The Epic Quest for Six Pack Abs
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
In Death of the Diet, I stress the importance of determining your Why – the true motivating force driving you to improve your eating and physical activity habits. While many people “would like” six pack abs, not everyone realizes the amount of effort required to not only attain, but sustain such a low percentage of body fat (likely in the mid-to-high single digits for men, and the low double digits for women). However, I understand some people still want to give it their all and see what they can accomplish, so this blog post is my contribution for those committed to the epic quest for six pack abs.
A Disclaimer: Genetics Often Dictate the Effort Required to Attain and Sustain Six Pack Abs
Consider that six pack abs are the “pinnacle” of body composition, much like professional athletes or CEOs achieve the pinnacle of their respective fields.
Genetics play a tremendous role in how easy, or hard, it is for a person to attain the highest levels of performance, or six pack abs (see my “proprietary” drawing below). While it would be nice to achieve them, do not place your entire self-worth on seeing those six abs. You are more than just a set of abs – appreciate the healthy eating and physical activity habits you will be performing to achieve those results, and consider which ones you can continue long-term. Everyone can be healthy, fit and happy, regardless of the number of abs you see.
Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs
While I sincerely hope you do achieve them, be ok with the fact that the effort you put in to achieve six pack abs may not be sustainable long-term. Even the leanest of the bunch, bodybuilders, only maintain their shredded physique for a few days of the year for their competitions. Look at them two weeks after a competition, it’s usually a whole different story. Just like other accomplishments, give yourself a major pat on the back for achieving something many others will never do (myself included, thus far). I’ll discuss my personal attempt at six pack abs at the end of the post.
Make Your Body Inefficient
Research has shown that those who tend to lose weight easily (ectomorphs), have more “inefficient” bodies. They have more brown fat – a type of fat that burns calories (researchers don’t know how to apply these findings…yet). They tend to have more non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), a.k.a. they fidget and move around more. And they are also usually quite active. In other words, their bodies require more fuel (calories) to perform their daily routines. While you may not be able to channel your inner brown fat, there are methods for eating and physical activity that can increase your personal inefficiency:
Nutrition / Eating
Increase your thermal effect of food (the amount of calories needed to break down and digest the food you eat) by having less processed, whole foods rich in fiber, water and protein such as fruits, veggies, lean meats, oatmeal, nuts, beans and dairy (for those that are lactose tolerant). Think of it this way: The less processed the food is, the harder it is for your body to break down those plant cell walls and proteins to get the available calories. For example, recent research has shown that your body actually attains about 20% less calories from raw almonds than listed on the package.
On the flipside, consider that in many cases processing = pre-digestion. Machines are doing the digestion for you so absorption is faster and easier. However, the easier it is for your body to suck up the calories, the more likely they will go to fat if you’re not burning them. For that reason, the pursuit of six pack abs often means bye-bye to most highly processed foods, sugary foods/beverages, baked goods, alcohol, etc. Each person is unique – you’ll have to learn how often you can indulge while still maintaining progress towards your ultimate goal – six pack abs. For some it will be monthly, others weekly, others daily (see the genetic component above).
From an exercise perspective, staying inefficient means performing exercises that require large amounts of muscle groups to work, whether it be cardiovascular training, kettlebell swings, upper/lower body splits, interval training, density training or circuit training. But remember, the more you do something, the better and more efficient your body gets at performing it. So as soon as your body starts to adapt and an activity starts to feel too easy (usually within 3 to 5 weeks), throw in a deload week to recover, and then change up the routine completely to keep the body learning…and the calories burning.
Also, throw in a heavier weight strength day or two each week to ensure your body does all it can to maintain its metabolically active lean body mass during the weight loss. Well controlled, multi joint lifts such as pushes/presses, rows/pulls, squats, hip hinges and loaded carries (thanks, Dan John!), not only work the hell out of your muscles, but they also burn a ton of calories. In summary, tell your body to burn fat, not muscle through what you eat and how you move.
Maintain Your Metabolism by Periodizing Your Nutrition
Unsurprisingly, your body doesn’t like feeling starved. That’s why your body burns calories, and fat, best by being in a slight calorie deficit – consuming slightly less than you burn. If you burn more, you can eat more and still get results (see energy flux topic below). If you burn too much and eat too little, however, your body will quickly recognize the significant imbalance and return the favor by stalling your metabolism and potentially burning precious lean body mass. That’s why periodizing your nutrition is so vital. You can periodize your nutrition on either a daily, or weekly basis (or both – but don’t drive yourself nuts over it):
On a daily basis, you could eat a little more on training days (with the extra fuel focused on your workouts and recovery), and have less on off days while aiming to maintain a slight calorie deficit each day. Once a week, aim to eat a little more than usual to keep the metabolism churning.
Or you can couple a few weeks of higher intensity calorie imbalance (eating less, burning more) with recovery phases (increasing your food intake to achieve calorie balance, or even slightly above), much like you need a deload week every 3 to 5 weeks with consistent, hard training. In fact, you could pair your deload nutrition week with your deload training week. While you may gain a small amount of weight due to the replenishment of your fluid and glycogen stores during a deload week, the act of eating a little more and training a little less will send a signal to your body that all is well metabolically, and it has no reason to horde calories and fat. Then you can resume your higher intensity phase the following week. It’s all about resting for a moment before the next ascent.
Move and Exercise Consistently to Increase Energy Flux
The “afterburn” effect of most exercise sessions is minimal – only about 10% to 20% of the calories actually burned when performing the exercise. There are two moderate exceptions to this rule: the time immediately after significant, high intensity training (as great as this sounds, be sure to train safe since an injury will undoubtedly derail your six pack dreams), and people/athletes who have “high energy flux.”
High energy flux is a result of being very active each and every day. It’s why Michael Phelps and sprinters can eat like a horse (pizza, pasta, etc.) and look ripped. The amount of physical activity they do each allows them to burn through whatever they want and not gain an ounce. Not only are those calories going to fuel their workouts, but it’s going to replenish glycogen stores, increase intramuscular triglyceride stores (specialized fuel stores for active people), repair their muscles and maintain their significant lean body mass. Research has shown that achieving significant weight loss, especially six pack abs, is best served by maintaining a high level activity, not just cutting calories alone. Like the previous point mentioned, your body does not like to feel starved.
Keep that metabolic fire stoked 24/7 by sitting less, walking more, training often and recovering well. The biggest threat to not achieving six pack abs is an injury.
Putting It All Together: Assess Where You Are and Create a Plan
Achieving six-pack abs can be a considerable undertaking, similar to climbing a mountain. Research recommends climbing mountains over 10,000 feet high in 1,000 foot stages and then resting before continuing on. Do the same with your six pack ab pursuit. Are you just getting off the couch (below base camp), or are you halfway up (physically active, but no six-pack)? The amount of effort you should be putting in should be just a bit beyond your current position. Get there, get comfortable, then forge ahead. Perform the six pack abs ascent in stages. If you go too far too fast, you may get gassed, or worse yet, injured. Climbing a mountain is a process. So is achieving six pack abs.
Using the information and ideas above, the best first step you can take to achieve six-pack abs is to create a personalized action plan to get there. Choose the one or two ideas that resonate most with you, and then write down exactly how you’re going to do them. The more details, the better. Why is creating a plan important?
It organizes your thoughts.
It gives you immediate actions you can take to start getting results.
You can track, and manage, the execution of your action plan to see which changes are getting you the best effects and make adjustments as needed.
Epilogue: My Personal Attempt at Six Pack Abs
My personal attempt stopped at around 9.8% during my initial weight loss in 2005. I looked good, but still only had the initial outline of four abs. And I realized that I was cutting out many of the foods and cooking experiences I enjoyed, which took a toll on my overall happiness in life. My personal Why evolved into one more focused on confidence in my body (even if I could only count two abs, not six) along with my long-term health, strength and happiness – which means staying active, but also giving in to my foodie self on occasion. When asked what I eat, I typically tell my clients and workshop attendees, “I eat chocolate and broccoli. I just make sure I eat more broccoli than chocolate.”
TELL ME: Have you attempted, or achieved six pack abs? What did it take? Share your story and help others learn about the process.
Image Courtesy of imagerymajestic and FreeDigitalPhotos.net