The Science Based Six Pack

Six packs are highly sought after. For many of us, having washboard abs are the holy grail of what it is to be ‘in-shape’ and to look aesthetically pleasing: to many, they are the physical manifestation of athleticism.

However, there is a lot of misleading information in the world about how to go about getting six pack abs, fed by and leading to a lot of misconceptions in the public imagination.

In conjunction with a legitimate, very useful supplement industry, there is also a side line in unscrupulous companies selling snake oil products labelled as ‘weight loss miracle cures,’ which they guarantee will give you a six pack. They will not: there is no such thing as a miracle weight loss cure, and there are no products that will ‘give’ you a six pack.

Some sites and trainers advocate certain foods and drinks as being certain to reveal your abs, whilst claiming that others are the reason you can’t get rid of your stubborn belly fat. Of course, this is largely untrue, and entirely unactionable.

It is a popular belief that you can spot-target fat loss by performing certain exercises, and that muscles can somehow be ‘toned’ into looking better. You absolutely cannot (see below): the only way to lose fat from your tummy is to lose it from everywhere, and no one type of exercise will manage this.

All of these are fallacies perpetuated by people wanting to sell quick fixes, often eagerly bought by people wanting to believe in quick fixes.

Well, unfortunately, there is no such thing as a quick fix in the fitness world. There is hard work, dedication, and science.

Today, we’ll run through the science part, showing you everything you need to know to actually make your abdominal muscles grow more visible (hint: there will be hard work and dedication involved, too.)

To get a six pack, you need both to have defined abdominal muscles and to have no excess belly fat. Ab training itself has been scientifically proven not to reduce belly fat. As mentioned above, there is no single exercise or product that can strip off belly fat. Whether you carry weight around your middle will be broadly determined by two main things:

  1. Your bodyfat percentage: the amount of total bodyfat you are carrying will determine how visible your abs are. Typically, men will need to be between 6-9% bodyfat to get a six pack, whilst women will have to be between 16-19%.
  2. Your genetics: different people carry their weight in different places. Two people may have the same bodyfat percentage. However, whilst one may carry their fat on their thighs, and have decently visible abs, the other might carry it on their belly, meaning their abs are more covered.

This means that no amount of core exercises will get you that washboard stomach. So, what should you do to get a six pack; what does the science say? Quite simply, the only way to do it is to keep your bodyfat percentage down.

Any six pack will be achieved with a double pronged assault, therefore. First and foremost, you’re going to sort out your nutrition so that you can get to the desired bodyfat percentage for your six pack to show. Simultaneously, though less vitally, you’re going to build your core up to give yourself the musculature that you want to reveal when your bodyfat is down to where it needs to be.

Fix Your Diet for Fat Loss

This is the most important step and will make or break your six pack goals. Every gym in the world is full of people with incredibly strong cores who don’t have six packs. Do you think Brian Shaw is lacking in core strength? He has won the title of World’s Strongest Man multiple times, so he obviously isn’t. However, as a strongman, he keeps his bodyfat percentage too high for a washboard waist: his strong abs are too well covered in layers of fat.

You can’t afford to do this if you want your six pack to show.

In order to lose weight and bring yourself down to the required bodyfat percentage (6-9% for men, 16-19% for women, as above), you will need to run a caloric deficit. In simple terms, this means eating less: you will want to deduct 500 calories per day from your maintenance calories in order to lose 0.5kg/1lb per week.

Exercise can also play a part. Explosive, high intensity interval training (HIIT) and lower intensive, steady state cardio can help you to burn calories. However, it’s much less efficient than simply eating less. We would suggest burning off around 200 calories per day doing extra cardio and eating to a 300 calorie deficit as a nice mid-point between the two.

You will also want to keep your protein levels high. If you want strong, solid abs that show through when you’ve finally shifted all that weight, you need to build muscle around your core. This can only be done with sufficient protein intake. So, keep your protein high, fats moderate, and take your calorie deficit from carbs.

Exercise to Reduce Belly Fat and Build your Core

As fat cannot be spot targeted, if you want exercises that will reduce your belly fat then you will need to go for exercises that will reduce your total body fat in conjunction with your diet, as mentioned above. Body fat percentages will need to be lower in those who naturally carry weight around their middles, but anybody looking to get a six pack will need to keep it down.

Go for high-intensity workout routines (think HIIT, aerobics, sprint training, Crossfit, etc.) and resistance programs that will be sure to elevate your heart rate whilst building muscle.

Training for a Six Pack

To build, reveal and maintain a six pack, you will need some form of resistance training. This could be weight lifting, calisthenics, yoga, swimming… anything during which you place your body under load, leading to hypertrophy.

This is always good to do when you go through a caloric deficit as it will stop you from suffering too much by way of atrophy (loss of muscle mass) as you burn through your excess fat.

It will also mean that when the fat does come off, you’ll have something to reveal. Whilst diet is key in making your six pack, you will obviously need some nicely developed core muscles to show off.

To this end, calorie deficits combined with resistance training programs give you the best change with regards muscle gain and fat loss: this will be the way to get your toned looking midriff. For a full range of good quality core training options, feel free to check out our other articles on the subject of ab exercises, or see below for more advice.

The Myth of Toning…

We all hear it:

I want to look toned; he/she always looks so toned; how do I tone my abs…?

You want your abs to look nice and toned, ready for the beach.

Unfortunately, the idea of muscles being ‘toned’ is a complete myth. You cannot ‘tone’ muscles, and there is no biological process that makes them ‘toned.’ They will only ever look more or less ‘toned,’ and this is due to several factors.

They will look fuller and harder after exercise due to vascularity: they will have more blood pumped into them than usual. This disappears shortly after the end of training. They can look bigger and fuller, but this is due to hypertrophy, not ‘toning.’ Build big muscles and you will look like you have big muscles- it’s that simple. Finally, muscles can look striated and ‘toned’: this is due to low bodyfat, meaning that the muscle fibre itself is more visible through the subcutaneous fat (and lack thereof) of your skin.

You cannot ‘tone’ your muscles as its own thing. You can only grow them and decrease your bodyfat percentage so that they are more visible. For the toned midriff that exemplifies the six pack, you will need to follow the above advice: a caloric deficit to lose weight combined with hard core resistance training to build muscle will be the only way to achieve what you’re looking for.

The Science Behind your Six Pack Ab Training

Even with diet making the vast majority of your six pack gains, you will still want to incorporate regular, direct core work into your routine. Firstly, this is always a good idea regardless of aesthetics: a strong, healthy core will have a great deal of athletic carry over and will give you good posture in the long run.

Secondly, and aesthetically speaking, we can look to what we’ve already learned: if you want good musculature to show off once your bodyfat is down to the appropriate amount, you will need to build it up.

Direct training will be necessary, as most compound movements don’t target them enough. You aren’t just looking at your abs, either: the core is made of internal and external abdominal muscle walls (transverse abdominus and rectus abdominus, respectively) as well as internal and external oblique walls (at your sides.)

Therefore, you will want to include as many variations of direct abdominal and oblique exercises as you can in order to maximise hypertrophy across the midriff and give yourself a well-rounded, universally muscular core.

Common Exercises for the Abs Include:

Planks (transverse abdominus)

Renegade rows (transverse abdominus and obliques)

V-ups (rectus abdominus)

Crunches (rectus abdominus)

Sit ups (rectus abdominus)

Leg raises (rectus abdominus)

Common Exercises for the Obliques Include:

Single arm farmer’s carry (both)

Cable twists (both)

Leg raises with a twist (both)

Crunches with a twist (external obliques)

Sit ups with a twist (external obliques)

You will want to train your core 2-4 times per week with a mixture of bodyweight and weighted exercises (try holding a dumbbell for your crunches or wearing ankle weights for leg raises to increase resistance.) 3-6 sets of 12 each session for every muscle group should be enough to be getting on with. It’s best to throw core training in at the end of your workout, otherwise your fatigued core will interfere with the performance of all your other exercises.

Your Six Pack Timeline

When you get to see your abs is dependent on your bodyfat percentage, so the amount of time it will take to get a six pack will vary person to person. If you have several kilograms or a couple of stone to lose, it will take some time. If you only have a couple of kilos, or a few pounds, to go, then you will get your six pack quite quickly.

Basically, as you get down to the low teens in terms of bodyfat percentage for men (10-14%) or around the high-teens for women (16-20%), you will start to see some definition. Lose a few more percentage points and you will achieve the really ripped look that many people are after.

It may sound like a long journey: indeed, it may be a long journey if you have a lot of weight to lose and have done limited core training before. However, it’s a simple enough process and should be easy enough to do.

Eat a little less (maintaining that daily deficit of 500 calories or so) and train a little more (3-6 sets 2-4 days per week) and it should just be a waiting game: using the actual science behind how six packs are built, you will get the six pack abs that you have always been after.

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James Dixon

James Dixon is a fully qualified personal trainer and award winning writer, with a decade’s worth of experience under his belt. Throughout his career, he has helped hundreds of people to meet their dietary and fitness goals, writing exercise and nutrition plans to suit any and every requirement.

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