If you look at any of “ab” ads you see in Google or Facebook people now definitely understand that diet is a major component, and it is. The real question is can you diet down to a six pack and that answer for most people is a definite no. If you think your layers of fat are somehow hiding some glorious physique you are kidding yourself. How do I know this, because I was kidding myself. The good majority of people that are giving advice as to how to get abs or not get abs are either young or have trained for a very long time. That is the simple reality. I realize this is probably bad news for some but the truth often is and there is a silver lining in this message. I dieted down from 213 pounds to 162 pounds and stalled around 20% Body Fat, I certainly had a long journey but as my body started to change I no longer required the amount of muscle necessary to carry 213 pounds around so it was natural that I would lose some. The training I was doing at the time did not help though, like most people to lose fat I did massive amounts of cardio, eventually doing a lot of High Intensity Cardio which is known to build muscle (look at any sprinter as an example). The problem with this was that I would get injured a lot and if you look at most high level sprinters they are in a constant battle with this. So sprinting and high intensity does have some drawbacks, especially when you do it without the benefit of good health practices and some strength.
You have to build muscle
I will talk about fat in a bit but your abdominals are muscles, not unlike the biceps you can easily flex and see a result no matter how fat you are. Abs are different, no matter how much flexing you do if the layer of fat on the top of them is too thick you are not going to see much and I can tell you that there is value in being able to see your flexed abdominals beyond the perceived “beach value”. So let’s talk about a few realities, the first being a young male that weighs around 130 pounds and just for example purposes let’s say this person is 5 feet 10 inches. This person really does not need a body fat measurement to make the right decision but let’s say that he is measured at 11%. The standard advice in the “six pack” world is for this person to go on a diet and “lean out” so in this instance this persons fat weighs 1.3 pounds per fat percentage. If we have them lean out to say 6% they would then need to lose 5% multiplied by 1.3 pounds, so 6.5 pounds. So that person is now 123.5 pounds I bet that’s going to look real good on the beach. When I was in high school as a senior I weighed 125 pounds and I assure you I was under no illusion that if I got down to 120 pounds the ladies would flock. Now that I am familiar with exercise science I am similarly confident that dieting does not enhance your ability to grow muscle because all of the hormones that are stimulated for muscle growth only do so in a fed state. You can try and trick your body all you want but it has millions of years of evolution on it’s side and the only way to get muscular is to lift heavy things and eat. This does not mean you need to be irresponsible as it relates to your bodily fat so having some decent check in points is probably pretty smart but I think most kids are guessing on what their percentage is based on a lot of things that are not very scientific. The best measurement is simple, get in front of a mirror and if you do not see actual muscles build some until you do and eat like a man (same could be said for women but I was going for macho), mostly whole foods, good amounts of protein and vegetables. If you are out with friends have some ice cream but if you think ice cream and donuts are helping your cause they are not. Same could be said for monster drinks, red bull and mountain dew. Can you get ripped eating donuts and drinking mountain dew, sure, but you will be hungry a lot and that is a pitfall when you realize that your goals are not making you happy (most people are unhappy when they are hungry).
The simple message for this group is to lift heavy things and eat like an adult.
Abs for the middle aged
The second situation is similar to mine so I will use myself as the example. I was 213 pounds, I have no idea what my body fat percentage was at that point because I was too embarrassed to have it checked, I estimate that it was around 40% at the time. Like most people my age that are heavy I started with the basics and I quit eating like a moron. It’s pretty easy to give up M&M’s and Coke’s when you just eat whatever you want but you will not look like you want until you grow up and start eating like an adult. I did not. My plan was to exercise, let’s be honest we all want to be able to exercise down because we like what we eat and would rather not change our behavior. So what do most of us do, we hit the treadmill or the elliptical because those are easy and currently act as a clothes hanger for our delicates (since we have been down this path before). So now with no M&M’s and Cokes and an hour investment we start to lose weight and can actually make it up the stairs without our hearts beating through our chests. That’s progress but we do not look any different. Why? That answer is simple, sure you are losing weight and while it seems like some combination of fat and muscle is fine there is a much better approach that will show you noticeable results with a smaller time investment. To see your best results get your biggest muscles moving and learn to squat and deadlift, in the beginning you want to exercise some caution and focus more on higher reps at a percentage of what you think you are a capable of doing one time, even if it is theoretical. If you have flexibility issues (I still do) you are much better off working on your form at lower weights than trying to push your limits too early. Use your weight lifting as your cardio, doing your reps in shorter bursts in 30 second intervals 2 reps and 10 sets or intervals is a good start, this will take you 5 minutes. If you want to do some accessory work then great, it’s nice to be in the gym but if you are going to do cardio do it slow (unless you are weight lifting with good form). Anything more than a brisk walk will contradict your goal of muscle building and that extra speed does not burn that many calories any way. The three movements I do in the gym are overhead press (you can do bench press as well), squats and deadlifts.
The value I talked about earlier in having abs is that it is a constant reminder of your health goals. This is not dissimilar to the person that judges their weight loss goals by the way their pants fit but it is much more visible.
This article is not about diet but to suggest it does not play a part would be wrong
For both groups the answer for food is similar but let’s go over the basics. Your protein requirements should equal the lean body mass you are looking to achieve, for the slender individual looking to gain some mass at some point I would take it in chunks. Start with 130 grams of protein from mostly whole food sources and limit your whey protein supplements to post workout. While calories are not a concern typically for this group I like using unflavored whey with a banana and some coconut milk, or you can just eat real food which is what I would recommend but I realize the temptation is there. Also eat your vegetables, limit your fruits to a few pieces a day and take some fish oil. This applies for both groups really. For the heavier individual your protein requirements should equal your lean body mass, this is important for a number of reasons. While you think you want to add muscle while losing fat I have some bad news. You are much better off simply keeping the muscle you have and focusing on the fat. Unlike the first scenario you CAN in fact diet down to six pack abs but you will not be able to do this if you lose your muscle along the way. What I did was I gradually took out the higher calorie foods and replaced them with more nutritious options. If you want to have mashed potatoes occasionally then great, every night is a mistake in my opinion, similar could be said for a lot of the foods that got you where you are today. Whole foods that are rich in nutrients provide you vitamins, proteins and fats keep you full and use your carbs to fuel your workouts.
Shallow goals are easiest to compromise
My initial goal was not to have six pack abs and I can tell you that if you get there you might be surprised at the way you feel once you do (cliffs=it’s cool but a bit disappointing). Vanity goals only take you so far and while I have had days where I have had noticeable progress and those days feel good you never quite feel 100% there, I am speaking for myself but I have talked to many people about this topic. So having a six pack should not be your goal, before joining the gym I currently work out at that was my exact situation, I was floundering around with vain goals and the thing that kept me going was that I simply was tired of giving up. Had I not found the gym and trainers I work with now I would likely have succumbed to frustration. Here are some of the highlights of the approach I suggest:
1. Be a part of something. Whether it is power lifting, crossfit or some type of organized training with a group you will do better as part of a group as long as you measure your improvement by yourself and not others.
2. Find a mentor or a support group. Just make sure the people are supportive and have similar goals to yours.
3. Any diet that involves being hungry all the time is not sustainable and contrary to your end game goals. Remember the payoff is never worth the sacrifice in this instance, if you think you will perform better athletically at a lighter weight then great but extreme dieting rarely lands someone where they want to be in the end. A long term sustainable approach focused on performance is the better way to go.
Embrace the journey
Whether you are a young kid starting the game or an old dog re-joining the party today will not get you where you want to go. It will take a constant effort to sustain you and you will not stick with a plan that makes you uncomfortable and unhappy. Now that I am lean I like to run but I only do it once a week because I do not want to compromise my strength goals. I also like lifting really heavy and challenging myself and my limits. You can likely reach your goals without doing it this way but it will be slower journey. Lastly let me say that when you diet keep it flexible, a few cookies at your in laws house is not going to set back your goals quite the way starving yourself and then bingeing ever will. Flexibility is the key and whether it is diet or exercise give yourself a break, you have your whole life to reach your goals but do not make the mistake of not having any at all.