Words by Gavin Newsham.
If you’ve ever watched Love Island or any of the countless dating shows set in exotic locations, you could be forgiven for thinking that every man in the known world possesses six-pack abs.
Yes, forget the bulging bicep or the perfect pecs, the washboard stomach remains the Holy Grail of all gym bunnies, a visible and undeniable indicator or just how much work you’ve been putting in.
That said, it’s still one of the most difficult things to obtain.
To begin the process of developing a six pack, it’s useful to understand what exactly it is you’re planning on working on.
Put simply, a six pack is the visibility of the rectus abdominus muscles – or abs, in everyday parlance – that run from the bottom of the ribcage to the top of the pelvis. But as leading personal trainer Luke Worthington explains, getting one is easier said than done.
“Most people go wrong by trying to develop the rectus abdominus muscle without first considering their overall body composition,” he says.
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It’s particularly true when it comes body fat. If you want a six pack then you will need a relatively low level of subcutaneous body fat (the layer of fat that lies between the skin and skeletal muscle). The lower the body fat, the more visible the muscles will be.
“Generally speaking, we start to see visible abs when the body fat is below 20%,” adds Worthington. “The type of definition you would see on the cover of magazines like Men’s Health would be perhaps 10-12% body fat, and what you see in bodybuilding contests would be down to single figures.”
And here’s the thing. Doing a thousand sit-ups a day won’t make that much difference, not unless you’re changing your diet too. While stomach crunches will lead to localized muscle growth (or hypertrophy), it will count for nothing if you’re not working on reducing your levels of body fat through manageable nutrition and lifestyle changes.
Remember, you can’t out-train a bad diet.
Similarly, cardiovascular training won’t have a significant impact on your quest for a six pack. Yes, the calories expended will always be of use and the more general benefits on your wellbeing can never be underestimated, but it needs to be part of a much wider training and dietary plan.
Reducing body fat while retaining lean muscle means you need to run an energy/calories deficit of around 20% but you also need to ensure that you are taking on board sufficient protein so you can maintain that all-important lean muscle. So try and consume around 1.5g of protein for each kilogram of bodyweight every day.
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Watch: Is it possible to get too much protein?
Finally, factor in a varied and achievable program of resistance or strength training. Yes, you need to hit the weights – hard. “You need all three things in place – calorie deficit, adequate protein and resistance training – if you’re going to give yourself the best chance of getting a six pack,” says Worthington.
Increasingly, though, men are turning into ‘shredding’, or rapid weight loss after a period of bulking up, in order to get the body they really want. Based on strict calorie counting on one hand and additional protein consumption on the other, it can be effective in the short-term but the restrictive nature of the diet often makes it impractical. It’s not something that Worthington advocates.
“If something is overly restrictive then it isn’t really sustainable in people’s every day lives, so as soon as the goal is achieved, or if the person decides that the process isn’t really worth the outcome, they give up altogether.” he says.
“And then you end up with that yoyo relationship a lot of people have with diet and exercise. And that’s not good.”
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The secret to a six pack
Set your sights on a six pack this summer? Follow Worthington’s top tips:
1. Adopt small, realistic and achievable changes in your diet and lifestyle and be consistent with them for extended periods of time. And be patient – don’t expect drastic results overnight.
2. Choose to be a little more active every day. So, try walking to work if you can or taking the stairs over the lift. It’s these little things that really can make a difference in the long run.
3. Try to consume protein with every meal and especially at breakfast. This will help you to feel less hungry throughout the day, as well as taking us a little closer to our all-important daily protein target.
4. Consciously consume more water. We often confuse thirst with hunger and if we’re trying to achieve a energy deficit it’s vital to remain hydrated throughout the day. It will make the whole process feel much more achievable.