How to get abs: 7 key steps to toning your abdominals

Not sure how to get abs? These expert tips will help those muscles pop!

How to get abs: a man with a toned torso works out in a gym
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’re wondering how to get abs, you’ve hit the right place. Although we all have abdominal muscles, they’re often hidden under a layer of fat, so for many of us they aren’t visible. But if you're on a mission to tone that mid-section and make those abs 'pop', we're here to help.

The first thing to know is that abs time and effort. Unless you already have a low body fat percentage, you’re unlikely to get abs in a week - if only! That said, there are several key steps you can take that will help you to get abs faster. In this article we'll cover points relating to the best workouts for abs, plus diet and lifestyle considerations that will help you reach your goal. 

But before we get into that, it's useful to explain exactly what we mean when we talk about 'abs' - and why they're important.

The abdominal muscles are a group of muscles which support our trunk, helping to keep us upright and protect our spine and internal organs. They should not be confused with the core, although the abdominals do form part of this area (along with muscles in the back and pelvis). 

The abdominals comprise four key muscle groups. They are:

  • The transversus abdominis, the deepest muscle layer;
  • The rectus abdominis, AKA the six pack;
  • The external obliques, located on each side of the rectus abdominis;
  • The internal obliques, found just inside the hip bones.

Toning and strengthening these muscles isn't just desirable from an aesthetic point of view - there are also lots of practical benefits to strong abs, including improved posture. They also assist in breathing, so strong abs can help our ability to take deeper, easier breaths.

So just how do we go about getting abs? Read on to find out...

How to get abs: athletic woman looking down at her toned stomach

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Reduce your body fat percentage

We've already outlined how a flat, toned mid-section isn't the be-all and end-all when it comes to getting abs. But, if your goal is to make those abdominals 'pop', then you need to take a look at your body fat percentage. After all, you could have stronger ab muscles than The Hulk, but no-one's going to see them if they're lurking under a layer of fat!

‘For a visible, defined six-pack, men generally need to whittle down to less than 10 percent body fat, while women need less than 20 percent,’ says fitness trainer Chiara Becuti, who is Head of Pilates at FLY LDN.

However, before you embark on an extreme crash diet, she also has a word of warning: ‘Not only is it really hard to maintain such a low body fat percentage, but it can also contribute to poor health in the long term.’

So how do you reduce your body fat percentage in a safe, healthy manner? Becuti's advice is unsurprisingly simple: eat healthily.

‘One of the ways you can decrease fat safely is to maintain a clean and healthy diet,' she says. 'Ensure you are eating plenty of whole grains and water-rich foods to help keep your metabolism high, as well as low-fat proteins such as lean meat, boiled or grilled chicken and fish.

In addition, you should also aim to maintain a calorie deficit - essentially burning more calories than you consume - in order to achieve fat loss. To do this, you first need to know your daily recommended calorie intake - take a look at our article 'how many calories should I eat a day?' for a simple calculation, and guidelines on how much to reduce your intake by.

2. Sleep more, stress less

It's not just your diet you need to think about when trying to reduce your body fat percentage. 'Sleep and stress are also amongst some of the factors that need to be taken into account when trying to lose fat,' Becuti says.

Ever found yourself reaching for higher calorie foods when you’re stressed or sleep deprived? There's a scientific reason for that. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that when people don't get enough rest, they're more likely to opt for high-carb snacks. This is because the body is craving energy, and sadly it’s often in carbs and sugary treats that we find it in.

The study also found that portion size also increases when we are tired, which contributes to weight gain. Willpower was also negatively affected.

It therefore follows that by getting more shut eye and minimizing stress levels, you will be in a stronger position to make healthy decisions when it comes to fuelling your body. 

A man in a deep sleep, a key component when it comes to how to get abs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Focus on muscle growth

As well as reducing body fat, you should also focus on increasing muscle mass. ‘The more muscle you have, the more fat you burn at rest,’ explains Chiara.

A great way of building muscle is to incorporate resistance training into your workout regime, focussing on compound movements that recruit multiple joints and muscles groups simultaneously. 

These could include bodyweight exercises such as lunges, push ups and squats. Alternatively you could incorporate equipment such as weights and resistance bands into your workouts. To get started at home, check out our pick of the best adjustable dumbbells and best kettlebells, along with our guide on how to deadlift with dumbbells.

4. Incorporate high intensity training

Combining resistance training with High Intensity Interval Training - i.e. workouts involving short bursts of activity where you give maximum effort - can also help shift fat. 

One study even found that HIIT workouts help boost metabolism. A speedy metabolism can help you burn more calories, both during exercise and when you're at rest, in turn helping you lose more weight - and bringing those ab muscles to the fore.

5. Don’t rely on crunches

The classic crunch is the move that many people tend to turn to when it comes to getting toned abs, but (as outlined above) it's just one of many exercises that can make a difference.

‘You wouldn’t just focus on squats to grow your legs muscles, so you shouldn’t expect that crunches alone will give you definition in your abs,’ says Becuti.

‘Ensure you work and grow your ab muscles as any other muscle in the body, and you can do this by getting creative with your ab exercises. While crunches and sit ups might give you the immediate sensation of “working because it burns”, there are plenty of ab exercises that are a slow but sure killer.’

Becuti's move of choice is the plank as it works the entire core, rather than just a section of the abs. Try holding a plank for 15 seconds, and over time working your way up to a minute hold or more.

For a plank, balance your body on your toes and forearms, keeping your body in a straight line, facing down to the ground. Squeeze your core muscles, as well as your legs and glutes. You might start shaking, but hold on as this move is well worth the pain!

How to get abs: older woman doing a plank on an exercise mat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Other key core exercises include leg raises, where you lie on the floor and lift your whole lower body off the floor - one of the best exercises for lower abs, according to personal trainer and Bulk ambassador Alex Crockford

'My top tip here is to make sure you have control of the hips/pelvis and tuck under the tailbone when bringing the legs up,' he says. 'It’s great to add twists and rotations in leg raises too.'

Other options include bicycle crunches, Russian twists and side-to-side leg drops, which will target the obliques and strengthen your core in the transverse plane. 

Whichever moves you opt for, just remember to mix it up and not rely on one exercise alone to help you achieve your goal of getting abs.

6. Avoid processed foods

Abs are made in the kitchen - or so the saying goes. And whilst diet isn't the only factor when it comes to getting abs (we've already examined the roles exercise, muscle development and sleep play), it is a crucial component - but one that all too often gets neglected  

'You should approach your diet with the same commitment and discipline as you do your training, because they feed (mind the pun) into each other directly,' says Darran Williams, who runs the Myprotein PT Scheme. 

'Removing as much refined and processed food as possible is a great way to start as more often than not, they are higher in calories compared to natural whole foods.'

He adds: 'A balanced diet consisting of lean protein, veg, good carbs and fats is crucial, as it will see you increase your metabolism and burn through fat stores to help your journey towards a six-pack.'

Good lean protein sources include chicken, turkey, fish, tofu, nuts, eggs and beans. You could also incorporate protein powders into your diet - see our pick of the best protein powders for weight loss. Meanwhile, 'good' carbs include wholegrains such as brown rice and quinoa, as well as fibrous legumes.

As a rough guide, for each meal you eat roughly half your plate should comprise vegetables, one quarter should be protein and one quarter should be carbohydrates. See our portion size guide for more information.

How to get abs: a bowl of vegetables, chicken and brown rice showing healthy portions

(Image credit: Getty Images)

7. Try balancing moves

Balancing moves are exactly as they sound - exercises that challenge your sense of balance. And, according to Beruti, they're a brilliant - and underrated - way of strengthening your core.

'For example, a controlled wobble during a single foot standing exercise activates deep core muscles to help tighten the midsection. Core muscles and balance work are deeply connected as it is just through the core activating that we manage not to fall.’

Examples of balance exercises include single leg deadlifts, knee lifts, heel raises and tightrope walks (no tightrope necessary!) You could even opt for a balance board. Placing one foot on the board and on the other on the ground as you squat can be a real challenge!

Lucy Gornall
Lucy Gornall

Lucy is Head of Wellness at Pure Sport and was formerly Health and Fitness Editor at various women's magazines, including Woman&Home Feel Good You. She has previously written for titles including Now, Look and Cosmopolitan. She lives and breathes all things fitness; she works out every morning, and mixes it up with runs, weights, boxing and endless box jumps. She is also a Level 3 personal trainer and teaches classes at various London studios, primarily Digme Fitness. Lucy is pre- and post-natal trained and helps new mums get back into fitness after the birth of their baby. Lucy claims that good sleep, plenty of food and a healthy gut (seriously, it's an obsession) are the key to maintaining energy and exercising efficiently. Saying this, she's partial to the odd Negroni on the dance floor with her friends.