Among my female clients, the requests for body sculpting via personal training and nutrition are many: some want skinnier thighs, some want a bigger booty, some are looking for cut arms, others want a flat stomach, a lot want to lose back fat, etc etc.
Among my male clients, the most common request is simple: get me a six pack.
If you search the internet, you’ll find a myriad of articles pointing you in the direction of which exercises to do for a six pack (an issue which I will touch, but not dwell, on in this entry) – but relatively few explaining the other components (diet, sleep, stress control) that are even more crucial to achieve this physiological phenomenon.
A few years back, the website Greatist had one of their writers perform an “absperiment” to see if he could get six-pack abs in six weeks. Some caveats: dude was, well, male (always going to be harder for us ladies to nail the sixer), young, and already above-average in terms of fitness and exercise habits. That said, like many of my clients, despite his genearl fitness, he didn’t have that visible, hard midsection muscle development that seems to scream, more than any other muscle you can have, “I am fit! I am sexy!”
Spoiler alert on his story: he did it. He got one. And it nearly killed him. Read here for a list of the sacrifices he made to achieve his goal – and then reconsider if you want to read the rest of my tips, hahah.
The reason I bring up his story is because I want to write this piece as a how-to guide – not as a must-do mandate. If you want to know the real talk on getting a six pack, you also must know that it is not generally an easy, nor pleasant, nor natural thing for most of us – and the people you see that have wicked-awesome ones are usually genetic beasts or absolute ascetics – or both. That said, with dedication, persistence, and self-control, it is not outside the realm of possibility (especially for those who are young, fit, and male) – and I’ll give you my best advice on how to get there.
First things first – great abs are made in the kitchen. Carbohydrates, alcohol, dairy, too much sodium, and nearly ALL sugars gotta go (as in, 100% gone) if you want to get that six-pack fast – and protein and “good” fat consumption has to go wayyyyy up (think about 1 gram protein and 1/2 gram fat per pound of bodyweight, minimum). For most of us, we have to drop our portion sizes, and for almost everyone, we have to cook at home for every meal to avoid the inevitable salt, oil, and grease bombs that restaurants serve in massive proportion.
Second, the exercise. A visible six-pack, especially for men, isn’t just a “tight” core – it takes a larger, stronger muscle development to really pop. That’s why crunches and planks, though fantastic otherwise, won’t a six-pack make. Think of incorporating hypertrophic (muscle-growing) moves, such as ab wheel rollouts, hanging knee raises, cable crunches, and medicine ball declines to your program – the more you add weight and resistance to an abdominal exercise, the more the muscle will grow in size (and visibility). You’ll need to make sure you’re doing other fat-burning full body exercise as well (since you can’t just “target” the fat on your abs without getting the fat in other places off, too) – and I’ll recommend HIIT (over steady-state cardio) as a time-efficient way of doing this.
Third, let’s chat about nutrient timing. Yes, I’ve already taken away your precious carbs and alcohol, and now I’m going to take away even the time in which you can eat food. Whether or not you choose to go for full-on intermittent fasting (IMO, the quickest way to shock your body into ketosis, the fat-burning metabolic process), you’ll need to put a limit on how many hours of the day you spend eating, and at what time in the day you stop eating any form of carbohydrates (yes, even vegetable ones). Most folks entering the six-pack zone stay fasted until lunch, include around 100g of carbs in that first meal, and then eliminate carbs anytime after 4pm – putting a firm end point their overall food intake no later than 8-9pm. It’s not easy, but timing your food intake is effective – and cost-free!
Next, don’t forget about the key component in hypertrophy (again, muscle gain): adequate and consistent sleep. When you’re not sleeping enough, your muscles don’t recover, which means they don’t build in size, which means you’ll never actually see them (visibility being a key part of the six-pack allure, of course). Add to that the fact that when you’re sleep-deprived, your body is constantly searching for sources of energy, which makes your appetite more ravenous and your body crave for more carbohydrate sources from which to get it – a double whammy for fat loss. Also don’t forget that when you’re tired, your workouts suffer – and regular, intense exercise is a key part of the overall process.
Finally – and this is really the summative point for every other tip I’ve given you guys – you have to be consistent, and you can’t afford to cheat. Visible six-pack abs come from a combination of being very physically fit and having a very low body fat percentage, and there’s no way to skirt around that. You have to keep your diet insanely clean (as in, cleaner than even a dietician or doctor would prescribe for optimal health), work out 5-6 days per week (hard), and manage your sleep and stress patterns like a professional. These are not easy tasks, nor are they even doable for some folks depending on your home and work situations, but they are what it takes to get the oh-so-coveted ripples in the midsection.
In my professional opinion as a personal trainer, there are so many other goals worth working toward that may or may not produce a six pack. Eating more vegetables will boost your immune system and keep you healthy. Integrating more protein and fewer carbohydrates into your diet will help you lose weight. Lifting weights and performing heart-rate-raising cardio exercise will improve your heart health, bone density, and longevity. These are the goals worth working for – not just the six blocks on your bod.
So what do you think, readers? Are washboard abs worth the trouble – or all hype – for you?
Not worth the trouble for us 60+-year-olds. Too much of an uphill battle against middle-aged spread. I’ll take a solid core anytime, but don’t care about the 6-pack look. Better to work on overall fitness and not sweat a look that only gets noticed at the beach (or in the bedroom by your loved one.)
I would like to get my body fat back under 15% though. I’ve got five extra pounds that found me around Thanksgiving and seem to have made a permanent home in my body. 😉
I’ll completely agree with you there – even as a fitness professional and sometime fitness model, I only keep my abs in “washboard” condition for a photoshoot – I am much more content with a solid, strong core….and a couple of beers. 😉
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