First off, let me say that some of what I’m about to discuss you’re not going to want to hear, it will challenge your beliefs and your currently held values. Whereas there is nothing wrong with wanting to look fit and healthy, if you don’t currently have a healthy relationship with food, or with yourself this can lead you down a dark path. Many people who look healthy on the outside aren’t so healthy in their head. Research in Norway has shown that 22% of male and 52% of female fitness instructors have displayed disordered eating patterns and body-image dysmorphia (1). While we have seen a rise in a condition known as muscle dysmorphia, or ‘bigorexia’ (2) which is basically when a muscular person looks in the mirror and sees a skinny person. So, be honest with yourself, how important is it to have a six-pack and how will this benefit you, if at all? But, there are more than two options to aspire to. Think of it as a scale and if you go too far to one end the scale will tip. Of course, being overweight and carrying too much fat around the abdomen is unhealthy too, but let's try and strike a functional balance.
With all that said I thought I would write this blog so that you know exactly what you need to do to get a six-pack and then you can stop pestering me down the pub. Warning, you’re only going to get truths and facts from me so if you are expecting some magic solution jog on over to Gwyneth Paltrow’s guide to developing eating disorders “Goop” (that’s the dumbest name for a website ever) or your favourite bullshit artist... I mean influencer!
Any coach will tell you that one of the most common complaints from prospective clients is that they have ‘stubborn belly fat’. The main reason a person won’t have a visible six-pack is because they have too much fatty tissue (adipose tissue) around their abdomen to make their abs visible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are overweight, it just means that you aren’t lean enough to have the level of muscular definition you need, which is almost always a lot leaner than most people realise. Remember what I said about balance? Well, there is a danger to carrying too much belly fat.
The NHS are quite clear on the importance of waist circumference in relation to the potential for developing heart disease (12) here are the numbers to avoid:
"Regardless of your height or BMI, you should try to lose weight if your waist is:
You are at very high risk and you should contact your GP if your waist is:
There are two kinds of body fat; subcutaneous (beneath the skin) and visceral (intra-abdominal). About 10% of the fat in your body is visceral and the higher this number the higher the risk of developing chronic illness (3,4), including:
Each additional 2 inches of waist circumference could increase your risk of heart attack by as much as 10%. So, let’s forget about the aesthetics for a moment and concentrate on health, being fat WILL shorten your life.
But, let’s go back to the point about stubborn belly fat.
As you can see in this image, we can all store the majority of our subcutaneous body fat in different parts of the body. These are the places that will be hardest to get as lean as you want if you are aiming for the kind of physique that the mainstream fitness industry seems to think is important. If you are unfortunate enough to store lots of fat around your abdomen, this is known as android obesity, or the so-called apple shape and is the shape that carries the highest health risk. Men tend to be this shape because we produce more Testosterone, while women tend to be more of a pear shape, with the majority of their body fat being below the waist, which is why healthy weight women have more shapely hips and a narrower waists than healthy weight men, who tend to have narrower hips and wider shoulders, although this isn't a hard and fast rule and the distribution of fat on your body is unique to you.
In order to get a visible six-pack, you need to slim down more. The problem here is that the level of leanness required is different for everyone and the first place you store fat will likely be the last place you lose it. If you are that apple shaped dude this is the body shape that unfortunately means you will have to be in a bigger deficit for longer than someone with more evenly distributed body fat before you get to see those elusive abs. The chances are that you will lose fat from your face, your legs, your chest (possibly bad news for ladies who like being well endowed, and a big reason why many female bodybuilders choose to have a cosmetic breast augmentation) your arms and then your belly. Conversely, if you are a number 5 (in the image) then you might find that you can get a six-pack but still have slightly wobbly thighs. Ask yourself how important that really is in the grand scheme of things. But I don't want you to fixate on this image, it's merely a visual guide and there is no real science behind this, it's just an observation but when you understand how fat distribution works you can learn to adjust your expectations in relation to your own body.
I’m not trying to say that a six-pack is unachievable, it isn’t, but it often requires more work, more consistency and more dedication than most people are prepared for. A great analogy I read recently went like this: trying to spot reduce body fat is like trying to empty one corner of a swimming pool! This is where it becomes necessary to define your goals and your reasons for setting those goals. If you stand to gain a sporting benefit from being super lean, then you have a pretty good incentive. But, if you want a six-pack because you believe that will finally make you approve of yourself you’re wrong. You will still dislike the person in the mirror despite your lean physique. This attitude often leads to the kind of narcissist we see on Instagram who fills their profile with complementary selfies of them looking buff or sexy. They are seeking either your validation or your adoration to replace the fact they don't approve of themselves. This is why you should never compare yourself to others, striving to be like someone else is a waste of the person you are. Fall in love with your own reflection and honour that person with a lifestyle that prioritises health and fitness.
Take-home; define what having a six-pack will do for you and be realistic about what it will take to achieve this.
This is one of those double-edged sword thingies. Being under chronic stress can lead to additional abdominal fat storage, but being obese or, indeed, being significantly underweight, will increase stress (5,6). It has even been noted that test subjects with higher levels of abdominal fat reacted with more anger when placed into a stressful situation. This is because fat is an endocrine organ. Basically, being round is more likely to make you less resilient to the effects of stressful situations and make you a grumpy bastard. However, it could be the fact that you are a grumpy bastard that you have a pot belly in the first place (the double-edged sword). But all this doesn’t mean that you should eat and train to influence your hormones. Just eat a more balanced diet with less processed foods, train for strength or fitness, start being nicer to yourself and learn to manage or remove any unnecessary stress inducers and the hormones will sort themselves out.
There are many ways to relax and unwind but ideally you will choose practices that are self-caring as opposed to self-soothing. Self-soothing practices are mostly distractions, whilst self-care practice is mindful and calming. If you cannot just sit in peaceful contemplation for a few minutes and feel calm, you have an issue with inner peace. If doing nothing sounds boring to you, that's because you have become addicted to distraction. Of course, not all self-care practices involve doing nothing, you could talk to a loved one, stroke a pet, go for a walk, meditate, listen to calming music, do something that requires calm and focus, that makes you feel like you are in a flow-state - this could be anything from yoga to carpentry.
What are the things that contribute to stress? There’s loads, like constantly worrying about whether England will ever have a batting line-up that doesn't collapse every innings, or why the neighbours have a new car and you don’t. Basically, stress (in the emotional sense) isn’t something that happens to you, it’s the way you think about things that happen. In other words, you’re over thinking things, living in the past and you need to chill the f*** out. But, one thing that can massively increase the production of stress hormones like cortisol is sleep disruption (7). Short sleepers have been shown to be more at risk of obesity (8). Ideally, you will get between 6-9 hours of sleep per night, with 7-8 being optimal for most people. A loss of just one-hour sleep per night can significantly increase production of stress hormones, reduce metabolism (by causing a reduction in activity) and decrease glucose tolerance. It also lowers testosterone production in men meaning that you store more fat and build less muscle. Personally, I know that if I get less than 6 hours sleep in a night all I want to do the next day is sit on my arse eating flapjacks.
The take home from this is; be nice to yourself because no one is going to do it for you and if you can get to bed an hour earlier at night, it will put years on your life and take centimetres off your waist.
This is true to an extent, in the case of a visible six-pack. As I have already mentioned, requires low body fat so how do you achieve this? You have to be in an energy deficit and that means controlling what goes in your mouth. No, it’s not carbs, it’s not fat and it’s not too much cardio – if this were true then Chris Froome would be one fat bastard but he looks like a walking (riding) skeleton – no, It’s Calories… Yep, those little twats who sneak up when you aren’t looking and sew the waist band on your jeans tighter.
Reality check; even healthy foods have Calories!
Energy balance is measured over the 24-hour period, not one meal or one workout to the next. In order to lose body fat, you have to be in a hypo-caloric state and you have to achieve this consistently. So long as you are in a deficit for the week you will be fine, so you can go high on one or two days and lower on the other days. You should also aim to be in a smaller more manageable deficit. Crash diets rarely lead to lasting results and often result in uncontrollable binges on hyper-palatable foods. To save space here just read this old blog: https://tinyurl.com/3b9dhkhe
To be clear, there are NO fat burning foods, there is literally NOTHING you can eat to burn belly fat and there are no safe or legal 'fat burner' supplements on the market so you can forget about that. If you see these claims anywhere, I promise you it is all cynical marketing lies designed to exploit your vulnerability and steal your money. If you see any celebrities, influencers or 'coaches' on social media promoting such things, the best thing you can do is to block them.
Take home; create an energy deficit, by consistently following a portion-controlled diet. Hint, crash diets never work long term.
This is also true. Your rectus abdominis is a sheath of muscle and, like any muscle, for it to look ‘good’ is has to be big. Therefore, if you want to make your abs ‘pop’ you have to build them up with some strength exercises. No, doing sit-ups or crunches, or any other ‘core’ exercise isn’t going to help you to lose belly fat (9). But ultimately, if you want to build muscle you have to do resistance training, ideally a minimum of 40 reps per muscle group per session, a minimum of twice per week (10). Aim for full body strength, using compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and bench press. This depends on your training ‘age’ but any level of overload will produce adaptations. If you want to build your abs to make them look the way you want them to look, ab crunches are the best way to do this (11). I’m personally not a big fan of excessive spinal flexion for most people, because the majority of people have terrible posture and their spine is already flexed, so why encourage more of that? But, if you have a healthy back and are already strong and fit, doing a few sets of weighted cable crunches each week should be enough to sculpt that washboard stomach.
Take home; no need for hours of meaningless cardio, no need to obsess about “burning” fat or burning Calories. Lift weights, get stronger, build muscle and, like with the diet aspect, be consistent and play the long game.
Summing it all up, having a six-pack isn’t necessary for health, but having excessive belly fat is deleterious to your health so, you know, don’t be fat. Basically, if you want to get lean enough to potentially have a six-pack that looks awesome on the beach (or in your narcissistic gym mirror selfies that get you the likes your ego craves) you need to create an energy deficit. Make sure that you have realistic expectations of what this takes because you will likely need to be a lot leaner and diet a lot longer than you initially thought. But, the pay-off might not be worth it, don’t place your attachment to happiness on getting a six-pack because if you don’t already value yourself, having a six-pack isn’t going to make you value yourself more. I’d rather you train for health, performance and enjoyment, eat a Calorie appropriate diet with plenty of plants and adequate protein to nourish your body and fuel your performance and, get a good night’s sleep! Do this and the aesthetics will take care of themselves. But here’s what to do because I know you want a prescription or something:
Look at it this way, in order to have the body of an athlete you need to live the life of an athlete. Is that who you want to be? If it is, go for it! If it isn't, then choose a different goal.
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