Six pack know-how: Which muscles to work and how to do it- by Samantha Clayton, AFAA, ISSA.

Six pack know-how: Which muscles to work and how to do it

Posted by Samantha Clayton, AFAA, ISSA 

Six pack know-how: Which muscles to work and how to do itIf you want six pack abs, you need to now how to work all of the muscles that make up your core. There are five major muscles that you need to work to get a flat tummy and strong mid section.

Your core is made up of much more than the six pack muscles. A six pack seems to be a universal symbol of a fit body, but honestly, being able to see the definition of the muscles that make up your core doesn’t necessarily mean you’re strong (sorry to all gym goers that flaunt their six pack as a symbol of perfect health). A six pack is purely an indication that you have low body fat percentage. All humans are born with six pack abs, but for the majority of people, their six packs are hidden behind a layer of abdominal fat. Working your core muscles with specific exercises will help build them to be bigger and more defined, in the same way that you can build other muscles of the body with a strength training program.

In order to get a six-pack, I suggest doing a comprehensive exercise routine that effectively burns fat, strengthens your muscle and works the core. My quote that ‘six packs are made in the kitchen’ is because good nutrition is essential if you wish to expose these muscles and any other muscles in the body too.

Today I’m going to talk you through some of the major muscles that make up your core complex, and give you an exercise that you can do to work each of the muscles as part of your well-balanced fitness routine.

Rectus abdominals

These are the famous six-pack muscles. They’re the most external of the core muscles. The rectus abdominals runs vertically from the middle of your rib cage in the front of the body to the pubic bone.

To activate this muscle you must round the body forward taking the rib cage toward the thighs. Crunches are a simple yet effective exercise to do to activate this muscle.

How to do it: Begin by lying face up on the floor with your knees bent. Begin the crunch movement by contracting your abs to curl your shoulders towards the pelvis. Your hands can be behind or beside the neck or crossed over your chest. Injury can be caused by pushing against your head or neck with your hands so be conscious to use your abs and not your head to lift your shoulders off the floor. Hold for a second then return to starting position.

How many to do: Do 15- 20 perfect form crunches and perform from 3-5 sets.


The muscles at the side of your waist are called the internal and external obliques. They run in a diagonal line along the flank of your body, and they’re attached to the midline beneath the rectus abdominals. These muscles are important for stability, especially for movements that involve lateral (sideways) movements.

To activate these muscles you will need to perform exercises that involve side bending or twisting. My favorite exercise for working my obliques is the bicycle ab crunch.

How to do it: Lie on your back on the floor. Stretch your legs out straight and Place your hands behind your head. Raise your legs one at a time so that your thighs are perpendicular to the ground, and your calves are parallel to the ground. Keep your feet together. Contract your abdominal muscles and touch your right elbow to your left knee. At the same time, straighten your right leg out in front, keeping it several inches off of the floor then switch bending your right leg and straightening your left similar to the motion you’d make while pedaling a bicycle. Use your abdominal muscles to crunch your body forward so that your elbow can reach your knee.

Note: Do not pull on your neck, if you can quite reach your elbow to you knee that’s ok.

How many to do: Aim to do 30 seconds of bicycle crunches and do this 3-5 times.

Quadratus lumborum

This is a deep stabilizing muscle that connects the upper and lower body. It runs almost vertically from the lower ribs to the pelvic crest. It is an important muscle for stabilizing the hips for stabilizing the spine and its also plays a role with the diaphragm for deep breathing.

This muscle is worked with side bending or twisting movements and is also activated while doing most movements even sitting down and walking. My favorite exercise to strengthen this muscle is side plank.

How to do it: Lay on the floor on your side. Place your hand on the floor under you and straighten your arm, raising the top half of your body off the ground. You can raise the other arm straight over you or let it rest on your side. Keep your legs straight, letting the lower half of your body rest on the side of your bottom foot. To hold side plank position, you will have to engage most of your core muscles, including your quadratus lumborum.

How many to do: Try to hold this position for 45-60 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

Psoas major

This is the deepest of the core muscles it starts at the back of the body at the outside of each vertebre and wraps around the pelvis in front of the pubic bone attaching at your thigh bone. It’s a hip flexor muscle and is used for all activities that involve moving your legs. My favorite exercise for working this muscle is a laying down leg raise.

How to do: Begin by lying on your back on a mat. Place your hands under your butt to stabilize your pelvis. Without letting your lower back lift, pull your knees toward your chest, then straighten your legs back to the starting position. To increase the resistance, try the exercise with straight legs. To increase the difficulty, do leg raises on an incline bench.

How many to do: Start out doing 10 raises, 3 sets. If your back starts to lift, stop because you’ll be engaging the incorrect muscles. Do as may as you can with good form.

Transverse abdominal muscles

This is what I call the flat tummy muscle. It lays behind the obliques and also wraps around your spine, providing you with protection and stability. It’s a deep core muscle that is responsible for stabilizing your spine and pelvis especially during lifting movements. The best exercise is so easy you can do it anywhere its called the vacuum.

How to do it: You can do this exercise while sitting up or lying down. It can be done in bed, at the office, or while driving your car. All you have to do is suck your belly in as far as you can, and hold. Make sure you are pulling your abs in as if it is meeting your back. I’m sure you know this move! I call it the ‘fake it to make it move.’

How many to do: When you hold your tummy in hold it in for 10 to 15 seconds then release. Try to continue breathing and don’t hold your breath. Gaining muscular control is the key of this move.


Having a strong core is essential for so many reasons. Perhaps you want to be a strong runner or a good cyclist, in which case you need a strong core. Maybe you just want to improve your posture or have a flat stomach. Or maybe you strive to have six pack abs. In any case, you need to focus on strengthening all of your core muscles.

As a trainer I love to share with people the actual muscles behind the famous six pack abs. Your core muscles are not just there to make you look good, they help you to be strong, stable and have great posture. I hope you enjoyed learning all about your abs and can add these exercises to your routine to achieve the tummy of your dreams.

Written by Samantha Clayton, AFAA, ISSA. Samantha is Director of Fitness Education at Herbalife



Has this helped you better understand belly fat and abdomianl muscles?

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