The muscles that make up what is often referred to as your “six pack” are the abdominals, and they are also an important part of your core. Abdominals function in every movement you make from getting out of a chair to running on the beach. And yes, they make a sexy impression because the very sight of them imply hard work and discipline! Let’s talk now about how to maintain that trim, healthy midsection (Photo by Li Sun).

The muscle group referred to as the abs is composed of four major muscles – the internal and external obliques, the transverse abdominis, and the rectus abdominis which reveals itself on a lean torso as your “six-pack”. There is really no such thing as “spot training” the upper or lower abs. Yet because this is such a large muscle group, a wide variety of exercises are recommended.

Train your abs 3-4 times per week for a good 20 minutes and work them to exhaustion. Four or five good exercises using 3-4 sets of 25 reps should leave your middle feeling tight and burning. Stay away from straight leg lifts and hanging knee raises- these tax the hip flexors rather than your abs and you’ll end up with an aching lower back.

For optimal results, the crunch and variations of this movement should be at the heart of every successful ab routine. Begin a crunch in a supine position lying on the floor or mat. Place your feet on a bench or exercise ball with your hips and knees flexed at 90 degrees. Rest your arms across your chest. This is the starting position.

For proper technique, move the chin to the chest. Pull the rib cage up and over the pelvis. Keep the lower back flat and continue to crunch upward, elbows and chest to the knees. Pause and make sure to contract your abs as hard as possible. Work in a slow, controlled manner concentrating on maintaining tension in the ab muscles. Add resistance by clasping a 10 or 15 lb. weight to your chest as you crunch.

A cable crunch can be performed on any cable machine. Attach a rope handle to the pulley and place a pad on which to rest your knees about 3 feet in front of the weight stack. Facing the machine, grasp the rope and lower yourself into a kneeling position. Place your hands at the back of your head, with the rope above you and your elbows close to your ears. Slowly curl your torso down and forward – round your back – don’t try to keep it flat – bringing your elbows to the ground. Do all ab exercises slowly.

Train obliques with side bends. Stand upright with your feet shoulder width apart, grasping a moderate-weight dumbbell in your left hand and placing your right hand on your head. This is the starting position. Bend to your left as far as possible, slowly returning to upright as you feel the obliques on your right contract. Don’t go past the vertical (starting) position. Switch the hand holding the dumbbell after you have completed all your reps for one side.

Remember, a dynamite six-pack depends upon how faithful you are to three things. First, make sure to work abs regularly and hard. Second, do your cardio to burn fat. Finally, adhere to a low-fat diet rich in protein.