Toned abs — but in particular the infamous six-pack — are often seen as the Holy Grail of fitness. Experts say they’re not only much harder to achieve than many people realize but some caution that striving for a six-pack isn’t necessarily the healthiest of goals, particularly for women.
So why are toned abs coveted by many? “Our society tends to associate ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ with a certain look — typically, this means slender with visible muscle definition,” Miriam Fried, founder and head trainer of MF Strong in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. “There’s often very little representation of different body types in the media when it comes to wellness and exercise, which probably contributes to this. Do a quick Google search of the terms ‘fitness’ or ‘wellness’ and you’ll see exactly what I mean.”
Whether or not having six-pack abs is a realistic goal is going to be different for everyone, Araceli De Leon, an American Council on Exercise-certified health coach and certified personal trainer, tells Yahoo Life. “What is realistic for others may not be realistic for me because of my lifestyle or time responsibilities,” she says. “But is a sculpted six-pack an obtainable objective? Sure. It all depends on how determined and committed someone is in working to get them.”
That said, De Leon concedes, “Honestly, it will be more challenging for a 40-year-old mother of three, with a full-time job and poor sleep quality to get sculpted abs than it is for an 18-year-old soccer player, but not impossible.”
What does it take to get a six-pack?
Beyond the time and motivation needed to obtain visibly toned abs, there are two important factors that are hugely influential: body composition and gender. Experts say that while it’s a challenge for both men and women to get six-pack abs, it’s “difficult particularly for women,” says De Leon. “Due to the larger muscle mass of men and their higher levels of testosterone, it is easier for them to have sculpted abs.”
Michele Scharff Olson, a professor of exercise physiology at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., agrees, telling Yahoo Life that, “in general, men have lower levels of fat from the waist down. Men also have more testosterone, which is a boost to developing musculature in the abdominal area and entire body. So, generally speaking, younger men or women who have a fat distribution more like a male, will achieve more noticeable results.”
More specifically, it means getting body fat down to what’s called essential fat levels, which are the minimal amount of fat necessary for normal physiological function. Men require “less body fat for optimum health, around 2 to 5 percent,” says De Leon, “therefore, it is easier for them to shed body fat compared to women’s essential fat [which is] 10 to 13 percent.”
In fact, more than core exercises, it’s body fat — or lack thereof — that’s “the main factor” in having defined ab muscles, says De Leon. “We all have a percentage that makes up our body composition. To get sculpted abs, one must lower the total percentage of body fat that makes up your body composition” — something that is not an easy or doable goal for many.
“People forget how important your diet is,” says Olson. “You can actually develop strong, solid abdominals, but if they are covered by a higher-than-ideal layer of fat, it’s difficult to see any sculpted effect.”
To lower body fat, De Leon says it’s important to focus on nutritional habits — such as limiting processed and sugary foods, while increasing lean protein, fresh vegetables and water intake — along with reducing stress and prioritizing sleep.
Olson says a healthy diet “must” also be coupled with exercises that target not only your core but also your entire body. “Cardio exercise and interval training are important to help burn up excess body fat in the abdominal area,” she says. “It requires a total program: cardio exercise, abdominal exercises, healthy diet, and reduction in any excess abdominal fat.”
Are very low levels of body fat safe?
However, some experts question whether it’s healthy or even safe to strive for such low levels of body fat, particularly for women. “Women naturally carry more fat than men, which means getting to extreme lows can have an adverse effect on the way our bodies and hormones function,” explains Fried.
Setting a goal to achieve a visible six-pack often involves “severe caloric restriction and getting to a very low body fat percentage, which, for many people, isn’t healthy at all,” says Fried. “Not to mention, often what determines the visibility of your abdominal muscles has more to do with genetics than anything else.”
Fried also says that “extreme dieting and restriction is often a risk factor for eating disorders, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness,” adding: “Considering so many women struggle with disordered eating, seeking a body type that requires such extremes is just something I would never recommend from a mental health standpoint.”
Experts — even ones who believe a six-pack is an achievable goal — also point out that having visibly sculpted abs isn’t the only sign of being physically fit or having a strong core. “The majority of those with a strong core do not have noticeable abs,” notes De Leon. “Think of how strong a powerlifter is, and how strong their core must be to deadlift, squat and bench press hundreds of pounds/kilos. This population of athletes is a prime example of a strong core that, at times, don’t have the traditional sculpted six-pack abs. So yes, it is possible to have a strong and healthy core without the noticeable sculpted abs.”
Fried agrees, saying that body shape and size “tell us very little about someone’s fitness levels and their health.”
Visible abs “simply tell you that you have a low body fat percentage and the genetics to maintain a flat stomach,” says Fried. “They tell you nothing else about someone’s health, their strength, their endurance, their abilities in the gym, their diet, their exercise routine.”
Some of the best athletes on the planet do not have visible abs, points out Fried. “If your goal is to be fit and strong, I highly recommend setting performance-based goals rather than aesthetic ones,” she says. “These types of goals are much more realistic to achieve, much more fulfilling and far more motivating!”
How to safely strengthen your abs
That’s not to say that you should skip those ab exercises. In fact, having a strong core is important for several reasons. “Everything in the body is connected: muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia,” explains De Leon.”If there is a ‘weak link,’ compensation, imbalance and injury are prone to happen. A strong core allows someone to have proper balance, body alignment and posture and a decreased risk of injury. Core strength brings proper stability and balance to the way a person moves, regardless of fitness level or age.”
Contrary to popular belief, the best way to strengthen your core is by focusing on exercises that target the entire body — not just your abs. “Compound exercises are a great way to target multiple muscle groups and the core,” De Leon says. Some examples include deadlifts, squats, pull-ups and standing overhead presses. An exercise that De Leon says is “essential” for core stability and strength is the plank.
“Exercises that target the core directly are great accessory exercises, but should not be your first and only form of strengthening your core,” De Leon explains. “With all exercises, make sure that proper alignment and form is the focus rather than weight, repetitions or how long you can hold a plank.”
But if you find yourself lamenting the fact that six-pack abs remain elusive, heed De Leon’s words: “The most important thing to understand about wanting and having sculpted abs is that it is an aesthetic goal — it is not a health goal,” she says. “A person can be very healthy and strong and not have a defined six-pack.”
For some, in order to have sculpted abs, “they have to go lower than what is a recommended body fat percentage for men or women, and that is neither sustainable nor healthy,” says De Leon. “The main priority should be your health.”
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