It’s often assumed that ectomorphs and skinny guys naturally have a six pack and if they don’t, that it should be very easy to get one with some training. This can certainly be true for some people depending on their genetics.
I’ve seen skinny guys who have visible abs but also skinny guys that would be classed as an ectomorph sporting quite a bit of body fat around their midsection. This is known as skinny-fat, an interesting term for those that look skinny to a casual observer, however they actually have a high body fat percentage relative to their weight.
Therefore it’s not fair to assume that all ectomorphs can easily get a six pack and if anything it’s the endomorphs and mesomorphs who have a more developed midsection once they lose the excess body fat.
This article is the 3rd installment in a series looking to help ectomorphs build muscle and skip the frustrating phase where you do endless sets of bicep curls and bench presses yet see no progress. If you’re interested then you can check out how to build bigger legs as an ectomorph and how to build bigger arms as an ectomorph.
How Can an Ectomorph Get a Six Pack? To get a six pack as an ectomorph requires two things, you first need to build a sufficient amount of total body lean muscle mass while including direct ab work 1-2 times per week. Secondly you need to get to a body fat percentage under 14% and ideally in the range of 10%-12% for a visible six pack.
Building a six pack as an ectomorph is not as complicated as many “30 days to abs” courses or guides would have you believe but unfortunately it will also take longer than the quick fix guide being sold to you.
How Can an Ectomorph Get a Six Pack
The most important factor that you need to consider before embarking on your six pack journey is that not everyone can actually get a six pack. I don’t mean that from a mentality or commitment perspective but from the simple fact of genetics.
Your ab structure is determined by genetics and no amount of training or dieting can actually change that. This is often something the people neglect to mention and you could spend years chasing something that you can’t actually achieve.
Each individual will have a specific ab makeup and this could range from a 2 pack right the way through to a genetically gifted 10 pack. Therefore your focus should not be on trying to build a six pack but rather a well defined set of abs.
At a range of body fat percentages my ab structure always remains the same, I could do 1,000 crunches a day but that will do nothing to add an extra ab or make them more symmetrical.
Therefore before getting started you need to shift your mindset towards building the best possible midsection that your specific genetics will allow.
How Can an Ectomorph Get Abs
Now that you are focusing on building a set of abs you can focus more on the process. To get abs as an ectomorph will require two things, an ability to build overall body mass (through lean muscle tissue) and a low enough body fat percentage to actually have visible abs.
The reason you need to build overall muscle mass is because the human body does not function well with asymmetry, what this means is that most people will have a balanced physique in terms of muscle mass distribution.
You will see pictures where people only train their upper body and have a very unbalanced physique as a result but these are rare instances (though people only training upper body is not so rare!).
Some people will have muscle groups more developed than others, this is certainly true but from an evolutionary standpoint in order to bring up one muscle group you need to bring them all up. People always want to add more size to their arms but it’s often cited that to gain an additional inch to your arms you would need to gain 15lbs in body weight.
Stronglifts also have a chart that shows how much you need to weigh on average to have a certain arm size.
Sticking with the arms, it’s also said that you need to increase your bench press by 30lbs to add another inch to your arms.
Unfortunately I can’t find the reference for this but I’ve seen it on a few T-Nation articles so as soon as I come across it I’ll link it here but all these numbers at the end of the day come back to getting stronger and building lean muscle mass.
Abs do not have the same hypertrophic growth potential as say the quads and this is due to the muscle fibre makeup and tissue density but you still need to train them as though you are trying to build any other muscle group.
The weight increases will not be as drastic as the arm example but your abs work to stabilize your torso, the heavier you get the stronger and more developed they will need to be as an indirect response. This is why endomorphs have well defined abs when then eventually do lose their excess body fat.
Body fat also brings me nicely onto the next consideration.
Body Fat Percentage for Abs
They say that abs are made in the kitchen, this isn’t necessarily true as abs are made in the weight room like any other muscle group though the point is actually that abs are displayed in the kitchen.
Most adult males are pre dispositioned to store a larger amount of body fat in their midsection and lower back just like females tend to store more in the glutes, hips and upper legs. These are the areas we tend to store fat first and are often the most stubborn areas that take the longest to lose it.
If you are an ectomorph falling into the skinny fat category then you can appreciate this. A true hardgainer however will have the comfort of knowing that as they look to build muscle and gain weight that their metabolism will do a pretty good job of minimizing the excess fat gain.
When looking to build a decent set of abs (especially starting from scratch as an ectomorph), you’ll need to plan it in two phases.
The first phase is building up your total body mass and while I always advocate the approach of gaining as little body fat as possible in the process you should still have the expectation that you will gain excess body fat to some degree.
An endomorph you’d be highly skeptical about that approach but as an ectomorph, chances are you’re looking at 15% body fat at the top range of a bulk. Therefore focus on building as much total body muscle mass as possible in this phase (6-12 months).
That might seem like a long time but the rate of muscle growth is slow and in your first year of training you are looking at around 25lbs of lean muscle mass as a maximum. Therefore you need to be prepared to dedicate at least a year to hard training if you want to build up your abs.
The second phase is then cutting body fat to 10%. This is a hard/definite goal, abs will be visible at 14% body fat and below for a lot of ectomorphs but 10% is really the point where you will have visibly noticeable abs whilst also being able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
As soon as you go below 10% body fat then the difficulty of your training and dieting increases tenfold. This is ok if you are training to be a bodybuilder but for 95% of people reading this you should be pinpointing 10% as your goal body fat percentage.
Anatomy of the Abs
Ok the boring (but important) expectations and basic information is now out of the way.
It doesn’t matter if you know a guy who has never trained and somehow has a visible six pack. That’s an exception, for the majority you need to put on some size and get to a low body fat percentage. That isn’t contradictory because skinny fat people can be ectomorphs too!
While lifting heavy in the compound exercises will contribute to ab development you will still need to do some direct ab. Therefore it’s important to not only know the anatomy of the abs but also of the midsection as a whole.
Don’t worry, I’ll be quick with this as you likely want to train and not read through a human anatomy lesson. If you are interested in that then you should check out this book, it’s literally got an entire section for the abs.
It’s important to know the function of the abs so that you can correctly target them with specific exercises, an endless amount of crutches will only target the same muscle and will leave progress on the table.
The abs are primarily made up of:
- Rectus Abdominis – upper and lower abs
- Internal & External Obliques
- Transverse Abdominis
These are all responsible for different functions from stabilizing the torso, bending and rotating the torso and supporting rotation of the spine. Therefore with different functions you will require different exercises to target them.
Should Skinny Guys Do Ab Workouts
There is a myth floating around the internet and gym floors that says skinny guys don’t need to do any direct ab work. This is either based on the opinion that a naturally lower body fat percentage (ectomorphs) will mean you have naturally visible abs, doing compound exercises will work the abs enough or more often than not that assumption isn’t actually based on anything at all.
The truth however is that most skinny guys will actually need to do more direct ab work than anyone else and this is because it might be true the ectomorphs have a low level of body fat but this is easily cancelled out by the fact that they tend to have low levels of muscle mass.
If you have come across this article then you can likely relate to that second point. The key driver for many ectomorphs training is to build muscle mass and the abs are no different in that respect. A low level of muscle mass will equally mean that you will have underdeveloped ab muscles.
In order to change this then you will of course need to stimulate the abs and provide them with some direct training in order to create muscle hypertrophy. I’m not saying you need to go overboard and do endless hours of sit ups but you will need to plan an actual ab routine that you can follow.
Ectomorph Ab Workout
If you are deadlift, squatting, rowing, pressing overhead, pressing from a bench or doing any form of loaded carry then you will already be engaging your core muscles and indirectly working your abs.
Remember a function of the abs is to stabilize your torso and your abs are also the central point for generating force and tension during a lift. If you can’t stabilize and engage your core then you will struggle to generate power and maintain active tension on these heavy compound lifts.
Pressing 200lbs overhead or pulling 400lbs from the floor is pretty much guaranteeing that your core is getting a sufficient workout. You might not be lifting anywhere near these numbers yet but these are the sort of numbers that you want to be working towards as an ectomorph.
Therefore you don’t need to try and fatigue your abs with endless sets and reps of crunches and sit ups as this will mean you will struggle on your big lifts if your core is fatigued. You instead want to stimulate your abs enough to kickstart protein synthesis and that is it.
Dr Brett Contreras spent a period of time testing pretty much every muscle group and exercises with EMG to test how engaged and active a muscle is during each exercise through contractions.
You can see the results in detail here but just to give a brief snapshot you can check out the summary below:
As you can see there’s not a crunch or sit up in sight. Now don’t get me wrong, a peak contraction during an exercise does not mean that the exercise is the best. Total body movements like a deadlift and squat have high readings for the majority of muscle groups.
A squat requires a high level of engagement from the upper back to keep the bar in place but that doesn’t mean you squat to develop your upper back.
What this study does show however, is a running theme that certain exercises are certainly appearing in more than one category and therefore seem to be go to moves for complete core development.
An ab wheel rollout, hanging leg raise and bodysaw appear to work multiple muscles of the core to a large extent.
In an article I produced for Bulk Powders 3 years ago now I had recommended the ab rollout and hanging leg raises as the top two exercises and going back even further to 2015 in an article for Myprotein I recommended the same two exercises again.
This is no coincidence, hanging leg raises are probably the best exercises for developing your lower rectus abdominis while the ab rollouts hit both the abs and obliques.
Therefore you don’t need to do anything fancy to hit your abs, I would suggest direct ab work twice per week that targets different parts of your midsection while still training in the hypertrophy rep range (8-12 reps).
This could end up looking something like this:
Hanging leg raises – 3 sets x 12 reps
Cable rope crunch – 3 sets x 12 reps
Ab wheel rollouts – 5 sets x 8 reps
Bodysaw or Plank – 3 sets x 1 minute each
Weighted hanging leg raises – 3 sets x 8 reps
Swiss ball crunch – 3 sets x 25 reps
Ab wheel rollout – 3 sets x 8 reps
You can include and replace any exercise that you like but the key is to pick some exercises that target different muscle groups of your core (not just the abs) and get progressively stronger in these exercises.
If you progress from kneeling ab wheel rollouts and regular planks to standing ab wheel rollouts and RKC style planks then you can guarantee that your abs will be popping as a result.