body composition, Fitness & Exercise, Health, nutrition, Uncategorized, Weight Loss

How to get a six-pack – the truth about ‘stubborn’ body fat

Muscular body

Six-packs are sexy, right? I mean, everyone wants to look good naked, to be proud of their body, to be confident enough to take their shirt off in the summer like the diet coke guy, right? Of-course we do! I don’t usually concentrate too much on the aesthetic side of fitness, there’s enough gym mirror bum selfies on Instagram to keep this solar system in self-image reinforcement for millennia. But, the fact that I am a fitness and nutrition coach seems to provoke people to ask questions along the lines of “if I eat more salads will I get a six-pack?” Or “if I avoid potatoes will I get a six-pack?” It’s a little tiresome to be honest because when people ask these questions they rarely take onboard my advice and, in a lot of cases, don’t even want an answer because they don’t really care enough about themselves to do anything about it anyway. If they did, they’d pay me for that info and then take action.

First off, let me say that some of what I’m about to discuss you’re not going to want to hear, it will challenge your beliefs and your currently held values. Whereas there is nothing wrong with wanting to look fit and healthy, if you don’t currently have a healthy relationship with food, or with yourself this can lead you down a dark path. Many people who look healthy on the outside aren’t so healthy in their head. Research in Norway has shown that 22% of male and 52% of female fitness instructors have displayed disordered eating patterns (1). While we have seen a rise in a condition known as muscle dysmorphia, or ‘bigorexia’ (2) which is basically when a muscular person looks in the mirror and sees a skinny person. So, be honest with yourself, how important is it to have a six-pack and how will this benefit you, if at all? But, there are more than two options to aspire to. Think of it as a scale and if you go too far to one end the scale will tip. Of course, being overweight and carrying too much fat around the abdomen is unhealthy.

But, with all that said I thought I would write this blog so that you know exactly what you need to do to get a six-pack and then you can stop pestering me down the pub. Warning, you’re only going to get truths and facts from me so if you are expecting some magic solution jog on over to Gwyneth Paltrow’s guide to developing eating disorders “Goop” (that’s the dumbest name for a website ever).

You’re fat

Any coach will tell you that one of the most common complaints from prospective clients is that they have ‘stubborn belly fat’. The main reason a person won’t have a visible six-pack is because they have too much fatty tissue around their abdomen to make their abs visible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are overweight, it just means that you aren’t lean enough to have the level of muscular definition you need. But, there is such a thing as having too much belly fat from a health standpoint.

The NHS are quite clear on the importance of waist circumference in relation to the potential for developing heart disease (12) here are the numbers to avoid:

“Regardless of your height or BMI, you should try to lose weight if your waist is:

  • 94cm (37ins) or more for men
  • 80cm (31.5ins) or more for women

You are at very high risk and you should contact your GP if your waist is:

  • 102cm (40ins) or more for men
  • 88cm (34ins) or more for women”

There are two kinds of body fat; subcutaneous (beneath the skin) and visceral (intra-abdominal). About 10% of the fat in your body is visceral and the higher this number the higher the risk of developing chronic illness (3,4), including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • dementia
  • breast cancer
  • colorectal cancer

Each additional 2 inches of waist circumference could increase your risk of heart attack by as much as 10%. So, let’s forget about the aesthetics for a moment and concentrate on health, being fat WILL shorten your life.

But, let’s go back to the point about stubborn belly fat.

body fat distribution

As you can see, we can all store the majority of our subcutaneous bodyfat in different parts of the body and, like I said, these are the places that will be hardest to get as lean as you want if you are aiming for the kind of physique that the mainstream fitness industry seems to think is important. If you are unfortunate enough to store lots of fat around your abdomen, this is known as android obesity, or the so-called apple shape and is the shape that carries the highest health risk. Men tend to be this shape, while women tend to be more of a pear shape, with the majority of their body fat being below the waist, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule.

In order to get a visible six-pack, you need to slim down more. The problem here is that the level of leanness required is different for everyone and the first place you store fat will likely be the last place you lose it. If you are that apple shaped dude this is the body shape that unfortunately means you will have to be in a bigger deficit for longer than someone with more evenly distributed body fat before you get to see those elusive abs.  The chances are that you will lose fat from your face, your legs, your chest (possibly bad news for ladies who like being well endowed) your arms and then your belly. Conversely, if you are a number 5 (in the image) then you might find that you can get a six-pack but still have slightly wobbly thighs. Ask yourself how important that really is in the grand scheme of things.

I’m not trying to say that a six-pack is unachievable, it isn’t, but it often requires more work, more consistency and more dedication than most people are prepared for. This is where it becomes necessary to define your goals and your reasons for setting those goals. If you stand to gain a sporting benefit from being super lean, then you have a pretty good incentive. But, if you want a six-pack because you believe that will finally make you approve of yourself you’re wrong. You will still dislike the person in the mirror despite their lean physique.

Take-home; define what having a six-pack will do for you and be realistic about what it will take to achieve this.

Chill out

This is one of those double-edged sword thingies. Being under chronic stress can lead to additional abdominal fat storage, but being obese or, indeed, being significantly underweight, will increase stress (5,6). It has even been noted that test subjects with higher levels of abdominal fat reacted with more anger when placed into a stressful situation. This is because fat is an endocrine organ. Basically, being round is more likely to make you less resilient to the effects of stressful situations and make you a grumpy bastard. However, it could be the fact that you are a grumpy bastard that you have a pot belly in the first place (the double-edged sword). But all this doesn’t mean that you should eat and train to affect your hormones. Just eat a more balanced diet with less processed foods, start being nicer to yourself and learn to manage or remove any unnecessary stress inducers and the hormones will sort themselves out.

What are the things that contribute to stress? There’s loads, like constantly worrying about West Ham’s struggles to stay above the relegation zone, or why the neighbours have a new car and you don’t. Basically, stress (in the emotional sense) isn’t something that happens to you, it’s the way you think about things that happen. In other words, you’re over thinking things, living in the past and need to chill the f*** out. But, one thing that can massively increase the production of stress hormones like cortisol is sleep disruption (7). Short sleepers have been shown to be more at risk of obesity (8). Ideally, you will get between 6-9 hours of sleep per night, with 7-8 being optimal for most people. A loss of just one-hour sleep per night can significantly increase production of stress hormones, reduce metabolism (by causing a reduction in activity) and decrease glucose tolerance. It also lowers testosterone production in men meaning that you store more fat and build less muscle. I know that if I get less than 6 hours sleep in a night all I want to do the next day is sit on my arse eating flapjacks.

The take home from this is; be nice to yourself because no one is going to do it for you and if you can get to bed an hour earlier at night, it will put years on your life and take centimetres off your waist.

Abs are made in the kitchen

This is true to an extent, in the case of a visible six-pack. As I have already mentioned,  requires low body fat so how do you achieve this? You have to be in an energy deficit and that means controlling what goes in your mouth. No, it’s not carbs, it’s not fat and it’s not too much cardio – if this were true then Chris Froome would be one fat bastard but he looks like a walking (riding) skeleton – no, It’s Calories… Yep, those little twats who sneak up when you aren’t looking and sew the waist band on your jeans tighter.

Reality check; even healthy foods have Calories!

Energy balance is measured over the 24-hour period, not one meal or one workout to the next. In order to lose body fat, you have to be in a hypo-caloric state and you have to achieve this consistently. So long as you are in a deficit foe the week you will be fine, so you can go high on one or two days and lower on the other days. You should also aim to be in a smaller more manageable deficit. Crash diets rarely lead to lasting results.  To save space here just watch this video, it explains everything you need to know about energy balance.

Take home; create an energy deficit, by consistently following a portion-controlled diet. Hint, crash diets never work long term.

Abs are built in the gym

This is also true. Your rectus abdominis is a sheath of muscle and, like any muscle, for it to look ‘good’ is has to be big. Therefore, if you want to make your abs ‘pop’ you have to build them up with some strength exercises. No, doing sit-ups or crunches, or any other ‘core’ exercise isn’t going to help you to lose belly fat (9). But ultimately, if you want to build muscle you have to do resistance training, ideally a minimum of 40 reps per muscle group per session, a minimum of twice per week (10). Aim for full body strength, using compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and bench press. This depends on your training ‘age’ but any level of overload will produce adaptation. If you want to build your abs to make them look the way you want them to look, ab crunches are the best way to do this (11). I’m personally not a big fan of excessive spinal flexion for most people, because the majority of people have terrible posture and their spine is already flexed, so why encourage more of that? But, if you have a healthy back and are already strong and fit, doing a few sets of weighted cable crunches each week should be enough to sculpt that washboard stomach.

Take home; no need for hours of meaningless cardio, no need to obsess about “burning” fat or burning Calories. Lift weights, get stronger, build muscle and, like with the diet aspect, be consistent.

TL;DNR

Summing it all up, having a six-pack isn’t necessary for health, but having excessive belly fat is deleterious to your health so, you know, don’t be fat. Basically, if you want to get lean enough to potentially have a six-pack that looks awesome on the beach (or in your narcissistic gym mirror selfies) you need to create an energy deficit. Make sure that you have realistic expectations of what this takes because you will likely need to be a lot leaner and diet a lot longer than you initially thought. But, the pay-off might not be worth it, don’t place your attachment to happiness on getting a six-pack because if you don’t already value yourself, having a six-pack isn’t going to make you value yourself more. I’d rather you train for health, performance and enjoyment, eat the right balance of foods to nourish your body and fuel your performance and get a good night’s sleep. Do this and the aesthetics will take care of themselves. But here’s what to do:

  1. Create an energy deficit of between 10-20% of your maintenance Calories (depending on how much fat you have to lose and how quickly you want it)
  2. Be prepared for this to take time, depending on how much fat you have to lose
  3. Manage stress, practice self-compassion (even the blokes) and get to sleep an hour earlier if you aren’t already
  4. Employ the correct training stimulus – a resistance program that focuses on hypertrophy
  5. Don’t starve yourself, track your Calories, consume protein and eat your veggies
  6. Don’t worry about hormones, worry about nutrition, lifestyle and training – the hormones will take care of themselves

Now ask yourself if it’s really worth the hassle. You might find that sporting performance is more important to you and, if you are in an energy deficit your performance will likely drop. Maybe you want to be stronger and realise that constantly trying to get super lean is just making you miserable.

If you still want to do this then do it right, there are no magic pills and no quick fixes. Eat right, train hard and if you don’t know how to do that, we have you covered, join Fat loss For Life the program I help Ben Coomber run (CLICK HERE). Or contact me direct for 1:1 coaching either in person or online.

Female Beach Booty Program ==>CLICK HERE

6-week kettlebell challenge ==>CLICK HERE

 

References:

  1. Bratland-Sanda S, Nilsson MP, Sundgot-Borgen J. Disordered eating behavior among group fitness instructors: a health-threatening secret? Journal of Eating Disorders. 2015;3:22. doi:10.1186/s40337-015-0059-x.
  2. Leone JE, Sedory EJ, Gray KA. Recognition and Treatment of Muscle Dysmorphia and Related Body Image Disorders. Journal of Athletic Training. 2005;40(4):352-359.
  3. Publishing, H. (2017). Taking aim at belly fat – Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
  4. Jensen MD. Role of Body Fat Distribution and the Metabolic Complications of Obesity. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2008;93(11 Suppl 1):S57-S63. doi:10.1210/jc.2008-1585.
  5. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat.Epel ES, McEwen B, Seeman T, Matthews K, Castellazzo G, Brownell KD, Bell J, Ickovics JR.Psychosom Med. 2000 Sep-Oct; 62(5):623-32.
  6. Vispute, S., Smith, J., LeCheminant, J. and Hurley, K. (2011). The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(9), pp.2559-2564.
  7. Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Science. 2015;8(3):143-152. doi:10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002.
  8. St-Onge M-P, Shechter A. Sleep disturbances, body fat distribution, food intake and/or energy expenditure: pathophysiological aspects. Hormone molecular biology and clinical investigation. 2014;17(1):29-37. doi:10.1515/hmbci-2013-0066.
  9. Vispute, S., Smith, J., LeCheminant, J. and Hurley, K. (2011). The Effect of Abdominal Exercise on Abdominal Fat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(9), pp.2559-2564.
  10. Schoenfeld, BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 24(10): 2857–2872, 2010—
  11. Contreras, B. and Schoenfeld, B. (2011). To Crunch or Not to Crunch: An Evidence-Based Examination of Spinal Flexion Exercises, Their Potential Risks, and Their Applicability to Program Design. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33(4), pp.8-18.
  12. uk. (2018). Why is my waist size important? – NHS.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/why-is-my-waist-size-important/ [Accessed 24 Jul. 2018].

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