As a society we are fixated on the ability to see someone’s abs! Why? Naturally we have to assume that for one's abdominal muscles to be visible it means they are mobile, healthy and strong. This isn’t true 100% of the time, but that seems to be a general commonality. Why does it seem to be such an evasive accomplishment to many? Is it truly healthy? Is it sustainable all year round? Is it more about your exercise or your nutrition? Let’s talk about this “unicorn” in the room, shall we?
Rectus abdominis, yes that’s what your abs are called. There are other muscles that surround them however that’s what everyone is often talking about. The primary trait for these muscles are to stabilize the spine, which means to keep it safe and avoid unwanted movement in either flexion or extension. We tend to think of the abs as something that makes us “sit up”, which is true, but that is far from their primary purpose. As the abdominals tighten then not only stabilize our spine but protect our internal organs from blunt force trauma. Think about getting punched or kicked in the stomach, as you brace the muscles tighten and the harder they can contract the more protection they offer. With this in mind we can assume why having a visible six or eight pack maybe be attractive from a “natural selection” standpoint. If you can see those muscles you are operating at a lower body fat level than someone else whose abs you can’t see and if accompanied by a thick trunk then you know there is strength there needed to protect oneself and potentially others (assuming physical capacity).
Abs are healthy because we all have them. Should we all be able to see eachother's abs all the time? Likely no. There are arguments you’ll hear from both sides of the fence but the truth is that each of us are very different genetically and this dictates how and where we carry stored body fat. Some people carry much of their fat around their hips and legs (more females) and some carry their fat around your stomach or obliques (more men). While you can categorize this generally by sex, it’s not a clear correlation as there are plenty of men storing fat in their hips and legs and plenty of women storing fat in their mid region and of course some of us store them balanced in both areas. To say that having “visible abs” is bad is wrong and to say that it is good is also wrong. This is true because “how” you get your abs to be visible and the overall state of your general health is what allows us to know if it’s good or bad not the abs themselves.
Can you exercise your way to having visible abs? Maybe. But the real secret is in your nutrition. If you are eating a well balanced macronutrient diet that is low processed food and includes no sugar then you will be on your way to having visible abs one day. There is no telling how long it will take simply because I don’t know what you’ve been up to for the past 5-10 years but you’ll get there. If you are specifically weighing and measuring your food with precision and accuracy you’ll get there faster. With that said, if you never pay attention to what you eat and just workout all the time, constantly and even at high intensity, abs may evade you.
I spent years as a high school and collegiate athlete working out for hours every day and yet no visible abs. I had a relatively flat stomach, and you may see a protruding ab here or there but never a six or eight pack. It wasn’t because of a lack of ab exercises or exercises in general, I got plenty of those. The reason I didn’t have visible abs was because of the volume of processed foods (pasta, chips, pretzels, crackers, cereal, bread, wraps, etc.) and added sugar in my diet. After discovering a smarter way to fuel my body everything changed. I started eating meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar for 90% of my meals and 10% I’d let myself indulge a bit in treats. I have eaten this way for the past 9 years of my life and for periods of time throughout I was also meticulously weighing and measuring all my food as well, being even more specific in my amount of protein, carbs and fats I was taking in. My training hasn’t changed much throughout the time but my body fat, overall leanness and ability to see my abs has fluctuated all dependent upon my fueling. In case you haven’t heard this before, “Six packs are made in the kitchen”, there you go. And if you're curious, I believe it.
It is 100% healthy for some people to walk around with visible abs all the time. Again, as long as they are eating well and taking care of themselves in a healthy way. But this won’t be the case for all of us. Some men and women will notice that they have to be in such a caloric deficit to make the abs visible that it’s simply not sustainable for them. How do we know? Well it’s simply about looking at other factors in life. Are you constantly low on energy? If you are a woman have you lost the ability to have your monthly cycle? Does it create more stress and mood swings (not counting the first two weeks of a new diet of course, that’s normal!)? And are you losing the ability to perform well in the gym? This means can you still run, jump, lift the way you want to. Sometimes being too lean will negate the ability to continue to build capacity, and overall that is not a good thing. We must be able to build strength and endurance in the gym and also properly recover from it, without proper amounts of body fat we can’t do that.
Hormones are strong at work here. Folks that have high insulin levels and high cortisol levels are far less likely to have the abs that can be seen. High insulin levels are likely due to over consumption of sugar and highly processed foods. You can balance this out by consuming more skeletal meat and protein in general even if it’s through shakes. Aim to consume more protein and it will allow you to make less “bad” decisions to consume the sweeter foods that often spike those insulin levels. Cortisol is a hormone often produced in response to stress. This can come in forms of bad or lack of sleep and also just normal anxiety and stress that can increase hunger (specifically of less favorable foods for our health), and increased stored body fat around the midsection. We can combat this with more sleep and more relaxation and mindfulness practices.
So, are abs cool? Yes they are. But seeing them doesn’t mean you are healthy, and if you can’t see them certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t healthy. It seems that they will always be a popular marker of one's physical fitness in the gym, but I challenge you to think otherwise. Continue to use your performance as your true marker, not focused on what your body looks like but what it can do! In order to be healthy let’s stay focused on eating real food in amounts that supply us with the ability to recover from our training. Be sure to get in plenty of protein each day. Let’s be sure to get 8-10 hours of sleep as often and regularly (can’t say regularly enough, consistency seems to show that’s what’s most important). Practice mindfulness of some sort through prayer, mediation, breathing and stretching. And keep your movements in the gym focused around “total body”, using arms and legs for the majority of your work together and not separate. This is the key to using your abs for their primary responsibility of stabilizing the spine and not just crunches, sit ups, and twisting movements.
Keep your eyes posted for “The Secret to great abs 2” where I’ll go through some of my “go to“ training approaches to developing a potential 6 pack but most importantly a strong core.