Having abs shows that you’re even leaner than you need to be, that your posture is confident and athletic, that your muscles are strong, and even that your hormones are very masculine (study). Abs look so good because having all of these things at once shows that you’re not just healthy, but obnoxiously healthy.
Fortunately, we just so happen to be the body type that can rock a washboard stomach year round without suffering the negative side effects that other guys risk (perpetual hunger, reduced libido, etc). This gives us a real physique edge over the other body types.
However, as naturally skinny dudes with naturally smaller muscles, our walk across Abbey Road is a little atypical. There are usually two types of ab advice you’ll come across, and neither works very well for us:
- Science says that abs are built in the kitchen. Usually yes, since most guys are overweight, and most overweight guys already have large ab muscles. In the Beastly community we see guys all the time who are more than lean enough to have great abs—but their posture is a little loose and their ab muscles are a little small.
- No pain, no gain. The most popular ab routines are high rep circuits that make your abs burn with hellish fire. Abs are muscles though, and doing high rep crunches to build bigger abs is like running a marathon to build bigger legs. Endurance work improves blood flow but it’s awful at making muscles bigger. You’ll see some guys with crazy abs doing these high rep routines, but this is like thinking that taking topless Instagram selfies gives you abs because guys with abs do it. It’s not why they have great abs, it’s just something they do because they like their abs.
So what’s the best way for us naturally thin dudes to build Abercrombie abs?
Let’s start with an example. Here’s GK showing that abs aren’t built in the kitchen. He’s more than lean enough to have rad abs, he just doesn’t have the muscle size for them yet. Although I suppose you could say that these abs were built by eating everything in the kitchen, it’s probably more accurate to say that they were built in the gym (or home gym or wherever you want to lift).
So in this article we’re going to show you how to build a rock hard, chiseled 6-pack from the perspective of a skinny guy. These bigger abs will not only look badass, they’ll also make you far stronger, protect your spine and improve your posture.
Before we can woo ourselves some washboard abs we must first understand them.
To begin, let’s cover the muscles that are underneath your visible abs—the transverse abdominis muscles. These work sort of like a lifting belt or a corset, keeping your core on lockdown. You don’t see these though, and so long as your lifting program is well balanced and you lift with good form you won’t need to give these guys special attention. They’ll grow plenty strong by doing squat and deadlift variations.
When we say “abs” what we’re generally talking about are our rectus abdominis muscles. These muscles are made up of a series of bellies and tendons. The bits that bulge out are the bellies, the canyons between the bulges are the tendons. This gives them their unique washboard shape.
These ab muscle bellies can flex, just like any muscle belly can, allowing us to move our core like an accordion. Our abs allow us to crunch forwards, our obliques allow us to twist around and crunch sideways. More importantly, these muscles help us resist movement, keeping our ribs and hips on lockdown when doing compound movements. This let’s us squat down and pick something up without looking like a jelly fish, keeping our spine safe and allowing us to transfer power from our lower body to our upper body. The transverse abdominis helps with this as well.
You could say that our abs are our most important muscles, as you can’t even do a bicep curl if your core has the consistency of an overcooked noodle.
This means that if you follow a good program made up of mostly compound lifts, your abs will become big and strong without you ever needing to directly train them… right? That works well sometimes, but more so for naturally stocky dudes. As someone with a longer slenderer torso you’ll probably want to directly target your abs to make your compound lifts even stronger, even safer, and, of course, to make your abs look way better.
As you build up bigger abs, you’ll soon notice that they have their own distinct shape. You can make your muscle bellies bigger with good training, but you can’t do anything to affect their symmetry or to alter the number of tendons that you have. So some guys have an 8-pack, other guys have a 6-pack. Some guys have a wide-pack, others guys have a thin-pack.
In a controversial new study, science has just recently proven what belly-dancers have known for thousands of years—with enough coordination these muscle bellies can be individually targeted (study). After learning this, most guys will think that they have smaller lower abs.
While it’s possible that your lower ab muscles are disproportionately small, keep in mind that men store more body fat on their lower stomach than their upper stomach. Lower abs tend to be murky unless you are very lean—under 10%.
Also keep in mind that if your ribs aren’t in their proper position, they might be shoving your upper abs out further than they should be, making your lower abs look smaller by comparison.
And there’s another thing that might prevent you from getting defined lower abs: you may not have lower abs. If you take a look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, you can see that he has just four ab bellies, and all of them are above his belly button. Even if Arnold were to train his lower abs he’d still never have any definition on his lower stomach. There are no muscle bellies there.
We’ve included the best lower ab exercise at the end of this article, but don’t worry too much about targeting different ab muscles just yet. We’ll want to make sure that we train both your obliques and your abs, but we don’t need to worry about training upper abs or lower abs or anything like that. For now we want to fully work the entire accordion.
The cool thing about abs though is that they all look amazing so long as they are big enough and lean enough. Every set of abs will be different—and all will be badass.
Flex your abs as hard as you can and touch your stomach. If your stomach is firm and rubbery, skip this section. If there’s a shallow layer of dough there or if you’re unsure, read on.
Not all skinny guys have a low body fat percentage. Many do, but a lot of the guys who are the most interested in getting abs are the ones who have a naturally softer stomach. Building up bigger ab muscles when there’s a substantial amount of fat on top of them will just push the fat out further. Not the desired effect.
So first things first, let’s make sure that you’re lean enough. For a flat stomach you’ll want to be around 15% body fat, but to have abs you’ll usually need to be under 12%.
There are lots of ways to calculate your body fat percentage, but when it comes to being healthy and getting abs, all you need is a mirror. It doesn’t matter if your skin callipers are telling you that you’re 10% if you can’t see your abs, and it doesn’t matter if your bathroom scale thinks that you’re 17% if you can see your abs. Moreover, anywhere in that 10–20% range is perfectly healthy.
So, because we’re trying to get a visual result here, the most logical approach is estimate your body fat percentage visually. Fortunately, the mirror method is often more accurate than the other at-home methods provided that you’re fairly lean (10–18%).
The tricky thing is that being lean enough for abs looks very different depending on how much muscle you have. At 12% a skinny guy can look soft and a strong guy can look ripped. Even so most of the body fat percentage charts use a bodybuilder on steroids to show you what 6% looks like and then an obese guy who’s never seen a weight to show you what 30% looks like. That’s not all that helpful. So we’ve got two charts—a skinny and a strong one—and we’ve used illustrations so that we can keep all the variables constant except for body fat.
Here’s how you use them:
1) Find a mirror
2) Turn on some flattering overhead lighting (bathrooms work well)
3) Flex your abs and your butt (to rotate your hips into a decent position)
4) Compare your abs to these charts, depending on how much muscle you have
Here’s what 9–20% looks like on a strong guy:
Here’s what 9–20% looks like on a skinny guy:
If you want to see how this might look in real life, here’s me at 11% as measured by DEXA scan (the gold standard in body fat percentage testing). As you can see, I have a fair bit less definition than the 9% image, but maybe slightly more definition than the 12% image.
If you’re under 15%, congratulations—you’re not only very healthy, but you also have a very attractive body fat percentage. To get abs you’ll need to lose just a few pounds of fat. If you’re under 12%, even more congratulations—you’re eligible for amazing abs without needing to lose any fat.
But let’s say you’re closer to 20%. That’s not the end of the world. Your body fat is still fairly healthy, and if you decide you want to be lean enough for abs, you’re not that far away. Here’s what you can realistically expect after three months of scientifically cutting—all muscle maintained, 20 pounds of fat lost:
To do this you’ll need to eat 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight while consuming few enough calories that you’re losing weight on the scale each week—probably around 500 fewer calories than you’re eating right now. (We’ve got an article on what to do if you’re skinny-fat here.)
While doing this you’ll want to be following a good lifting program. If you’re new to lifting and eating scientifically you should be able to build some muscle while you do it, and if you’re already somewhat muscular (as I was) you can expect to maintain your muscle mass and strength.
This means that whether you’re lean enough or not, you need to be lifting in order to get closer to your goal. So whether you’re under 15% or not, let’s move on to building badass abs in the gym.
How to Build Badass Abs
We’re going to teach you the best exercises for building up badass abs, but keep in mind that we need to get your hips positioned properly in order to get your ab muscles firing properly. With proper posture, literally everything you do in and out of the gym will be training your abs. Your abs won’t be hanging loose as you stroll around town, your gut won’t be jutting out even though you’re at 9% body fat, and eating a big meal won’t make you look quite as pregnant.
If you want to see what this looks like in real life, check this out:
This should also help fix the “lazy stomach” that some guys get when they aren’t intentionally flexing their ab muscles. Some degree of this is okay, but it’s best if your abs have the strength, positioning and endurance to always have a little bit of tension in them.
Here are two pictures that b2B member Jeremy took just seconds apart. On the left side, even with a very low body fat percentage, his ab positioning is preventing him from having abs. When your stomach is stretched like that it prevents the abdominal muscles from contracting properly, preventing them from naturally holding a little tension.
Fortunately, stronger ab muscles are better at holding your hips and ribs together. This means that building up bigger abs will improve your posture, and improving your posture will help you build up bigger abs. These goals work additively with one another. By focusing on both simultaneously you’ll get the quickest (and best) results.
There are a few exercises that are particularly effective at getting your hips into a proper position and building up bigger, stronger abs. Here are six different lifts that will bulk up your abs in different ways, improve your posture, and build bonus muscles everywhere else on your body.
Here’s Marco with the how-to.
The plank. This will show you what proper pelvic positioning looks like and teach your core how to become comfortable maintaining that position under a light load.
The farmer carry. In this exercise we’re teaching you how to maintain that plank position while walking around with heavy things. Great for the obliques, great for developing a core that will look good even when you aren’t thinking about it.
Sit-Ups. Crunches involve repeatedly bending your spine under load. While there is little direct evidence that they are bad for you, the most respected spinal health expert in the world, Dr. Stuart McGill, advises against them. Instead, he recommends variations where the spine remains in a more neutral position. These spine-conscious variations will also ingrain better lifting habits, as you’ll learn how to keep your abs on lockdown during compound lifts. Here’s an ab isolation exercise that’s safe, healthy and effective:
Dumbbell Pullovers. In this exercise you’re moving in the shoulder joint while your abs fight to keep your ribs down. The bigger and stronger your back and chest get, the bigger and stronger your abs will become.
Goblet Squat. In this exercise you’re moving in the hips while your entire core is lit up. The bigger and stronger your entire body becomes, the bigger and stronger your core will become.
Reverse Crunches. This is the ultimate lower ab exercise, and it’s actually pretty great at teaching your abs to pull your hips up into a nice, strong position. Great all-around ab exercise.
Once you become good at these exercises pretty much everything you do will help you build incredible abs. At this point your abs will probably be looking good enough that you get bored of training your abs and switch your priorities to something else—getting a stronger bench press or deadlift, or maybe building yourself some beastlier biceps and pecs.
…But if you still feel like your abs are too tiny, this is a great time to introduce more difficult variations. There are many, many great compound and isolation lifts for your abs: dead bugs, front squats, weighted chin-ups, weighted push-ups, ab-wheel rollouts, hanging leg raises, Pallof presses, and many more.
When it comes to your abs, always remember the three things you need:
- Big enough abs, so that your belly is shaped by many little bellies
- A lean enough stomach, so that you can see your abs through the flabs
- Proper posture, so that your abs will activate and flex naturally
Also remember that you don’t need abs. You’re perfectly healthy at 18% body fat and perfectly attractive to women at 15% body fat. Abs are a bonus. No need to stress out if you lose sight of your lower abs when bulking, or if you’re a skinny-fat guy and want to focus on building up muscle before you worry about your stomach. Hell, once you’re muscular enough you may realize that you don’t even care about abs at all.
And as always, if you want more help building muscle, more help cutting fat, and more help getting rad abs… that’s what the Bony to Beastly Program is for. The main eBook covers absolutely everything you need to know about muscle-building training and nutrition, it comes with over 5 months of workout programming, tons of recipes to make eating enough easier, videos teaching all of the lifts (like the ones in this article), a yearlong membership in the community, and coaching from us along the way.