Six-pack abs have become the gold standard of fitness that separates the “in-shape” guys from the “seriously in-shape” guys. But, honestly, a visible six-pack is not necessarily a sign of fitness, but rather one of low body fat percentage. Skinny guys have ripped abs without putting any effort into diet or exercise. For the rest of us, seeing a six-pack seems like an impossible goal. Until you actually get them.
Everyone Has a Six-Pack
It’s simple anatomy. The rectus abdominis is a paired muscle separated by a midline connective tissue called the linea alba (white line) and crossed by three fibrous bands called the tendinous intersections. This causes six muscle bellies, and, voila — you have a six-pack. The reason you can’t see it is because there’s a layer of fat between them and your skin. Abs don’t become visible until you’re down below 10% body fat. It doesn’t help that our genes cause fat to be stored in the abdominal region. The distribution of fat on your body is largely influenced by estrogen. Estrogen causes an overall increase in fat storage and for fat to be stored in the buttocks, thighs and hips. Men have less estrogen, causing fat to deposit around the waist. Testosterone is very useful for reducing fat by increasing metabolism, which is why men have less subcutaneous fat than women.
The Skinny On Muscles
Although we all have abs, some have an advantage when it comes to building muscle or losing fat. According to a recent article in Scientific American, genes that encourage muscle development are most active when we are children, but in some folks, these genes stay very active even into adulthood. Whether we have more slow-twitch than fast-twitch muscle fibers, and whether we produce more insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a potent muscle growth hormone or more myostatin, which produces more muscle protein, is completely dictated by our genes. But that doesn’t mean that having a six-pack is impossible for those with less-than-ideal genetics. It just means that they have to work a little harder with the genes they’ve been dealt. And practically all of that effort will be in the kitchen.
He Eats, Shoots & Scores!
You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Diet is the most important factor in getting six-pack abs. You may have read that diet is 70-80% of the effort, but if you consider that we spend three-to-six hours a week in the gym, the rest of our time is spent living a hectic life where we’re constantly surrounded by junk food. Keeping your focus on eating healthy, not giving in to cravings and not becoming bored with your diet takes 100% of your concentration. To ensure success, plan and prepare your meals ahead of time and become a Tupperware king. If you stray off the diet and give into temptation, don’t beat yourself up. Dust yourself off and try even harder to eat clean on your next meal. Don’t wait until the next day or the next week. Losing fat is not simply a matter of eating less and exercising more, it’s a matter of tapping into your fat reserves as your primary source of energy. When you eat, your sugar levels naturally go up. This is a signal to the body to increase insulin production, the hormone that regulates the burning of food. So when you eat too much sugar or starchy carbs, your insulin will only be burning the excess sugar from your meal and not dipping into your actual fat reserves. The only way to tap into your fat stores is when insulin levels are low, because otherwise you’ll just be burning the sugar, not the real fat. Low insulin = burn the fat.
What To Eat
Every meal must have a low glycemic load and not raise glucose too high or too suddenly. Research has established that high-protein diets are more effective for fat loss than low-calorie or low-fat diets. Most of your meals will consist of meat and vegetables. Meat choices include grass-fed beef, lean pork, lamb, bison, fish, seafood, chicken, turkey and eggs. Fermented dairy like cottage cheese and natural Greek yogurt are fine. If you like cheese, stick to the hard cheeses, since they contain less lactose. But they’re still pretty calorically dense, so eat them only occasionally. Fruits contain sugars and may slow your fat-loss efforts, especially starchy fruits like bananas and super-sweet tropical fruits. Nuts are healthy but are very calorically dense. Have a handful of almonds, walnuts or macadamias once in a while. Your carb sources will be slow-digesting foods like sweet potato, yams, quinoa, oats and brown rice. Your fat sources will be olive oil, coconut, avocado, meats and nuts. Water, black coffee, tea and sparkling water are the only things you should drink. Stick to whole foods and avoid processed foods as much as possible. For portion sizes, a serving of meat should be the size of your palm (imagine chopping off your fingers and thumb and lopping your hand off at the wrist. Yummy). Carb portions should be the size of your fist (fingers re-attached). Vegetables can be eaten liberally, but focus on the nutrient powerhouses like spinach (and other dark green leafy veggies), broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and onions. Become a spice expert and use herbs and spices to flavor your meals instead of sauces and condiments.
What Not To eat
Most people struggle with self-control, so avoid having tempting foods in the house and going shopping while hungry. Anything that raises blood sugars too high has to be avoided. Enemy No. 1 is sugar and sugar-containing foods. This also includes starchy foods, since these are rapidly broken down into sugar in the gut. This means no bread, pasta, pizza, cookies, doughnuts, cake, breakfast cereals, crackers, puddings, ice cream, waffles, high-fructose fruit juice, sodas, artificial sweeteners, canned creamy soups, dried fruit and noodles. No deep-fried foods like French fries, fried chicken, fish sticks, potato chips or anything with batter on it. Milk and cream need to be restricted since they are high in calories and actually raise insulin without raising blood glucose. Alcohol intake during your fat loss diet should be kept to a minimum since it contains empty calories.
Breaking Through the Plateau
Follow the dietary advice given here, and you’re guaranteed to lose fat. Everyone responds differently, however, and fat loss might stagnate before you can see a six-pack develop. Here are a few tips to tweak your diet and lifestyle if your fat loss has plateaued: 1. Feeling hungry? Eat less but more frequently. Snacking is not a good idea. 2. Tired or stressed? Chronic sleep deprivation causes cortisol levels to rise, and this leads to fat deposition around the abdomen. Get some sleep and adopt strategies to manage stress. 3. Reduce carb portions to a half-fist. 4. Remove carbs from your evening meal. Eat meat and veggies only. 5. Keep the majority of your carbs for days on which you train. Consume most of them after your workout. 6. Cut out nuts, cheese, fruit, and alcohol completely until you’ve reached your goal.
Hit Your Core
Forget about running long distances on the treadmill to lose fat. Do 20-minute high-intensity interval training sessions two to three times per week instead. Sprints, rope-jumping, biking, swimming and rowing are great examples. Once you’ve burned the fat that was hiding your abs, build up your abs so that they stand out more. Heavy compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and shoulder presses work your abs far harder than sit-ups or crunches. To target your abs specifically, incorporate these exercises into your workout: 1. Stability: Work your core with the classic plank. Hold a push-up position (or on your elbows) for 30 seconds, working up to 60. Too easy? Try the extended plank with your arms out in front of you or the star plank with your arms and legs out in an X-formation. 2. Flexion: Hanging leg raises target your abs better than sit-ups. Hang from a pull-up bar and use your abs to pull your legs up until horizontal (L-sit position). Slowly lower them all the way back and avoid swinging. Do three sets of 12-15 reps. Too easy? Pull your legs up until your feet touch the bar. 3. Rotation: If you work out your obliques too hard, they’ll give your waist a wide appearance. Russian twists are a great way to develop them without adding too much mass. Sit with your legs elevated and your torso leaned back with your back straight. From this V-sit position, rotate your rib cage to the left and touch the floor with both hands, return and rotate to the right. Do three reps of 12 reps each side. Too easy? Hold a medicine ball or a 45-pound plate.
How Bad Do Want It?
For a lot of us, getting a six-pack is hard work, and keeping it might even be harder. Keep yourself motivated by monitoring your progress. Measure your waist circumference weekly and, if you’re able to, your body-fat percentage. If you want to get ultra-serious, keep a food journal. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed that dieters who kept food journals lost about twice as much weight as those who didn’t. The reason why is because people felt more accountable whenever they had to write down what they ate. Accountability is a powerful motivator, so tell your friends about your goals and ask for their support. If a buddy tempts you with cake, punch him in the gut to remind him why having abs of steel are important!