It’s summer, the beach is the place to be and of course you want a six pack. You do the work at the gym, make what appears to be the right food choices, and yet those abs refuse to show.
While you could go online to check out the best ab rollers (opens in new tab) or pencil in 1000 lunch crunches, why not take a moment to walk through the key steps to achieving true tummy satisfaction?
We asked Claire Baseley, a registered nutritionist with a background in biological sciences, for advice.
Claire is a highly qualified, award-winning registered nutritionist, with a degree in biological sciences from Oxford University, a master’s degree in medical sciences in human nutrition from the University of Sheffield and 20 years of experience in the food industry and the civil service.
What is a six pack?
A six pack is the popular term for our rectus abdominis muscles. While we all have these muscles, to see them we need to have a low enough body fat percentage to show up. That’s an important point to consider, because while we know that exercise contributes to overall health, low body fat doesn’t necessarily equate to optimal health.
As Baseley puts it, “It’s important to emphasize that a visible six-pack is not a sign of health.” While well-defined abs are often considered the holy grail of top-level physical fitness, Baseley, who has experience in sports nutrition, warns that “particularly in women, a visible six-pack can mean the opposite. Body fat levels may need to be low enough to it affects a woman’s menstrual cycle, and some women lose their period in the pursuit of a six pack, which is a clear sign that health is being adversely affected for an aesthetic.”
How do you get a six pack?
If you’re committed to the path ahead, the process is essentially two-fold: your abs must be trained to make them bigger and stronger, making them more visible. Body fat should also be reduced to a low level.
Shedding the Stomach
There are a number of ways to approach a reduction in body fat, but it comes down to achieving a calorie deficit (opens in new tab) (consuming fewer calories than your body needs). “Those in the sports world will typically consume fewer calories than they need to maintain their weight,” says Baseley, “in addition to a high-protein diet, potentially up to 2 g of protein per pound of body weight per day.” Combined with increased physical activity, this causes the body to lose fat while retaining lean tissue.
It’s a tricky balancing act and one that needs to be approached with care. “Health should be considered at all times,” Baseley says. “A varied and balanced diet should be consumed to ensure that nutritional deficiencies are not created by this approach,” she says.
Given the extreme measures required to get a six-pack, it’s worth taking the time to consider first if it’s the right approach for you. “A body fat-reducing diet can be very strict,” says Baseley, “especially a diet that aims to be extremely low in body fat. Not only does this endanger physical health, it’s socially isolating and uninspired, and can affect mental health and negatively affect body image.”
Train the abs
Some of the best exercises for developing core strength and six-pack abs aren’t the ones that come to mind per se. “Doing some sit-ups and crunches will definitely only tire the rectus abdominis,” says Ryan McLean, a personal trainer and fitness coach who specializes in strength and conditioning. “To develop the muscles to their full potential, I would recommend working on major compound lifts such as the deadlift, back squat, overhead press, sled pushes, pull-ups, the clean, the snatch.
“All of these compound exercises are full-body moves that require your core to be engaged to perform them properly. Most of my clients are shocked when I tell them not to do those 5-10 minutes of abs 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 exercise and recovery.
What are the best exercises for six packs?
The best exercises to get a six pack are also helpful for all of us in improving the strength of our core, a fundamental element of any fitness journey. For more tips, read our section on ‘how to get a stronger core’ (opens in new tab).’
Your core muscles (opens in new tab) act as the foundation of your body, providing mobility, strength and balance while supporting good posture. Planks, rock climbers, crunches, reverse crunches, Russian twists, dead bugs, and leg raises are all solid ways to develop your core, although they aren’t as efficient as larger compound exercises that work a lot of muscles yet provide similar benefits to the core.
Consider other options: “Pilates classes are ideal because they target not only the rectus abdominis, but also the surrounding abs and glutes, which are all part of the core. It’s not as simple as just doing some crunches,” says baseley.
As with any part of the body, focusing too much on those ‘mirror muscles’ will create weaknesses elsewhere, meaning a balanced approach is key. “Speak to a qualified expert for advice on a balanced abdominal program,” Baseley says.
How long does it take to get a six pack?
When it comes to losing body fat, it is advisable to go slow. Not only is it generally considered safer to lose weight at a slow pace, it’s also a more sustainable approach and studies — such as this one published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism (opens in new tab) — suggesting it’s the most effective way to preserve that all-important lean tissue that will build your abs.
When to expect those abs for the first time on parade, the answer will depend on a number of factors, including your body composition, exercise regimen, and nutritional intake. “Getting a six pack will take as long as it takes to lose body fat around the abdominal area healthily and this will depend on how much body fat you need to start with,” says Baseley.
Baseley says the route to gaining abs is far more important than the destination, stating that you should never “aim to lose more than a pound a week.” She 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,” she says.
Since regular food and weight monitoring is considered important for weight loss success, it’s easy to see how striving for a six-pack can become a goal that disrupts other areas of your life.
“Is it worth sacrificing your physical and mental health for an aesthetic most people will never see?” asks Basely. Perhaps the answer is the best starting point if you’re considering looking for a six-pack.