The Truth About Getting a Six-Pack

It’s crunch time. Or is it? Experts reveal the moves, the food and the mindset you need for a washboard stomach.

There are many myths and mistruths about the six-pack. For starters, it’s not six muscles, but two. The rectus abdominis. And contrary to popular opinion, the main jobs of these muscles are to flex the spinal column, stabilise your torso and hold all your internal organs in place. Selling designer underwear and setting thirst traps on social media are secondary roles. Hobbies, even.

And yet, in the age of the like button, who here among us would turn down a six-pack? Visible, rippling abs are synonymous with good looks and good fitness. They have been for centuries.

We talk about unrealistic body image like it’s a new thing, but check out Michelangelo’s David or ancient Greek statues. Those guys were definitely under 10% body fat – and they didn’t have sports science journals or – ahem – nutritionally complete meals packed with all the protein and vitamins you could need.

The basics

So what’s the secret to unlocking a six-pack? How many sit-ups are we talking? Or is it less about the gym and more about good genes and the right balance of calories going in and out?

Where to start depends on where you’re starting from – because we all have abs. It’s just that, for most of us, they’re hiding under a layer of midsection insulation. That means getting a visible six-pack requires a change in our body composition. Less fat, more muscle.

Few people are better qualified to uncover your abs than Eric Helms. A pro bodybuilder and exercise scientist, he’s a research fellow at Auckland University of Technology and a co-founder of MASS Research Review, an organisation that interprets the latest scientific findings on exercise and nutrition.

He says that the old adage that a six-pack is made in the kitchen, not the gym, is – for the most part – true. “And it’s more true if someone tends to have a little more central adiposity – you know, body fat in the midsection,” he says. “If that is covering the muscle you want to see, then from a very logical perspective, you have to make that fat smaller to let the muscle shape poke through.”

Do you need to be in a calorie deficit?

To get it poking you do indeed need a calorie deficit to make that layer of fat shrink or disappear, Helms says. In other words, you need to use more energy in movement and daily activity than you consume from food and drink. Less beer and fewer biscuits are obvious starting points, but a number of long-term studies show that calorie deficits lead to weight loss regardless of carb, protein or fat content.

Helms also advocates a flexible approach to food. “I don't think it's really necessary to track carbs and fats per se, but [it’s good] to have a protein minimum and then an energy intake goal,” he says. That gives you flexibility to find the healthy options you like, while a baseline daily protein intake helps you maintain muscle mass as you lose weight.

“If you're roughly maintaining or gaining weight on your current calorie intake, then try to make a reasonable reduction somewhere in the range of say, 300-800 calories from where you're at,” Helms says. He recommends keeping 1.6g of protein per kg of bodyweight after you’ve cut that overall calorie count.

What about exercise?

Creating an ab-friendly calorie deficit isn’t just about nutrition. Kicking some kcal butt with regular exercise and daily activity will speed up your six-pack (and keep you healthy in lots of other, arguably more important, ways). Most trainers and exercise scientists will tell you that any and all movement is good, so the most important thing is finding something you love.

For London-based trainer Nicky Lopez, who works with Equinox as well as his own client base, it’s running. At least it is right now – he’s running a marathon a month for charity. But he also says that he’s seen it work for client after client. “When you’re in that shredding phase, I think running is the best form of cardio to change your body,” he says. “It’s not just your legs, you’re using your arms, your trunk and your core, too.”

There are lots of ways to run your way into “are-they-Photoshopped?” territory. You may have heard of the hallowed fat-burning zone. This is when your body uses its fat stores for energy, and it happens when you’re exercising at 60-70% of your max heart rate or perceived effort.

Then there’s sprint training or HIIT. Frantic and feverish, it’s not for everyone but studies have shown that it’s as good as steady or continuous cardio for fat or weight loss, and also has benefits like improved VO2 max, tuning your engine as you go.

Resistance is king

Not everyone’s a runner, of course. And you don’t have to be to unearth your abs. In fact, one Harvard study found that men who added a 20-minute resistance workout to daily aerobic exercise accumulated less age-related belly fat than those who left the dumbbells on the floor.

And a 2022 study in the journal Obesity Reviews found that resistance training, combined with a calorie deficit, was the most effective way of reducing a person’s body fat percentage. As well as burning calories during the workout, bigger muscles also mean you’re burning extra calories with every step and movement you make in daily life.

Lopez and Helms both agree that resistance training is crucial if you want to change your body composition and see muscle not fat when you lift up your T-shirt. If you’re short on time to train, Lopez recommends compound movements like deadlifts, shoulder and bench presses, plus squats and lunges. “It’s just better bang for your buck,” he says. “You’re using multiple muscle groups with every rep.”

Helms recommends free weights over machines, especially if you’re looking for ab definition. “You’ll get a lot of indirect core work because those muscles are bracing, creating that rigidity in your trunk,” he says. He also recommends a rep range anywhere between 6-20, but stresses that the most important thing is that you should find it hard. “It does need to stay hard. Are you actually going to failure? Do you need to recalibrate? Progressive overload [gradually increasing your weight or reps as you get stronger] is very important.”

Crunching the numbers

Then the final piece of the six-pack puzzle is the abs themselves. When your body fat is low enough to make them out, you might want to start including more isolation work in your routine – exercises that specifically target your core. Lopez recommends Pilates for toning, while Helms says that if hypertrophy is your aim – literally making your abs bigger – then you need to upgrade your crunches.

“Start training your abdominals like two times a week: six to eight hard sets,” he says. “A lot of people do like very kind of short crunch exercises, but I think they’d be better served doing more intentional full range of motion resistance training. So something like a cable crunch, where you're fully extended.”

Helms admits that he doesn’t train his abs specifically, even though he’s a pro bodybuilder as well as an exercise scientist. “I've always had good ab developments and I don’t store much body fat there. I can thank my parents, I guess,” he says.

Long-term discipline is key

Genetics is, of course, a factor. As is discipline. If any of the above sounds easy, we haven’t done a very good job of explaining it. Getting and maintaining a six-pack takes months, possibly years, of hard work depending on where you’re starting from. For most people, it’s a minimum of three workouts a week.

“I live a fitness lifestyle because that's what I love. It's fun for me,” Helms says. “I think a really important thing for the more beginner the people you see who maintain these crazy bodies, they love it. It's their passion and they, and they're habituated to it.”

He cautions anyone about modelling their body off what they see on social media. “Competitive bodybuilders aren't shredded all the time. They love to share their shredded pictures, because it's them in peak condition.

“And fitness influencers typically have a lifestyle that's conducive to staying shredded. They show their best pictures. They use angles. They use Photoshop. Many of them are also on drugs that help them stay leaner. And even more of them are just gifted with low body fat. They probably had abs in high school.”

For Helms, it’s about knowing your body and knowing what you want. “I fully support anyone's body autonomy. If you want to become more muscular and look a certain way, more power to you, but I think it's also important to respect and appreciate your body's physiology. Where your healthiest may not be your favourite look.”

Words: Ian Taylor

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