For many, a six pack is the holy grail. A good set of abs makes you stop and stare, and it’s one of the most reliable forms of marketing in the health and fitness world: “If that’s what you can do for me, I’m in...”
So what does it take to get one? Over the last 12 years, I’ve seen it all, with magazines, infomercials, food manufacturers and tech companies all claiming to have discovered the key. As always, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
I’ve seen some great results with my clients, but I’ve also put myself through a number of transformations, trying all sorts of diets and exercise regimes. This has made me realise that there are three important factors: training, nutrition and consistency. Get these right, and you are surely onto a winner.
Where do you start?
Firstly let’s look at the stomach. The abdominals are made up of a number of muscles and – great news! – everybody has a set. They may be hidden but they’re definitely there. In order to see your abs, you need to reduce your body fat. You often hear the term “stubborn belly fat”, and unfortunately you’ll find that the abdominal area is one of the last places for fat to disappear from, which is why it’s tough to get the six pack look.
How much fat do I have to lose?
This is a question I get asked a lot. Many male clients will say, “I want to get my body fat below 12 per cent”. I ask where that number came from, and usually the answer is “Once you get it below 12 per cent you can see your abs”. This might be true for many, but you’re able to have a six pack even with higher body fat, so try not to get caught up on the number.
Body fat percentage is a great way to measure progress, clearly showing if your body fat is reducing, but if you’re looking for a six pack, concentrate more on photos to monitor progress. Too many people beat themselves up when their body fat percentage doesn’t drop and they give up. As well as looking at weekly photos, you can use callipers and bio-impedance machines to measure fat; most gyms will be able to offer this service if you ask them.
So you now know you need to reduce body fat. But what exercises will get your abs showing? All over the internet and on social media you’ll see adverts for “Six minute abs”, or “armchair ab exercises”, usually accompanied by a picture of a ripped young model with washboard abs.
I don’t need to tell you that there are no magic exercises. You can certainly build your abs, but if you’re not burning enough calories to help reduce fat, you can do sit-ups until you keel over and still not see a six pack.
Should I do any ab exercises?
Yes of course, the abs should be treated like any other muscle. Many people like to train their abs/core in every single session, but you should really allow them to have a rest as well.
People typically do ab crunches to work this area. This is movement is called ab flexion; you will actually get a better response when the abs are put into extension. Try pushing your fingers into your stomach and crunch, now do the same again and lean back and see how much more your abs engage. Mix it up by combining crunches with extension exercises like the wood chop.
As ever, you get out of training what you put in. If you want a washboard stomach with pronounced abs, you should really be working out five times a week, varying between cardio and resistance training, with a combination of low and high intensity. Keep your rest times low and select weights that are challenging.
The key is to burn calories and build lean tissue. Building muscle will help your body burn more calories throughout the day, but it will also help improve the look of the muscle when your body fat percentage is lower.
Your resistance training should include big compound exercises, like squats, lunges, bench presses and rows. This will challenge more muscles at once and get the body expending more energy.
Also add some cardio sessions into your week. This not only help burn more calories, but it’s also great for your health. You can split the cardio sessions between long endurance and some type of HIIT training too; spin classes or the stair master are great for this. And remember: you don’t have to smash yourself every session, sometimes a fairly relaxed 40 minutes is enough. If you have a program to follow rather than just making it up each time you go, you’ll have more success.
Abs are made in the kitchen. Nutrition is the number one thing that lets people down when trying to reduce body fat. The world of nutrition is a minefield, with heaps of conflicting information. Basically, to lose body fat you must create an energy deficit. You can do this by eating less, training more or both; the former is easier in the short-term, but we recommend trying to achieve the latter for a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle.
Aggressively cutting calories for a week or two at the start of a new fitness regime can be a great motivator, as you will start seeing results almost immediately, but the key is to make sure you don’t struggle too much and lose faith altogether, because that way everybody loses.
How long before I see results?
Everyone is different. Set yourself a date when you’d (realistically) like to see your six pack and measure your weekly progress. Tweak your plan as you go depending on if you’re hitting your targets. If the belly fat is proving to be particularly stubborn, up the intensity of the exercise or the amount of times you work out, and decrease the amount you eat. Get your sessions in even if you are having a bad day. If you overeat on Monday, eat slightly less on Tuesday – its all an energy balance.
I would suggest giving yourself at least three months to see a six pack, depending on your starting weight and fitness. If you’ve never trained, it may take you some time to get a six pack – this doesn’t mean you’re failing. In that time, your fitness levels, muscle mass, energy levels and confidence will be improving and your body fat weight and percentage will go down. That’s progress.
Or you might be lucky: I had one client who was a skinny guy with a little pot belly who had literally never trained before. It took him about a month to lose the fat and after two months he had a six pack. He was consistent in his training and nutrition and his body did the rest. He also had me as his personal trainer.