From superheroes to bodybuilders and from famous athletes to big-name actors who seem to appear with their shirts off in every film they ever make an appearance in, the six pack is widely regarded as the ultimate symbol of strength, fitness, and sex appeal. For that reason, many people start each January with a New Year’s resolution to exercise every day and attain a six pack by year’s end. (Working toward your own New Year’s resolution exercise goals? Take Udemy’s “Fit for Life” course to gain an understanding of the science of exercise and lay the foundations for years of note-perfect fitness!) Unfortunately, sculpting a strong six pack is easier said than done, partially because it takes a great deal of resolve, stamina, and consistency of exercise to get there, but also due to the fact that the exercises most people adopt in an attempt to reach their six pack goals are the wrong ones.
Indeed, when many think of a six pack, they think of great abdominal muscle workouts, and in the minds of most people, there is no more obvious or appealing abdominal workout routine than one focused on sit-ups. The appeal of sit-up workouts are obvious: the risk of injury is low, they can be completed in the comfort of a bedroom or living room with no specialized equipment, and it doesn’t take long to start feeling the effects of the exercises. However, while sit-ups may make you feel great, studies have actually proven that the sit-up is not the most effective exercise for strengthening abdominal muscles and building a six-pack. Luckily though, there are other ways to exercise in your living room. Udemy’s “No Equipment, No Resources” course is a great resource for those looking to develop an effective home workout plan.
Correcting the Sit-Up Misconception
While it may seem shocking to some that sit-ups aren’t the most effective exercise method for attaining killer abs – especially given their ubiquity in gym classes and fitness routines – it actually makes sense when you consider the science behind a strong six pack.
In essence, a six pack or any strong set of abdominal muscles is the sign of a strong core. While what we call “the core” consists of more muscles than just the abs – including the lower back muscles and the latissimus dorsi – core exercises are still what most fitness trainers recommend for athletes trying to attain a six pack. The main goal of these core muscles is to support the spine and hold it in a stationary and rigid position, thus giving us the ability to stand upright, walk around, and complete other tasks that would be much more difficult with no strong core muscles to speak of.
Sit-ups, then, don’t work terribly well as a core exercise because they don’t stress the traditional core muscular function of stabilizing the spine. Instead, a sit-up is what is called a “flexion” exercise, where you are using your core muscles to move and flex the spine rather than hold it in a stationary position. Obviously, flexing your spine and sitting up from a laydown position still requires use of the core muscle group and is thus still a reasonable solid exercise for those muscles. However, since sit-ups don’t use the core muscles in the traditional manner, they are not the most efficient way of strengthening core muscles and ultimately building up a six pack. The same goes for similar flexion exercises like crunches: these exercises generally won’t have the impact you want them to have on your abs and could even lead to spinal injuries if you aren’t careful.
The Top Three Exercises for a Six Pack and a Strong Core
So if sit-up exercises aren’t the way to achieve a strong core, then which exercises are specifically adept at producing six pack results? How can athletes achieve the efficient and intense core workouts necessary to build a six pack without losing the at-home convenience provided by sit-up workouts?
The solution is to ditch flexion exercises like sit-ups and crunches and to replace them with exercises that stress stabilization instead. As discussed above, the main purpose of your core muscles is to stabilize and support your spine, so exercises that work for the same type of stabilization are naturally the ones the achieve the best results when it comes to strengthening your core and building a lean and mean six pack. With that in mind, here are three exercises you should consider adding to your routine instead of sit-ups in order to attain the most intense, efficient, and effective core workout possible.
1. The Plank
Sit-up routines are generally easier than they look: while doing 20 or 30 sit-ups in quick succession can get you to the point of “feeling the burn” in your abs, it’s surprisingly easy to keep up with sit-ups until you reach the 40 or 50 mark. The opposite is true for plank exercises, which look like they shouldn’t be terribly difficult, but which are actually incredibly tiring.
That fact alone should tell you that plank exercises are more efficient and effective for exercising your core than sit-ups are, but if you don’t believe us, try it for yourself. Get your body into push-up position, either with your feet on the ground or elevated on a bench, then lower yourself onto your elbows. If your feet are elevated on a workbench, they should now be at the same level as your head, with your body forming a straight line between the two points. If your feet are on the floor, your body should still be straight, but the line will naturally be slightly diagonal.
Either way, your goal should be to hold your body in plank position for 90 seconds at a time. Most fitness professionals will tell you that the most effective plank exercises occur when you clench or tighten your abdominal muscles as if bracing yourself for a punch. You will quickly start to feel the exercise burn throughout your lower body, and will likely even feel your body shaking and vibrating from the exercise. This is normal, so continue holding your position until your 90 seconds are up. Then, after a short break, you can start again!
2. The Modified Plank
When you start doing the plank workout, it will tire you out so much that it may well be the only six pack exercise you need for awhile. After a few weeks though, you will be able to pull off 90-second planking exercises without breaking a sweat (well…almost), at which point it’s time to start modifying the plank to add new challenges into the mix.
A “modified plank” can mean many things, from holding this position for longer (try pushing your 90-second rounds into three-minute routines) to trying what is called the “side plank.” For the latter, lay down as if you were going to do a regular plank exercise, then roll to one direction so you are only supporting your weight on one forearm instead of two. Your body should still be straight and your stomach should still be braced, but your new position will bring additional challenge and strength training into the mix. You might even feel a bit of burn in your arms as a bonus exercise. Just make sure to even things out by doing a side plank on both forearms.
3. Suitcase Deadlift and/or Walk
Suitcase lifts and walks are a great way to build core muscle strength using weights, and which you decide to use will depend first on your personal preferences and second on whichever weights you happen to have immediate access to.
Generally, deadlifts will be preferable if you have a barbell for bench-pressing. (Learn how to deadlift in this excellent Udemy course.) To start, leave the loaded bar on the floor and stand next to it, taking time to stabilize your body and make sure that your shoulders are leveled. Crouch down, maintaining your balanced posture and being careful not to bend your back at all. Then, grip the barbell weight right in the center of the bar and stand back up, lifting the weight as you would a suitcase.
Be careful not to let the weight pull your arm down or throw you off balance. The reason you aren’t lifting weights on both sides of your body is that this isn’t an exercise to see how much weight you can lift, but an exercise to practice posture and body stabilization. You should be using your abdominal muscles and your oblique muscles to drive the lift, with your arm essentially serving as the object that grips the weight. Once you’ve lifted the weight back into your starting standing position, hold for two seconds, then crouch back down in the same manner you did to lift the weight to place it back on the floor. Do eight or 10 of these and you will be feeling the work in your abs.
You can get a similar workout using a dumbbell weight. Use the same set-up as for the suitcase deadlift, but once you have lifted the weight and are back in standing position, walk forward about 20 yards, taking care to maintain a balanced posture. Whichever hand is not gripping the weight can be placed on your hip (think the Superman pose) for a bit of extra stabilization help.
Establishing a Well-Rounded Workout Plan
If you main goal is to build a six pack, then the three exercises described above should all be in consistent rotation as you plan your workouts for the week or the month. However, while a six pack is certainly a great fitness benchmark to work toward, it is not the only goal you should have for your own physical fitness. On the contrary, the most fit people in the world got there by pursuing multiple goals at a time and always being willing to take on new challenges when they came along.
With all of that in mind, push for your six pack, but focus on other types of exercise as well. Get in the swimming pool and master the challenging and physically demanding butterfly stroke with Udemy’s “Swim Butterfly Like a Pro” course, or establish a regular running workout routine by training for a half marathon. By keeping multiple fitness goals and workout regimens at once, you will be able to build your body into a well-rounded physical workhorse, from legs of steel to sculpted six pack abs, all the way up to muscular arms and shoulders.