It’s summer, the beach is the place to be, and naturally you’re looking for a six-pack. You’re working out in the gym, making what seems like the right food choices, and yet those abs refuse to show.
Although you can go online to view the best abdominal rollers (opens in a new tab) or pencil in 1000 sit-ups at lunch, why not take a moment to review the key steps to true abdominal satisfaction?
We asked Claire Baseley, a registered dietitian nutritionist with a background in life sciences, for some advice.
Claire is an award-winning and highly qualified Registered Nutritionist, with a Biological Sciences degree from the University of Oxford, an MSc in Human Nutrition from the University of Sheffield and 20 years experience in the food industry and civil service.
What is a six pack?
A six pack is the popular term given to our rectus abdominis muscles. While we all have these muscles, seeing them requires that we have a low enough body fat percentage for them to become visible. That’s an important point to consider because while we know that physical exercise contributes to overall health, low body fat doesn’t necessarily equate to optimal health.
As Baseley says, “It’s important to note that a visible six-pack is No a sign of health.” While ripped abs are often touted as the holy grail of peak fitness, Baseley, who has a background in sports nutrition, cautions that “particularly in women, a visible six-pack can mean the opposite. Body fat levels may need to be low enough to affect the female menstrual cycle and some women may miss their period when trying hard to have a six pack. This is a clear sign that health is being negatively affected by aesthetics.”
How can you get a six pack?
If you’re committed to the way forward, the process is essentially two-fold: Your abdominal muscles will need to be trained to make them bigger and stronger, increasing your visibility. Body fat should also be reduced to low levels.
There are several ways to approach reducing body fat, but it all comes down to achieving a calorie deficit (opens in a new tab) (consuming fewer calories than your body needs). “Those in the sporting world will generally consume fewer calories than they need to maintain their weight,” Baseley says, “along with a high-protein diet, potentially up to 2g of protein per pound of body weight per day.” Combined with increased physical activity, this causes the body to lose fat while preserving lean tissue.
It’s a tricky balancing act and needs to be approached carefully. “Health must be considered at all times,” says Baseley. “A varied and balanced diet must be consumed to ensure that this approach does not lead to nutritional deficiencies,” she says.
Considering the extreme measures required to get a six-pack, it’s worth taking the time first to consider if it’s the right approach for you. “A diet to reduce body fat can be very strict,” Baseley says, “particularly one that targets extremely low body fat. This not only puts physical health at risk, but is also socially isolating and uninspiring, and can also negatively affect mental health and body image.”
training the abs
Some of the best exercises for building core strength and ripped abs aren’t necessarily the ones that come to mind. “Doing a bunch of sit-ups and sit-ups is sure to tire just the rectus abdominis,” says Ryan McLean, a personal trainer and fitness coach who specializes in strength and conditioning. “To build muscles to their full potential, I would recommend working on big compound lifts like deadlifts, back squats, overhead presses, sled pushes, pull-ups, cleans, and snatches.
“All of these compound exercises are full-body movements that require your core to be engaged to execute them properly. Most of my clients are surprised when I tell them they don’t need to do those 5-10 minute crunches at the end because they’ve already lifted enough and engaged their core muscles with the big compound lifts.”
How often should you train for optimal effects? Four times a week, according to McLean, is the perfect balance between exertion and recovery.
What are the best exercises for ripped abs?
The best exercises to get a six pack are also useful for all of us to improve our core strength, a fundamental element of any fitness journey. For more tips, read our article on ‘How to get a stronger core (opens in a new tab).’
Their main muscles (opens in a new tab) It acts as the foundation of your body, offering mobility, strength, and balance while supporting good posture. Planks, mountain climbers, sit-ups, reverse crunches, Russian twists, dead bugs, and leg raises are all solid ways to build your core, though they’re not as efficient as larger compound exercises that work lots of muscles and, however, they offer similar benefits to downtown.
Consider other options: “Pilates classes are ideal as they target not only the rectus abdominis but also the surrounding abdominal and gluteal muscles, which are part of the core. It’s not as simple as doing some sit-ups,” says Baseley.
As with any part of the body, too much focus on those “mirror muscles” will create weaknesses elsewhere, which means a balanced approach is key. “Speak to a qualified expert for advice on a balanced abdominal program,” says Baseley.
How long will it take to get a six pack?
When it comes to losing body fat, it is advisable to go slow. In general, not only is it considered safer to lose weight at a slow pace, it is also a more sustainable approach and studies, such as this one published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism (opens in a new tab) – I suggest it’s the most effective way to retain that all-important lean tissue that will build abdominal muscles.
As for when you can expect to first see those abdominal muscles, the answer depends on a number of factors, including body composition, training regimen, and nutritional intake. “Getting a six pack will take the time it takes to lose body fat around your abdominal area in a healthy way, and this will depend on how much body fat you have to begin with,” says Baseley.
Baseley says the route to getting abs is much more important than the destination, stating that you should never “aim to lose more than a pound a week.” He also stresses the importance of carefully considering the broader implications beyond getting a six-pack: “Ask yourself if a six-pack is really what you want,” he says.
Considering that regular food and weight management are considered important for successful weight loss, it’s easy to see how aiming for a six-pack could become a goal that disrupts other parts of your life.
“Is it worth sacrificing your physical and mental health for an aesthetic that most people will never see?” Baseley asks. Perhaps the answer is the best starting point when you consider embarking on your six-pack quest.