Get a 6-pack without ‘ab workouts’

Ab workouts not required

A year from now I’ll be in the 50th year of my life. For my age and lifestyle (minimum exercise, mostly sedentary days, and daily consumption of large amounts of fat and sugar in many forms) it seems unusual that I ought to have a noticeable set of abdominal muscles. They happen to be visible to the public because, when I run, unless it is too cold, it is almost always without a top on. (The reasons for that, some other day, soon.)

I receive a quizzical look in response when asked “Sir, how do I get a 6-pack too?” because my reply typically starts with…

I never do ab crunches or set aside any time to do an ab workout”.

Wait a minute! What did I just say? Yeah, just that – I never set time aside for an ab workout. The last time I did ab crunches with any seriousness was almost 35 years ago in Karate class! (And now you’re probably thinking that this sounds like my earlier conversation about why you need not run.) So, clearly any vaguely visible or distinctly discernible 6-pack needs some questioning! That is what today’s chat is about.

[see Why I am not a Fitness Freak]
[see The Accidental Wisdom of Pain Seekers]

These days even some women want a 6-pack (I’ve been approached by more than a handful with that request, and a couple of the ladies I mentor are a fair way there) but whether you’re a guy or a gal, it’s worth considering what it involves. So, let’s go through the following questions together:

What is a 6-pack?
What’s the use of it?
Did you know you have a 6-pack?
Why can’t you see yours?
Will you ever be able to see yours?
Why is doing ab crunches wrongly directed action?
What should you focus on instead?
What kind of effort do you need?
Who will have easier success with it?
…and…
OK, so you have a 6-pack, what next?

What is a 6-pack?

What’s happening underneath

Your muscles work when they contract. In your front abdominal region, there are many muscle groups performing different functions (e.g. twisting, bending side to side). The 6-pack that has captured the public’s attention is simply one of those many muscles, technical name, rectus abdominis. The reason it catches your attention is simply because it is the outermost muscle in that region. The other muscles that lie below it and perform different but equally important functions (e.g. internal oblique muscles) do not get the same media attention!

Bands of connective tissue traverse your rectus abdominis. These separate your rectus abdominis into distinct muscle bellies – the ‘packs’. In your abdomen if you are someone with low body fat, these masses of muscle can be viewed externally and are commonly referred to as “four”, “six”, “eight”, or even “ten packs”, depending on how many distinct muscle bellies were created in the first place by the connective tissue traversing across.

Not a 6-pack!

The lower your body fat, the more likely that the lower muscle masses will be seen. Six is the most common – and having more than six does not mean you are fitter or stronger – it is just about how many bands traverse your rectus abdominis. If you see just one pack – that’s a family pack – and it’s fat, not muscle. However, the good news is that you can convert it into a 6-pack.

Of what use is a 6-pack?

When your rectus abdominis contracts, its pulling action is at either end, between your chest and groin. So, the use of your 6-pack is primarily postural – for bringing your pelvic area towards your chest or, equivalently, for preventing your torso from tipping back. It also assists in your breathing and for forceful respiration when you exercise.

Did you know you have a 6-pack?

Yes, if you lead a reasonably active life then you probably have a rectus abdominis that is of decent size and strength.

Why can’t you see your 6-pack?

Family pack still gets you love!

If your 6-pack is not visible, the reason will be obvious to you by now. There is a layer of fat between the outermost layer of your skin and those muscles. Doing 1,000 crunches a day will not make them more visible! You will need to chisel the fat away. You don’t burn much fat at all doing 1,000 crunches!

Will you ever be able to see your 6-pack?

Yes, of course you will. It all depends on what you do for it. And what you stop doing. The details matter!

Why is doing ab-crunches not effective?

Although the classic ab crunch works your rectus abdominis, it is not the most effective in terms of stimulating those muscles. In fact, far from it.

6, 8, 10 – does not matter!

Have a look at this research report by San Diego State University. Specifically, the classic crunch is rated 11th out of 13 exercises examined. The ab crunch is also not a functionally useful movement – it does not appear in your activities of daily life. Also, in the same way that you would not put your spinal cord at risk by bending over repeatedly and rapidly when standing [remember all those tips to “bend your knees” when lifting objects off the ground?] – the classic crunch is not very different a movement for your spine housing your spinal cord (you are simply lying on the ground instead of standing on your feet).

What should you focus on instead?

When I say “I don’t do ab workouts” what I mean is that I never specifically target that region. Instead, acknowledging that your abdominal muscles are ideally engaged and working when doing most of your activities of daily life, including various sporting activities is a great way to get started. And, to keep going! I do not do any of the 13 exercises listed in that research report by San Diego State University. But, I am definitely stimulating my rectus abdominis to grow in size with all the other activities I perform. That is what I encourage you to do too.

Who will have your back?

Having a strong core is important for various reasons. To prevent injury from normal daily activities. To prevent aches and pains as you age. To ensure your body can cope with anything vigorous you do for recreation at various stages of your life. Since the rectus abdominis is only one of many muscles of your core, giving it undue attention can lead to imbalances that will not serve you well in the long run. And as I tell those I mentor, “symmetry is a subset of balance”, so ensure that you have equivalent development in your back musculature too. Balance between your ‘front’ and ‘back’ muscles.

A strong body with good flexibility and high levels of endurance will automatically lead you to a state where your body composition changes and your 6-pack emerges, almost as if by magic. No specific attention required!

Having a 6-pack ‘for show’ is not of much use unless you need it for your job. The vanity that might come with specifically targeting only that will be short-lived. Instead of focusing on appearance goals, focus on the processes for performance goals – being stronger, fitter, faster, leaner.

[see what I said earlier about Health Based Measures of Fitness]
[see the widely followed article on Pushups for the Ladies]
[see the 1-arm pushups article if you want to take things up a notch without leaving home]
[see my approach to nutrition]

Will distance running get you a 6-pack?

Not the final solution

In my mostly widely read article on why you need not run, I described how you will not see most of the men and women crossing the finish line at recreational distance running races looking ripped and toned. The observation does not change when you move from half to full marathons, to ultramarathons. Conversely, if you go to a gym where the big strong guys look muscular with well-defined 6-packs, you might find that they cannot do endurance activities particularly well. Like, I’ve said before –  Balance is True Mastery!

What kind of effort do you need?

The effort needs to go only towards systematic execution of daily processes. Nothing big, nothing extreme. Just the many small features of daily life that will lead to a body that is a fine-tuned machine. The physical 6-pack is just ornamental. If you are appropriately focused on living each day of your life well, then besides the physical 6-pack, your mental state will also have developed its own (invisible) 6-pack. The same holds true for your emotional and spiritual planes. Perhaps you have a 24-pack and most people can see only 6!

[for a mind map of the areas that might work for your current stage in life see the Wellness Tree]

Who will have easier success with it?

Would have been easier 15 years ago

Men, younger men. Women typically have to work much harder for the same visual results because of their naturally higher body fat percentage and lower muscle mass. And because from the age of 30, even men lose about 1% of their muscle mass each year (assuming they did not make any changes to their lifestyle to get fitter or otherwise), younger men will find it much easier than older men. But, remember, difficult does not mean impossible. If you are an older woman and work at it, you can get there too, if you want it. And if you do get there, I’ll admire you like no one’s business!

So, you have a 6-pack, what next?

The great thing about having a 6-pack is that you will appreciate that it is your own effort to live as close to your natural state as possible. And, when I talk about effort, I am not even referring to any unusual effort. Just the simple effort of living as naturally as possible.

It’s always work-in-progress

Having got there, it is worth then asking yourself how you got there. To what extent did you stray away from what is natural? (pharmaceutical aids, poor sleep, free of chronic injuries or illness). Think about what you can do to fix those. Then ask yourself how you are placed vis-à-vis where you would like to be for the health and skills based measures of fitness I wrote about earlier. Then take steps to get there too. And going beyond the physical dimension, looking at the Wellness Tree, ask yourself how you can get a 6-pack in the dimensions of mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

A 6-pack is not a panacea for happiness – but working to have one will, perhaps, help get many other rooms of your house in order. Ab workouts not required!

Puru

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

11 comments

  1. So nicely describe.I am working traveling time per day approx 300 km
    On job there are many responsibility . My age is 48 yr I want ab like u! Presently I am doing normal Gym Exercise in gym I am also like running.
    What are your advise for me?

    Like

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