When I ask clients about their long term fitness goals, defined, washboard abs – the six-pack – often makes it onto the list.
Who among us (myself included) hasn’t craved that magazine cover beach body?
Take my client Jen for example. Jen is fit and athletic, and determined enough to schedule regular gym workouts into her busy week. I meet with Jen every few months to re-evaluate her targets and adjust her fitness routine accordingly. Like so many of us, Jen would love to have a ripped stomach. But although she is noticing an increase in her muscular strength and visible tone, the six-pack remains elusive.
So what’s the best way for us to achieve that toned, trim tummy?
The Rectus Abdominis
While the abdomen is comprised of many muscles, the rippled effect we call a six-pack is mainly due to the appearance of one muscle, the Rectus Abdominis. This paired muscle runs vertically from your ribcage to your pelvis like a small surfboard, and is necessary for lumbar flexion, such as bringing the ribs to the hips (an ab “crunch”). It’s also used in respiration, particularly exhalation, and can tense without flexing (pulling in your belly). Bands of tendons are what give this muscle its lumpy appearance when tensed.
Body Fat and the Spot-reduction Myth
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you train your abs, most of us have a layer of fat lying on top of them that obscures the definition we’d like to see. And that’s the problem: in order to reveal those ripples, we must achieve a very low percentage of body fat. And since we tend to hold more fat on our abdomen than on our arms, for example, it can seem that our ab exercises just aren’t doing the trick.
Who among us (myself included) hasn’t craved that magazine-cover beach body?
For men, some ab definition can be seen when body fat levels are at 10-15% (the average level for men is 18-24%) although a definite six-pack may require even lower levels. Women might start to see some abs at 22% but they would need to drop below 18% or even 16% to achieve that lean, ripped dream body. Considering the average level for women is 25-31%, and a level below 13% may result in hormonal disruption such as amenorrhea (cessation of menstruation), this is no easy task. And even if you do lose enough body fat to get that washboard look, maintaining it is another story altogether.
The common myth of spot-reduction still pervades today. Unfortunately, doing crunches won’t burn off our belly fat. Fat is lost from the entire body as a result of not only exercise but dietary changes. And strengthening a muscle doesn’t reduce fat in that region, although the muscle growth can create a firming appearance under the skin.
The Genetic Link
You might even be able to blame your still-invisible six-pack on your genetics. Some body types will find it easier to achieve this look: for example, an ectomorph (a tall, lean person) may be predisposed to lower body fat and could see more definition than an endomorph with a naturally rounder body shape. Luckily for her, my client Jen is naturally lean; this could give her a bit of an advantage.
Unfortunately, doing crunches won’t burn off our belly fat.
What if I still want that six-pack?
First, try to create a healthy life balance between adequate cardio, strength training, a nutritious diet low in added sugars, and rest. You may need to cut out a lot of your favourite foods: bread, pasta, all desserts. Have your body fat percentage measured if possible, or just monitor your appearance. Record your results and training sessions regularly. Remember that if you cannot maintain the diet and training, you won’t maintain the visible abs either.
What’s in it for me anyway?
I often advise my clients to rethink their priorities. Having a strong and balanced core musculature is a very realistic and positive goal, but just having a six-pack is not necessarily the measurement of overall fitness it appears to be. If achieving your dream body causes you to be cranky, hungry and fatigued all the time, ask yourself if your goals need a little nudge in a different direction. After all, the best way to accessorize a toned body is with a genuine smile and the glow of true health.