by Ben Greenfield
Whether it’s a sign of health, beauty, virility, or movie star status, a flat stomach is something that many people all over the world crave. Wanting a flat stomach might be so popular because it’s so hard to get. In this article, you’ll learn how to get a flat stomach safely, effectively, and without a trip to your local surgeon.
What Are the Muscles of the Stomach?
Despite what many folks appear to believe, a six pack is not six soda-can shaped muscles that sit under the skin of your stomach, somehow magically filling and emptying as you become more or less fit. But the stomach muscle is also not just one simple piece of muscle.
The abdominal muscle group on the front of your stomach is made up of four basic muscles that, like most muscles, appear to be named by ancient Latin monks:
The rectus abdominis: The rectus abdominis is one big sheet of muscle tissue that runs from your breastbone down to your pelvis.
The external obliques: The external obliques run from your ribs to your hips in a forward direction.
The internal obliques: Theinternal obliques run from your ribs to your hips in a backwards direction
The transverses abdominis: The transverses abdominis is located deep in your abs, underneath the obliques.
So if you’re not planning on performing a stomach surgery anytime soon, why am I telling you all this? Because the one crucial key component that most people neglect when they try to get a flat stomach is a balanced training program that targets each of these muscles.
How to Get a Flat Stomach
You can’t simply train one single part of the stomach in isolation and expect for your abs to look fit, trim, toned, ripped or flat.
The best way to get a flat stomach is to do a workout made up of exercises that target the rectus abdominis, the external and internal obliques, the transverses abdominis, and also the postural muscles of the low back I have a Quick Tip with some sample abdominal exercises). All of these muscles must be included because from a functional standpoint, the stomach is a crucial connecting point between your upper body--like your chest, shoulders and arms--and your lower body--like your butt, hips and thighs.
Since the stomach muscles were designed to work as this functioning connection, you can’t simply train one single part of the stomach in isolation and expect for your abs to look fit, trim, toned, ripped, or flat. That is same reason why people who want big arms can’t just do bicep curls, but also need to do pull-ups and deadlifts, and why people who want a nice butt can’t just do lying hamstring curls, but also need to do squats and lunges. The body responds best when we train entire muscle groups that surround our “trouble spot,” and not just the isolated trouble spot. So people who want a flat stomach can’t just do crunches.
So if this type of functional training is a goal, what would a flat stomach workout look like?
The Best Flat Stomach Workout
First of all, if you want faster results, you should stimulate those stomach muscles every 2-3 days, so you’ll want to do the following workout more than once per week, while allowing for at least 48 hours of recovery between workouts. You can do this workout as part of a cardio workout or weightlifting workout, or figure out a way to creatively include the exercises as part of a different workout.
Flat Stomach Step 1: Begin your flat stomach workout by getting some blood flow to the abdominal area. That can be achieved with a brief 5-10 minute cardio warm up, followed by some of the movement patterns I discuss in the episode How To Warm Up and Cool Down.
Flat Stomach Step 2: Next, choose one exercise for each of the abdominal muscle groups, and also an exercise for the low back. Do one set of each exercise until you can’t maintain good form anymore. And yes, that means that you should not push through with bad form until you get a hernia.
Rectus abdominis: For your rectus abdominis, exercise choices include flexing motions of the spine, such as crunches and crunch variations, V-ups, sit-ups and sit-up variations, hanging leg raises, or knee-ups. Front planks are also quite good for this muscle group.
External and internal obliques: Twisting and rotating motions are good exercises because they work both the external and internal oblique muscles. That is because if you rotate to your left, your left external oblique and your right internal oblique are doing the work, and vice versa. Twisting motions include Russian Twists, Cable Torso Twists, and the WoodChopper.
Transverses abdominis: The transverses abdominis is an interesting muscle group, because it doesn’t really move you through a range of motion as much as support the stomach and the gut. So when you suck in your stomach, that’s the transverses abdominis muscles working. Although you can work this muscle group anywhere, such as sucking in your stomach while you’re driving in your car, sitting on an airplane, or standing in line at the grocery store, you can also make it work pretty hard with an exercise like front planks.
Low back muscles: Finally, the low back muscles can be worked with a simple contraption at the gym that allows you to do low back extensions or, if you’re not at a gym, you can do the same exercise on a stability ball, or an exercise called the Superman.
Perform 8-12 repetitions for each of the exercises described above, then go back to the beginning and start again, completing a total of 3-4 circuits.
Flat Stomach Tips
To be perfectly frank, even the very best flat stomach workout isn’t going to do much for you if those nice muscles you build are covered with a layer of nature’s comfortable camouflage-- namely, fat. So here is where I recommend that you go read two previous articles to jump-start your understanding of how to mobilize your fat tissue: Which Workout Burns the Most Fat and How to Tone and Lose Fat In One Body Part.
And I’ll leave you with one final Quick and Dirty Tip: your transverses abdominis muscles and nerves can become inflamed from making desperate attempts to digest lots of processed food, too many calories, or things that irritate your stomach, and they will be weaker as a result--you’ll have a much harder time sucking in your stomach.
My fellow Quick and Dirty Tips expert, Nutriton Diva, has actually written a book called The Inflammation Free Diet, exactly about this issue. It's definitely worth checking out!
Cartoon courtesy of Shutterstock.