For as long as I can remember, I have wanted “abs.” This was before they were even a common desirable trait. I can remember being no older than ten, sitting with my friend outside and talking about what we wanted our bodies to look like. She told me she wanted a flat stomach: the same way it looked when she lay down (she demonstrated). What did I want? I wanted a six-pack.
As an idealistic beginning teacher at the age of 22 I wished to have an impact on students’ lives, but I also yearned for abs. In my “Dreams and Intentions” journal I wrote, “Have a feminine six-pack.” I had attached dates to all of my goals, but that was one I was afraid to stick a timeline to. Instead, I kept adding things to it: “jacked shoulders,” and I even added, “hair down to the middle of my back.” I visualized this person walking down the hallway of the school I taught at and decided, as I started to understand that my fitness goals did in fact take considerable time, that I would have these traits by the age of 27.
“Do you have abs?” is often the first question asked of you when people notice you are fit, but you still have your t-shirt on. People have put me through this kind of examination, and until I actually achieved visible abs, I felt ashamed when quizzed. If this is you, or if you want to attain this physical characteristic that is the stamp of peak fitness, then first read 6 things I have learned along my journey towards a six-pack (you might reconsider your goal, or learn something about how to realistically achieve it).
Although I believe it is somewhat tragic that at the age of ten my friends and I were already dreaming of changing our bodies, and I no longer believe there is such a thing as a “feminine” six-pack, I have realized this “dream.” I am 26-and-five-months-old, and for the first time in my life I have visible abs. OK, if you want to get super technical – I probably do not have a six-pack; it’s more like a four-pack on a good day, but still, my abs are visible anytime the shirt is off, and, if you want this signature fitness trait, I get you. I am here to tell you about what it really took for me to get it, and who I am at this point in my fitness journey.
Here are 6 things I have learned about abs:
- First of all, WTF is a “feminine” six-pack?
I didn’t even know what I meant when I wrote “feminine”, but since I have always been known for being muscular I had already undergone the attempted criticism of others, “what if you end up looking like a man?”
Now I know better (and have absolutely zero fear of “looking like a man” (maybe even negative fear, if that is possible): a six-pack is a six-pack, and anyone who has one is either a) naturally lean in that area (so it doesn’t really count #sorryNotSorry) or b) someone who trains their ass off (probably literally in some sense; I know I have gained abs, and although my butt can still squat over 300 lbs, it is smaller) and likely either has to eat a ton of food to maintain his or her level of musculature, or religiously tracks intake to maintain that level of leanness. Women can have visible abs; men can have visible abs. Abs are abs and, in my opinion, they look equally as glorious on athletes of either gender.
Furthermore, in regards to the “looking like a man” comment – I don’t believe any woman can have this look about her (although of course it is fabulous if she chooses to express herself in ways that our society labels as “masculine”) because I feel there is a spectrum of both femininity and masculinity and that neither can be put in a box. As far as building muscle goes, everyone has an optimum self – and that looks very different from one person to the next. Each woman will gain muscle differently than the next, but please, gain it! From an evolutionary standpoint, we are predisposed to being attracted to people whose bodies can perform daunting tasks; larger muscles are naturally stronger muscles and fitter people can generally accomplish more challenging feats. Get after the gainz, ladies. You will look sexy and capable and even the guys or women who ask, “aren’t you afraid of looking like a man?” will be putting their foots in their mouths (or asking you on dates) when they see your exquisite (muscular) legs, core, and upper body. Beauty has all forms and jacked ladies look like jacked (sexy!) ladies, not men.
- 95% of people need to have muscles first, and can’t just “lean out.” This could also read, “It will probably take you two years to get abs, not six weeks.” Thirdly, “You need to lift heavy shit before you spend hours on the treadmill.” Fourth, “You might need to be fluffy for awhile before you can be cut.”
Unless you had visible abs when you were twelve, and your body has scarcely changed since then, you probably need to put on some muscle before “leaning out” will be the answer to getting abs. Trust me on this one – I tried, and so is everyone else who is on the treadmill at the gym. These are the same people hitting ab circuits for a huge chunk of their training sessions. I can almost promise you most of the people hitting these circuits do not have visible abs. Where have I seen the most six-packs in my life? Amongst CrossFit athletes. What do CrossFit athletes do? They pick up heavy shit, do gymnastics, and do a ton of conditioning in almost any way you can imagine. What should you do to reveal your abs? Probably something like that.
I have been attending the regular gym since I was 14, and even then, I lifted moderately heavy weights. The trainer from my hockey team taught me how to squat, how to bench press, and more. I can say I generally spent 1-3 hours per day from the time I was 14 until the time I was 22 in the gym 4-6 days a week, and not. a. single. ab. was. seen.
What changed? The moderation. The rep schemes. The goal.
I began training to get strong. I ran to have a faster time. Although I had moments of emailing my coach, “Hey, I am going to Mexico in six-weeks; do you think we can make some changes to my training to make my abs show by then?” I gradually made the transition to actually just wanting to be able to do awesome things, rather than aspiring to look fit.
I competed in powerlifting. I squatted 242 lbs, bench pressed 135 lbs, and deadlifted 297 lbs in my first meet, at a body weight of 137 lbs. I was fluffy, but I was strong and I had muscles.
Do you need to lift this heavy? No, but you probably need to put some serious work in under a barbell and build some legit muscle before you worry about the beach body. You are likely going to need to grind for a year or two before you see those abs.
Now I am going to powerlifting Nationals, where I will hopefully squat over 308 lbs, bench press over 175 lbs, and deadlift over 324 lbs. I weigh only 125-127 lbs. I have abs. I went through the period of fluffiness and strength, and then I cut weight by lifting heavy weights, and doing metabolic conditioning in the same way I have for the last two-and-a-half-years, but obviously at a higher intensity because I am fitter.
Don’t get me wrong: training with zero regard for your diet probably isn’t going to get you abs (unless you are Rich Froning) – you are going to have to make some serious alterations to the way you eat. I will address this in a later point.
- Visible abs are probably not going to make you a better athlete
Yes, depending on your sport, being leaner can be better. As a CrossFit athlete, becoming lighter was a game-changer for me. Less body weight = more muscle ups, more handstand push-ups, and basically gymnastics virtuosity (as long as you have some grace in these movements already). If you CrossFit, you know how essential having a strong ability in gymnastics is to your toolbox.
Also, I suppose, as some people (myself included) say they feel stronger training without a shirt on, maybe having abs could increase a person’s feeling of badassness and have some psychological effect leading to improved performance – I don’t know. Even if it does, as mentioned before, by chasing abs and not performance, you are hindering yourself as an athlete.
But what might suffer if you don’t lean out the right way? Your Olympic lifts. Your strength. Even your stamina. If you become too lean your body begins to see your muscle as a viable source of fuel.
My advice? Aim for two-or-four-pack leanness and six-pack-strength. The six pack will be seen through your healthy layer of fat-fuel when you have your “pump” on in a workout and are glistening with sweat (yes, even CrossFitters get a “pump,” although it usually isn’t via bicep curls and they probably would never use the word). Keep this healthy layer of fat to prevent your body from consuming that hard-earned muscle and to maintain optimal performance, because, remember, being awesome is the goal, not being lean.
Build your abs before you worry about revealing them. How? If you are following a good CrossFit program it will have you under a loaded barbell, hanging from bars and rings, moving your torso through challenging body-weight or light-weight movements, and thus, you’ll be constantly engaging your core, so you should naturally build them, but feel free to accessorize your training with GHD sit-ups and weighted or med-ball sit-ups. You are probably also already doing a lot of regular sit-ups, and knees-to-elbows or toes-to-bar. Forget the ab circuits, but if they make you feel better, go ahead and keep doing them. I will repeat for emphasis: get under a heavy barbell. If you are doing these things you are on the right track – stick with it, but weighted movements might help you get the hypertrophy you need to put the right kind of size on your midsection.
(As a general recommendation for core strength, improved gymnastics, and even better lifts, I would also suggest spending a ton of time in something like a bent hollow body hold (“half-boat pose”) and an arch body hold (“superman”).)
Lastly, remember that muscle burns calories. By getting after gainz you are transforming your body into an elite fat-burning machine. Put in the work to gain muscle and strength and the leaning-out process will be made 100% easier.
As powerlifting coach Amy Smith once told me, “The thing about abs, is that they are like pets (fun to have around but don’t serve much purpose).” At the time I did not know she was quoting Ryan Gosling, but regardless, I have learned the truth in this statement. Overall, as an athlete, whether I am at 16% or 22% body fat has little impact on my performance. Get strong, get awesome; a six-pack will probably not make you a better athlete (except psychologically or through reduced body weight for gymnastics), but when you are a better athlete, your abs just might make an appearance.
- You might want to consider supplementation
The point of this article is not to get all sciencey on you, but just to share my experience in gaining abs – and that experience involved supplements (all the legal kind 🙂 ). I am not saying supplementation is essential for getting a six-pack, but I am saying that in the last six months I learned to utilize this as a regular strategy to improve my performance, and it is only after adding supplements to my program that my abs revealed themselves.
Which supplements do I use? Creatine, beta-alanine, and hydrolyzed whey protein.
Why creatine and protein?
A study from the University of Saskatchewan suggested that athletes who used creatine and whey protein had about twice the increase in strength and muscle mass as did athletes who used just whey protein, and about four times the increase in strength and lean mass as those who did not use either.
What does creatine do? It is composed of three amino acids (arginine, glycine, and methionine) and helps our body create ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to fuel our muscles when we have used up ours stores. What does this mean? It means we can train at a higher intensity longer and recover faster before our next workout when we use the supplement.
What does all of this have to do with abdominals? As I have already recommended, if you want abs you should look towards performance. If you want to perform better you need to train with intensity and recover with intention. Being able to hit a few extra reps or reduce the time between training sessions is going to have serious effects over time, and using creatine just might be the leg-up you need to do this and to build that core until it stands out.
Why whey protein?
As aforementioned in the creatine study, it helps with gainz, but really, many athletes have trouble consuming enough protein from food sources; supplementation is one way to ensure you are getting enough. Protein is made up of amino acids that are synthesized into (among other things) muscle in our bodies. If you are not getting enough protein you are not giving your body the building blocks it needs to get jacked. If this is you, you are on a training hamster wheel and are possibly doing yourself harm by training with intensity. Eat all the protein. Supplement with the protein. Give your muscles the fuel they need to repair and grow after a challenging session. In the next point I will talk about how much protein.
Why beta alanine?
In short, beta alanine buffers lactic acid build-up in the muscles so you can push harder for longer and/or perform a few extra reps. Again, this means more intense sessions which will help you build muscle and leads to more substantial gains in performance over time.
Use creatine, whey protein, and beta-alanine around your workouts to maximize intensity and recovery and thus, to build muscle the fastest. The more muscle you have, the faster your body will metabolize fat. The more muscle you have, the bigger your abs are. The faster you burn fat, the quicker you will reveal them. Consider adding these supplements to your training regime to increase your awesomeness, and possibly, the size of your abdominals.
- It takes rigid tracking of food and sleep (and little alcohol) for many people to get abs
Both training and diet play an important role in determining how visible a person’s abs are. You can be doing all the right things training but if your diet is not in check you will never get a six-pack. Since many people of different training regimes and diet backgrounds are probably reading this, I will just share a few general guidelines based on my own experience:
- Eat at or above maintenance calories for several months before trying to diet down. Embrace the “fluffy” period. You need this time to build your muscles (and abdominals). During this period, eat whole foods, and a ton of starchy carbs (potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, rice, oats, popcorn, etc.). Starchy carbs will fuel performance and ensure your muscles are full of glycogen for maximum strength and size gains. To determine your maintenance level, I recommend visiting eattoperform.com and using their calculator. Eat 1.8-2.5 g carbohydrate per lean lb of body mass. Eat 1-1.5 g of protein per lean lb, and 0.5-0.7 g of fat.
- When you are ready to lean out, get the majority of your carbs from starchy sources (and keep carbohydrate intake high (1.2-2 g/lb lean body mass)). Eat little fruit and sugar. Lower fat (0.3-0.5 g/lb lean body mass). Keep protein at 1-1.5 g/lb lean body mass. Choose the high end if you are someone with a very active metabolism. Women probably have to choose near the lower end and men near the higher end.
- Cut back alcohol significantly if you are serious about leaning out. I am talking two-or-fewer drinks per week. Alcohol is empty calories that will obviously not fuel performance.
- Track your food. I believe as an athlete there is no safe way to diet without weighing, measuring, and tracking. I use My Fitness Pal. If you do not track you risk: a) gaining weight because you are still eating in a surplus b) maintaining c) losing muscle because you are not getting enough protein (Hello, “skinny-fat”) d) fatigue and poor performance from reduced intake levels (not enough carbs, probably).
- Once you have revealed your abs, you will likely still have to be quite strict to maintain them, but there will be more room for alcohol or a treat here and there. By this point in the game you will be a master at tracking food and will only have to actually enter it every now and then (the more often the better – remember, you might end up under-eating and underperforming if you do not).
- Embrace the gains and welcome back another “fluffy” period into your life once your abs have made an appearance. Now you know how to get them to show themselves, and you deserve to have a bit more fun with food. Donuts or cinnamon rolls + heavy weights + sleep = all of the gainz. Just don’t overdo it. The next time you lean out you will look even more shredded.
Getting abs is 95% diet-related and 80% training related (doesn’t add up, but these stats never do). Stay focused and committed and track your food over time or these muscles will likely never make an appearance.
- Having abs won’t solve all your life problems (but when you’ve had a really rough day you can always reach down and feel your hard-earned abs and it might make it seem like life isn’t so bad).
In conclusion, chase the abs if you want to, but do it the right way. Eat all of the food and lift all of weights. Don’t be afraid to go through a period of fluffiness. Be smart about leaning out by tracking your food, and know that once your abs have revealed themselves it may be almost as difficult to maintain them as it was to get them show themselves in the first place.
As always, by making appearance the objective you might be disappointed, but by giving precedence to performance you will likely be empowered and the addictive nature of seeing yourself improve will get you looking the best you ever have.
Once you have abs you might even realize they aren’t as important as you thought they were. You were still amazing before you had them, and if you eat all of the food and drink all of the drinks for a couple days and they go into hiding you are no less of a person, and probably no less of an athlete.
Would the ten-year-old me be proud if she could see what I look like now? Would the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 22-year-old teacher be inspired by my appearance?
I belive so, but both of them had it wrong and I think would be more delighted by the person I am than the way I look. Abs weren’t the goal. Becoming my best was. Only when I shifted my focus to performance, and stuck with it until I could do things I never imagined, did appearance follow suit. I am stronger, faster, and more agile. I have a less-shakable mindset. I see that my limits are far further than I’d ever imagined. And I know this is only the beginning for me.
Mostly, I wish my ten, and 22-year-old self had performance role-models, because they didn’t. Abs to these girls were an aesthetic goal. It wasn’t until I saw other CrossFit athletes tackling daunting physical feats that I set my sights on discovering my own capabilities.
I am excited for the next generation because I think today’s ten-year-olds can look up to athletes (and see abs) and be inspired by their performance. I think today’s 22-year-olds are exposed to more examples of true athleticism.
Seek performance yourself and why not become one of those role models? Let’s transform society and ourselves. Let’s silence the criticism of strong women. Let’s give young people healthy role models. If everyone in the world made it their mission to become their best self, what would that world look like?
Although it isn’t the goal, I bet there would be more abs. Get the target right.
For more information on my nutrition program, click here.
 Here are links to two studies from the University of Saskatchewan (one of them in conjunction with other Universities) that show greater increases in lean body mass when creatine and whey protein are used in conjuntion: http://smscsqlx.sasktelwebhosting.com/services/druged/wheyeffects.pdf
Photo Credit to Amanda Ubell (Dare to Dream Photography)