If you want an absolutely ripped six-pack, busting out a few ab moves during the last 15 minutes of your workout isn't going to cut it. Building a strong, visible six-pack requires more than a quickie ab workout; it takes a solid plan.
Exhibit A: Tom Graff, a Boise, Idaho, fitness buff who caught the iron bug as a competitive football player in Southern California. Blocking and tackling hasn't given him any advantage over the rest of us when it comes to hosting outstanding abs. It's what he's done in the last year that really made his physique, especially his midsection, stand out.
And that's exactly what we'll share here. Don't expect some magical formula of exercises, sets, and reps that will suddenly change your six-pack forever, though. It'll take a helluva lot more than simply training abs to see your abs. Graff's approach entails getting ripped, an effort that also includes changes to your training, diet, and cardio.
Taking the Next Step
Today, Graff, 24, serves as fitness director at Boise's Axiom Fitness. But he started learning his craft by hanging out at the gym, paying keen attention to guys who competed in physique contests. "I found that training for a competition gave me even more motivation with my training than what I would've achieved otherwise," says Graff. "I got leaner and in better shape as a result. In fact, I got into my best-ever shape just last year when I trained for my first competition."
He placed third at that competition, the Idaho Cup, held in November 2015. Then, he won the Idaho Muscle Classic in June 2016. Contest prep was like a laboratory for Graff, who experimented with his precontest diet and training, figuring out what worked and what didn't. Those lessons also apply to those who anyone who doesn't compete but still wants a ripped six-pack.
Building Abs in the Off-season
Diet, training, and cardio—that's how Graff ranks the conditioning factors in order of their importance. Let's first consider Graff's offseason approach to ab training to understand what sets it apart from his in-season program.
"I typically choose weighted movements, so I can dial the rep range down to about 10-12, which better allows me to build up the bricks of my six-pack," he says. "I might opt for lower- or upper-ab movements in particular, if I feel I need to bring an area up. I have naturally wide hips, so I'm not trying to build my obliques. I want to get them more striated. I might normally follow this kind of routine in the winter, away from contest season."
Tom Graff's Offseason Abs Workout
- 4-5 exercises
- 3-4 sets
- 10-12 reps to failure
- 30-45-seconds rest between sets
1. BOSU-ball weighted crunch 3 sets of 12 reps
"I'm performing a bench press during the crunching motion, adding an additional 10 pounds on each successive set. The added weight makes the movement harder, but I make sure to reach failure by the target rep."
2. Medicine-ball pass 3 sets of 12 reps
"This works both the upper and lower abs by passing the ball from my hands to my feet and back. Typically, I'll use a 10- to 12-pound ball."
3. Hanging leg raise 3 sets of 10-12 reps
"I use ankle weights (not shown) to increase the difficulty. It's imperative to bring your feet above your thighs, because going to about 90 degrees works just your hip flexors."
4. Machine double crunch 3 sets of 12 reps
"I like the machines in which both sides are moving toward each other, which better recruits both the upper and lower abs."
5. Decline-bench weighted Russian twist 3 sets of 15-20 reps
"I don't use too heavy a ball, because I don't want to train my obliques in a lower rep range, which could make my already thick waist appear blockier."
Bringing out the Abs
Precontest, Graff changes things up. It becomes less about building muscle and more about conditioning. With that in mind, he increases his intensity to chew up more total calories. He also trains more frequently, uses his body weight for resistance rather than weighted exercises, does more supersets, and trains for muscle burn rather than counting reps.
Tom Graff's In-season Abs Workout
- Fewer total sets
- Higher rep targets, as high as 30 reps
- More supersets and circuits; less rest between sets
1. Floor crunch circuit (straight-arm, feet-up, oblique crunch)
1 set of 25 of each, rest and repeat for a total of 3-4 sets.
"The idea here is to hit all areas of the midsection with higher-rep bodyweight moves and keep it moving. The number of reps I complete decreases from set to set as my abs become increasingly fatigued."
2. Hanging leg-raise circuit (to left, center, right, center, left, etc.)
1 set completes 12-15 reps each direction, repeat for a total of 3 sets.
"This lower ab-and-oblique circuit is done without the ankle weights for a higher number of total reps. Again, getting my feet to about the level of my face is key for getting maximal ab recruitment; the thighs-perpendicular-to-your-body position involves mainly the hip flexors."
Plank: 3-4 sets of 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes; no rest before going into second exercise
"Most people focus solely on the rectus abdominis, but I think that misses strengthening the inner transverse abdominis (TVA) wall as well. Though not visible, strengthening the TVA helps you better flex your midsection by allowing you to control your ability to pull in your gut, making your waist appear slimmer."
Standing vacuum: 3-4 sets of 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes; rest and go back to first exercise
"Since the TVA is mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers, I find training it aerobically for time more effective for strengthening it. By the time you're done, you're exhausted."
The Total Package
While necessary, these workouts alone won't produce a visible six-pack. That requires a strict diet and cardiovascular training, too. The chart that follows shows how Graff ties it all together for the 16 weeks leading up to a physique contest, at which point his abs should resemble cobblestones. Even if you're not prepping for a contest, the same 16-week plan can help you achieve a ripped midsection.
Graff's 16-Week Preparation Progression
- Abs: Twice per week
- Cardio: 20 minutes steady-state post-workout every day
- Diet: Clean foods at a maintenance caloric level; 50% protein, 35% carbs, 15% fats
12 Weeks Out
- Abs: Three times per week
- Cardio: 40 minutes steady-state post-workout every day
- Diet: Clean foods at a maintenance caloric level; 50% protein, 30% carbs, 20% fats
8 Weeks Out
- Abs: Four times per week
- Cardio: 20 minutes fasted steady-state cardio three times per week; 40-minutes steady-state post-workout every day
- Diet: Clean foods at shred caloric level; 50% protein, 25% carbs, 25% fats
6 Weeks Out
- Abs: Four times per week
- Cardio: 20 minutes fasted steady-state cardio three times per week; 20 minutes HIIT three times per week; 40 minutes steady-state post-workout every day
- Diet: Clean foods with carb-cycling intake: 4 low days of 80 grams of carbs followed by one high day of 250 grams
2 Weeks Out
- Abs: Every day
- Cardio: 30 minutes fasted steady-state cardio three times per week; 30 minutes HIIT three times per week; 40 minutes steady-state post-workout every day
- Diet: Clean foods with carb depletion starting at 160 grams carbs and dropping 20 grams every two days
- Water: 1.5 gallons every day
"After 2 days of very little carbs, I carb up for 3 days having about 300-500 grams each day depending on how I feel/look. I'll drop the water down to half a gallon by Friday and not drink any more than just sips the day of the event [Saturday]."