Somehow, and at some point in America, the elusive feature known as "six-pack abs" became an even more important trait to us when choosing our mates than more traditional values like, say, personality or even other physical traits like functional fitness. What does it mean to have a six pack and why is it so important? Well from a health perspective, having a six pack honestly doesn't automatically mean you are Godly or perfectly healthy, and conversely, NOT having a six pack doesn't mean you can't be in peak health and peak physical condition. For example, a mid distance runner might have the best six pack because his or her training involves power and speed, while a marathon runner or a professional weight lifter might be elite in his or her sport, but not have a six pack. I guess the bottom line is that having a six pack has nothing to do with physical ability, it is simply an aesthetic representation of having a certain percentage body fat, which allows for your abdominal muscles to show through.
The sport of Bodybuilding, which obviously does include a lot of training, is also much about body conditioning for looks, which isn't very natural and sometimes unhealthy. For example, my friend who is a competitive body builder (just placed 6/20 in his class at a competition!) told me in his cut phase, he ate chicken or tilapia and green beans for almost every meal from July-October. The day of the competition he wasn't allowed to drink any water after 8 oz. in the morning. Because he was on a ketosis diet and was severely dehydrated the day of the competition, he had an extra great six-pack, I've seen pictures! Of course, that wasn't the only reason, he trained hard for a whole year leading up to it, but there are "tricks" like that, that bodybuilders and models do before photoshoots. However if you asked one of those models to run a 5k after the photoshoot, or a bodybuilder to do a Warrior Dash the day of a competition, they'd likely collapse from not having enough carbs in the diet and from being so dehydrated. I just want to say to you - unless you want to be a competitive bodybuilder, you might want to reprioritize your goals if "six-pack" is your number one goal! I always say eat for performance and dominate in your workouts to lose weight and look good!
That being said, there are healthy ways for you to get your six pack that don't involve fasting and ketosis diets, and certainly ways to get there without doing 1,000 crunches in a day, which seems to be how everything thinks you get a six pack.
What is Body Fat Percentage?
In my sports nutrition classes, we were told basically that men with under 10% body fat will have a clear six pack showing, and women under 15% body fat will. (Woman naturally have more body fat because of child bearing.) However, if you are male and have under 15% body fat, or 20% for a female, you will likely have a "flat" stomach which is still considered where you want to be to be healthy. Body fat percentage is basically the amount of fat in your body in proportion to the rest of your mass. Just know, we all have about 2-5% called "essential fat," including that in our central nervous system and that which keeps our organs running so we don't want to strive for 0%...you'd kind of be dead at that point.
How do you calculate body fat? First of all there are several formulas online you can get just by googling it. They mostly take into consideration your weight and the size of your waist, additionally the size of your hips if you are female, since males tend to carry body fat around the waist and women in the waist and hips. The military formula is fairly accurate.
Additionally, you can use a body fat caliper. When you buy one (email me back, I can show you where to get one), it comes with instructions and a chart. There is a 3-measurement style, or a single measurement which is the pinch of skin just to the right of your navel. I've always heard the single pinch is almost as accurate as the 3-measurement style, so you can try both and compare. It's important when doing this to pinch enough to get the layer of skin AND fat (the caliper should come with a diagram).
Finally, you can get a professional, more accurate test using water displacement. Body fat is really a great way to track your results, since it doesn't just consider weight, but lean mass - the amount of "stuff" (muscle, bone, connective tissue...) in your body in proportion to how much of that is fat. Perhaps more important than finding a perfectly accurate measurement is to use ONE method to measure consistently and track your progress.
everyone knows Eddie Brock, "Venom" has the greatest abs on the planet
Abs Are Made in the Kitchen
We've heard this before...one of the true keys to getting six-pack abs is to eat healthily. Make sure leafy greens, lean protein, whole grains, and only healthy fats make up your diet. If you are struggling and plateauing, you might consider trying to eliminate gluten and dairy for a month and see if that makes an effect - this is a strategy that Tony Horton endorses. Equally important is eating 5-6 small meals a day instead of 3 big meals. And here comes the big one - eliminate alcohol and limit caffeine! Sorry, but you gotta do it if you want to see big strides! Like I alluded to before, I highly suggest eating to perform in your workouts, not eating to lose weight. This means creating a caloric deficit, but no less than 500 calories below your daily caloric maintenance.
To calculate your daily caloric balance, got to www.teambeachbody.com, click on Eat Smart > Nutrition Tools, and then click on the caloric needs calculator. You need a free account to access this, so create one here first: free teambeachbody account. Input your stats and click "MAINTAIN WEIGHT" as your goal (even if that isn't your goal). The number you get will be your daily caloric needs (estimating the amount you burn in your workout, with your basal metabolic rate, and whatever small amount you burn in other daily activities). Once you have that number, if you want to burn fat, subtract UP TO 500 calories.
If you can agree with me that working out has to be part of the picture, low calorie diets aren't enough, then wouldn't you also agree that fueling your workouts is better than starving your muscles?
The Right Workout Program
As I alluded to before, short to middle distance runners, which are generally "power" or "speed" athletes tend to have the look we strive for. When we consider their training, it involves a lot of interval training and a lot of strength training. What it doesn't include is a lot of aerobic endurance training. So, without even doing any scientific studies, it can be somewhat clear that doing a combination of intense cardio and strength training is probably the best thing for you once you get close to your goal weight and you are looking to get the final tweaks for the six pack look. That is where programs like P90X and ChaLEAN Extreme excel, or perhaps even better the P90X/Insanity or P90X/Asylum hybrid, or the ChaLEAN/Turbofire hybrid. However, if you still have a bit to go on your weight loss journey, you might not be ready for this fine tuning and something like Slim in 6 for beginners, or a more cardio based program like straight TurboFire or Insanity if you are stepping up to a bigger challenge.
Also, some newer sports science is leaning towards workouts which connect muscle groups instead of isolating them. Instead of doing standard lying triceps extensions on a bench, doing them while lying on a stability ball forces you to connect to your core. If you want a program that uses strength training combined with core balancing and instability, P90X2 is the answer. I read an article on the workout program that all the actors in the movie, The 300 did, and it seemed to get those Spartan abs, most of the actors were on a program that did just this.
Accept Your Genetics
Before I go on, it should also be said that to some level, we all need to accept who we are genetically and know that some people have a shape that is more pre-disposed to low percentage body fat, whether that be genetic pre-disposition to muscle anabolism, metabolic differences between individuals, or even the way our mind is wired to deal with things like stress or pain. All of these factors come into play, and we are all different, so comparing yourself to anyone but yourself might be a fruitless venture and unhealthy practice. I know Shaun T works his butt off, and yes he was at one point in college slightly overweight, but let's be serious - the man has a definite genetic makeup in his favor!
Destress Your Life
This is a big one! If you are constantly stressed, your body produces a lot of cortisol, the stress hormone. This can lead to water retention, catabolism of muscle, and storage of fat. When our body is stressed out, we are more likely to go into a basic instinct of survival mode. However, this isn't the case for everybody. Sometimes certain people get stressed out and eat less...or some eat more. Some people's heart rate is higher all day during stress. So I guess I will give a bogus statement here and say "Well, it depends." But I'd say for most people, destressing your life will have a POSITIVE impact on life in general, and possibly your abs! You can tell if you are retaining a lot of water by pinching the skin just to the right of your belly button. You can actually feel liquid leeching out of your skin fold, which means you probably are retaining more water than usual.
Stretched Out Skin
One other factor with six pack abs is the fact that if we lose weight rather quickly, it's possible to have flabby, stretched out skin that can take months, or years to tighten up again. Unfortunately, I am not in the cosmetic industry, I have absolutely no advice on how to deal with this other than patience! But just know, you an have eliminated a lot of the fat, but say you lost a good 50 lbs. or so, it's very possible it can take twice as long to get the six pack as you'd like just as the skin tightens!
So I'm Really Close, What Do I Do?
If you feel like you've put in the time and are ready to see it, I'd suggest doing a 30-day cleanse. No dairy, no gluten, limited animal products except for fish, not caffeine, no alcohol, no refined sugar, and replace one or two of your 5 meals with Shakeology daily. Still eat the same amount of calories as you are used to. In addition to Shakeology, try to have a few servings of vegetables per day. During the last three days, do a 3-Day Shakeology Cleanse.
Another idea is to zig-zag calories. This is a new trend. The theory behind it is that we are told on one end to add calories to our diet so we can build muscle, and then on the other end we are told to cut calories so we can burn fat. If you know your basic caloric balance (information on how to, above), you basically alternate days slightly above and slightly below your caloric maintenance. I am not sure how scientifically sound this theory is, but one reason I think it works is because anytime you really organize yourself to eat a certain amount of calories and have 5 healthy meals a day, you are in a better place to get the body shape you want. Zig-zagging is great for people that like to have a lot of control in their life, it gives them something very specific to focus on, with slight changes day to day so you don't just do the same thing over and over again.
As far as your workouts go, I'd suggest doing your normal program, but adding 2-3 days of strength training a week if it isn't already in there, whether that is a p90x hybrid or whatever you have available to you.
How come you didn't say anything about Ab Focus Exercises?
The sad truth is that if you do Ab Ripper X, or Cardio Abs, or whatever 7 times a week, it won't make a difference until you get the body percentage down a little bit. Your abs will show if you get to a certain body fat percentage even if you haven't been toning them like crazy. If you want them to actually be 3-dimensional shelves that you can rest a cup of coffee on like Shaun T, you probably want to add some extra ab focus exercises, but my suggestion is don't do anymore than you need to, i.e. what is recommended in your workout program. Abs are the most resilient of the muscle groups we work in strength training, some say they only take 24 hours to recover before you can work them again. But as Tony says "Tip of the Day, don't do this every day..." there is a reason most programs have abs no more than 3x a week. Just remember that! Focus on destressing your life and eating healthy before doing 7 ab workouts in a row!