I grew up in Trinidad, an island in the West Indies were there was a significant number of homeless individuals living on the streets. So much so that they were a constant presence in the more urban areas of the island. As varied as they were in age and in circumstances which lead them to a life on the street, there was one striking physical aspect that they all shared- namely that almost every one of them had a remarkably defined six pack. They weren’t the only group of people who seemed somehow blessed with rippling midsections as those who chose to live off the land in the hills as a rule were similarly blessed with deeply etched abdominals. These people had never done a sit up, didn’t know what a crunch was, never used an Abdominizer or any other newfangled ab machine nor did they even know what a fat burner was. Perhaps, like the native people of everywhere from Papua, New Guinea to the Amazon Basin they didn’t realize that these things were a prerequisite to having a six pack. Or perhaps most of what you read about getting a six pack has little to do with actually achieving it. In this updated article, I do my best to discount the myths surrounding getting a six pack- most of which revolve on making you buy a product or service of some sort or promote unhealthy eating practices that create temporary solutions at best. I will preface the article with a caveat that what it takes to get a six pack isn’t impossible nor does it have to cost you anything- but it does require commitment, dedication and time. Thanks as always for reading.
Six Pack Abs-Why What You Eat & How Much You Eat Is More Important Than The Exercises
Over the past two decades of my career as both a personal trainer and a natural bodybuilder the most common question that I have been asked is how do you go about getting a six pack. You can get many different answers from many different people but I have always found it interesting that many of the self appointed fitness gurus giving the advice don’t sport a six pack themselves. Some may have a picture or two of what they looked like when they did have a six pack, but the photos are usually pretty dated or document the way they looked for a very brief period of time when preparing for a bodybuilding contest or photo shoot. As great an accomplishment as this may be, it in no way reflects what they look like all year round and few members of the general public are interested in only having a six pack for two or three weeks out of the year. The popular ninety day extreme exercise and diet video series promise a six pack within a very short time period, but as those who have done such programs can attest- you’ll regain the weight and lose whatever semblance of a six pack you gained within an equally short period of time.
The widespread use of steroids, thyroid medications, insulin, human growth hormone and other such drugs also makes it hard to find credible role models. Non natural bodybuilders, fitness models, figure competitors, bikini competitors, celebrities and many personal trainers rely on drugs for their coveted washboard midsections and it is disturbing to note the number of recreational users who risk their health with these drugs simply to look good for the summer. It is a sad blow to the fitness industry as it creates a culture of trainers who have no experience getting into shape without using drugs and thus are unable to help anyone else do the same. Add to this the babel of infomercials hawking the latest ‘scientifically proven’ ab machines and exercises and you can easily find yourself lost, confused and someone lighter in the wallet in your quest to see your abdominal muscles. That being said, it is very possible to have a six pack and keep it all year round, regardless of body type but it does take work and it won’t happen overnight.
Six Pack Abs As An Effective Marketing Tool
You turn on the television and something in you wants to believe them. The well sculpted models using some new fangled invention that they swear will get you a six pack within a matter of weeks. Perhaps summer is coming or you are just tired of not seeing what you want in the mirror and so you buy the machine, using it faithfully just as they did on the infomercials- and yet nothing happens. Your belly remains just that- a belly. It doesn’t transform into a chiseled work of art and you can’t understand why. Undaunted, but a bit lighter in the purse, you go to the gym. You just want to get your abdominals looking sharp and all the gym advertisements are filled with beautifully built people with the midsections of a Greek gods. Given how great they look, it should only be a matter of time until that membership pays off and you’ll look just like them. You do everything you read about- thousands of crunches, sit ups and leg raises. You hit every ab machine in the gym every day you are there, take every ab class and put in your time doing cardio to burn off the fat. At first you fell that you are making progress, you feel the burn when you train and are confident that the six pack of your dreams are just around the bend. But nothing happens. All that has happened is that you have spent good money on machines you don’t use and a gym membership that is becoming more and more of a reminder of how hopeless your quest has become.
The weeks turn into months and the months turn into years, and still those blocks in your stomach remain elusive. So you decide to do more. You train longer and you do more exercises for your abdominal muscles, perhaps training them every day. Maybe even twice a day, yet your midsection still looks more like a spare tire rather than a carved piece of granite. What could be the problem? Why can’t you get the same abdominal definition as the people in the magazines? Why is there still a layer of fat where rippling muscles should be after all of your hard work? The answer has nothing to do with six packs and everything to do with economics.
Unless you were one of the fortunate few who had an accomplished mentor to steer you in the right direction from day one, you probably got most of your information on getting a six pack from television, books, magazines, or the Internet. However it is important to reflect on what these sources have to gain by your heeding their advice. From the eye catching before and after pictures to the authoritative pitches by celebrities and fitness gurus there is usually one common denominator behind it all and that is profit.
6 Pack Abs Are A Multi-Million Dollar Industry
There is a very useful Latin phrase, ‘cui bono?’ which translates as ‘who stands to gain?’ – and this is precisely the question you should be asking when confronted by any information on how to get your abs to show. There are always new and improved machines and new and improved exercise programs, all sold by well muscled trainers, athletes and celebrities and there will always be new ones coming out of the woodwork. The math is pretty simple- these programs, routines, exercises, extreme diets and classes aren’t going to produce an army of six pack sporting citizens, but rather a slew of frustrated individuals. Individuals who are not going to lay the blame on the machine/diet/DVD or trainer for failing, but who instead will place the blame squarely on themselves. Disheartened and filled with a sense of failure, they thus become the perfect consumers for another round of products and services- in the hope that this one will finally help them break through and get them a six pack. It is a cyclic system that sells you hope but not much of anything else and it works as long as the general public remains confused and unsure about what they need to do to get into shape.
Today in our society people want results and they want it now- a microwave mentality that applies not only to how people approach matters of health and fitness, but also just about every facet of modern life. If people want something, they want it now and you are willing to pay for it, a weakness that the fitness industry and media use to their advantage. People will always buy that fitness magazine because they are certain that if you do the same ‘secret exercises’ that the celebrity/athlete/model/bodybuilder is doing, you will eventually look like them.
People will always tune in to that special report on the new way to lose inches off of your midsection. News programs have devolved mostly into thinly disguised forms of entertainment, where ratings take precedence over the reporting of credible information, ratings that help them sell advertisement time at higher prices, which thus net the networks higher profits. In the final analysis, most of the information you come across about getting a six pack comes with a vested interest in making a profit and not some altruistic and compassionate desire to help you realize your goal. Unfortunately you can’t make much in the way of profit with the principles that are really needed to get a six pack. There is no instant gratification and it doesn’t come with a need for fancy machines, DVDs, supplements, books or magazines. Most importantly, you can do it without spending the better part of your life doing abdominal exercises.
The Reality Of Six Pack Abs- Proper Diet & Exercise
So how do you get abs? Well, for starters you already have them. Like the story of the fish that spends it’s life searching for water, most of us fail to realize that every human being already has a six pack- whether you can see them prominently or not. There are four main abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominus – which is the deepest muscle layer and it works to help stabilize the trunk and maintain internal abdominal pressure. The rectus abdominus – slung between the ribs and the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis. This muscle has the characteristic bumps and bulges that are commonly referred to as ‘the six pack’ and everyone has them. There is also the external oblique muscles which flank the rectus abdominus and allow the trunk to twist and then there are the internal oblique muscles which also flank the rectus abdominus and operate in the opposite way to the external oblique muscles.
So if everyone has these abdominal muscles, one might ask why some have a six pack that you can see and others do not- the answer is simply a matter of body fat. Most men have a body fat percentage of around 15% to 18% and most women have an average body fat level of about 22% to 25%. Now even at these levels (which are quite low for most of the general population) most people would have a layer of fat around their midsection that would hide their abdominal muscles. The muscles are always there, and all you really need to do is to reduce your body fat to levels where you can see them. Athletes typically have lower body fat percentages due to their increased activity levels.
Where your fat stores are and how high your body fat percentage is will determine how long it will take you to have a six pack. Some people with relatively high body fat percentages but with naturally low fat deposits in the stomach area can have a fairly visible six packs, while others need to reduce their body fat percentages to the single digits before they can see theirs. So how do you go about reducing your body fat in a way that doesn’t yield only fleeting results? The natural way to do it is simply a combination of:
PROPER DIET, HIGH INTENSITY WEIGHT TRAINING AND TIME.
That’s one tried and true way of doing it and one that I have seen work without fail. No magic machines, no magic pills, no DVD’s and most certainly no special exercises or even cardio. I can say so with some authority since for the past 23 years I haven’t done that much in the way of crunches, sit ups and the like after my tenth year and I never did any cardio- nor did any of my clients. When I did train my abs in the early years of my career it was never more than two exercises for a total of six sets, which took no more than three to five minutes to complete. As a natural bodybuilder I was told very early on that you rely on diet only to get into shape and not cardio- as too much in the way of muscle mass is always lost in the process and because it doesn’t really work. (Read more about cardio as an ineffective method for fat loss here.) In fact during the height of my bodybuilding career I didn’t do anything for my abs and still won shows and almost every photograph of me in circulation is what I look like having not done any direct ab work for over a decade. I’m not a genetic freak by any stretch, I never used drugs, nor am I possessed of a special body type that allows me to get away with doing so little as I have been able to replicate the same results with my clients who competed successfully in fitness, figure and bodybuilding competitions- regardless of their initial body type- and without doing any cardio or hours of ab exercises. It’s not what the fitness industry wants you to hear, but it’s the truth and isn’t thanks to anything but a consistently clean diet and intense weight training.
Everyone Has Six Pack Abs- Somewhere
In my workout DVD which was filmed to document my training philosophy and show what you could do without having to resort to drugs or supplements, there are no shots of me training my abdominals. I was asked on many occasions why I didn’t include a segment on abdominal training and the reason that I didn’t is because I did not in any way want to mislead the public. Throughout my career I have strived to be as honest and upfront as possible (sometimes to my detriment one might add) and the last thing that I wanted was for people to think that if they trained their abs the way I did that they would get similar results as nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a combination of my years of careful attention to what and how much I eat, the fat burning effect of the brief high intensity training routine that I have followed religiously for the past 21 years and the metabolically active muscle mass that I have gained over my 23 years of training. That’s what keeps me in shape all year round and nothing else.
If It Won’t Give Me Six Pack Abs Do You Need To Do Ab Exercises?
Now make no mistake- there is indeed a need to train your abdominal muscles- as it helps stabilize your entire body and such exercises are indeed recommended for everyone starting a training routine. However, your abdominal muscles get a serious workout during almost any weight training exercise and very much so if you train as hard and as heavy as I do at this point in my career using primarily compound movements. Thus I don’t need to do much in the way of direct ab exercises as they are hit pretty hard as a result of my high intensity training routine. That being said, your abdominals are muscles like anything else and training them every day with hundreds of repetitions won’t do much in terms of getting them to be as strong as possible and can result in overdevelopment. Take a look at the bodybuilders who have blocky abdominal muscles as a result of years of weighted abdominal exercises and or drug use. It might look impressive when they flex them, but otherwise those muscles protrude and give a rather pot bellied appearance. Big and thick abs don’t look too great in a T-shirt, and doesn’t present much in the way of a balanced and aesthetically pleasing physique.
The problem is that once you over develop your abdominal muscles by doing too much, it isn’t that easy- if at all possible to reverse it and you are stuck with a thick waist- which I doubt is the goal of those who train their abs day in and day out. Now the muscle tension created by training your abs several times a week makes you FEEL like your abs are tighter- but like any muscle the more you train them won’t necessarily make them any stronger or better developed. If anything it can actually hinder your overall progress (read more about how muscles get stronger here). As for ‘core strength’- time spent on an exercise ball will never give you the strength you can gain from a high intensity training program. High intensity weight training can make your core muscles strong enough to enable you to lift a car- which is a far cry from what you could do on your best day if you relied only on the modern incarnation of ‘core exercises.’ It won’t give you a six pack either.
Six Pack Abs Comes From Diet & Exercise
Now training your abdominal muscles can help make them bigger- but it can’t burn off the layer of fat that obscures them. That comes from a clean diet and ensuring that you don’t overeat. Any exercise claiming that it can spot reduce the fat around your stomach is as credible as killing chickens and painting yourself blue under a full moon to make it rain the next day. Muscle and fat are two completely different types of tissue thus an abdominal exercise will do nothing to reduce your waistline.
One or no more than two abdominal exercises done once a week at reasonable intensity is more than enough for 99% of the general population. Nevertheless, you can do ab exercises until the cows come home but it won’t do anything if your diet isn’t on point. I would honestly say that diet is 80% of the equation if your goal of a six pack. How you train creates the potential for your body to change but it’s what you eat that will determine how much you will change.
The Importance Of Diet For Six Pack Abs
What type of diet do you need to follow if a six pack is your ultimate goal? It’s a diet consisting exclusively of foods that have been part of the human diet for the past 150,000 years and one where you don’t overeat. That means no processed foods, (and that includes protein shakes- which you should avoid if you seriously want a six pack- read my article here) no added salt or sugars, no alcohol, juices or junk food of any kind. It isn’t as Spartan as one might think as it is absurd to believe that you need processed foods and alcohol to enjoy life. Humans have done it for millennia and back then most of them had that same six pack that today so many struggle to attain. Your great-great grandparents enjoyed their food, and most likely ate far less than you do today. It didn’t kill them, but on the contrary probably allowed them a better quality of life in terms of robust health.
In terms of exercise- you need to also incorporate weight training of a sufficient intensity to both increase your muscle mass which will also help you burn off the excess body fat in a manner that leads to sustainable and lasting results. So forget about doing high reps in the hopes of doing anything but wasting your time. For your body to change their must be some degree of overload and you can learn more about how this mechanism works in my article here.
Now paying attention to your diet over a long period of time in combination with a sensible exercise regiment isn’t going to give you any instant gratification. Attention to diet requires a lifetime of consideration, patience and discipline. Traits that don’t lend themselves to today’s microwave mentality but are nonetheless very much what it takes to get in shape and stay in shape. After all, it’s only logical that if it took you years to put on that layer of fat that obscures your stomach, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect it to go away in a couple of weeks. There are legitimate reasons to work your abdominal muscles directly, and that is to strengthen the muscles that support the trunk and allow for movement. These muscles also help support your lower back, so training them is not just a cosmetic undertaking. I hope this article help clear up some of the misconceptions around abdominal training, and I wish you all the best in your quest for six pack abs!
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Kevin Richardson is an award winning fitness writer, one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity TrainingTM. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here!