I’ve been asked a bunch of times what the secret to abs is, and, honestly, it’s probably not the answer that you were hoping for. You're not going to find “5 Exercises to Tone Up Your Abs” or “6 Secret Exercises You Aren’t Doing to Get Shredded" here.
Abs are 100% a function of three things: low bodyfat, decent strength levels, and genetics.
1. Low bodyfat
In order to see visible abdominals, you need to have your skin be thin enough that it'll fit in the separations of your abdominals. What is thin enough?
Usually at 15% you can see the linea alba (the middle line) right along the top two abs (in good selfie lighting and with maybe a lower ab stretch a la Dom Mazzeti).
At around 10-12% you can see the faint outline of the top 4, but they usually look like 4 mosquito bites. Decent, but nothing to write home about.
At 8% and below, you'll start to really begin to see some definition, and you'll be the guy with abs. An easy pinch test can help you here: if you pinch your upper arm, the thickness of the skin there is just about what your stomach skin needs to feel like in order to show some serious definition. Go ahead, take a pinch, then compare. If you have a big difference, then you have some work to do.
2. Decent strength levels:
I said in a previous article that abs on a skinny guy are like big boobs on a larger girl… they don't count.
So that being said, you should follow a basic strength plan to get the muscle mass that makes your abs look significant. Following a basic strength plan, if executed correctly, will give you enough core strength to have visible abdominals. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bent over rows require a lot more core strength than holding a plank for 30 seconds. If you stick with big strength movements, you should be fine.
If you want to do direct ab work, though, then go for it, but I think your time's opportunity cost would be better spend prepping your food for the week or doing other major exercises.
Some people simply have more separated abdominals genetically, which means that when they're at a higher percentage body fat, they can see cuts sooner than others.
Now most people might read this and think, “Oh, I definitely have poor abdominal genetics,” but in my experience, most people have fine separation. It's relatively uncommon to see someone who can get below 10% bodyfat and not see visible cuts.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT IT?
You can low body fat in two different ways: Fast or slow.
Slower is better for muscle retention, but I've found that most guys would prefer to lose it quickly, then try and add muscle later once they can see what’s going on beneath the surface. They gain momentum when they start seeing changes in how they look, then they keep going much longer than the slow and steady approach. So I'm only going to address the “fast” way.
So, if you are into getting cut faster, then giving yourself a relatively sizeable deficit (like 30% of your calorie intake) is where you want to start—if you need 2400 calories to keep your current bodyweight, then that would be a deficit of 720 calories/day, which would put you at 1680. Don’t stress about the exact amount because your daily fluctuations in activity will increase and decrease, so hitting in the ballpark of 1700 calories/day coming from protein, vegetables and fat will be your best bet. DO THIS ON THE DAYS YOU DO NOT TRAIN (3-4 days/week), aka your rest days.
On your LIFTING DAYS, you should try and hit your maintenance calories (2400 in this example would work for most “normal” sized guys—obviously this varies by individual). The calories should still come from primarily protein, and vegetables, but on these days add in a couple hundred grams of carbs to give you the fuel for your workouts, while also aiding recuperation (insulin released from your carbs will help you build muscle and repair the damage your workout has caused).
Using this protocol will help you keep as much muscle as possible while in a deficit.
And if you want kickstart everything a bit: Mix in 2-3 days of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). It'll get your Growth Hormone flowing and burn some serious calories in a lot less time than going for a run or jogging on the treadmill.
-- Think 4-6 ALL OUT sprints with 2 minutes in between.
-- 100 Burpees in as little time as possible
-- 100 Kettlebell/dumbbell thrusters in as little time as possible
-- Farmers walks for time with VERY heavy weight (100lbs-150lbs in each hand)
-- OR, for guys who don’t have access to cool things like kettlebells or farmers walk handles, do your entire strength workout as one GIANT set should do the trick: Do your set of squats, then chin-ups, then bench, then go back to squats with 0 rest. Your muscles will have had enough time to receover, but your cardiovascular system will get fried. Believe me, these are hard, especially after your 2nd or 3rd round. Expect to be sucking wind.
So, if you want abs, then you really just need to focus on revealing what you have underneath.
This article isn’t the sexy answer, but it’s the truth: if you can't see your abs, it's probably because you have too much fat. So get to fixing that before you start spending an hour a week on “ab exercises.”
(NOTE: This article was targeted at guys who just want to look better. Athletes should work on their core strength, as it's integral to injury prevention and all other displays of strength. But most guys I've come in contact with don’t really care too much about how much you squat. They do care about whether or not they can get a second look from that group of cute college girls walking by at the pool (or at your frat event that just got weird and shirtless late night…)
Alex Hormozi is the owner of BodyForge LLC, an online custom training and nutrition company, and a gym in Huntington Beach based around delivering rapid changes in appearance.
And check out some great transformations on his Instagram: alexhormozi