'Six-Pack' Abs

by Max Wettstein, copyright 2005

         So, you want to know the secret to getting a ‘6-pack’ set of abs??   Let’s set the record straight first and foremost, and get the bad news out of the way: There is NO secret to quickly obtaining a well-defined, flat, toned, chiseled, washboard-like, mid-section!  (The only quick-fix exception being cosmetic surgery through liposuction or silicon implants.)  What you desire to show off during your next vacation to the beach is only achieved through a combination of genetics, exercise, and nutrition.  All of those infomercials have been misleading you! (Sorry to shock you with that last statement.)  Many of us can’t seem to see our abdominal muscles no matter how hard we flex in front of the mirror, or how many crunches we do.  In fact, our ‘6-pack’ looks more like a ‘keg’!  But don’t despair…now finally for some good news: The truth is that we all have a six-pack set of abs waiting to be revealed.  What’s more, it can potentially be an ‘8-pack’ if you are willing to put in the extra effort.  The hidden, rock-hard set of abs that you seek out are more or less, simply covered up by a layer of body-fat, also known as the subcutaneous adipose layer, located between the muscles and the skin.  All you have to do is melt off this layer of fat by creating a calorie deficit each day through diet and exercise.  Easier said than done, I know, especially since it is not possible to spot-reduce fat.  Exercise targeting the abdomen will strengthen, flatten, and firm your mid-section, but will not directly burn-off belly fat.  Indirectly the calories burned during exercise will help you achieve the calorie deficit needed to lose the fat.

To reveal the abs, we are in fact mostly concerned with the subcutaneous fat layer located between the skin and the overlying muscles, as we said.  But a bulging belly is more likely a result of internal/visceral fat, UNDERlying the ab muscles, stored in an organ called the Omentum which is mostly connective tissue that drapes off our stomachs.  And it is this internal/Omentum fat that is responsible for major health issues such as type-2 Diabetes, chronic inflammation, and stressing our livers.  Omentum fat also has a direct relationship to stress levels and Cortisol.  For much more on reducing belly size and internal, visceral, Omentum fat, please go to my other article on 'Belly Fat'.

         Let’s not forget the bigger picture: Developing and revealing your abs is really just one of the many secondary perks of attaining all-around health and fitness.  For the most part, seeing that someone has well-defined abdominal musculature is a good indicator of that person’s overall health and fitness level.  A well-developed abdomen also translates to a strong core and center of motion.  That being said, by no means should you believe that unless you can see defined abs in the mirror, you are not fit or healthy.  This is because to actually be able to see abdominal muscle definition, you have to reduce your body fat levels to a moderately low level, approximately to about 8% or lower.  Remember, you can’t simply spot-reduce the fat around your mid-section, (Likewise you can not spot-gain fat either).  You have to reduce your overall body fat percentage.  Achieving body fat levels under about 12% for men and under 20% for women, in reality tends be more about vanity and less about health.  This is not to say that reducing your body fat levels this low is unhealthy by any standard.  You would have to approach levels lower than 4% before you need to be concerned with any negative health consequences.

     It will help to discuss some basic anatomy of our midsection, because when we talk abs we typically are concerned with our entire mid-section being flat, toned and nicely sculpted.  A nice looking midsection requires defining and toning all of the mid-section anatomy and includes the abdominals, framed by internal and external Obliques, and even the Hip flexors.  Briefly: The abdominals include both the Transversus and Rectus groups.  The Transversus group is the deepest and its corset-like action provides stability and control for the spine, (core strength).  You can exercise it by pulling your navel to your spine, and it is the Transversus that gives you a flat ‘stomach’.  The Rectus group is the ‘star’ of the team, (at least when it comes to having the 6-pack), and its function is spinal flexion, which means bending forward at the waist.  Every type of crunch and sit-up exercise contracts the Rectus abdominis group.  The Obliques are located on the sides of our torso and they run diagonally in opposite directions.  They are used for twisting and rotation, and for lateral flexion, or bending sideways.  Unfortunately a well developed set of external Obliques can be mislabeled as ‘love handles’.  Incidentally, Oblique development can’t be properly appreciated if you wear your shorts up high around your navel!  The Hip flexors are located on the front of the pelvis and serve as the conduit between your torso and legs.  They form your ‘hips’ and waistline.  The Hip flexors are used to raise your legs to your mid section, along with your abdominals.

     We’ve just briefly discussed that the muscles comprising the frontal mid-section are responsible for bending, twisting, core strength and stabilization, along with the spinal erectors, gluteals, and hamstring muscle groups.  Clearly, if we want to maintain good posture, avoid low back pain, and enjoy physical activities, then we need to exercise our abdomen.  A six-pack can be useful for a lot more than just looking great at the beach!

       That should be our primary goal then: Core strengthening and overall fitness, (See Chart), rather than prioritizing looking good in the mirror.  By focusing on complete body strength and conditioning, your six-pack set of abs will gradually develop and define.  Consider any sport or major exercise movement.  More often than not you must first center your energy and channel it from your core prior to beginning the movement.  Your center of gravity, balance, and energy are all located in your midsection.  Some cultures call this ‘Chi’.  A strong core enhances every movement.  Exercises for your abdominal region can include all major muscle group movements as well as abs-specific movements.  For targeting your abdomen specifically, try any form of a crunch, sit-up, or hanging knee-raises.  Trust me on this one: Developing your abs requires no special or unique exercise or machine.  Your basic crunch or sit-up will do the job!  (Again all those infomercials have been misleading you.)  Vary your crunch/knee-raise/sit-up in a diagonal direction and you will target your Obliques.  Also, isometric contraction, meaning simply flexing and holding the contraction, followed by sucking in your stomach as far as you can and holding it, works very well for conditioning and flattening.  The isometric contraction can be done anywhere – at work, while driving, as well as during the rest of your exercise routine.  The more you flex and hold your abs in a tightened state the more routine it becomes, eventually becoming almost subconscious.  Tremendous amounts of force can be generated thru isometric flexion - more so than by lifting weights even!

       As it is with the rest of our physique, genetics play a significant role in our abdominal musculature.  Some of us may have so much fascia and connective tissue encapsulating our abdominal muscles, that no matter how lean we get, they still remain quite obscured.  Still others of us tend to store our fat more so in the subcutaneous layer rather than within the muscle or around our organs, again obscuring the muscle definition.  The specific shape of your muscles is also set genetically, size being the only thing we can alter.  The latest buzz in physiological studies is that one of the stress hormones, Cortisol, causes fat to be stored around the mid-section, in the Omentum organ, possibly because this area of the body has a higher number of Cortisol receptors.  More and more studies are confirming this.  So this may be the only bit of validation behind one of the most commonly heard complaints, “I gain it all right here!”, as we pinch our love-handles or butt.  The simple solution is to find a better way to vent your stress each day, because stress is linked to a myriad of diseases and hypertension – lack of a 6-pack being the least of worries.  Or you can rush out and by a bottle of Cortisol-blockers if you’d rather pop some controversial pills!

        What started out being about pure vanity turns out to be much more.  If you hang around in gyms much, or have ever participated in Martial Arts, then you are already aware of the recent buzz about core strengthening.  ‘Pilates’, a recent trend in exercise, completely focuses on core strengthening.  Likewise with all of those ‘Swiss’ balls you see everyone balancing on while simultaneously performing an exercise.  Whatever your preferred method, exercising your abs and Obliques is simpler than you may think.  In fact, all it takes is a basic crunch.  But if you’re really set on having a ‘six-pack’, you’ll have to get serious about your diet and achieve a calorie deficit to lower your body fat levels.  Good luck, and check out my previously posted ‘Top twelve ways to lose fat’ article for more tips to melt away that layer of fat covering your abs.

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