In a world where about two thirds of the United States is overweight or obese,1 having six-pack abs is considered the ultimate sign of leanness.
It’s also considered extremely difficult.
Everywhere you look, there’s a book, supplement, or workout program designed to help you get rippled washboard abs. They all have three things in common:
1. They cost money.
2. They’re often complex, annoying, and/or time-consuming.
3. They don’t work.
As with most things, getting a six-pack is simple, though not always easy.
It doesn’t matter if you want a six-pack to impress your friends, be healthier, or as a personal challenge — this article is for you.
Here are the two things you need to do:
1. Create and maintain a caloric deficit to lose body fat.
You already have a six pack. The problem is that it’s probably hiding underneath a layer of fat.
To let your abs see the light of day — you need to lose fat.2,3 The actual size of your abs isn’t going to make any difference in their appearance until you reach a lower body fat percentage.
Unfortunately, ab and lower back fat tends to take longer to disappear than other areas — it’s stubborn. This means you usually have to lose a lot of fat from other places before your abs start to appear.
There is no way to lose fat specifically from one spot on your body — spot reduction doesn’t work. You have to create a caloric deficit and maintain it until you lose enough body fat for your abs to materialize.
Be patient. Men usually need to drop to around 10% body fat before their abs show. Women usually need to get to ~12-14% body fat. If you want more definition, you need to get leaner.
People store fat in different places, and can lose fat at various rates from different parts of their body.4-7 You may need to lose more or less fat from other areas of your body than someone else before your abs appear. As long as you maintain a caloric deficit, however, eventually you’ll have abs.
You can create a caloric deficit through diet or exercise, though combining both tends to work best. This brings us to the next step.
2. Lift weights that engage your upper body.
When it comes to exercise for abs, Lyle McDonald says it best:
“You need two main exercises:
1. Table push aways: when you start to get full, just push away from the table.
2. Head shakes: when someone offers you food not on your diet, twist your head right and then left and repeat going ‘No thank you.’
Getting a 6 pack is mostly about losing fat.”
In truth, you don’t need to lift weights to get a six pack — or exercise at all.
However, strength training can help maintain muscle mass while you’re in a caloric deficit, which will generally produce better results.8-10 Lifting weights can also help contribute to your caloric deficit by burning some calories (though that shouldn’t be the main reason you lift weights).11,12
Most guys are obsessed with ab exercise like crunches, torso twists, sit-ups, and the like. These aren’t necessarily bad exercises, but they’re not always essential or all that helpful.
Full body exercises like squats and deadlifts can activate the abs as much as more direct ab exercises like side planks.13 You’ll also get a fair amount of ab activation from most compound movements like chin-ups, overhead press, and bench press (if you do it right).
It’s probably a good idea to do a few direct abdominal exercises as well, but don’t get carried away. To start, pick 1-2 ab exercises and train them once a week. Do 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps. You can do more than that, but it probably won’t be of much additional benefit.
Abs for All
Getting abs is like a rite of passage if you’re trying to be lean. It’s a sign of health, fitness, willpower, and commitment (and for some, a little vanity).
Don’t be fooled. You don’t need to take supplements, use special exercise equipment, or avoid your favorite foods.
The only thing you need to get abs is a caloric deficit, although strength training can help you maintain muscle mass and get better results. Some direct ab exercises won’t hurt, but focus on your diet above all else.
You already have a six-pack. You just need to lose the fat that’s covering it.
1. Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, et al. Prevalence of obesity in the United States, 2009-2010. NCHS Data Brief. 2012;(82):1–8. Abstract: http://pmid.us/22617494 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/Goqrr.
2. van der Ploeg GE, Brooks AG, Withers RT, et al. Body composition changes in female bodybuilders during preparation for competition. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2001;55(4):268–277. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601154. Abstract: http://pmid.us/11360131 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/LtPU2
3. Withers RT, Noell CJ, Whittingham NO, et al. Body composition changes in elite male bodybuilders during preparation for competition. Aust J Sci Med Sport. 1997;29(1):11–16. Abstract: http://pmid.us/9127683. | Full Text: NA
4. Wahrenberg H, Lönnqvist F, Arner P. Mechanisms underlying regional differences in lipolysis in human adipose tissue. J Clin Invest. 1989;84(2):458–467. doi:10.1172/JCI114187. Full Text: http://goo.gl/ZW4Ae
5. Mauriege P, Galitzky J, Berlan M, et al. Heterogeneous distribution of beta and alpha-2 adrenoceptor binding sites in human fat cells from various fat deposits: functional consequences. Eur J Clin Invest. 1987;17(2):156–165. Abstract: http://pmid.us/3034620 | Full Text: NA
6. Karastergiou K, Smith SR, Greenberg AS, et al. Sex differences in human adipose tissues – the biology of pear shape. Biol Sex Differ. 2012;3(1):13. doi:10.1186/2042-6410-3-13. Abstract: http://pmid.us/22651247 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/rrjvp
7. Lee M-J, Wu Y, Fried SK. Adipose tissue heterogeneity: implication of depot differences in adipose tissue for obesity complications. Mol Aspects Med. 2013;34(1):1–11. doi:10.1016/j.mam.2012.10.001. Abstract: http://pmid.us/23068073 | Full Text: NA
8. Stiegler P, Cunliffe A. The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports Med. 2006;36(3):239–262. Abstract: http://pmid.us/16526835 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/RbLEX.
9. Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, et al. Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. J Am Coll Nutr. 1999;18(2):115–121. Abstract: http://pmid.us/10204826 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/S63If.
10. Geliebter A, Maher MM, Gerace L, et al. Effects of strength or aerobic training on body composition, resting metabolic rate, and peak oxygen consumption in obese dieting subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;66(3):557–563. Abstract: http://pmid.us/10204826 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/lZ1uH.
11. Melanson EL, Sharp TA, Seagle HM, et al. Resistance and aerobic exercise have similar effects on 24-h nutrient oxidation. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002;34(11):1793–1800. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000037092.24564.33. Abstract: http://pmid.us/12439085 | Full Text: NA
12. Bloomer RJ. Energy cost of moderate-duration resistance and aerobic exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2005;19(4):878–882. doi:10.1519/R-16534.1. Abstract: http://pmid.us/16287370 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/DzXbX
13. Hamlyn N, Behm DG, Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(4):1108–1112. doi:10.1519/R-20366.1. Abstract: http://pmid.us/18076231 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/r5yYO
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