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November 09, 2020 10 min read

To the majority of people, a neat row of washboard abs is a sign of a high level of fitness. Highly defined and toned abdominal muscles are a huge goal for many gym-goers, as there’s no better look on the beach or by the pool than a totally shredded abdomen. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the subject of abs, so today we’re going to explain exactly what lies under the surface of your stomach. 

You might have noticed that not all abs look the same. In two people with similar levels of fitness, abdominal muscles can look completely different. Discrepancies in size, shape, and symmetry can be a cause for concern for some people, who worry that their abs don’t look the same as superheroes seen on TV. Achieving defined abs is something fitness freaks dedicate hours of their life towards, so if you’re setting off on a journey towards a shredded six-pack, it’s vital to first understand how this group of muscles is formed. 

There are many factors that determine exactly what kind of “6-pack” you can achieve, but absolutely anyone can get a great look for their abdomen. The most common mistake is to expect your abs to look the same as other peoples, so we’re first going to explain why it is that everyone’s abs look slightly different. Once you understand the reasons behind this, you can continue on your journey to the washboard abs of your dreams. 

A woman doing bicep curls with a six pack.

The Muscles of the Abdomen

There are a total of four muscle groups in your abdomen. To achieve the chiseled look of models and bodybuilders, you need to train all four. The first muscle group we’ll explain is the rectus abdominis, and this is the one responsible for the central abdominal muscles which most people focus on. The rectus abdominis muscle is made up of two connected muscle bands that run parallel down either side of your abdomen. Not six muscles, not eight, but two.

The linea alba is a fibrous band that separates the two muscles of the rectus abdominis, which once toned forms a line running down the center of the abdomen. Aside from making you look fantastic on the beach, the job of the rectus abdominis is to maintain your posture, help regulate breathing, and protect the fragile organs which lie underneath. 

The traverse abdominis is a muscle deep inside your torso, extending from the front of the abdomen around the sides of the body. This muscle provides strength and stability to the whole core, helping to keep your back and pelvis in line and in shape. While the transverse abdominis isn’t the most visible muscle, you have to exercise it to achieve toned abs. To define the rectus abdominis muscles, you must also work out your transverse abdominis. 

The internal and external obliques are the other two muscle groups in your abdomen. Every twist and turn movement in your torso is controlled by these two muscles. In addition, they also help to stabilize the back and pelvis. The internal obliques are located inside your hip joints, while the external obliques are a larger group just outside the rectus abdominis. Working out your obliques can help to tone the rectus abdominis, and adds to the look of a toned abdomen overall. 

The Myth of 8 Pack Abs 

So, now we know that the rectus abdominis (more commonly known as the abs) is actually just two muscles running parallel down the abdomen. So why does everyone not just have one ab on each side? Unfortunately for some, the answer lies in genetics. Everybody has two rectus abdominis muscles, but not everyone has the same number of bands of connective tissue. These bands run horizontally across the abdomen and give the appearance of a 6-pack or 8-pack, and the number you’re born with is completely up to chance. 

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you train, it is impossible to upgrade from a 4-pack to a 6-pack. Once your abdominal muscles are toned and defined, the number of abs you have is permanent. Any personal trainer or workout plan promising totally shredded 8-pack abs is lying to you; the so-called number of abdominal muscles you can achieve is pre-defined by genetics and something you need to accept. 

Another common misconception is the idea of upper abs, middle abs, and lower abs. While this may describe the common three pairs of abdominal muscles seen in a 6-pack, there’s actually no separation between these muscles. The perceived divide is only aesthetic, and from a training point of view you cannot isolate your “middle abs” or any other part. The rectus abdominis is a single muscle group that works in entirety, no matter the supposed number of abs you have. 

The most common by far is a rectus abdominis with three segmentations of connective tissue. This, when built up, will create 6-pack abs. However, any number of abs from 2 all the way to 12 is possible, although being born with 6 horizontal bands of connective tissue is very rare. The point is, the number of abdominal muscles it’s possible for an individual to achieve is entirely predetermined by genetics, and therefore out of your control. If you’re spent your life dreaming of a shredded 8-pack but only find yourself with 6, unfortunately, you’re never going to get there. 

The good news is that no matter how many abs you have, it’s possible to achieve an impressively defined abdomen. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger in the peak of his bodybuilding days sported only a 4-pack because that’s what he was born with. Did anyone criticize him for having only 4-pack abs? Of course not, because his entire physique was completely shredded. Try not to get caught up in an obsession with just a single muscle in your abdomen; 8-pack abs aren’t the be-all and end-all of a toned stomach. 

4-Pack vs 6-Pack vs 8-Pack Abs

So exactly how common are those highly sought-after 8 pack abs? Well, approximately 20% of all people sport the correct number of horizontal bands to achieve an 8-pack. For a 6-pack, the number is around 60%. About 15% of the general population have 4-pack abs, while 2% can only ever achieve a 2-pack. Then, even rarer than the 2-pack is a total of 10 or even 12 abdominal muscles, meaning 5 or 6 bands of the connective fascia. These statistics are the same for men as for women, with the most common being 6-pack for everyone. 

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How To Get Better Abs

So, we’ve established that you cannot get more abs; the number you’re born with is the number you’re stuck with. Everyone, however, can get better abs. Even though you might be disappointed you can’t achieve a rippling 8-pack abdomen, you can still work towards a more toned and defined physique. There are plenty of ways to improve the appearance of your abdominal muscles and feel more confident with your shirt off. 

The human body tends to store a lot of extra body fat around the midsection, so one of the quickest ways to get your abs to pop out more is to lose weight. To get the kind of definition seen on the silver screen, you need to be fairly lean. At a body fat percentage of around 10%, you’ll start to see abdominal muscles appearing. This percentage can be a little higher for women. Getting abdominal muscles is twofold; first, you need to cut body fat in order to make these muscles visible. After that, you can begin building them up to achieve more definition. Burning body fat can be a difficult endeavor, but it’s easy if you supplement a thermogenic fat burner like Shredded-AF

If you’re fairly lean at a low body fat percentage, you’ll probably be able to make out your abdominal muscles beneath the skin. However, to achieve those popping abdominals that protrude from the stomach, you need to develop them considerably. This means bulking and building muscle all over your body. It’s impossible to completely isolate the abdominal muscles, so you need to work towards a better overall level of strength and fitness to achieve a washboard abdomen. 

Despite what many exercises and dieting fads may claim, there’s no way to target and burn belly fat. That means if your abs aren’t visible, you need to reduce your body fat percentage overall. In the same way, it’s very difficult to isolate the abdominal muscles to work on your 6-pack. The best chiseled abs come from a better level of full-body fitness and training your physique all over. Lifting movements such as the squat, deadlift, and bench press might not seem like they’re targeting your abs, but over time they will lead to a much more built and defined rectus abdominis. 

Crunches and sit-ups are exercises of the past if you want better abs. Instead of wasting your time with these, do more challenging full-body exercises. Planks and weighted planks are among the most effective abdominal exercises, these are excellent for achieving better tone and definition in the rectus abdominis muscles. Achieving superhero abs is a combination of weight loss (to reveal the muscle) and bodybuilding (to make them really stand out). 

Disappointed With Your 4-Pack? 

If you feel like you lost the genetic lottery and got stuck with an unsatisfactory number of abdominal muscles, there are a few actions you can take. You’ve shredded all your belly fat and done plenty of planking to find out that a 4-pack is the best that you can achieve. So what’s next? We recommend working the obliques. The external obliques are a fairly large muscle group which begin at the sides of your abs and then run upwards around your torso. Building up these muscles definitely adds to the look of toned abs, and can fill in some space in the solace of a 6-pack or 8-pack. 

To develop more defined obliques, try exercises like the side plank, bear crunches, and hanging leg raises with a twist. In addition, any bodyweight exercises and overall lifting movements (e.g. deadlift) contribute to the development of these muscles. Keep training your entire body and a fantastic set of abdominal muscles will follow. If you’re undertaking a bulking regime, try out Mass Stack to maximize muscle gains and strength improvement. 

A man doing crunches in his apartment.

Burning Fat For Fantastic Abs

So we now know that a low percentage of body fat is necessary to define your abs. It’s perfectly natural to have a layer of fat on your abdomen, but this can get in the way of the sculpted look you're trying to achieve. No matter how built your abdominal muscles are, if you have too much body fat, you won’t be able to see them. We also know that it’s not possible to spot-reduce fat; no amount of sit-ups and crunches are going to melt away the fat in your abdomen. So, to lose overall body fat and make your muscles more visible, you need to create a calorie deficit. 

Working on a reduced number of calories is a tricky business for lifters because it can negatively affect your progress in other areas. If you work for too long in a calorie deficit, you could suffer from a slower metabolism, giving you less energy to perform in your workouts. The key is to find a method of maintaining fat loss without threatening your recovery or energy levels. One solution is walking, an accessible exercise which can help burn additional calories without using up too much of your energy. Don’t push too hard when you’re trying to simultaneously lose weight and build muscle, or you could threaten your health. Instead, keep doing both at a steady pace and trust that your abs will reveal themselves in time. 

High-Intensity Interval Training is a much faster and more effective way to burn fat. This method of working out can burn a lot of calories in a short period of time, and is highly effective for weight loss. HIIT means completing short periods of intense cardio activity such as cycling or running, followed by a short period of rest. This process is repeated and allows you to work at a flat-out level of intensity without tiring too easily. However, it’s worth noting that losing weight in this way may lead to a high calorie deficit which in turn may impact your muscle gains. 

Building Abs by Building All-Over Muscles 

Training your whole body will automatically train your abdominal muscles. Shredded abs are just one part of a fantastic physique, and should not be isolated too much. After all, you don’t want to have great abs without having any other muscles at all. One of the best ways to support the development of your abs is to do more compound exercises, movements that train multiple large muscle groups in the body. Exercises like the bench press, squat, deadlift, pull-up, and chin-up, rows, and more allow you to lift more weight by using many muscle groups in tandem. Instead of isolating the different areas of your body, building multiple groups at the same time is a much more effective form of strength training. Any lift or exercise which needs stabilization from the core (aka most of them) helps build your abdominal muscles. 

The Truth About Abs

In reality, abdominal muscles are some of the most aesthetically important, but least important strength-wise. Toned abdominal muscles do not equal a ripped physique, and you can be incredibly well built without having much definition in the abs at all. They say that abs are built in the kitchen and not the gym, so a lack of abs doesn’t mean you aren’t working out hard enough. However, to achieve a fully toned body with muscles popping from head to toe, you need to balance all areas of fitness. 

Six-pack abs are not inherently better than 4-pack abs, nor are they worse than an eight pack. The number of abdominal bands you’re born with cannot be changed; all you can do is work to improve and define what you already have. If you want abs muscles which are more impressive, the easiest way to achieve this is to work towards a better overall level of strength and fitness. More core workouts will help with muscle building in the abdominal area, and increasing your overall muscle mass makes better abs possible. 

All the hard work of gaining muscle and building a strong core is pointless if you don’t also lower your body fat. To have visible abs, you need to burn away the layer of fat on your belly. Reducing your body fat percentage will reveal your abdominal muscles, while strength training will make them larger and more defined. Whether you have a 4-pack or a 12-pack, anyone can get a shredded abdomen by following these two easy principles. Genetics may decide the number of abs you can count, but hard work and dedication determine how good they look. 

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