Zac Efron built an incredible physique for his role in Baywatch alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Most people would struggle to out-muscle The Rock, but it was Efron’s six-pack abs that really stood out and this super lean and defined look on his abs that many of our clients at Ultimate Performance want to emulate.
While it’s important to remember that a properly-structured diet is absolutely key to getting lean enough to see the abdominal muscles and the classic six-pack look, there are key exercises that will make those abs ‘pop’ like Efron.
Why This Workout Works
When looking to build a six-pack, it’s important to know that there are a few distinct layers of muscles around our midsection.
But for this Zac Efron-style abs workout we will focus mainly on the rectus abdominis, the elusive ‘six pack’ muscle.
Another superficial (visible) muscle of the midsection is external oblique, however we will not be targeting it directly.
The reasons are that:
- We can’t avoid using our obliques during isometric abs exercises anyway.
- Targeting obliques with direct work and dynamic, loaded exercises (different twisting and bending movements) carries a risk of over-developing these muscles to the point where they would actually increase our waist size.
Two basic functions of rectus abdominis muscles are spinal flexion and compression of the abdomen (basically, ‘bracing’).
What this translates to is that we get our abdominals to work when we perform any type of ‘crunch’ movements, initiated from the top of the torso (crunches) or from the bottom of the torso (reverse crunch, leg raise).
Our other option is to place our trunk in the position when our abs will have to engage isometrically (statically) in order to maintain stability and integrity of the trunk.
In order to develop abs optimally and get a six-pack Efron would be proud of, we’ll train this muscle in both functions.
We will also try to hit both ‘fast twitch’ and ‘slow twitch’ muscle fibres of our abs and this is why we’ll use different repetition ranges.
The programme outlined below is suited for all levels, with the notion that beginners will have to skip the A series exercises until they develop enough strength to cope with demands of these advanced movements. Intermediate trainees can try the A exercises in their most basic form, and progress from there.
The ‘B series’ exercises pair up the movements where the abs shorten in opposing directions: in B1 the muscle shortens from insertion to origin, in B2 the muscle shortens from origin towards insertion.
The C series exercises combine isometric with isotonic (dynamic) contractions in Workout 1.
In Workout 2, the C series exercises work the abs in their stabilising (bracing function) where stability is challenged by forces acting unilaterally one side at the time.
Here are two workouts to help you get abs like Zac Efron:
How to Perform the Exercises
This guide is aimed at trainees with a good knowledge of the exercises and how to train safely and effectively.
- Start by kneeling on the ground on all fours.
- Hold an ab wheel (or barbell) directly underneath your shoulders and engage your core.
- This is the start and end position for each rep.
- Keeping your abs engaged and arms straight, slowly roll the ab wheel out in front of you.
- Keep your upper body tight and don’t let your lower back sag into the floor.
- When you have reached the end of your range, pause, then slowly roll the ab wheel back towards you.
- Your range is determined by the furthest point at which you can roll the ab roller away from you while still keep your abs engaged and lower back straight.
- Aim to get your torso as close to the floor as possible, while maintaining a tight brace and as straight a line as possible from your knees to your wrists.
- Perform the exercise in a slow, controlled manner and avoid using any momentum. Control is key here to ensure you are using your abs throughout the exercise.
- This exercise can be progressed by starting from a standing position rather than with your knees bent.
- This is a challenging exercise to execute correctly, so you may want to build up your core strength first by regressing to holding the plank.
- Lie face up on a bench with your knees tucked all the way into your chest.
- Hold onto the head of the bench with both hands.
- Engage your abdominal muscles and curl your lower back off the bench. Visualise closing the gap between the bottom of your ribcage and your pelvis.
- You have reached the end of your range-of-motion when you cannot move any further without rolling up onto your upper back.
- Pause for a moment and breath out in a long stream as if blowing up a balloon to get an extra contraction in the abdominals.
- Reverse the motion, under control, to return to the start position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
- If you cannot feel an intense sensation in your abs, you are likely using momentum and other muscles, like the hip flexors, to swing upwards. Try slowing down the movement until you can feel it.
- If you are unable to perform the exercise flat, try a slight decline with your head at the bottom to allow gravity to help you.
- Once you are able to complete the movement flat, you can progress the exercise to a slight incline with the head at the top of the incline.
- Lay down on your back, on the floor. Knees bent at 90 degrees with your feet flat on the ground.
- Put your hands on your chest with forearms crossed and each hand touching the opposite shoulder, elbows tucked into rib cage.
- Keep the chin tucked in close to the chest.
- Take a deep breath in through the nose
- Initiate the movement by pressing your lower back into the ground.
- With the intention of driving your elbows towards your hips, crunch your trunk and continue until you feel the full contraction in your abdominal muscles.
- Keep the movement slow and deliberate, simultaneously exhaling air through the mouth.
- Slowly descend to the starting position, and repeat.
- In order to make the most out of the exercise, try to take hip flexion out of equation by contracting the glutes, especially at the very top of the movement where the body is most likely to try to compensate by contracting hip flexors.
- When the basic version gets too easy (a sign would be a perfectly executed set ending with many more reps in reserve) use the following progressions:
- Place a rolled towel under the lower back to increase range of motion.
- Add weight – you can hold a dumbbell on your chest.
- Change your breathing pattern – breathe in at the top, hold your breath going down and keep tension at the bottom position, then breathe out going up.
- Lie down on your back with your arms stretched out overhead and your legs straight and together, toes pointed.
- Brace your core and lift your arms and legs off the floor.
- Focus on pressing your lower back into the ground while squeezing your entire abdominal wall.
- Shoulders should be slightly lifted and your ribs are tucked in you are aiming for a banana shape.
- Focus on keeping your brace as tight as possible.
- This exercise can be regressed by keeping the arms alongside the body or bending the knees and flexing the hip so that there is a 90-degree angle at both the hips and knee.
- This exercise can be progressed by adding weight to the ankles or hands for added resistance. Another popular movement for progressing this exercise is to remain in a dish position and slowly rock backwards and forwards whilst maintaining a tight brace.
- Remember to breathe.
- Lay down flat on your back on the floor.
- Keep your legs together and completely straight, arms maximally extended overhead.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose.
- Simultaneously lift extended arms and legs with the intention of bringing your knees to your chest, and vice versa.
- Exhale the air whilst going up.
- Pause for a second at the very top with the abs fully contracted.
- Slowly descend to the starting position whilst breathing in, and repeat.
- Prior to the exercise, roll the lumbar erectors with a hockey ball – this way you’ll free up more spinal flexion and get a stronger contraction in the abs.
- Work on synchronising the movement so lower and upper body components of the movement are balanced and arms and legs meet in the middle.
How to Perform the Exercises
- To be performed lying either on the bench or on the floor, with a sturdy/heavy object behind.
- Hold on to that object/bench and keep your elbows at roughly a 90-degree angle.
- Lift the legs up using a reverse crunch movement.
- Once upside down, get your legs and trunk as straight as possible.
- When in the position, tuck the pelvis into posterior tilt and squeeze the glutes, then take a deep breath and hold it.
- Start lowering the body in a very controlled manner and continue until your buttocks lightly touch the bench/floor.
- Whilst maintaining the full tension, pull yourself up to the start position using your arms – drive the elbows down the body.
- Once up, breathe out, breathe in again, reset glute tension and pelvis position and start another repetition.
- Dragon flag is an advanced movement requiring certain starting levels of core strength, otherwise it can be risky, mainly due to potential excessive hyperextension in the lumbar spine.
- Due to its resistance profile, the movement is hardest towards the bottom. Knowing this, you need to try and counteract this by increasing the abdominal (and glute) contraction progressively as you get closer to the very bottom position.
- As it may be too challenging to jump straight into the full version, use progressions in the following order:
- Negative reps only, with bent knees.
- Both phases with bent knees.
- Negatives with straight legs.
- Both phases with straight legs.
- Hang from the pull-up bar using a pronated (palms facing away), shoulder-width grip.
- Bend your knees and bring your heels close to your butt.
- Get the pelvis into posterior tilt position (‘tuck the tailbone under’).
- Fluidly follow this with lifting the knees up with intention of bringing them as close to chest as possible.
- Finish at the top when you can’t get any higher and pause for a second with the abs fully contracted.
- Slowly lower the legs down until you reach the bottom position, then repeat.
- Keep the concentric phase controlled and avoid any swinging.
- The eccentric phase should be kept slow too, especially towards the bottom when temptation to let go will be the strongest.
- When going up, focus on the tucking movement rather than just lifting the legs.
- Basic version: Knees bent both phases.
- 1st progression: Legs bent on the way up, straight on the way down.
- 2nd progression: Legs straight both ways.
- Assume the kneeling position under the cable pulley.
- Use a rope extension, the same as would be used for a triceps pushdown exercise.
- Wrap the rope around the back of the neck and hold on to the ends with both hands.
- Lock out the hips into full extension but keep lower back neutral.
- Tuck the pelvis into posterior tilt and squeeze glutes, then take a deep breath.
- Pull the rope down using your abs and simultaneously exhale the air firmly.
- Once you can’t get any lower and with abdominals fully contracted, pause for 2 seconds.
- Slowly extend the trunk back into the starting position whilst simultaneously breathing the air in.
- Keep your chin down at all times.
- Make sure your hands and elbows are tucked in tightly into the rib cage – this way movement will come from the spine (and subsequently abs) and not the arms.
- When starting the movement at the top, have an intention of bringing your elbows towards your hips.
- At the very bottom of the range, bring hips to elbows for the extra few millimetres of contraction.
- Then when going back up, you can go all the way to the top, even allow full extension of the spine but maintain posterior pelvic tilt and keep the glutes contracted – that will help you maintain tension in the abs.
- Assume the prone lying position, like when you are starting a press-up.
- Place your hands directly under your shoulders, with feet hip-width apart.
- Tighten all of the midsection (abs, glutes).
- Make sure everything is locked and steady: knees, hips, shoulders.
- Squeeze your glutes tight.
- Very slowly lift one of the hands and bring it towards chest at the same side of the body.
- Once at the top, pause for a second, trying to keep the whole body completely still
- Reverse the movement, also very slowly, until your hand is back on the floor.
- Change hands, then repeat.
- The goal is to absolutely minimise any movement of the hips – be it up and down or sideways.
- If a strict execution of the exercise (hips staying still) feels too challenging, widen your foot position.
- Then progress by bringing feet closer together.
- If keeping your feet in one place seems difficult, try and place a light object between knees or ankles and hold it lightly throughout the set.
- Lay flat on the floor.
- Extend your arms towards the ceiling.
- Lift your legs up and keep a 90-degree angle with both knees and hips (thighs perpendicular and shins parallel to the ground).
- Press your lower back firmly into the floor.
- Start with one arm and contralateral leg (i.e left arm and right leg)
- Simultaneously extend a straight arm behind your head and push the leg forward.
- Continue until both leg and arm are about inch off the floor or as low as you are able to maintain with lower back touching the floor.
- Reverse the movement, go back to the start position, then swap sides.
- Lower back position is the key: it needs to be flush on the floor, especially at the bottom position.
- The movement should be performed slowly: count to 3 going down and then to 3 going up.
- Exercise can be made harder by pausing at the bottom position for 1-2 seconds, during which we should maximise the pressure with the lower back.
For maximum results, this programme is best done 4 times a week, because during an ‘abs specialisation phase’ our objective is high frequency of stimulus on the muscle.
However, this may need to be slowly built up. The best way to build this up is performing the abs training as follows:
Week 1: 2 workouts (Workout 1 and Workout 2)
Week 2: 3 workouts (Workout 1, Workout 2, Workout 1)
Week 3: 3 workouts (Workout 2, Workout 1, Workout 2)
Week 4: 4 workouts (Workout 1, Workout 2, Workout 1, Workout 2)
That would work best done on two consecutive days followed by a rest day, then followed by two consecutive days, followed by two rest days, repeat.
4 x a week abs training should continue for 3 weeks, then we can potentially move to maintenance phase with decreased frequency.
This workout is best treated as a separate part of the training and placed:
- At the beginning or at the end of any other (upper or lower body) resistance training workout.
- Directly before a HIIT session (which then hopefully is followed by LISS for best fat loss results).
- Directly before a LISS session.
By Dominik Szweda