The famous 6-pack is the ultimate modern symbol of masculinity, health and sexual attraction. Men’s fitness and lifestyle magazines make millions by promising a ripped midsection. Gyms and training supplements are marketed by parading it on their packaging and advertising. And most people associate it with happiness, sex and success. The truth is, you already have a 6-pack. In fact, we all do: a sheet of muscle called the rectus abdominus, running from your pelvis to your ribcage, that is divided into 6 or more smaller portions. On top of this sheet of muscle, and on top of all the muscles of the body, lies a layer of fat – the body’s energy storage facility. Your 6-pack will become visible once your body fat is low enough to see the definition and the separation between each individual section.
The level of body fat needed to see someone’s 6-pack varies greatly from person to person, depending on their body type, shape, and the size of the muscles themselves. While you cannot change your body type, the rectus abdominus muscle can be stimulated to grow. The key to uncovering your abs therefore lies in changing your body’s composition: increasing the size of your muscles (and the abdominal one’s in particular), while decreasing the layer of body fat that lies on top of them. Here's how:
1. Strengthen all layers of abdominal muscles
When it comes to building a 6-pack, your focus should not just solely be on the top, visible layer, but also (and perhaps more importantly) on the deeper, invisible muscles.
The abdominal muscles are made up of four different layers: the rectus abdominus (6-pack muscles), two layers of obliques, and finally, a sheet of muscle called the Transversus Abdominus (or TA.) These four layers, along with a number of muscles in the lower back, pelvis and ribcage, are all part of the “core” muscles, used to stabilize the trunk and protect the organs and spine from injury.
The first step to a flat stomach is to strengthen these deeper muscles. Learn to contract the TA muscle: inhale and push your belly out, then exhale and draw it in towards your spine. Hold the bottom contraction for 10-30s, and repeat for 10 reps. You may need to hold your breath at first, but with practice you will be able to breathe and move around at the same time. Engaging these deeper muscles as often as possible, especially while exercising, will lead to a tighter mid-section, a more stable trunk, and will even help you generate more force and lift heavier weights.
2. Exercise using big, functional movements
When I look back over my years of training, the biggest change to the shape of my own mid-section came when I started adding “big” movements such as squats, pull-ups or deadlifts to my workouts.
The reasoning behind this is simple: when the body is trained as a whole with movements involving both the upper and lower body, then the abdominal muscles, both superficial and deep, will be working hard to stabilize the trunk. Think of it for a second - which exercise requires more core strength: the leg press or the squat?
Favouring free weights instead of machines will ensure you get a good abdominal workout throughout your training session. Take your time to perfect movements such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, overhead presses and press-ups. Brace your abs, engage your TA muscles and visualize keeping your spine elongated by pushing your chest high in order to get maximum benefits out of each repetition.
When it comes to training and fat burn, you must understand some basic principles. Firstly, the higher the intensity of the exercise, the faster your body will use up its reserves of stored carbohydrate (glycogen) and switch to burning fat. For example, running at a steady pace will burn fat after 30-40mins of training, however a series of sprint/jog intervals will burn fat after 15-20mins. And even better, training with weights at a high intensity will burn fat after 5-10mins!
Secondly, the more the body needs to adapt to a workout, the more calories you will burn while recovering. For example, you may still burn calories for an hour following a jog, but you can keep the burn going for 6 hours or more after a higher intensity cardio workout. However (and listen to this!), you will be torching calories for 2-3 days following a weight training session.
So needless to say that weight training should become a big part of your weekly training. Not only will it boost your metabolism, but by adding some muscle to your frame, you will also burn more calories at rest. Indeed, while body fat is dead tissue and does not require any energy, muscle mass does – therefore the more you have, the more calories you burn. Simple math.
Combine high-intensity weight training and high-intensity cardio sessions for the best results. By constantly keeping your metabolism in an elevated stated, you will be burning calories around the clock. Keep your rests as short as possible, and challenge yourself at every session, increasing the weight, speed, or number of sets and reps. By ensuring that each workout is more taxing than the previous, your metabolism will have no choice but to adapt, and will learn to burn fat at a faster rate.
4. Be disciplined in your eating habits
The following figure may come as a surprise to some: depending on your body type, nutrition accounts for 60 to 80% of any bodily change. Yes, that’s right: the most important part of uncovering your 6-pack is keeping your diet under control. A study even showed that with no change to a group’s eating habits, they could not decrease their body fat percentage – even by training 5 times a week!
In order to go back to a more natural, defined physique, my advice is to go back to a more natural way of eating – and eat like a caveman! Only consume foods you would be able to hunt or gather, i.e. meats, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Avoid anything processed or man-made. This includes anything from grain and cereals, such as bread, pasta or rice.
If you are training weights, eat one portion of high-quality protein with every meal. Snack on cooked chicken, nuts and fruit throughout the day. Buy some whey protein shakes, and have them with you for whenever you cannot consume protein from a solid food source. Cut out alcohol and sugar, and drink at least two liters of water a day – mineral if possible.
Plan and prepare your meals in advance, to avoid any surprises. Be organized, and enjoy the cooking process itself as much as the eating part. I spend an hour in the kitchen twice a week, and cook enough to fill plastic containers for the next couple of days. I am more adventurous and enjoy cooking much more when I do not need to repeat the process every single evening. And if you are caught out, you can buy cooked chicken, hummus, nuts and salad from any local store!
5. Mix up your training
Ever wondered why the set of crunches you have been practicing for months has little effect on the feel and look of your midsection? Well, the abdominal muscles are like any other, and will adapt quite fast to any stimulus given to them. In fact, because they are in constant use, their ability to recover is unparalleled. You must therefore stimulate them in a variety of ways for them to grow stronger and bigger.
Include a variety of exercises, movements, speeds and weights in your abs workouts. Find exercises that are challenging and keep working until you feel a good burn in the muscles. Focus on keeping your belly drawn in, on squeezing your abs and on working through the full range of motion. Aim to keep them working for 3 to 5 minutes with as little rest as possible, keeping them under constant tension. Use exercises like hanging leg raises, dumbbell or barbell rollouts, L-sits, and crunches on a Bosu ball. And be sure to include some lower back exercises such as back extensions or supermans to compensate.
Alternate between isometric (static) and dynamic (moving) exercises. Some of the best isometric exercises are stability exercises, in which the limbs may move but the trunk remains stable. A great example of this is the Swiss ball plank: find a plank position with your elbows and fists on top of a Swiss ball, engage your core muscles and glutes, and hold until your lower back starts to engage. If you are steady enough, try rolling the ball in various directions, but keep your trunk stable. However, you can add static contractions to more or less any exercise. Try holding a crunch with your legs up for 1min for example. That is a sure way to get your muscles firing!
As with anything in life, they key to success is consistency and preparation. Plan your weekly sessions in advance, mark the times in your diary, and if you cannot make a session, re-plan it straight away. Talk yourself into training even on the days you don’t feel like it: it is way too easy to only do so when you feel good. In fact, those are the days that count the most and will be key to you achieving your goal. Make a deal with yourself: if after 10-15mins you still feel lethargic, you may go home. And don’t bring yourself down if you don’t give 100% at every workout, the key is to keep at it anyway. Even simply running through the motions has its benefits, and will count towards the end result.
Aim for a good weight-training workout 3-4 times a week, adding 10-15minutes of interval training at the end of each session. Try classes such as circuits, kettlebells, spin or Pilates, to keep you motivated and add some variety. Work your abs most days, mixing up your exercises and challenging yourself every time. Add morning exercise like a light jog to kickstart your metabolism and keep it high for the rest of the day. And keep moving: climb the escalators, use the stairs, and walk when you can!
As you can see, getting a 6-pack may require some effort. No matter what fitness magazines, websites and supplements say, there is no miracle remedy: you will need to make the steps yourself. But that should not discourage you: concentrate on each individual meal, rep, day, or step – and know that you will get there. Focus on your body as a whole instead of thinking of your 6-pack as an individual part of it. Your body is one amazing piece of machinery, so respect it, love it, and train to better it each and everyday. Train for a functional and strong physique, able to move as nature intended. A healthy, confident and natural look is way more attractive than the unnatural, underfed but perfectly defined physique. So don’t stress, enjoy your training, love your body and keep at it. And don’t forget to enjoy your life.