Six Pack Abs- The Truth Is It’s All About Your Diet 11

Six pack abs are more a matter of what and how you eat than how you train

I grew up in Trinidad, an island in the West Indies were there were many homeless men and women 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 that lead them to a life on the street, there was one very striking physical aspect that they all shared- namely that almost all of them had remarkably defined six packs! They weren’t the only group back home somehow blessed with rippling midsections as many who chose to live off the land in the hills also sported 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 indigenous  people of Papua, New Guinea, isolated tribes in the Amazon Basin and hunter gatherers on the African continent, 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, class or service of some sort or promote unhealthy eating practices. Equally absurd is the number of young men and women on social media who always had six packs giving completely ridiculous instructions to their hordes of followers on what exercises they need to do to get a six pack. It was bad enough having to wade through the magazines growing up that were filled with drug using bodybuilders telling you what type of crunch you needed to do to being out your abs, when few of them ever did any of those exercises in real life. Today we have social media adding to the noise and it can be absolutely confusing and contradictory for the average person trying to figure out how to get a six pack. The truth is that it all comes down to how and what you eat and that exercises have nothing to do with it.  Read on and I will explain why and thanks as always for reading!

Six Pack Abs-Why What You Eat & How Much You Eat Is More Important Than Exercise

Abs - Anatomy Muscles

Everyone has abs, it’s just a matter of reducing body fat in the area to the point where you can see them.

It’s been over twenty-five years now since I have been working as a personal trainer and over the course of my career, both as a personal trainer and natural bodybuilder, the most common question that I have been asked is how do you go about getting a six pack. Well, for starters you already have a six pack. Like the Zen koan about the fish that spends it’s life searching for water, many are unaware that every human being already has a six pack- whether you can see them prominently or not is a different story. 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 the external oblique muscles which flank the rectus abdominus and allow the trunk to twist. Then there are the internal oblique muscles which also flank the rectus abdominus. So if everyone already has a six pack, the question then becomes why can’t we see it on everyone. The answer is simply a matter of body fat. Most men in relatively good shape 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 here in the United States)[12] most people would have a layer of fat around their midsection that would hide their abdominal muscles. The muscles are always there, all you need to do is to reduce your body fat to levels where they can be seen. Athletes, who typically have lower body fat percentages than the general population often have prominent six packs and those in robust health following non-Western close-to-the-land diets will tend to have visible six packs if they don’t overeat.

 

Here in the West, it’s a lot more complex as a combination of poor lifestyle choices, and the superabundance of high calorie and processed foods makes it such that most citizens of Westernized countries are overweight. Thus, their abdominal muscles are hidden under layers of fat tissue. Get rid of those layers of adipose tissue around the midsection and you will see your abs peeking out, but doing so isn’t that easy. Based on genetics, gender and fat distribution, a rare few can see some semblance of a six pack at 15-20% body fat, some have to diet down to around 12% body fat to clearly see their abdominal muscles while most have to go even lower to clearly see their abs, which in itself is a Draconian task! (See my articles on Body Fat Distribution & Body Fat Percentage) And that’s it. No yoga class, ab exercise or magic machine can do anything for you as it’s just a matter of reducing body fat in the abdominal area, which can not be done through exercise, no matter how many crunches or situps you do. The six pack has become one of our modern Holy Grails and having a well defined abdominal region significantly increases your social standing in our very visually oriented society. So there is a lot at stake in terms of marketing how to get a six pack to a population whose members are mostly overweight and are eager to change the way they look, resulting in the same cacophony of contradicting information circulating that exists in the realm of nutrition.

 

The Truth About The Six Pack- Why Having Abs Doesn’t Mean You Know How to Help Others Get It 

six pack abs young man

Having a six pack in your youth isn’t an accomplishment if you naturally have one, nor does it make you an authority on what others should do to get a six pack

Pose the question of how to get a six pack to many of the self appointed fitness gurus and you’ll get a range of different answers. Some are insightful while others are way off the mark. As an aside, I have also found it fascinating to see that those who strongly advocate their ideas of what you need to do to get a six pack don’t always sport a six pack themselves. Some may have a picture or two of what they looked like when they did have a six pack in days gone by, but the photos are usually dated or show the way they looked for a very brief period of time when preparing for a bodybuilding/figure/bikini contest or photo shoot. As great an accomplishment as this may be, it in no way reflects what they look like all year round. That said, few members of the general public are interested in having a six pack for only a few fleeting weeks out of the year. People want to walk around with a six pack all the time, and it’s a reasonable expectation given how much work it can involve. Extreme exercise and dieting will only get you a six pack temporarily, if at all, and it will go away just as fast as it came. Finding credible role models who can at least give some indication of what you should be doing to get a six pack is hard. First of all you have to sort out information being put out there by people who happen to be young and genetically blessed with low fat stores around their midriff. Having a six pack in your teens and early twenties is not an accomplishment, and it takes no effort whatsoever. Yet many with natural six packs speak with authority on what they “did” to get there. In our society it’s very much the same way those born into affluent families and who had access to sizeable amounts of capital to help start their businesses talk about how easy it is for lower income individuals to become successful entrepreneurs. It’s just as absurd as it can take years of really hard work and constant attention to diet to be able to have a six pack later in life or to get a six pack when you start out being a bit on the heavier side.

 

On the other side, having a six pack without doing much of anything isn’t a marker of how healthy you are, and over the past few decades, large studies have provided evidence that what you can do in terms of your level of physical fitness correlates strongly with lower all-cause mortality and a lower risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, more so than how you look. [2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11] Nor is having a six pack at a younger age any indication of what you will look like in your 30’s and forties as most men and women in Westernized societies who are naturally athletic looking end up being just as overweight as everyone else in middle age.[1] I can’t tell you at my age how many people I warned would lose all semblance of their six pack as they got older based on their diets and it’s sad to see people who were ultra fit looking morph into men and women who look like they never set foot in a gym before, and that’s usually what happens. If you live long enough you will realize that most of the athletic types you knew in high school look nothing like an Adonis in their late 30’s and 40’s.  The skinny kids with the six packs don’t tend to keep those trim waistlines as they age either as low muscle mass means it’s even more likely you’ll be overweight as time passes unless you really focus on eating healthy. However, these types represent a large portions of the role models for fitness and the six pack abs look on social media. Being in the field of online marketing myself and being around several prominent social media “fitness personalities,” I know that one of the important strategies for keeping your followers happy and engaged is to create the illusion that you are just like them. Market research shows that many people today are put off by messages of strict dieting and so posting photos of themselves eating junk food goes a long way with being able to “connect better with their audience.” This might help them keep and gain more followers and thus their revenue from product placements and ads on their channels and accounts, but it also makes it very hard for the poor man or woman with average genetics trying to figure out how to get their midsection toned as most people cannot get to the level of definition required for them to see their six packs while eating junk food regularly. I would love to say that it’s possible, but for a long term body fat reduction I have yet to see the cheat meal approach help the majority of the population transform their bodies and stay that way. Keep in mind as well that weight gain is a cumulative and insidiously slow phenomenon. So when you see that younger man or woman with a six pack chowing away at whatever their heart desires, what you are often looking at is the slow process of them getting to a point where they won’t see their abs anymore. At that point many then turn to drugs.

 

The Truth About The Six Pack- How Drug Use Makes It Hard To Know What It Takes To Get There

 

While we would love to believe that salads and hard work will give you a six pack like this the reality is that it simply isn’t the case.

Every year before the advent of summer I have seen a number of trainers begin their cycles of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, ephedrine, clenbuterol, diuretics and thyroid medications designed to help them get a well defined six pack and an overall well muscled appearance. Many of them are very open about their use with others in the field and the results are dramatic to say the least. Many Hollywood actors and actresses follow the same path in order to sport ripped and rippling midsections in the movies after only a few months of working out. Both groups have a serious financial stake in how they look and are willing to take serious risks to attain their goals and for me, that’s their personal choice. The problem is that they then go on about how hard they trained and how much they dieted without any mention of the drugs involved creating the illusion that you can look like them by just training hard and watching your diet. It’s a real issue as natural bodybuilders and physique competitors can diet their behinds off for 6 months to a year to look not even nearly as ripped as some actors we see onscreen. Keep in mind that we are talking about men and women who pretty much dedicated their lives to working out and dieting for the purpose of being cut and muscular, yet an actor who never really set foot in the gym before surpasses them within a few months. You’ll also often see very thick and deep abdominal muscles actors, actress and performers that very look different from those of a natural athlete. It’s a look that comes directly as a result of drug use and is unattainable for those who don’t naturally have that type of abdominal musculature. So it’s a slap in the face to anyone who knows what it takes to get there naturally to see so many celebrities claim that their transformations are just the fruit of old fashioned diet and hard work. Even more alarming are the personal trainers using drugs who tell their clients that their six packs were all from hard work as well, conveniently omitting what really got them there, and that many of them don’t diet that hard as they don’t have to in order to get the same results.

 

This unfortunately misleads the public into thinking that you can get those great abs too if you follow their diet and exercise routine. The same holds for almost all the bodybuilders, men’s physique, figure competitors and bikini competitors who compete in non drug tested shows like the NPC and IFBB and muscle related fitness models. Many social media fitness personalities and personal trainers rely heavily on drugs as well for the coveted washboard-like midsection, while again proclaiming that their hours of cardio and good eating is the reason they look the way they do. Some don’t even bother to lie about how they eat, posting photos of them scarfing down just about any manner of junk food, with the message that you can indeed have your cake and eat it too, while the use of illegal fat burning drugs like ephedrine and clenbuterol in conjunction with human growth hormone and some form of testosterone are the real reason they can eat whatever they want and still be ripped. What is most disturbing is the number of recreational users who risk their health with these drugs simply to look good for the beach or for their social media photos. It is a sad and growing trend in the fitness industry as it creates a culture who have no clue how to get into shape without using drugs and so are often unable to help anyone else do the same.

 

Six Pack Abs As An Effective Marketing Tool

 

The allure of six pack abs is a powerful tool for getting you to buy stuff

The allure of six pack abs is a powerful tool for getting you to buy everything from supplements to exercise machines

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

 

The quest for six pack abs make people waste significant sums of money

The quest for six pack abs make people throw away significant sums of money on things that don’t work or provide only fleeting results.

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 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.

This six pack wasn't built overnight

This six pack wasn’t built overnight and it took serious weight training to acheive it.

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 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.

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 don’t do any ab work.  The last thing that I wanted was for people to think that if they did some special exercise that I did that they would get similar results, when nothing could be further from the truth. Today at 43 years old I still have a deeply etched six pack, and I haven’t done any direct abdominal exercises since the mid 90’s but I do have to watch what I eat to keep it!

 

If It Won’t Give Me Six Pack Abs Do You Need To Do Ab Exercises?

 

Do you need abdominal exercises for a six pack

Do you need abdominal exercises for a six pack? Not exactly, but you should do them anyway, unless you are a very advanced trainer with a strong core who regularly does heavy and high intensity lifts.

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 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, turtle like 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 and what I call the Ninja Turtle look- 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.

 

The Importance Of Diet For Six Pack Abs

 

What you eat is what ultimately gives you a six pack

What and how you eat is what ultimately gives you a six pack.

What type of diet do you need to follow if a six pack is your ultimate goal? If there were a simple answer to this we would have many more people walking around with six packs than we do now! It requires a good understanding your caloric intake, being able to reduce it to the point where you are able to lose body fat and keep manipulating it so that your body doesn’t stop burning fat or regaining the lost weight. We are designed to gain weight, not lose weight, which is why it’s easier to get a pot belly than it is to get a six pack, but it can be done. There is usually an initial period of discomfort as you begin to adjust and in my experience, long term results are best seen with diets that consist exclusively of foods that have been part of the human diet for the past 150,000 years. That means no processed foods, (and that includes protein shakes- which you should avoid anyway 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 some might think as humans have eaten this way for hundreds of thousands of years.  In terms of exercise- it’s a good idea to also incorporate weight training of a sufficient intensity to increase your overall muscle mass which increase your metabolism slightly and you won’t be flabby everywhere but your midsection. It’s also a good formula for sustainable and lasting results as the increased muscle mass and training means you can eat more and still stay lean.

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 having a six pack and remember that you don’t need to have a six pack to be fit!!!

 

Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, Kevin Richardson is an award winning personal trainer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Personal Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City. 

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Reference

1. Stenholm S, Vahtera J, Kawachi I, et al. Patterns of Weight Gain in Middle-Aged and Older US Adults, 1992–2010. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass). 2015
2. Hainer V, Toplak H, Stich V. Fat or Fit: What Is More Important? Diabetes Care. 2009
3. Paffenbarger RS, Jr, Hyde RT, Wing AL, Hsieh CC: Physical activity, all-cause mortality, and longevity in college alumni. N Engl J Med 1986
4.Leitzmann MF, Park Y, Blair A, Ballard-Barbash R, Mouw T, Hollenbeck AR, Schatzkin A: Physical activity recommendations and decreased risk of mortality. Arch Intern Med 2007
5. Paffenbarger RS, Jr, Hyde RT, Wing AL, Lee IM, Jung DL, Kampert JB: The association of changes in physical-activity level and other lifestyle characteristics with mortality among men. N Engl J Med 1993
6. Blair SN, Kampert JB, Kohl HW, 3rd, Barlow CE, Macera CA, Paffenbarger RS, Jr, Gibbons LW: Influences of cardiorespiratory fitness and other precursors on cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in men and women. JAMA 1996
7. Blair SN, Kohl HW, III, Barlow CE, Paffenbarger RS, Gibbons LW, Macera CA: Changes in physical fitness and all-cause mortality: a prospective study of healthy and unhealthy men. JAMA 1995
8. Sawada SS, Lee IM, Muto T, Matiszaki K, Blair SN: Cardiorespiratory fitness and the incidence of type 2 diabetes: prospective study of Japanese men. Diabetes Care 2003
9. Howard RA, Freedman DM, Park Y, Hollenbeck A, Schatzkin A, Leitzmann MF: Physical activity, sedentary behavior, and the risk of colon and rectal cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Cancer Causes Control 2008
10. Ortega FB, Ruiz JR, Hurtig-Wennlof A, Vicente-Rodriguez G, Rizzo NS, Castillo MJ, Sjostrom M: Cardiovascular fitness modifies the associations between physical activity and abdominal adiposity in children and adolescents. the European Youth Heart Study. Br J Sports Med. 2008
11. Lee CD, Jackson AS, Blair SN: US weight guidelines: is it also important to consider cardiorespiratory fitness? Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1998
12. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2000. CDC

Related Articles:

Should Women Weight Train Like Men

Does Aerobics Work- Rethinking The Need For Cardio

How Muscles Get Bigger & Stronger

How To Build Your Lower Abs

High Intensity Workouts & Fat Loss

Hanging Leg Raises- The Most Effective Abdominal Exercise

 

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