The Complete Guide to Four-Pack Abs

 Written by 

Julien Raby

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The most coveted fitness trophy in the world is six-pack abs. They’re seen as a sign of dedication in the gym and in the kitchen… And they’re definitely something to be proud of. 

But what about four-pack abs? Some people just don’t quite get to 6-pack abs, and it’s got nothing to do with their level of dedication or their fitness. In some cases, 4-pack abs are just the norm. In fact, about 15% of the population have natural 4-packs… Including Arnold Schwarzenegger! And they still take a ton of work and smart dieting to get right. 

A man with four-pack abs
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Here’s your complete guide on how to get 4-pack abs—what they are, why some people only have 4-pack abs and not 6-pack abs, and some tips to get them! 

What Are 4-Pack Abs? 

4-pack abs are when you have 4 distinct, visible, defined muscles in your stomach area. In most cases, these are the 4 upper abs, which flatten into a toned abdomen lower down as they taper into a V-shape down to the groin area. 

Usually, the visible abdominals are the two blocks above your navel. In some cases, you can develop a 6-pack later on if you do more dedicated work on the abs that aren’t yet visible. But in other cases, some people simply don’t have those extra muscle bands to develop. 

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Anatomy of the Abdominal Muscles

A schema of the muscles of the trunk
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To understand four-packs, it’s necessary to learn a little about the abdominal muscles. The abs are made up of 3 distinct sections: the rectus abdominis (the visible 4-pack), the transverse abdominis, and the obliques.

Rectus Abdominis 

The rectus abdominis is the part of your abs that’s visible when you have a 4-pack, 6-pack, or more-pack. It’s made up of two strips of muscle running from below your ribs to your groin area, which are further split into horizontal sections by bands of connective tissue. 

These horizontal sections are your “packs”. If you’re born with 3 main strips here, you can get a 6-pack with proper training. If you’re only born with 2 strips, though, you’re limited to a 4-pack. 

Transverse Abdominis 

The transverse abdominis is the “corset” that runs entirely around your lower torso. It runs from ribs to pelvis, forming a sort of shield of horizontal fibers that support your posture and protect your delicate internal organs. 

This band of muscle runs underneath the rectus abdominis, so it’s important to train it as well in order for your ab-pack to really stand out. Plus, it’s an important component in both structure and strength of your body, so it’s definitely working on.

Internal and External Obliques 

The obliques are a group of muscles made up of the external obliques and the internal obliques. They’re located on the sides of the abdomen, and they run down from the ribs to the pelvis. 

The internal obliques lie underneath the external obliques, and the muscles and the fibers run in the opposite direction. Together, this group of muscles is responsible for rotating and flexing the trunk, as well as compressing the abdomen. 

It’s important to note that there’s a difference between obliques and intercostal muscles. The intercostals are the muscles located between the ribs, and they’re responsible for lifting and lowering the ribs during breathing. 

If you hear someone talking about how they’re working their intercostals, chances are they’re referring to their obliques. The external obliques actually come up over the lower ribs and overlap with the intercostals

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Why Do Some People Only Have 4-Pack Abs? 

The kind of abs you’re able to get depends largely on genetics. We’re all born with a certain number of strips of connective tissue on the rectus abdominis. 

Those people who are born with only 2 of these strips will only be able to get 4-pack abs (the strips are separated down the middle of the abs, creating two distinct connected muscle bands). 

If you’ve got 3 strips, you’re able to get 6-pack abs. If you’ve got 4 strips, you can get yourself 8-pack abs if you work hard enough. And then there’s the rare people who have 5 or 6 strips of connective tissue… Who can get 10-packs or 12-packs! 

No matter how hard you work your abs, if you’ve only got 2 strips of connective tissue in your rectus abdominis, you’ll only get 4-pack abs. It’s still a prize, though—even Arnold Schwarzenegger is a proud four-packer! 

Is It Harder for Women to Get Abs? 

Ladies naturally require a higher level of essential body fat than men do, which helps to maintain healthy estrogen production and energy levels. However, their fat stores tend to be in different places to men. 

Women store most of their fat on their thighs, hips, and butt. Men, on the other hand, tend to accumulate fat more on their lower back and abdomen. So, women don’t need to get quite as lean as men do for their abs to start showing. 

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The problem is that getting down to the low body fat level that’s required for stand-out abs can be dangerous for women. Some women will be able to do it no problem—but others may be more susceptible to issues like problems with menstruation, low energy levels, and a weakened immune system. 

Men also have noticeably more muscle mass than women, which means they’re more likely to actually have those muscles visible than ladies are, helping them to stand out. 

So in a nutshell, it’s actually a little easier for women to get abs than it is for men, as men tend to have a layer of stubborn fat sitting on their stomachs. But some women may experience health issues as they lower their body fat percentage, and it’s likely their abs won’t be quite as defined because of their lower muscle mass.

How Important Is Body Fat Percentage? 

Body fat percentage is one of the biggest keys to getting four-pack abs (or any other visible abs!). You can train your abs as hard as you want, if your body fat percentage is too high, you won’t see them. 

As they say, abs are made in the kitchen! In fact, in the case of abs, diet is actually probably more important than actually training abs. So if you want any-pack abs, get your nutrition right!

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What Body Fat Percentage Should I Have? 

There’s no specific number that guarantees visible abs. But men need to reach a body fat percentage of between 13% and 6% to get those chiseled abs, while women generally need to lower their body fat to between 14% and 18%

It’s important to know that it’s different for everyone. For your buddy, they may get nicely defined abs at around 13%, while you may be one of those who needs to trim down to under 10% for yours to really show. The only way to know is to do it! 

How Often Should I Train Abs? 

You should be training abs every time you get in the gym. But wait—that doesn’t mean doing a full ab workout every time you train! Instead, your heavy compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and shoulder presses actually work the abs if you do them properly. 

The key to a strong core and defined abs is to make sure you’re engaging your abs when you do these exercises. It’s a natural part of proper form, but it’s worthwhile making double sure you’re engaging your abdominals when doing these big lifts. 

But aside from those, you do need to do some more ab-specific movements if you really want to get ab definition. Two to three abdominal training workouts per week should be plenty, but make sure you’re giving it a day between each for the muscles to recover.

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What Are the Best Exercises to Target Your Abs? 

Once you’ve decided how many times you’re going to train abs and sorted out your diet, the next key is to do the right exercises. Crunches are overrated! Incorporate these ab exercises, and you’ll get a well-rounded abdominal exercise

1. Plank 

One of the most under-utilized ab exercises. Many people assume that because it’s a relatively simple static exercise, it doesn’t do much for your abs. On the contrary, it’s one of the best and easiest ab exercises you can incorporate into your schedule. 

However, it’s less of a muscle-defining exercise and instead develops more muscular endurance, which helps you perform more powerfully with other ab exercises. 

How to Perform It 

Begin in a pushup position. Your hands should be underneath your shoulders, plans flat on the ground. You can do this with your forearms on the ground if it’s more comfortable for you. 

You’ll want to hold this for time, not reps. Aim for 30 seconds to begin, and increase in increments of 5 or 10 seconds as you improve. 

Tips for Proper Form 

Make sure your elbows are locked out and your hands are flat on the floor. If you’re on your forearms, you might want to use a mat for comfort. 

Your body should be in as straight a line as possible, from neck to glutes. Don’t stick your butt up in the air, but don’t let it sag either—tighten your abs and “tuck” your butt under instead of letting it stick out! Make sure your abs are tight all the time. 

Maintain this position throughout the time—once you feel your butt starting to sag or you notice you’re sticking it in the air, your form is starting to go. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

The plank works the entire core. Interestingly, it also works the glutes and hamstrings as you hold your position! It’s excellent for improving balance as well.

2. Russian Twists 

Some people are dead set against Russian Twists because they think they’ll hurt your back. But if you do them right, they could be one of the best ab exercises in your repertoire. The key is to get your form right so you place strain on the back. 

How to Perform It

One of the great things about this exercise is that it’s scalable. You can begin with no weight and work your way up to using a kettlebell or holding a dumbbell or weight plate. Weighted ab exercises are particularly awesome for building an impressive set of abs. 

Start by sitting on the floor with your legs out in front of you. You may want to sit on a mat. If you aren’t using weight, hold your hands close together in front of your abs. If you are using weight, hold whatever you’re using in front of your body. 

Lean back around 45 degrees and raise your feet off the floor. Here is where you need to tighten those abs (and glutes) to keep yourself stable in this position. 

From here, rotate your torso and touch your fingertips (or the bottom of the weight) to the floor on one side of you. Using your abs (no swinging!), bring it back up and do the same thing on the other side.

Tips for Proper Form 

Make sure your hips and knees don’t rotate along with your upper body. You want to be twisting at the waist, with as little movement from the lower body as possible. 

You can do a “foot-supported” Russian Twist if you can’t keep your legs up, with your heels on the ground. This removes some core activation, but it’s helpful for those who are new to the movement. 

Alternatively, bend your knees while your legs are in the air to alleviate some strain on the lower abs. The eventual goal is to do a full set of Russian Twists with your legs straight out in front of you, but it may take some time to work up to that! 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

The Russian Twist targets your entire core, but it’s particularly great for the obliques. Interestingly, it also the glutes and the shoulder muscles, so it’s a pretty compound ab exercise!

3. Hanging Leg Raises (Weighted) 

If you’ve got great shoulder and back strength, you can perform this hanging from a pullup bar, but you’ll also need to have perfect form. An easier alternative is to use the Captain’s Chair, which takes the upper body out of the equation. 

You can do them with no weight at first, but they’re another great exercise that you can scale by adding weight as you improve. Excellent addition to your ab workout. 

How to Perform It 

Whether you’re using the Captain’s Chair or the pullup bar, the goal here is to hinge at the waist in order to lift the legs. On the chair, your lower back is supported so you have no choice but to engage those abs to lift your legs. 

However, with the pullup bar, you’ve got nothing stabilizing you. It’s easy to accidentally swing while lifting your legs, which uses momentum and no muscle. If you’re doing it this way, it’s super important to avoid the swing and instead engage those abs properly. 

You want to tighten the lower abs and lift the legs. The eventual goal is to lift the legs straight out in front of you without bending them, but it could take a bit of time to get there. You can bend your legs and bring your knees up to your chest if it works better. 

Tips for Proper Form 

If you’re on the chair, make sure you aren’t hunching your shoulders as your arms fatigue. On both, if you’re doing bent-knees, lift them until they’re slightly higher than parallel to the ground. Any higher than that, and your abs will disengage. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

The leg raise is really great for the lower abs. You need to tighten them to lift the legs without any momentum, so this is an essential exercise. If you do it from a pullup bar, it utilizes much more of the core to stabilize you, so your rectus abdominis and transversus abdominis will also get a workout.

4. Mountain Climbers 

Active planks! If planking is getting a little boring for you, mountain climbers are a good next step. It also gets your heart rate up a little, so you can always incorporate these as part of a cardio workout too. 

How to Perform It 

Start in a regular plank position, hands on the ground. Keeping your abs tight and maintaining your straight-backed. tucked-butt position, bring one knee upwards towards the chest. Then, take it back to the starting position and bring the opposite knee up. 

You want to do this quite fast—it’s like running in a plank position. You will most likely rock forward and backward a little on your hands, which is okay. If you want some more challenge, use ankle weights or resistance bands connected to something behind you. 

Tips for Proper Form 

Take care to maintain your plank position (avoid butt in the air or sagging) and try not to rock from side to side as you perform it. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

The lower abs are the most worked during mountain climbers. Because of the active nature of the exercise, it also incorporates a bunch of others, including the shoulders, triceps, glutes, and quads.

5. Dead Bug 

Dead bugs are static exercises that build muscular endurance. They may feel kind of boring, but add them to your routine for a great pump. They’re also excellent for helping you to get used to the feeling of that posterior pelvic tilt—tucking your butt in, which is important for many of these exercises. 

How to Perform It 

Start by lying flat on your back on a mat. Raise your arms so your hands are directly above your shoulders, hands extended like your fingers are pointing. At the same time, lift your knees so your knees are stacked over your hips. 

Here’s where you want to tuck your butt so your lower back is flat against the floor. From there, you’ll tighten your abs and perform the actual exercise—lowering one arm behind your head, while simultaneously lowering the opposite leg to the floor. 

Then bring both back up, and do the same with the opposite legs. Make sure to keep those abs tight throughout! 

Tips for Proper Form 

If your lower back can’t touch the floor yet, you can roll up a small towel and place it under the small of your back to stabilize yourself. Try to inhale on lowering, and exhale when bringing your limbs back up. 

It’s important to do these motions with control—don’t just drop your arm and leg and swing them back up. The key is to maintain tightness in the abs. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

Dead bugs actually work all the ab muscles, just like a plank. Your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques get a great workout.

6. Hollow Hold 

Also known as the boat hold, this is another muscular endurance exercise. Don’t let this discourage you, though—these kinds of exercises will help you perform better in all the more explosive or heavier weighted movements. 

How to Perform It 

Start in the same position as a dead bug—on your back, butt tucked. Extend your arms behind your head, with your biceps next to your ears, and lift your legs off the floor, keeping your toes and fingers pointed. 

Tighten your core by bringing your ribs and pelvis closer together. From here, raise your shoulders off the ground and flatten your lower back against the mat. 

You want to hold this position with good form for 15 to 30 seconds. You should be stable on the floor and the only part touching the ground should be your lower back. 

Tips for Proper Form 

Take care not to strain your neck when doing this exercise. Consciously relax the neck muscles and make sure you aren’t tensing them during this hold. 

If it’s too hard for you, you can do a modified version by keeping your feet on the ground and extending your arms towards your feet, instead of upwards. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

Your full core will get a good workout with this one. It also works the quads a little, plus the hip flexors.

7. Cable Wood Chop 

A weighted exercise that’s challenging and does great things for the core! If you have access to a cable machine, this should definitely be on your agenda. If not, you can always do a modified version using a resistance band

How to Perform It 

You can do this in two different ways, and we recommend doing both. One, you start with the cable handle higher than your abs and pull down. Two, you start with the handle low, and you pull up. 

Stand with your closer foot parallel to the cable machine. The machine should be to your side. Turn your other foot out to the side, pointing away from the cable machine, almost at right angles to your closer foot. 

You’ll want to twist slightly to grab the handle—whether it’s high or low—with the same hand as the out-turned foot. This will help you to stay stable throughout the movement. Cover that one with your other hand. Engage the oblique and pull through. 

If you’re starting high, you’ll finish the motion around your opposite hip. If you’re pulling from low, you’ll finish with your arms above your head on the opposite side. 

Tips for Proper Form 

Don’t swing your body! You should be standing quite still and just twisting your torso. Your lower body should be facing the same way the whole time. It’s also a good idea to keep your head still and not turn it, which will help you to keep the legs still. 

Make sure the motion is slow and controlled. Also, don’t get into the habit of pulling with your arms—every rep, make sure you’re engaging those obliques. Breath out as you pull, and breathe in on your way back to the starting position. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

This exercise is an excellent one to work the obliques and the transverse abdominis. The twisting motion is exactly what those muscles are made for! It also engages the back muscles, shoulder muscles, and legs.

8. Reverse Hyperextension 

Although this is usually regarded as a glutes and lower back exercise, it’s excellent for strengthening the abs as well. They stabilize your body throughout the movement to prevent injury, so it’s a good one to add to your stash. 

How to Perform It 

Lie with your upper body on a bench, chest down, with your legs hanging off the end. You can wrap your arms around the bench to keep yourself stable. 

Lift your feet off the ground so your knees are bent. From there, tighten your abs and straighten your legs. It’s harder than it sounds! Hold for a few seconds fully extended, and return back to the starting position. You can do it one leg at a time if it’s easier for you. 

Tips for Proper Form 

Avoid using momentum to lift your legs, or you won’t be using your abs much at all! No swinging—only a controlled movement. Also, make sure you aren’t overextending your back at the top of the movement. Keep your body in a straight line. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

The whole core is braced during the exercise. You may also get some glute engagement, and the lower back muscles will also most likely come into play.

9. Kneeling Cable Crunch

The biggest advantage of the cable crunch is the ability to progressively overload your abs—in other words, you can add more and more weight as they get stronger. If you’ve got access to a cable machine, do them. 

How to Perform It 

Set a cable to a high setting. You can use the rope attachment or a straight bar, but we recommend the rope for ease of use. Step out a foot or two in front of the cable machine and kneel on your knees. This takes the lower body out of the equation and helps you keep your form. 

In this position, the handles of the rope should be next to your ears. You should be bent at the waist, knees on the ground, cable taut. This is the starting position. 

From here, tighten the abs and bring your elbows to your knees. Come back up slowly, without allowing the force of the cable to jerk you upwards. 

Tips for Proper Form 

Make sure you don’t pull the rope with your arms. You want to just anchor it next to your ears, but all the downward movement should come from tensing those abs. 

You may also need to experiment a little with how far to kneel from the machine. It’s important to find a spot that’s comfortable for you but still allows you to get a real good crunch of the abs. 

Ab Muscles It Hits 

This exercise targets your rectus abdominis muscle from top to bottom, making it one of the best you can do. It also engages the obliques, but to a lesser extent.

Tips to Get 4-Pack Abs 

Want to get a visible 4-pack (or any other pack you have) in as short a time as possible? Here are our top tips for building an impressive washboard. 

Healthy Eating Habits 

The biggest key! You CAN’T get abs without healthy eating habits. We recommend sticking to whole foods, nothing processed, and going easy on the sugar. 

Also, getting enough protein in your diet is essential when it comes to sculpting the ideal body. It’ll help you to gain muscle and lose fat quicker, recover faster, plus it helps you to feel fuller for longer after meals. 

You should be eating 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight every day. It’s a good idea to eat some protein with every meal, so you stay full throughout the day. In addition to this, go for low-calorie, high-nutrient vegetables so you’re eating substantial meals every time. 

If you can handle it and it doesn’t interfere with your gym and refueling schedule, we also highly advise trying intermittent fasting. It can be tough in the beginning, but it can make a huge difference in sticking to your calories, especially when you’re cutting.

A man at the gym tracking his calories ratio to have the perfect four-pack abs
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Track Your Calories and Macronutrient Ratios 

Tracking calories is the best way to make sure you aren’t overeating. You’ll need to be in a 25 to 25% calorie deficit—that is, eating 20 to 25% fewer calories than you’re burning. Here’s how to calculate your calories when cutting

Going by feel is not a good idea unless you’re extremely experienced. The difference between 50 grams and 75 grams of any given food is super hard to tell by sight, but calorie-wise, it could push you over the edge without you even realizing. 

Use an app like MyFitnessPal to track everything you eat. It’ll take a few days, but you’ll get used to it quickly. This is one of the best tools for weight loss, because it helps you to become much more aware of what you’re actually putting into your body. 

Tip #1: Don’t get caught by “hidden calories”. Salad dressings, sauces, drinks, sugar, cooking oil… All these little things can add hundreds of extra calories onto your daily total. 

Tip #2: We advise tracking your protein intake (the aforementioned 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight) and letting the rest be naturally taken up by carbs and fats. 

Tip #3: It’s super hard to get visible abs while bulking. In this stage, rather work on strengthening the muscles. You’re actively putting on body fat (especially belly fat) in addition to muscle, so your abs may actually disappear while you’re bulking. You can get them back when cutting! 

Include Cardio Workouts in Your Routine 

While cardio workouts aren’t going to build your ab muscles, they’ll help strip the fat off of your abs quite effectively. Two to three cardio workouts per week are enough in addition to your regular strength workouts. 

It’s important to note that even 20 to 30 minutes of steady-state cardio will help you lose fat. But if you want to experience fat-burning effects for longer throughout the day, try some HIIT cardio—short intervals of almost all-out effort, followed by recovery periods for as long or twice as long. 

For the best results, separate your cardio and strength workouts by 6 hours or more. This will have you starting with full energy levels each time.

Heavy Compound Exercises 

As mentioned above, doing compound exercises with heavy weight—75% or more of your 1-rep max—is an excellent way to engage those abdominal muscles on a regular basis. 

When you’re doing your big lifts, make sure you’re actively using those muscles and you’ll be working your abs every time you squat or deadlift.

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About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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