Having a 6-pack/abs/washboard stomach/chiselled abs is still the holy-grail for many people sweating it out in gyms across the world. So how does one obtain a 6-pack? And how does one keep it for more than a few fleeting days during the summer?!
For guys, visible abs tend to appear at around 12% body fat. For females, approximately 18% body fat (these are very rough guides and can vary from person to person). Knowing your current body fat percentage will give you a good indication of where you are in relation to these figures. This should provide you with a better idea of how long it might take you to achieve a 6 pack.
The muscles that make up the '6-pack' are known as the 'Rectus Abdominis'. These paired muscles are separated by band of connective tissue known as the line alba.
So you want to achieve a lean mid-section replete with abs? The read on and stick to the rules!
Rule 1. Abs Are Not Made in the Kitchen... But nutrition is your number 1 priority for a leaner mid-section:
Honestly, I've never come across this mythical kitchen where abs are made! If there is such a place I would prepare all my food there.
Apologies, I'm being facetious. The meaning behind this saying is that nutrition is the key determinant to fat loss, which, in turn, is the key determinant to ripped abs.
More specifically, being in a consistent energy deficit is the key determinant of fat loss.
Which is not to say exercise, stress management, sleep and food quality aren't important. They are. However, if you want a 6 pack there is no getting around the fact that you will need to get lean. Very lean. And maintaining a consistent calorie deficit (burning more calories than you are consuming) is the key component in achieving this.
For more on nutritional priorities for fat loss, read on here.
Rule 2. Abdominal Exercises aren't pointless, but their impact will be extremely limited:
This isn't going to a rant about abdominal exercises. There are a lot of great exercises out there, namely hanging leg raises, garhammer raises, pallof press variations, and plank variations. However, when it comes to achieving a 6 pack, focus on a good quality resistance training program with a focus on compound lifts such as Squats, Deadlifts, Overhead presses, Bench Presses, Pull-Ups etc. These exercises will provide plenty of work for your abs whilst ensuring you build strength and lean muscle throughout the whole body. Oh, and ensure you are in a calorie deficit (see above).
Rule 3. Patience is key... Depending on your starting body fat, the road to achieving a 6 pack could be a very long one (fraught with many obstacles to boot!):
Here is a quick guide to what you can expect your rate of fat loss to be at differing body fat percentages: -
Obese (25%+ Male/35%+ Female): 0.9-1.4kg per week
Moderately Overweight (19-24% Male/28-35% Female): 0.7-0.9kg per week
Average (13-18% Male/23-27% Female): 0.5-0.7kg per week
Lean (9-12% Male/17-22% Female): 0.2-0.5kg per week
Very Lean (5-8% Male/12-15% Female): 0.1-0.2kg per week
So, as you can see, rate of progress will slow dramatically the leaner you become.
So, if you take the fictitious character Joe Bloggs, who is currently 90kg and 24% body fat. His goal is to achieve visible abs, which let's say hypothetically will be achieved at 11% body fat.
So Joe's total body fat at the start will be: -
90 x 0.24 = 21.6kg
At 11%, his total body fat will be (approximately):
80 x 0.11 = 8.8kg
The above is under the assumption Joe loses scale weight in the process (which is highly likely given how unlikely it would be to gain muscle at the same rate).
Therefore Joe's fat to lose is: -
21-.6 - 8.8 = 12.8kg
Given that Joe will move from 'Moderately Overweight' to 'Average' to 'Lean' then we can average his weekly fat loss at 0.5kg per week. This means to achieve 12.8kg of fat loss, it will take 25.6 weeks (or the better part of 6 months).
All of the above assumes that Joe is training regularly and sticking to his diet 100% of the time. It also assumes he is adjusting his calorie intake as his weight drops to compensate for decreasing BMR.
So, as you can see, even with perfect conditions, it will take a minimum of 6 months for someone with roughly 20% body fat to achieve visible abs.
This goes to illustrate how longer-term thinking is essential. Unless you are already very lean, think in terms of months rather than weeks.
Rule 4. Maintaining abs is all about living a 'Lean Lifestyle'....
So what the hell does that even mean? Well, my argument here is that to maintain a lean physique for more than just a few weeks, you have to make fitness a lifestyle. How cliched, I know. But the truth is you will need to make training and eating to caloric and macronutrient needs a habit that you consistently abide to.
Wait, does that mean I have to train every day and eat nothing but chicken and broccoli 6 times a day? If so, then maybe I'll have to re-think this whole 6-pack business!
No, you won't have to train every day. You also won't have to be anywhere near that restrictive with your food. However, you certainly will need to be training consistently, preferably with a well put together training plan that provides progressive overload over time. You will also have to be restrictive to a degree with what and how much you eat.
Here are some things you will have to consider: -
- Tracking calories and macros (at least some of the time)
- Prioritising whole, unprocessed foods at least 80-90% of the time
- Severely limiting alcohol intake
- Training at least 4 times per week
- Getting good quality and quantity sleep (aiming for 8 hours minimum per night)
If maintaining a 6 pack were easy then everyone would have one. The fact is, there is always a trade off. However, once you have reached your desired level of body fat, maintaining it requires less effort than it takes to get there in the first place.
As a general recommendation, guys would be best avoiding going any lower than 8% for any extended period of time (14% for females).