10 Pack Abs: The Best Exercises for Drool-Worthy Abs

How do you get 10-pack abs?  Simple. Have them already, or have different parents.

Now, the abs may be undeveloped, or already pretty jacked and just lurking underneath a layer of adipose tissue that was hard-earned by overachievement in the kitchen. Who knows? Maybe you do have a potential 10-pack.

Whether you’ve got 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, or even 12—yep, a few lucky folks have 12—we’re going to unpack the best exercises for abs you’ve got available, and the science behind the best ab exercises to do to develop what you’ve got available.

Ab Anatomy

10-Pack Abs All Depends on Ab Anatomy

You can’t make sense of ab work without first understanding ab anatomy. The anatomical structure explains why 10-pack abs may or may not be achievable for an individual, but a 4-pack, 6-pack, or 8-pack might be.

The rectus abdominis muscles are actually two parallel muscles that attach at the pubic bone on the pelvis and the lower middle edge of the rib cage (specifically the xiphoid process—the notch at the base of the breast bone—and the fifth through seventh ribs). The seam created by connective tissue in the midline is called the linea alba and the horizontal separations are called tendinous intersections.

It’s the number of tendinous intersections that determines your ab count. Credit the number of tendinous intersections if you have 10-pack abs.

The abs are responsible for flexing the spine, curving it forward. They also play functional roles in breathing, and they help to hold your internal abdominal organs in place and protect them, and they add stability to the spine.

Things the abs don’t do:

  • Twist the upper body
  • Raise the legs.

Those last two points—that the abs (again, specifically the rectus abdominis) neither twist the upper body nor raise the legs become important to remember if you’re going to maximize your training for that washboard look…whether it turns out to be a 10-pack or a number south of that. (Or who knows…maybe you’re one of those 12-pack people.)

Upper, Middle, and Lower Abs: No Such Thing

No matter what the bro literature says, a person can’t “target” their upper, middle, or lower abs, because there’s no such thing as upper, middle, or lower abs.

To have upper, lower, and middle abs would require attachments on either end of an upper, lower, or middle ab…which of course isn’t the case.

Work the entire muscle over a full range of motion and the individual muscle bellies will develop.

Best Exercises for Abs

We’ll describe the three best exercises for developing the rectus abdominis. All are variations of the crunch.

1. Crunches

How to Do A Proper Crunch

Ah, the lowly crunch. It can be done anywhere, even in bed. (Crunches may be better than tossing and turning as an insomnia treatment. No scientific evidence to support this…just a thought.)

Crunches target the abs almost exclusively, making them arguably the best exercise to develop your ##-pack. They require the contraction of the rectus abdominus top to bottom with the supporting abdominal muscles just pretty much coming along for the ride.

They do not require a crazy-wide range of motion to perform 100% correctly. In other words, you don’t have to put your head between your knees for the crunch to be proper and effective. The rectus abdominis just needs to fully contract.

How to Do A Proper Crunch

  • Lie on your back on any surface. Crunches can be done flat, incline, or decline, on pretty much any surface. Benches, floor mats, and sit-up boards are the most common.
  • Place your arms in a comfortable position. Don’t feel obligated to lock your hands behind your head. In fact, it might be better for cervical spine health if you don’t.
    • Here are hand positions, ranked from easiest to most challenging:
      • Fold arms over your chest. This is the easiest.
      • Hold hands at your head.
      • Extend arms over your head. This lengthens the moment arm created by your upper body and adds resistance.
        • Be cautious if you choose the “prisoner’s grip” where fingers are interlocked behind the head. The temptation is overwhelming to use the arms to create upward momentum, and your cervical spine won’t like this. You’ve never known pain until you’ve injured your cervical spine.
      • Hold a weight on your chest. Use a weight that’s heavier than the combined weight of your arms if you prefer this to putting arms overhead.

2. The Cable Crunch (aka Rope Tuck)

How to Do the Cable Crunch Properly

The Cable Crunch is one of the most butchered exercises in the gym. (It’s hard to beat the side lateral for the title of Most-Butchered.)

The Cable Crunch is both astonishingly easy to do, and also very easy to do poorly.

It’s probably not exaggerating to say that 90 exercisers out of 100 who do them do them wrong, with 89 of the 90 having absolutely no clue that they’re goofing up and working their arms and legs instead, or practicing sitting down. This is because body weight and arm motion are too often used to move the weight back and down, instead of spinal flexion.

Here’s how to properly do one to work your abs and avoid looking like a first-timer to the gym.

  1. Attach a rope handle—short or long, doesn’t matter…you can choke up if you want. You can also use loop handles if you like. Long loop handles work really nice because you can alter your grip for comfort.
  2. Select a weight you can do well for the specified number of reps.
  3. Position the pulley high enough so that the weight stack won’t bottom out at the top of each rep.
  4. Kneel facing the machine.
  5. Grasp the rope or handles with bent arms, holding your hands on top of or to the sides of your head.
  6. Keeping your lower body completely, 100% still, perform a crunch without:
    • Sitting back, or,
    • Moving your arms.
  7. The only muscles that should be working are your abs. Period. No bonus points for beast mode weight if all you’re doing is rocking back and forth or doing some kind of jacked-up kneeling two-arm pulldown (which regrettably is what most who do rope crunches actually do). Sorry…callin’ ‘em as we see ‘em.

Try This Pro Hack for Cable Crunches

Here’s a hack that takes the discipline and guesswork out of a cable crunch. All you need—other than the cable machine and handles—is an adjustable bench and enough floor space to do it.

Position an adjustable bench facing away from the cable machine and raise the seat as high as it goes. Grab the handles and sit down facing away from the machine (of course), and hold the handles up by the side of your head. Now, crunch forward.

The seated position removes any tendency for the hips and lower body to spoil the party. It’s still possible to mess these up by using momentum but it’s a whole lot easier to do these correctly when sitting.

What Cable Crunches Work

Cable Crunches work the rectus abdominis (aka, “the abs”) when the crunch is performed in a straight line, parallel to the direction of your spine.

You can tweak them to get some oblique and transverse abdominis work in as well. Just add a twist.

Twist to the side as you pull the weight down so that you face slightly to the left and right at the bottom of each crunch. Just crunching down toward your left or right knee won’t do it. The upper body must actually rotate to one side or the other to work those core muscles than run diagonally across your abdomen.

3. The Incline Crunch

The Incline Crunch

The cool thing about an incline crunch is the variability. You can progress the difficulty by how high the incline is set.

And—no one hardly ever thinks about this—you can turn the other way and do them with your head and shoulders high, crunching downward toward your knees. Don’t roll your eyes until you’ve done them. Harder than they sound.

How to Do An Incline Crunch

The incline Crunch is a crunch where the head and shoulders move upward, or downward toward the hips while seated lying on a sit-up board or on an incline bench for the downward variation.

  • Upward Incline Crunch. This would be the incline crunch most everyone visualizes when you say “incline crunch”. These are done using a sit-up board.
    • Adjust the board to a height where the target number of reps is possible with good form.
    • Hook the legs over the sit-up board’s supports.
    • Position your arms for the desired resistance, per our discussion above on the classic crunch.
  • Downward Incline Crunch. In this variation, the hips and knees stay put but the legs aren’t stabilized like they would be on a sit-up board. Don’t confuse this with the Incline Reverse Crunch which is a type of knee raise exercise.
    • Set the incline at a level that’s sufficiently challenging. The lower the angle, the more like a flat crunch these become. Steeper angles are obviously much less challenging.

The Downward Incline Crunch is harder than it looks but not as challenging as flat or declines because of increased mechanical advantage. The lever arm—in this case, the distance between the hips and the head and shoulders—has been shortened against downward resistance, thereby reducing the actual weight of the body…functionally speaking of course.

How to Program the Incline Crunch Variations

Because one variation is slightly easier than the other, you can put the downward incline crunch at the end of a crunch superset, the end of a workout, or use it as a warm-up for the core day.

4. Leg Raises

Our discussion on ab muscle development in the quest for a 10-pack (or whatever number of abs you’ve been blessed with) won’t include leg or knee raise exercises.

Leg raises work the hip flexors, not the abs. Sure, you’ll “feel” leg raises in the abs but it’s not from the abs getting any sort of meaningful work.

Leg raises fatigue the hip flexors that lie deep in the abdomen. No one other than a surgeon would ever see them. And because they get worked hard during leg raises, they generate that lactic acid burn that makes you think you’re cranking up that washboard.

The rectus abdominis muscles do get some isometric work during leg raises, but that would be like lying on a bench and lowering a couple of dumbbells and holding them there to work the chest.

Work your abs like any other body part, by intelligent isolation and repping.

How to Program Crunches and Variations

Sample Workouts

Ab work is natural to perform at the end of a workout, or at any point during a workout.

Here are two specific programming options that you can use as-is, or as food for thought for your own customized routine. The format is Reps-Sets (e.g. 20 x 2 = 20 reps for two sets, or two sets of 20.)

Core Day

Crunches

30 x 1 (super light, warm-up)

20 x 1

12-15 x 1

8-10 x 3-4 (arms back, overhead, or with weight)

Cable Crunches with a Twist

20 x 1 Alternating sides, left and right

12-15 x 1 Alternating sides

8-10 each side x 4

Hanging Pelvic Tilt

15 x 1

12 x 1

10 x 1

Back Day

It’s a good idea to balance your back day with some serious ab and overall anterior core work. It is a smart move for your spinal health as well as a balanced physique. And, it’s important to look good coming and going.

Here’s a sample back day with some abs thrown in.

The lat pull-in targets the lats so specifically that it would be easy to overtrain.

This back day includes a lot of trap work because the traps make up such a large percentage of the back.

Lat Pull-ins

30 x 1 (super light, warm-up)

20 x 1

12-15 x 1

8-10 x 3-4

Dual Cable or DB Shrugs

30 x 1

15-20 x 1

12-15 x 1

10-12 x 3-4

Scapula Shrugs1

20 x 1

12-15 x 1-2

10-12 x 3-4

Straight-Arm Cable Pulldowns

20 x 1

12-15 x 1-2

10-12 x 3-4

Crunches

302 x 1

20 x 2

12-15 x 3 (include a brief squeeze at the top)

Cable Crunches

20 x 2

10-12 x 3

Develop Your Abs in the Kitchen

10 pack abs through healthy eating

No matter how much ab work a person does, they’ll never be visible without first reducing abdominal body fat.

We won’t crunch the details on diet here although it’s worth taking the opportunity to share a few general, time-tested guidelines.

  1. You can’t spot-reduce. Working abs alone won’t trim body fat on the abs. The body burns fat systemically…all over. It may harvest some fat stores sooner than others, but working one area won’t target fat loss there.
  2. See Point #1. Over-working the abs won’t get you results any faster; there’s a point of diminishing return. They develop just like any other muscle. You can gauge when they’ve had a sufficient dose of exercise when you can do fewer reps than in the set before it. Keep going until it’s obvious that they’ve had enough. Working down to a set of three or four approaches ridiculousness.
  3. Healthy, balanced diets tend to work. Fads come and go, and for identifiable reasons:
    • Diets come because someone figures out they can make money by selling the diet or the supplements that compensate for something the diet removes.
    • Diets go when the hype runs out when enough people have tried it and moved on to the next fad diet.
  4. Get enough sleep. The research says that not getting enough sleep contributes to obesity. Stands to reason that getting enough restful sleep has the opposite effect.

Summary: The 10-Pack Abs

In summary, do exercises that truly target the abs, and get the body fat down to a degree where your hard work will be visible to you, and anyone else who cares to look.

  1. Scapula shrugs are covered in detail in Horizontal Pulling Exercises.
  2. High reps for the first two or three sets of an exercise serve as warm-ups and to work the Type I myofibrils. Doug Brignole. com has used this technique with great success.
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Perry Mykleby
Perry started lifting weights in 1974. He is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness writer. He holds a journalism degree from the University of North Texas, where he competed in powerlifting. His final competition was the Texas State Open in December of 1982, but has continued to study and practice muscle strength and hypertrophy. He is a four-decade veteran of the medical device industry.

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