Today, I want to talk about washboard abs. What are they? What exercises should you do to get them? And how long will it take?
Here’s everything you need to know.
What Are Washboard Abs?
The term “washboard abs” comes from an old tool known as a washboard. This was a bumpy board used to wash clothes back when there were no washing machines. Abs that are very well developed have a “ridged” look, a little like the ridges on a washboard.
You’ve probably been told on more than one occasion that to get washboard abs, you need to have a low level of bodyfat.
But dropping fat is only part of the story. You also need to develop a muscle known as rectus abdominis, in order to get a real six pack.
Rectus abdominis extends down the stomach from your ribs to your hips. The washboard look comes from bands of connective tissue that cut into rectus abdominis. The more developed the rectus abdominis muscle, the deeper the grooves.
How to Get Washboard Abs
To sum up, getting washboard abs requires two things. One of those things is well developed abdominal muscles. The second is a low level of body fat.
No matter how well developed your abdominal muscles are, you won’t be able to see them if they’re hidden under a thick layer of fat.
So, the first step to getting washboard abs is to lose the fat from your stomach. That might take you two months, six months, 12 months or longer.
It all depends on where you’re starting from and how quickly you’re able to shift the fat from your abdominal region.
However, getting rid of fat is only part of the story. Lose fat without building up your abdominal muscles, and you’ll just end up with a flat stomach, rather than bumpy washboard abs.
Just like any muscle, building rectus abdominis will take time.
Reaching the point where your ab muscles really “pop” out and look the way you want may require several years of hard, consistent training.
Can Anyone Get a Six Pack?
Anyone can lose fat from their stomach and develop their rectus abdominis. But, for some folks at least, getting a true six pack will be out of reach.
If you’ve lost a massive amount of fat, for example, you’ll be left with a lot of loose skin around the abdominal area. Short of surgery, there’s no way to get rid of it.
And not everyone has the genetic makeup necessary to build abs that really pop out.
Rectus abdominis is just one muscle, extending down the stomach from your ribs to your hips.
It’s crossed by strips of connective tissue known as tendinous inscriptions, which give your abs that “beaded” appearance. The way these bands of connective tissue cut into rectus abdominis has a big impact on the way your abs look.
Here’s a picture I took some years ago, when I was getting ready for a photoshoot:
As you can see, my lower abs are relatively flat, giving me more of a four pack than a six pack.
Take a look at the picture of Frank Zane in the image below. Zane was Mr Olympia back in the 1970s, and is one of only a handful of men to have beaten Arnold Schwarzenegger in a bodybuilding contest.
Zane had great genetics, took drugs and had a level of dedication and consistency that few possess.
But even his lower abs are flat. He’s got more of a four pack than a six pack. Zane must have done thousands of ab workouts over the years, but even that wasn’t enough to get his lower abs to stick out.
The number of distinct abdominal beads that show up once the fat has been lost – be it four, six or eight – has a lot to do with your genes as well as your work ethic.
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Some people will be able to get a six pack, while others may end up with a four pack. One side of your abs might look different to the other, giving you three beads on one side and two on the other.
Your abs may pop out like cobblestones, or they might resemble a flat, brick wall. They may look crooked, uneven, or asymmetrical.
And short of having a renegade surgeon perform the world’s first ab transplant, there isn’t a great deal you can do about it.
Washboard Abs are Built in the Gym
You may have heard that abs are built in the kitchen, not the gym. Which isn’t true.
Abs are a muscle. And, just like any other muscle, they’re built in the gym and revealed in the kitchen.
There are some people who are genetically gifted in the abs department and don’t need to do a lot of direct abdominal work. Unless you’re one of them, your training routine will need to involve some direct abdominal work.
Some think that squats and deadlifts are all you need to develop a washboard stomach.
However, while squats and deadlifts work the posterior spinal muscles (i.e. the posterior core), studies show that they don’t work rectus abdominis to any significant degree.
In a lot of cases, people training their abs are simply trying to get rid of the fat from their stomach.
You can do all the hanging leg raises, bent knee ups, scissor kicks, mountain climbers and reverse crunches you want. Doing so is not going to get rid of your belly fat.
These exercises work the muscles that sit underneath your belly fat. But that isn’t going to get rid of the fat that’s covering them up.
In other words, when you work a specific muscle group, you develop the muscle that sits underneath the fat. But you’re not shrinking the fat cells in that area.
Training a particular muscle will sometimes appear to lead to spot reduction.
However, what looks like a reduction in the thickness of subcutaneous fat (the name for fat under the skin) is nothing more than an increase in the size of the underlying muscle.
The total amount of subcutaneous fat remains the same. It just takes up less space because the muscle underneath has got bigger.
Calories, Protein, Carbs and Fat
Probably the most important factor for getting rid of belly fat is the food you eat. Here’s a quick summary of what your diet should look like if you want to lose fat.
CALORIES: Your daily calorie intake should provide somewhere between 250 and 500 calories below your maintenance calorie requirements.
PROTEIN: Eat 0.7 grams of protein per pound (1.6 grams per kilogram) of bodyweight per day.
FAT: Fat intake can vary from 20-40% of total calories depending on your food preferences. Some days you might eat a little more fat, some days a little less. As long as total calories and protein are set at the right level, it doesn’t matter too much.
CARBOHYDRATES: Once protein and fat are taken care of, the rest of your calories should come from carbohydrates.
What About Cardio?
You probably know already that cardio isn’t going to do much when it comes to building your abs.
However, where cardio can help is by contributing to the calorie deficit necessary to lose the fat that’s covering them up.
For anyone who just wants to lose enough weight to fit into their favorite clothes again, then combining weight training with a good diet is going to be enough.
But if you’re looking to get your body fat down to the point where your stomach resembles a washboard (typically a single digit body fat percentage for men and somewhere in the mid teens for women), then cardio is going to come in very useful.
The Washboard Abs Blueprint
Getting a solid workout for your abs doesn’t require dozens of different exercises. In fact, I think you can get a really solid workout for your abs with two types of movement:
- Spinal Flexion
With an anti-extension exercise, the goal is to resist spinal extension. And by resisting spinal extension, I’m talking about stopping your lower back from arching excessively.
Your back is naturally arched, so the aim isn’t to eliminate the arch completely. Rather, you want to resist overextension of the lumbar spine. And it’s the abdominal muscles that play a big part in resisting the forces trying to pull you into extension.
To give you an idea of how effective anti-extension exercises are for working rectus abdominis, take a look at the results of a California State University, which set out to test the effectiveness of several abdominal exercises, including rollouts, crunches, hanging knee-ups, sit-ups and reverse crunches .
Of all the exercises tested, muscle activity in rectus abdominis was highest for the rollout.
Here are the exercises listed in order of effectiveness:
- Power Wheel rollout
- Hanging knee-up with straps
- Power Wheel pike
- Reverse crunch inclined 30 degrees
- Power Wheel knee-up
- Ab Revolutionizer reverse crunch with weights
- Ab Revolutionizer double crunch
- Ab Revolutionizer oblique crunch
- Bent knee sit-up
- Reverse crunch flat
- Ab Revolutionizer reverse crunch
The rollout is an extremely tough exercise to do, so it’s something you’ll want to build up to gradually.
The following anti-extension exercises are listed in order of difficulty. The further down the list you go, the harder they get.
While lying down on your stomach, raise yourself onto your forearms. Make sure that your elbows are lined up directly beneath your shoulders.
Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart with your toes on the floor. Avoid lifting your hips too high or dropping them too low.
Start with sets lasting 15-30 seconds and add 10 seconds each week as your muscular endurance improves. If your shoulders or elbows hurt, try performing the plank from a push up position.
Personally, I think the plank is possibly the most boring exercise ever invented. If there’s a more tedious way to spend time in the gym, I can’t think what it is.
One way to make the exercise harder, which means you don’t have to spend as long doing it, is to remove one of the contact points from the floor.
From the standard four-point plank position, lift one foot off the ground and hold it there. Make sure to hold your body still, keep your spine in a “neutral” position (no arching or rounding your back) and avoid tilting sideways. Switch legs every 5-10 seconds.
With a Swiss Ball, loaded barbell or Power Wheel in front of you, kneel down on the floor. Starting with the ball close to your body, push forwards as far as possible, pausing for a second in the end position. Pull back with the arms to return the ball to the starting position.
As with the plank, the way to make rollouts harder is to remove one of the contact points from the ground.
To do the two-point rollout, you start off in the same position as for the four-point rollout. Take your knees off the floor and straighten your legs. In this position, only your toes should be in contact with the floor.
Push the wheel (or ball) forwards as far as possible, pause for a second, and then return to the start position.
If you’re really strong, try rollouts with an ab wheel or loaded barbell. In the video below, I’m using a cheap ab wheel that I got from Amazon.
As an alternative to the rollout, you can also try fallouts. Fallouts are pretty much the same as rollouts, only using a suspension trainer instead of a wheel.
What I like about fallouts is that it’s a lot easier to modify the exercise based on how strong you are. The closer you are to a standing position, the easier the exercise. As you get stronger, lengthen the straps and gradually move your torso closer to the floor.
Try them in a press-up position (as shown in the video below) and you’ll find fallouts a lot more challenging.
Another effective anti-extension exercise is the Body Saw, which you can do using a suspension trainer or power wheel.
If you’ve got a wooden floor at home, you can also do the Body Saw in your socks or on a carpet using small weight plates as sliders.
With the advanced plank, rollout and fallout variations, it’s important to brace the abdominals (rather than pulling them in) during the more challenging parts of the exercise. This involves tightening the abdominal muscles as if you’re about to take a punch in the gut.
You might also find that you want to hold your breath briefly, particularly at the end position of the exercise where your arms are extended.
Although any type of breath holding is usually frowned upon by the exercise police, holding your breath raises intra-abdominal pressure, which when combined with abdominal bracing, provides support and strength to your torso by making it stiffer .
Crunch or Reverse Crunch Variation
Exercise two is a crunch or reverse crunch variation, both of which are a highly effective way to isolate rectus abdominis.
Because the crunch is a relatively easy exercise, you have the option of adding weight, using either a plate, dumbbell or kettlebell. You’ll notice that this is a slow, controlled movement, with a pause at the top. Be very careful not to drop the plate on your face.
Incline Reverse Crunch
If you find the reverse crunch on a flat surface too easy, you can do it on an incline bench, which will make it more challenging for rectus abdominis.
Sets & Reps
In terms of sets and reps, I’d recommend a total of 10-12 weekly sets for the abs, distributed across 2-4 workouts. Aim for somewhere between 10-30 reps in each set.
You have a few options when it comes to which exercises you do on which days. One option is to do a different exercise in each workout.
If you’re training three days a week, for example, you might do rollouts in workout one, crunches in workout two and reverse crunches in workout three.
Option two is to do them in the same training session. For instance, if you’re using a 4-day upper/lower split, working the abs alongside the lower body, you might do rollouts and crunches in the first workout, and fallouts and reverse crunches in the second.
What about the posterior core? Where are the exercises for the obliques, like the Russian twist, windshield wipers or side planks? Why no anti-lateral flexion exercises?
In many cases, the muscles involved in these movements will be trained indirectly by other exercises in your training routine.
Let’s take the single-arm dumbbell row as an example. Although this is primarily an exercise to work the muscles in your back and biceps, it’s also working some of your core muscles as well.
Just like the plank and rollout function as anti-extension exercises, the single-arm row is an anti-rotation exercise.
That is, the external obliques are actively involved in preventing your torso from rotating. An exercise doesn’t have to involve an actual twist to work the twisting muscles.
It’s much the same story with other movements. Many of the muscles in your core work very hard to stabilize the spine during exercises like squats, Romanian deadlifts, single-arm rows, and standing presses.
Combine them with exercises like rollouts and crunches, and you’ll build not just core strength, but whole-body strength as well.
What’s the difference between washboard abs and a six pack?
There isn’t one. It’s not like there’s an official definition of what constitutes washboard abs and a six pack. They’re both generic, interchangeable terms used to describe a well-developed rectus abdominis combined with a low level of body fat.
If you want less flab and more muscle when you look down at your abs (or where they should be), check out The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet.
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