"This is THE YEAR. The one where I FINALLY have visible abs."
How many winters have you told yourself this?
Every time you hit the gym, you do hundreds of crunches to build your abs. You try your hardest to eat clean. You drop tons of money on "fat-burning" supplements, and spend seemingly endless hours on the cardio equipment... but your abs STILL won't show.
Eventually, you get sick of working your ass off for no results, and give up. Well.. until next year, when you start the whole process over.
This is the exact situation most of my online clients start in - on a mission to build the leanest, strongest, and most confident version of themselves... but frustrated with their lack of progress or direction.
I’ve been there too, making all the same mistakes you are right now. And I promise you, with consistency & a smart approach to your nutrition and training, you CAN achieve abs.
Here's just a few examples of what my badass online clients have accomplished with accountability & consistency ↴
You too can be one of these super lean & confident people, taking ab pics in the mirror.
This blog is your complete guide to making it happen.
The Abs Hierarchy Of Importance
The biggest thing holding you back from seeing your abs? Your priorities are all wrong.
Most of us believe getting abs just comes down to training them a lot - a.k.a. building bigger ab muscles.
The problem? Building muscle is a VERY slow process.
If your strategy is “train abs a lot make 'em show”, you’re gonna have a LONG wait. Unless you're lean, you’ll likely hit your genetic potential for ab muscle before they’re ever actually visible... and if you're anything like me, you'll hit your genetic potential for patience long before that.
To speed the process up, focus on fat loss. The leaner you are, the more your abs will show.
Fat loss happens relatively quickly. You can lose a lot of fat in just a few months. It makes sense to spend most of your time maximizing fat loss, instead of just training abs.
So, on your quest to get abs, your order of importance looks like:
2. Resistance Training
4. Daily Movement
First, check out The Complete Guide To Setting Your Macros.
Work through the guides recommendations for fat loss macros, and then come back here.
Oh you're back already?
Dope. You now have your fat loss macros set up, and know exactly how to adjust them over the next few months.
This is the MOST important part of you getting visible abs, so don't skip this step.
If you're new to all of this nutrition and training stuff, OR you know you need more accountability to follow through, I highly recommend you apply for coaching.
2a. Resistance Training
When programming for a client that wants to build a lean, strong physique and finally achieve visible abs, I prefer either...
1. A 4x/Week Upper/Lower Split
2. A 3x/Week Full Body Split
(Examples of each below)
Both options allow for plenty of stimulus for building lean muscle WITHOUT living in the gym
It's important to remember that the primary goal of your training shouldn't be to burn as many calories as possible - it's to build lean, defined muscle. This comes from training with challenging weights in the 5-20 rep range, and getting stronger in this range over time.
^No matter how hard you go in the gym, you just won't burn that many calories (~5% of daily calories burned). If you've been training to burn calories instead of build lean muscle, once you get lean enough to see visible abs you'll just look scrawny, instead of lean and strong.
The focus of your nutrition is controlling calories/fat loss. The focus of your training is building lean muscle.
That said, by following one of these training split and emphasizing compound movements (e.g. variations of deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, etc.) you're killing two birds with one stone. Training like this will...
1. Lead to the quickest physique changes
2. Burn more calories during training (again not our primary goal, but it's an added benefit to training properly).
Example 4x/Week Upper/Lower Split
Example 3x/Week Full Body Split
2b. Core Training
This ISN'T as important as your nutrition or following a smart training program when it comes to achieving visible abs. So get those on point first.
Now, if you’re training is anything like most online clients before starting coaching (or even how I trained until the last few years), you’ve probably done lots of crunches and leg raises… and not much else.
While this focus on strictly spinal flexion movements (think: crunch & reverse crunch or leg raise variations - you're "flexing at the spine") is fine for building up your "6-pack muscle" (the Rectus Abdominis, the visible layer of muscle we consider our “abs”) - your core is many more muscles than just the Rectus Abdominis.
See, your core’s most important role isn’t gaining more followers on Instagram… it’s stabilizing your spine and helping your trunk resist movement, especially under heavy load.
So by only training spinal flexion, you're not training most of the muscles that help resist movement.
As you see, only training your Rectus Abdominis leaves a lot on the table when it comes to developing a truly functional core.
Neglecting the rest of the core manifests itself as trouble stabilizing your trunk, and often low back pain when doing movements like squats and deadlifts. This leaves you unable to get functionally strong and build the lean, athletic body you want. To feel your strongest and most confident, you need to do more.
So basically, you need to train your core for both aesthetics & function.
Core Training For Aesthetics
You’re focusing on spinal flexion, which means the aesthetics portion of your training consists of:
- Leg Raise, Knee Raise, and Reverse Crunch variations
- Sit-Up and Crunch variations
A common mistake with this portion of training is doing thousands of reps. That's not necessary.
Like every other muscle group, you’re best suited to stick to the 5-20ish rep ranges most of the time when training abs, and pursue "effective reps" (most of your sets need to be within a few reps of failure).
Also, know that low rep (less than 5), high weight sets aren’t a great idea for abs - other muscles typically take over.
Your abs recover quickly - most clients can train abs 3-5 times per week (using smart programming) with no recovery issues. Thus, it makes more sense for you to train 1-2 ab movements multiple times per week than it does to have an entire “ab day”.
Here’s a few movements you can incorporate to build more aesthetic abs:
→ Crunch Variations:
- Cable Crunch
- Bodyweight Crunch
- Weighted Crunch
- Decline Crunch
- Weighted Decline Crunch
- Swiss Ball Crunch
- 90-Degree Vertical Plate Press
- Sicillian Crunch
→ Reverse Crunch Variations:
- Reverse Crunch
- Decline Reverse Crunch
- Hanging Knee Raise
- Hanging Straight Leg Raise
The mind-muscle connection is important here. Focus on the few movements from this list that you “feel” the best.
Core Training For Function
Now, we’re training your core for strength and performance.
This portion of your training takes you from just looking good, to a the strength and confidence of badass Spartan warrior. Your core is geared up for functional strength and performance.
We're using the term anti-movement training to encompass all of the other core movements and muscle groups you don’t hit when you’re training your rectus abdominis. So yeah... this is important.
Before you shudder at the thought of holding a plank for 90 seconds... don't worry. Smart anti-movement training isn't boring at all. One of the most important things for turning your training as a client, into a lifestyle that you thoroughly enjoy - is making it fun. So no worries, we won’t let this be boring.
Online clients often mention their functional core training as one of the most challenging, fun, and engaging parts of their training - you’re in good hands here.
Similar to your aesthetic-focused work, you can train anti-movement a lot without any recovery issues. For your strongest, most functional core, make a point to include at least one of each of the following categories into your program weekly:
→ Anti-Extension: Here, you’re working to resist extension at the spine.
- Ab Wheel
- TRX Fallout
- Renegade Row
- Hollow Body Sweep
- Hollow Body Flutter Kick
- Hollow Body Holds
- LLPT Planks
- Modified Candlestick
- Slider Body Saws
→ Anti-Rotation: The goal here is to resist rotation at the spine.
- Anti-Rotation Dead Bugs
- Pallof Press Holds
- Renegade Row
- Swiss Ball Stir-The-Pot
- Birddog Row
- ½ Kneeling Push/Pull
- Landmine Bus Driver
→ Anti-Lateral Flexion: Here, you’re working to resist bending sideways at the spine.
- KB Bottoms Up + Farmers Walk
- Chaos Farmer’s Walk
- Suitcase Carries
- Farmer Carries
- Zercher Carries
- Side Planks
- Side Plank + Row
From everything you’ve learned, we can apply these fundamental guidelines to your core training for aesthetics, strength, and functionality:
→ For Aesthetics - Include 2-3 weekly flexion exercises. Train these in the 8-25 rep range, for 8-12 weekly sets.
→ For Strength & Functionality - Include 3-4 anti-rotation exercises per week. Reps will vary, but generally 6-10 reps per side or 30-60 second holds is a good rule of thumb. Train these for 9-16 total sets. Include one focused on each: anti-extension, anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion.
3. Sleep & Recovery
Boring ass sleep is essential to your progress. I know you're gonna skim this section, so I'll keep it short.
→ When you under-sleep, your body releases more of the hormone cortisol. When cortisol is released, Ghrelin “the hunger hormone” is released alongside it - so you’re hungrier. You can probably piece together why being hungry makes dieting harder. (Check out the Hormones 101 blog for a deeper understanding of what's happening to you hormonally.)
→ If you’re tired, you’ll subconsciously reduce movement - meaning you burn fewer calories through the day.
Guidelines I give clients who struggle with sleep:
- Goal: 7-9 hours/night.
- Get out of your head. Journaling or meditation before bed works wonders.
- Try to quit drinking/eating AT LEAST 2 hours before bed. (NOT that eating at night makes you fat. It just disrupts sleep a bit.)
- No phone or TV an hour before bed. Swap out artificial lights for candles.
- Cut off caffeine at noon.
- Don't touch your bed, except to sleep. (No TV, reading, or phone in bed.)⠀
4. Daily Movement (N.E.A.T.)
Your daily movement, or N.E.A.T. (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is the most easy to manipulate variable of your metabolism.
N.E.A.T. is the stuff you do outside of the gym that still burns calories. Doing laundry... walking the dog... fist pumping the air as Chip and Joanna finish another Fixer Upper in the nick of time
But yeah... N.E.A.T. can account for roughly 200-900 of the calories you burn in a day. (1)
Right? Some people naturally expend more energy daily - they fidget more, pace more, etc. This adds up to A LOT more calories burned daily.
In fact, differences in N.E.A.T. is one of the biggest variances between obese people and lean people.
Obviously, to get lean, burning 900 calories a day instead of 200 helps. So N.E.A.T. is very important.
Also - your body doesn't want to be all lean, with abs that pop. Your body wants to maintain a bit of fluff, so you can survive in case food availability decreases.
So, when you start eating less, you subconsciously compensate for the calorie deficit by moving less (therefore burning fewer calories), to maintain homeostasis (a.k.a. stay comfortably fluffy).
Without being aware, you'll start moving a lot less. Less subconscious movement means fewer calories burned through the day.
Now, this is a normal adaptation - you can't really control the amount of fidgeting you do. But, a daily step goal ensures your energy expenditure outside the gym doesn't fall off of a cliff entirely - that's why "steps" is always on my online clients accountability trackers.
Get an activity tracker like Apple Watch or Fitbit. Or just use an app on your phone.
If you don’t move a lot, a good place to start is by setting a goal in the 6,000-8,000 steps per day range. You want your step goal to be something that’s doable, but makes you move more than normal.
Eventually ramping up to the 10,000-12,000 steps/day range is manageable for most.
Finally, we have cardio.
Now, don’t get it twisted. Cardio is still helpful. But don't prioritize it nearly as much as nutrition or resistance training. It just doesn’t make near as much difference long-term.
Cardio has obvious cardiovascular health benefits - it’s good for your heart.
Cardio is also good for increasing the “calories out” side of the energy balance equation.
Plus, cardio has carryover to your resistance training. It allows you to recover quicker- both between sets and between training sessions. You feel “more fit” when you work in a bit of cardio.
Super beneficial... But NOT as beneficial as resistance training. And nowhere CLOSE to the level of importance your nutrition has for revealing your abs.
So make sure you keep your priorities straight here. Only when online clients are consistent as hell with their nutrition training, sleep, and N.E.A.T., do I add extra cardio.
When the time comes, here’s how I program cardio for online clients.
Aerobic Work: Low-to-moderate intensity cardio.
Week 1: 20 mins at a consistent pace.
Week 2: Same time as last week, improve on pace.
Week 3: 10-mins work at a consistent pace/10-mins rest. 2 rounds.
Week 4: Same time as last week, improve on pace.
Decrease time, increase rounds until you get to ~6-mins, start over at a faster pace.
- Typically on the rower, bike, or incline treadmill. Works well as a standalone day because it's more time-consuming, & promotes recovery for your next training session.
Anaerobic Lactic Work: Consistent, very hard effort (but not all-out) you can sustain for a 20-45 sec, followed by 2-4 mins rest. You DON'T need a ton of rounds here.
Sample Progression ↴
Start by increasing the total number of rounds every few weeks. Eventually, reset back to just a few rounds, with longer work periods than before.
- Modalities like the assault bike, sleds, rower, and battle ropes work well here, programmed as a finisher OR a standalone day.
Anaerobic Alactic Work: Intense, max-effort work, with lots of carryover to your performance during a short, explosive set.
Sample Progression ↴
Short work periods (<12 sec), long rest periods (1-3 mins+). Something like - 10 sec all-out effort/2 mins rest x 5 rounds. As weeks go on, add rounds, and then work time.
- Works well with sprints, the assault bike, and sleds - both as a finisher or a standalone day.
When clients are ready, we'll generally start by adding aerobic work (on its own day if possible), followed by anaerobic work (typically as finishers, and then eventually a standalone day).
This leaves your training + cardio routine looking like: 3-4 days focused on resistance training, 1-2 cardio days (1 aerobic, potentially 1 anaerobic), and 2-3 days with fat loss focused finishers.
Follow this strategy CONSISTENTLY, and you will finally achieve visible abs.
If you're ready to expedite the process, get accountable and consistent, and want me to create a nutrition and training plan specifically for you - CLICK HERE NOW to apply for online coaching with me.