A defined six-pack isn’t necessarily the same thing as a strong core. But, the quest for envy-inducing abdominals can lead to longer workouts and cleaner diets. (Of course, it’s important to also focus on maintaining a healthy attitude toward food, exercise, and body image along the way.)
If you’re set on toning your midsection toward that chiseled six-pack, know that it may be a little harder than you think. We asked experts to answer common questions about women developing six-pack abs, and which moves to prioritize for optimal core strength.
Generally, is it harder for women to get six-pack abs in comparison to men?
“Not necessarily,” explains Aaptiv Trainer Amanda Butler. “There are numerous body types, and it also depends on your genetics. Some people naturally have a lean and athletic build, while others have to work a bit harder. Lowering your body fat is key for popping out that six-pack. However, for women in general, your body fat needs to be about 20 percent or higher to remain fertile and have regular menstrual cycles. A man can dip down to as low as six percent and still be considered ‘healthy.’”
Even though it may be more challenging for some women to achieve the look of six-pack abs, says Personal Trainer Adnan Munye, everyone has abs—it just depends on how much body fat is covering them. Since men tend to have lower body fat than women, he notes, it can be easier to see their abs in the first place.
What are some common myths around getting a six-pack?
According to Shea Sanderson, founder and head coach of Body Language Wellness in Chicago, the biggest myth is that you need to do a ton of crunches to get a six-pack. “Sure, you need to do functional core exercises, but the focus should be on your diet if you want them to really pop,” she says. As Munye puts it, abs are indeed made in the kitchen.
Another big myth is that a six-pack automatically equals good health. “Having a six-pack does not necessarily equate to being healthy, having a strong core, having confidence, or being happy,” Butler reinforces. “In most cases, it’s because of having a very low body fat percentage, which usually means extreme dieting and exercising.”
What are the most effective ab exercises for a strong core?
Instead of traditional ab exercises, Butler advises engaging your core throughout any strength workout—from push-ups to barbell deadlifts to single leg or shoulder presses. “Literally every exercise I do, I breathe with the movement (exhale on the effort), which engages my core,” she continues. “Learning to breathe properly as you exercise is key. Core stabilization exercises are also great to do, such as a single leg deadlift, performing bicep curls standing on one leg, side plank with torso rotations, or pistol squats.”
If core engagement seems confusing, says Munye, imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach, and you’re flexing your abs to stop it—that’s exactly what “engaging your core” feels like.
Think about functionality.
“As for what exercises to do for core strength, I always encourage my clients to view it from a functional standpoint,” says Sanderson. “What does your core do? It stabilizes, rotates, as well as flexes and extends your spine. Examples of those exercises would be planks for stabilization, cable chops for rotation, Pilates roll-ups for flexion, and supermans for extension. If you want exercises to increase your core’s functional movements, either ask a trainer or search online for ‘core stabilization/rotation exercises’ or ‘spinal flexion/extension exercises.’ That way, you’re not only building the muscle and strength, you’re doing it in a way that your body can use to support you and protect you from injury.”
Munye seconds big compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts, since your core is fully engaged. For specific ab workouts, he suggests planks and bicycle ab crunches. “Leg lifts are another way to develop and strengthen your lower abs,” he says. “While lying on your back, keep your legs straight with your hands under your butt. Together, lift your legs up to a 45-degree angle and lower back down with control, stopping just before your feet touch the ground. Do ten to 12 repetitions.”
Listen to your body!
Above all, says Sanderson, don’t go overboard—twice a week of functional core movement is plenty. Then, take a holistic approach.
“My advice is to first ditch what the models of magazine covers look like. Focus on your own journey,” concludes Butler. “Pay attention to your lifestyle habits: what are you eating? What are you drinking? How do you manage stress? Are you getting enough sleep? How often do you exercise? Are you only in one lane of fitness? For example, if you only run, incorporate strength training to your routine. Mix it up! Literally focus on your core during your workouts, don’t tune out to the music, and pay attention to your body. Add in challenging core exercises that you like to do and be patient! Building a strong core takes time, dedication, and consistency.”