Abs. The holy grail of physique transformation?

Abs. Nearly everyone chasing physique transformation wants that coveted six-pack. A slick slab of undulating goodness that speaks to all that hard work. But sadly, many never achieve their dream, despite making good progress with fat-loss. But why? What is it that makes seeing abs such an elusive goal?

First, let’s be clear, a six pack isn’t for everyone. It’s not necessary, serves no practical purpose and is seen by many as an expression of extreme vanity. And if you’re reading this with a skeptical frown, thinking what the fuck is the obsession with abs in this industry, I totally understand.

However, having just got my coveted six-pack back again after a three-year hiatus, I can assure you that there’s a LOT it teaches you about yourself, the body and most importantly, the mind.

In short, the reason the six-pack is so damn synonymous with success in physique transformation is that it takes a lot more to achieve than the vast majority of people are prepared to give.

Now, you’ll be surprised and no doubt pleased to hear that the process to attaining a six (or four, or eight) pack is simplicity personified!

But before you extend your hand to receive the magic beans, I must regrettably bring you down from your euphoric state and say that while it is indeed simple, it’s certainly not an easy task.

So let’s start by saying what it’s not.

That is, the list of things you possibly thought were important to achieving a six-pack but really aren’t.

  1. Cardio
  2. Endless crunches or sit-ups
  3. A banned foods list
  4. A must-eat foods list
  5. Special supplements
  6. Topical creams
  7. Fasting
  8. Eating every 2 hours

… and there’s more, but you get the point.

Now don’t get me wrong, you can do all of these things. And some of them can absolutely be additive to your physical well-being. For example, walking is restorative, cardioprotective and can have the same effects on your body as meditation (if you let it). Certain foods are irritants for many people, and frequent small meals can help those with a poor appetite to increase their food intake over time. Point being, this is not some “anti” list (ok, maybe the topical creams is a no-no). I’m just making the point that these are the things commonly associated with getting abs or otherwise losing weight.

But to deliver on the promise of stripping away fat to reveal that six-pack? No. A definite, firm and irrefutable no.

So let’s get back to simple.

A six-pack means fat loss, and there is only one true mechanism of fat loss. As such, our simple, six-pack strategy can be stated thus:

Revealing your abs is as simple as establishing and sustaining a negative energy balance for an extended period of time sufficient to remove the abdominal fat from your body.

You see, simple! Just as I promised…

But unfortunately not easy.

Let’s break that down.

Establishing and sustaining a negative energy balance…

A negative energy balance means consuming less energy (calories) than you expend (living, working, exercising) on a daily basis. And given you can’t generally change how much energy you need to live or work, this means regulating your food intake and/or increasing your level of exercise.

Both of these equate to some level of commitment and yes, concession! Neither of which are easy for many people.

And having calculated (or approximated, or determined) the required energy deficit, you must then sustain that state.

Why?

Because a few days of negative energy balance is easily accommodated by your body’s internal mechanisms for riding out fluctuations in energy balance – otherwise known as homeostasis.

…for an extended period of time.

Oh my. How long then? Are we talking weeks? Months? Years?!

Well of course, the answer is, it depends.

If you are 50lbs overweight and hormonally challenged, your journey is undoubtedly going to be longer than someone who is already at normal levels of body fat.

But the real challenge here, and why fat loss is not easy, is that sustaining a negative energy balance for an extended period speaks mostly to behaviors, your emotional state and overall relationship with food and exercise.

…sufficient to remove the abdominal fat from your body.

Even for those of you that make good progress and drop body fat, the abdominal area is a hotbed of fat cells for many. And sadly, this means that you could drop pounds of fat from your body and still not be able to claim your coveted six-pack. Unfortunately, that means going even deeper into fat loss, which although still simple, becomes increasingly difficult.

This is why the six-pack is so damn elusive.

It really does speak to a level of discipline and commitment that many are unable or unwilling to give.

So ask yourself, do you really want that six-pack?

How much do you want to be part of that club?

And frankly, whether your answer was yes or no, I applaud you.

A six-pack may well speak to a level of commitment and adherence you are not willing to make, but in no way does it necessarily equate to “healthy”. In fact, to see their abs, many people have to dip into very low levels of body fat that are often flat-out unhealthy and generally unsustainable.

Also, if you opted for no, you’ve likely got a healthy and realistic sense of what’s possible for you right now. Understanding your motivations and what’s important to you can save huge amounts of wasted time, false starts and unnecessary angst.

But if you’re in, here’s how the journey begins.

  1. Join the group and get some support and accountability. Traveling alone can be fun, but having friends on-hand to share in the experience can make it so much more enjoyable.
  2. Get real. This journey will require a sustained level of commitment, and you might as well start to rub-up against the idea of tough choices, concession and even a little discomfort.
  3. Set interim an interim goal. If you have 50lbs to lose, seeing your abs might be the long-term vision, but it’s not a realistic goal that can carry you forward. Instead, set a meaningful goal that’s rooted in a positive outcome for you. Maybe that’s moving up a belt hole, or dropping a single dress size. Either way, make it real and have it speak to how that outcome will make you feel.
  4. Identify early behaviors in the way of that goal. These are the things that will likely unravel your progress before you even get started. For example, are you a habitual snacker? Do you struggle to make your workouts stick? Do you self identify as “small” making the idea of getting leaner hard? Whatever it is, identifying it now will save you time and anguish later.
  5. Set at least one behavioral goal. Think of it like this. Losing 10lbs is an outcome goal, cutting out late-night snacking is a behavioral goal. So look back at the potentially troublesome behaviors in #4 above and set a goal to change one or more of them. Just be realistic about what you can achieve and how many changes you can accommodate at once. Behavior change can be hard.
  6. Assess where your deficit going to come from. Going back to establishing and sustaining a negative energy balance, you’ll want to assess whether you’ll start with reducing calories, increasing exercise, or both. For many, one or the other often stands-out as the place to start. For example, if you are already hitting the gym 4 days a week but you can’t put down the doughnuts, you’ll start with diet. And if you eat comfortably, but don’t yet get regular exercise, you’ll start by committing to regular activity. If you’re failing hard at both, you’re a winner, as almost any changes will bring early results. But if you are already eating somewhat well and training somewhat smart, where to start is a more nuanced question. Bottom line: If in doubt, start with the diet. Almost everyone has room to tighten their belt and make one or more smart changes around food.

In the next post, I’ll get into the details of how to determine that energy deficit and basic approaches to tuning your diet and training. I’ll also go deeper into those behavioral issues that you are going to have to contend with before you’re tracing the outline of your abs through your shirt while standing inline at ‘bucks.

Want to start without me?

In case you want to make a start without me, here’s a few principles that will help sustain you until we talk again.

  • Eat as much as you can while still making progress.
  • Aim for the minimum effective dose of exercise.
  • You are shooting for progress, not perfection.
  • You WILL fuck-up. Expect it. Accept it. Move on.
  • Obsess enough to stay the course, but don’t get obsessed.
  • Food is not the enemy, if you’re starving, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Early progress comes easy, expect it to get harder.
  • Progress will stall, repeatedly. Expect it, AND DO NOT PANIC.
  • When changing diet and exercise, make a single change and give it time to work.
  • ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU ARE NOT SURE OR GET STUCK.

And remember, when you question the whole damn process–and you will–the answer is almost always harder than you thought your could for longer than you think you should.

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