I’ll get right to the point here. The number one mistake we’re making with core training is failing to take the abdominal muscles through a full range of motion. Although exercises such as plank variations can serve many purposes (total body strength, stability, and endurance), they simply cannot offer you the maximal core contraction that you’re looking for.
I’m certainly not the personal trainer that encourages clients to have the 6-pack in mind when it comes to fitness goals. I find that aesthetic aspirations (increased tone, weight loss, etc…) fail to build intrinsic motivation, and often leave people dissatisfied as they miss the bigger picture of health. If you are looking to hypertrophy your abdominal muscles, however, I don’t blame you. Who doesn’t want to have good looking abs?
We often consider volume and intensity as the barometers for fitness success, but we mustn't overlook the selection of our exercises!
Here’s the trick. If you’re doing 6-pack-concentrated work within your weekly regime, you must make sure you’re doing the right exercises. No, volume or frequency isn’t going to be enough if all you’re doing is planks. Although these exercises can tone the core as a whole (side note: the side plank is one of my all-time favorite movements), we must get more specific and strategic.
Let me explain!
Using Biomechanics To Help Us Train Better
Please note that bulging abdominal muscles don’t happen overnight, and they may never form the way you see in the magazines. There are many components at play when it comes to hypertrophy including genetics, environment, sex, nutrition, and more. Despite popular belief, we can’t achieve spot-reduction of fat by doing core training either. All this to say, don’t be discouraged if you’re not making the progress you want! This is incredibly hard work so just stick to it.
If you’re doing the right core exercises often enough, the results will come.
This is where our anatomy & biomechanics comes in. To maximize the 6-pack look, we must focus on the rectus abdominis (RA) muscle of the anterior abdominal wall. This muscle plays two key roles — it achieves trunk flexion and is a primary driver of expiration. If we use both of these functions to our advantage, we can maximize the stimulus in this region.
Just picture a plank for a second. While this isometric hold can feel challenging, there is no concentric action (trunk flexion in this case) occurring! You can see how this fact alone reveals that it’s not as productive as we once thought. Like I’ve mentioned above, feel free to continue doing them for overall core stability and endurance, but I’d recommend the two exercises below if you’re serious about that 6-pack.
Two Killer Exercises for the Rectus Abdominis
**Please note: these are advanced exercises. If you’re a beginner in the gym or have a pre-existing health condition, check with your health professional before applying these movements.
Suspended (Hanging) Leg Lifts
Application — 2 x 15 to 20 reps
Cues — Simply lift the legs to begin raising the hip girdle towards the rib cage. You can complete this movement with straight or bent knees — do whatever feels more comfortable for you! This will achieve the flexion we’re looking for while offering a challenge for other stabilizers as well.
If you want to isolate the RA further, I’d suggest doing an incline bench straight leg raise instead. This version will give you more stability for your back. If you feel the hip flexors taking over, consider cutting off some range of motion at the bottom of the movement (only going to hip height with the legs).
Application — 2 x 15 to 20 reps
Cues — This exercise is great because you can modify the line of pull, making it a more versatile exercise than #1. You can also easily change the load as you’re now using a cable machine vs. body weight. Ensure you initiate the flexion through the abs and only go through a range of motion that’s comfortable for you. The goal is to drive the elbows towards the knees.
This is one exercise where you should encourage a curve through the spine as to not restrict the abs from achieving a maximal contraction. To get the most bang for your buck, exhale forcefully on the way down, and slowly inhale on the way back up. Again, one of the RA’s main roles is expiration… so use it!
If you want to maximize your 6-pack training, it’s key to understand your anatomy and biomechanics. Although the plank is a great exercise, it cannot achieve a concentric action and therefore should not be prioritized when trying to isolate the rectus abdominis muscle. Just like any other muscle group, we will only receive a maximal stimulus at the core when we go through a full range of motion.
Ok, that’s all for now! I wish you all the best in your expedition to getting the 6-pack of your dreams. If you put in the right work consistently, the results will show. Just remember…aesthetic fitness goals aren’t everything. Finding something that drives you outside of your physical appearance will make you much happier as you train. Optimal health is a holistic journey, so please take care of your physical and mental wellbeing!