises can and should be progressed with load. Keep the repetition range a minimum of 10 repetitions as this will safeguard against going too heavy. Also, give ample rest in-between repetitions to maximize muscle tension.
For clients who prefer bodyweight exercises, some options include:
- Levitation crunches
- Knee tucks
- Seated alternating twists
- Lying knee hugs.
Use these exercises in circuit style training to maximize the effect. A circuit style of training means you perform one set of each exercise consecutively, with minimal or no rest. Then, after each set is complete you start at the top and perform your second set, and so on.
Keep Reading: 5 Benefits of Circuit Training for Clients
Resistance and Aerobic Training Should be Used
In addition to direct abdominal exercise, aerobic exercise and resistance training are effective modes to lose abdominal fat. A recent meta-analysis published earlier this year analyzed 59 studies totaling 3,552 participants (8). Aerobic exercise is effective at reducing abdominal fat as was resistance training; there was no statistical difference.
However, there was a statistical difference between concurrent resistance training and aerobic when compared to aerobic exercise. In other words, combining aerobic exercise with resistance training is a more effective way to lose more abdominal body fat than aerobic or resistance training alone.
Clients should consistently perform 16 sets of 10 repetitions each week of the exercises that best support abdomen hypertrophy. An ideal workout schedule includes three days of resistance training and two days of aerobic exercise to help clients achieve the perfect abs they’re looking for—assuming their genetics aren’t holding them back.
Results Take Time, but Perfect Abs Are Possible
Reiterate to your clients that developing the perfect abs will take time. Slow, steady consistency is key to losing fat, building muscle, and developing that definition. Ultimately, however, it’s not about looking like someone else’s “best,” but the best version of themselves. Use these strategies to guide them toward their best body.
When you get a degree in exercise science from Lionel University, you learn how to design any type of fitness program. Whether a client wants perfect abs or just to be functional and enjoy life more each day. Further, there are so many fitness job opportunities with a degree in exercise science. Regardless of whether you’re pursuing an associates degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree, specialists in exercise science are in demand for jobs including wellness director, athletic trainer, athletic director, corporate wellness, and nutrition coaching.
As you go through your degree program at Lionel, you’ll also earn your personal training certification and Master Trainer certificate in the first few months. This means you can start working as a personal trainer while you finish your program! You’ll be helping others as you learn. Just as great, you’ll learn how to change your own fitness programs as you become an expert in fitness and how to build workouts that get results. And, with the help of financial aid, earning your exercise science degree is even more of a possibility.
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- Hypertrophy guide. Abs. (2018). JTS Strength. Http: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3J4ZStmJuWQ
- Mok, N, Yeung, E., Cho, J., Hui, S., Liu, K., & Pang, C. (2015). Core muscle activity during suspension exercises. Journal Sci Med Sport, 18(2), 189 – 194.
- Moysi, J., Idaoate, F., Izquierdo, M., Calbet, J., & Dorado, C. (2013). The hypertrophy of the lateral abdominal wall and quadratus lumborum is sport specific: An MRI segmental study in professional tennis and soccer player. Sport Biomechanics, 12(1).
- Rankin, G., Stokes, M., & Newham, D. (2006). Abdominal muscle size and symmetry in normal subjects. Muscle Nerve, 34, 320 – 326.
- Sanchis-Moysi, J., Idoate, F., Dorado, C., Alayon, S., Calbet. J. (2010). Large asymmetric hypertrophy of rectus abdominus muscle is professional tennis players. PLOS One
- Sitilertpisan, P., Pirunsan, U., Puangmali, A., Ratanapinunchai, J., Kiatwattanacharoen, S., Neamin, H., & Laskin, J. (2011). Comparison of lateral abdominal muscle thickness between weightlifting and matched controls. Physical Therapy in Sport, 12(4), 171-174.
- Willemijn, A. Peeters, P., May, A., Doornbos, A. Elias, S et al. (2019). Effect of diet with or without exercise on abdominal fat in postmenopausal women – a randomized trial. BMC Public Health, 19(174).
- Yarizadeh, H., Eftekhar, R., Anjom-Shoae, J., Speakman, J., & Djafarian, K. (2021). The effect of aerobic and resistance training and combined exercises modalities on subcutaneous abdominal fat: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Advances in Nutrition, 12(1), 179 – 196