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Fat loss 101: How do I get a “six pack”?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 by  
Filed under Daily Blog

January
18
2012
Well-defined abs are achieved by lowering your body fat. My body fat is about 6% in this photo, and my abs are showing nicely.

Well-defined abs are achieved by lowering your body fat. My body fat is about 6% in this photo, and my abs are showing nicely.

By a large margin the question I’ve been asked the most often over the years is, “How do I get a six pack?” Much to the chagrin of some of the more experienced forum members, this question is sometimes phrased as, “How can I look like Brad Pitt in ‘Fight Club’?”

A well-defined mid-section is generally perceived to be attractive, healthy and athletic looking. Ripped abs are also becoming increasingly rare: more than two-thirds of the US population is currently overweight, obese or morbidly obese. Even the vast majority of people who are not overweight still don’t have visible abs, so obtaining a so-called “six pack” puts you in rare company indeed.

The myth that crunches, sit-ups and other direct abdominal work are the keys to a washboard stomach is flat-out wrong. See that picture of me to the right? I didn’t do a single crunch, leg raise or any other direct abdominal exercises to achieve those abs.

Here’s the number one thing you need to know about obtaining a six-pack:

Abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym.

What does that mean? The “secret” is this:

Getting your abs to show is 100% about reducing your body fat. Period, end of story. Anything else you hear is bullcrap.

When I tell people this, the next thing they always say is, “OK, so if I do crunches that will burn away my belly fat, right?”

Wrong.

When you do crunches and other ab work you burn a small amount of calories, but those crunches are not “targeting” the fat around your mid-section. This brings me to my next major point:

You can not spot-reduce fat.

The only way to get your abs to show is to reduce your overall body fat until your abs start to “pop”. Unfortunately you can not control where the fat comes off–your genetics are responsible for that. For most men the mid-section is the first place we store fat and the very last place we lose it. Hey, I didn’t make the rules, and I didn’t say it would be easy; if it were, everyone would be sporting a six-pack and shirt sales would tank.

Bulking, and about 13% body fat in this photo. My abs are slightly visible, but quite blurry and undefined at this body fat level.

Bulking, and about 13% body fat in this photo. My abs are slightly visible, but quite blurry and undefined at this body fat level.

Most men will need to diet down until their body fat is in the single digits before their abs really start to show through. In the above picture I’m right at 6% body fat, and my abs are nice and etched. In the picture to the left I’m bulking; my body fat is around 13%, and my abs are very blurry.

When you compare these two pictures keep in mind that I’ve pretty much got the exact same level of ab muscularity in both shots, the difference in how they look is simply a function of my body fat.

Now, does all of this mean you shouldn’t train your abs? Well, that depends. Abs are just like any other muscle in your body (although they tend to recover from training more rapidly than most other muscles), and they can be strengthened and enlarged through training. If you’re working hard in the weight room and doing lots of good compound exercise like deadlifts and squats, then your abs are already getting a pretty darn good workout. I didn’t directly train my abs for many years for that very reason.

I recently started directly training my abs again, but that’s only because direct ab training (for strength) can be extremely beneficial in my favorite sport (mountain biking). The choice to work my abs directly has little or nothing to do with how my abs look. When I finish my pre-summer cut in a couple of months I’ll be between 6% and 7% body fat and will have a six-pack regardless of whether or not I do direct ab work.

Finally, one other question that gets asked a lot is, “I don’t like the shape of my abs. How can I make them more symmetrical/even?” Sorry, you can’t. Some people have symmetrical abs, some people have abs stacked asymmetrically and so on. That’s all determined by genetics, and totally out of your control. Don’t lose any sleep over it.

Obtaining a six-pack is not complicated, but for most people it does require a pretty strict diet. I hope this information helps those of you who have done a million crunches and can’t understand why your abs are still not showing.

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This is the fourth in my new series of “Fat loss 101” articles. These articles are designed to help people who may be somewhat new to healthy fat loss, fitness and weight training, but I’ve also attempted to pepper the articles with solid motivational material that will (hopefully!) be useful to just about anyone who’s working towards a leaner, more muscular and healthier body.

You can check out my previous Fat Loss 101 articles here:

The scale is not nearly as important as you may think.
Excuses.
Dedication and momentum.

John Stone Fitness Comments

6 Responses to “Fat loss 101: How do I get a “six pack”?”
    • Ab/core strength certainly can help with some kinds of lower back pain issues. In fact, part of the reason I’m doing direct ab work now is because I’m hopeful that doing so may help alleviate some of the flank/lower back pain I’ve been experiencing lately.

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  1. Just a comment on your lower back/flank pain. I had what may be similar pain for about 1 year (sounds like how you described it). Biking seemed to make it flare up. I wasn’t new to biking (5+ yrs exp) but I was pushing my riding into new areas including free riding so I just thought it was soreness from impact absorption on landings.

    Fast forward one year and it turns out to be kidney stones. The stones were so small that you couldn’t see them on x-ray. Only could see them with a CT. It turns out that normally people get these types of stones and pass them without ever noticing them. However, being in my standard riding position was cramping the tube between the kidney and bladder which caused the tiny kidney stones to rub. This lead to inflammation which in turn made the tube more sensitive to the rubbing and the cycle continued until it resulted in pain.

    The solution for me was a medication called flowmax + an anti-inflammatory (I can’t remember the name of this one, it was something special though, only used for kidney stones) for a couple of weeks. Pain very quickly went away completely. Both medication seemed quite safe I believe (limited if any side effects). If this type of pain ever comes back I just plan to use the same treatment.

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    • Thanks for the info, it’s appreciated.

      FYI, I went to my doctor about four months ago thinking I might be dealing with kidney stones. My doc didn’t feel that was the problem and, suspecting it was muscular, he prescribed an anti-inflammatory (Mobic). During the entire three months I was on the NSAID I experienced zero flank pain (and I rode a lot), so that would seem to rule out kidney stones (at least according to my doctor: he indicated that the anti-inflammatory meds would not completely eliminate the pain if it was caused by kidney stones). I should probably go back and see him again. I’ll ask him about med you mentioned.

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