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Six pack abs: how to join the fitness world’s most exclusive club
March 2nd 2015 / 0 comment
Jessica Ennis, Cameron Diaz and Vanessa Hudgens have them, but are high definition abs realistically achievable? We asked our experts for these 11 stomach toning tips
Can women get 6 packs and if so, how can we crunch and cook our way to a set of our own?
With the popularity of high definition abs sky-rocketing over the past few years, celebrities and athletes alike have been seen taking middle management to the next level and swapping toned for ripped in the stomach stakes. From Jessica Ennis to Cameron Diaz, Vanessa Hudgens to Serena Williams, the flat stomach has been given a makeover of its own and the trend doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon.
So how do we get a six pack? We asked personal trainer Christina Howells of www.thatgirllondon.com for her weight loss tips and nutritional therapist Emma Olliff for her favourite flat stomach foods to provide a comprehensive masterclass in stomach sculpting. Beware though, it isn’t an easy journey. As Christina points out, “There is a big difference between being fit and healthy with a flat midriff and being shredded enough to see your abs.” She adds, “The bottom line is you need to hugely reduce your body fat whilst building lean muscle.”
Here are the six pack facts you need to know...
1. Clean and gene
If you’re on the quest for a six pack, a good starting point is to look backwards before looking forwards. “If a defined 6 pack or Victory V is what you want, then genetics most certainly play a role as we are simply not all made the same,” explains Christina. “Getting lean enough requires being prepared to work harder than you have before and for many, restricting your diet more than you probably thought. Other factors such as age, hormones, lifestyle demands, having children, sleep and stress all play a significant role.”
2. Man power
In the stomach sculpting stakes, it appears that our male counterparts may have the upper hand. It’s just how we’re built and it’s important to bear this in mind along with the added risks. “Men have the edge on women as they can generally take their body fat to a lower % without any effects on health,” Christina points out. “Women on the other hand can risk negative side-effects such as menstrual disturbances and infertility if their body fat reaches sub-optimal levels on a regular basis.”
3. Ab workouts that work
Contrary to popular belief, crunches alone will not guarantee a flatter stomach. A multifaceted approach is needed incorporating cardio, resistance training and most importantly, nutrition. For a fitness plan that actually delivers, follow Christina’s top stomach toning tip offs:
“Interval training 2-3 times a week, which is muscle-sparing and can help you burn fat and increase your fat burning potential for many hours after you have done the workout.
“Resistance training is essential ideally 4 times a week using free weights and bodyweight moves rather than machines and functional moves. These workouts burn calories, increase your metabolism over time and engage your core. Ending these sessions with low intensity cardio has a place in a fat burning regime but alone, it’s not my favourite route to take.
“When doing specific abdominal work diversify - planks for instance are a great way to learn abdominal stability and engage your transverse abdominals, but long holds are not really functional. Add some movement to your plank for variation. Traditional abdominal exercise can have a place in the 6 pack programme but rather than banging out 100s of reps, add some resistance to original moves such as Russian Twists. (See how to do them here).
4. Flat stomach food for thought
Abs are made in the kitchen and nutritional therapist Emma Olliff has provided just the recipe for bolstering our six pack diet plans and boosting our artilleries from the inside out:
a) How to eat: “Eat several smaller meals, around 5 or 6, rather than 3 large meals every day. The smaller meals will help to keep your hunger in check and keep your energy levels high. This will prevent you from overeating and eating the wrong types of foods that will add the flab rather than melting it away.”
b) Foods to include: “Your diet should be based around lean proteins, leafy greens and wholegrains with a moderate amount of healthy fats (think coconut) thrown in for good measure. The proteins and fats will keep you feeling fuller for longer and satiated. The leafy greens include loads of healthful nutrients including calcium - a study published in ‘Nutrition Journal’ in 2013 found that people who consumed extra calcium and vitamin D while consuming a low-calorie diet lost more belly fat over 12 weeks than those who did not consume the supplements while on the diet.”
c) Foods to avoid: “Foods working against you achieving your perfect 6 pack include refined carbohydrates, which encourage your body to hold onto fat – especially around the belly. Think white flour, sugar, pasta etc. My mantra to clients is: if it’s white don’t bite. A study published in a 2010 issue of the ‘American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’ found that people who consumed refined grains tended to have a larger amount of abdominal fat than those who consumed primarily wholegrains.”
d) Water, water, water: “I can’t state enough how important H2O is when it comes to shedding pounds and changing body shape. As well as hydrating you, it helps to suppress appetite, which means you are less likely to overeat. But that's not all. When you're dehydrated, your kidneys can't function properly, so the body turns to the liver for additional support. Since the liver is working so hard, more of the fat you consume is stored rather than burned off.”
e) Liquid calories: “These are calories you’ve inadvertently drunk from alcohol, smoothies, coffee with milk and sugar, sweetened juices, teas, and fizzy drinks which can really contribute to a flabby waistline. One recent study found that we Brits are getting approximately 21% of our calories from drinks. Basically when you are drinking highly calorific drinks, you don’t tend to compensate by eating less because most beverages satisfy thirst and don’t impact hunger.”
5. Six pack myths busted
Chiselled abs mean a strong core: “Paying too much attention to training your abdominals in isolation rather than in functional movements means you’re missing out on more efficient movement with a lower risk of injury. In addition, you can risk becoming too ‘tight’ in the abdominal region which can affect internal health,” says Christina.
A 6 pack means you’re healthy: “In fact being really lean can mean the opposite if you take it too far and can result in physical as well as psychological health issues.”
It just takes a bit more exercise: “It is certainly a misconception that if we exercise a bit more and change a few things in our diet we are going to get the Victory V. Sculpted abs are mostly made in the kitchen and the shopping list would be considered by many to be quite restrictive.”
Once you’ve got, then you have them: “This is simply not true for most of us and often the effort we put in is not sustainable. Small increases in body fat can quickly cover those results.”
Simply do more ab exercises: “Fat and love handles are a result of too much body fat and not a lack of abdominal muscles.”
You will have abs like the cover model: “Truth is your individual genetics will define how your abdominals look once you’re lean enough for them to become visible.”
6. Sleep your way slim
If there’s one fundamental change to your lifestyle that you can make to tie everything together, it’s ensuring your sleep is sorted. “Sleep is vital. It seems paradoxical that getting enough sleep, the most sedentary thing you can do, can affect your weight. Lack of sleep can impair fat loss by interfering with our levels of appetite hormones, leaving us feeling constantly hungry,” explains Christina.
7. You can’t worry your waistline away
With the consequences of stress having far-reaching implications on our health, hair and skin, another incentive to keep worries at bay is the chance to reduce our waistlines too. “Stress is another factor that can prevent a flat stomach due to the exposure of cortisol over time. Excess continuous cortisol stimulates glucose production, which is typically turned to fat, which appears to be generally gained around the middle,” says Christina.
8. Don’t compare and despair
If more of us had jobs which depended on our physiques, London would end up looking like a scene out of Baywatch. While that is one fantastic mental image to start your day with, unfortunately for most of us a desk and computer are what await us at the office. “Think of the women who have six pack abs. For some like Jessica Ennis, training and eating a prescribed diet is her job, which naturally allows her the time and support,” says Christina. “Then, we have our fitness and cover models who essentially often have a coach at hand, diet down, often don’t eat and dehydrate before a shoot, restrict food groups and are possibly airbrushed for more effect.”
9. Body fat facts
When it comes to body fat percentages, what are the ideal readings in order to start seeing some definition? Firstly, Christina points out the importance of essential fat which is critical for the normal functioning of the human body. “For women this is around 10-13%, going below or even maintaining this can be detrimental to physical and mental health and in particular, hormonal function.
“In general, athletes’ body fat percentages range from 14-20% dependent on their sport, while a consistent exerciser would be more around 21-24% and for the average woman, it’s often over 25%,*” she explains.
With these figures in mind, these are the factors that Christina believes are particularly important to consider to highlight the amount of commitment needed to achieve this particular fitness goal:
1. “Women need a certain amount of essential fat, so they can't aim for that which is as low as men as this will affect their health.”
2. “The average woman that trains regularly and eats a healthy diet is more likely to have a body fat percentage of 21-24%, but to be lean enough for her abs to show, she will probably need to drop to around 17%-20% body fat which for many will take extreme dedication.”
3. “Even female athletes that train for hours most days and follow a training-related diet are likely to have 14-20% body fat.”
4. “Genetics plays a role as we don’t all store our fat in the same places. I personally prefer to measure body fat using the DEXA scan which offers the most accurate and precise measure of body composition as well as giving you regional data for fat in the belly. You can book this at www.bodyscanuk.com.**”
10. Protein planning
The building blocks to a stand-out six pack lie in protein. “Protein becomes your main macronutrient, whilst reducing and structuring your carb intake is often employed so you burn more fat and reduce water retention. You need some carbs though or you won’t be able to fuel your workouts and never omit your greens.
“Protein servings at each meal are ideal. Main protein sources are white fish with oily fish 2-3 times a week, poultry, lean red meat once a week, eggs or egg whites alone such as Two Chicks Liquid Egg White, £3, good quality pure protein supplements and I’m a big fan of Total 0% Fat Greek Yogurt, £2.39 which is rich in protein for those that can tolerate dairy. Other dairy choices include quark and plain cottage cheese.”
Other helpers include using technology to your advantage and assessing previous reactions to certain foods. “Use an app like MyFitnessPal so you really know what you’re eating,” recommends Christina. “Know your food triggers. Many of us find certain foods can cause us to bloat: get to know your body and which foods that may not agree with you,” she adds.
11. Healthy mind and healthy body
When does the quest for a six pack start to become unhealthy? With it taking a whole heap of commitment and dedication, it can easily slip into risky territory. “This of course depends on the person and how far they take it,” says Christina. “When we start to see results it can often be all too easy to get hooked, but it’s important to recognise the signs of a health behaviour turning into a less healthy behaviour. Watch out for:
- Feeling exhausted all the time;
- Social isolation because of your need to go to the gym or eat in a certain way;
- Fear of food;
- Menstrual irregularities and infertility;
- Food obsession;
- Nutrient deficiencies;
- Not enjoying exercise anymore.
“You need to ask yourself what you want and why you want it. Are a 6 pack and Victory V going to cut it for you? Can you commit to the routine and how will this affect your lifestyle? For me, the key is to decide what is the most realistic version of you that can be achieved, rather than striving for something that is maybe inconsistent with your lifestyle. Finally, you have to enjoy the process and of course that will make all the difference to your dedication.
“Whether your choice is a healthy flat stomach or a shredded one, consistency to the protocol is the key to success.”
*As recommended in the Average Body Fat% chart included in the American Council on Exercise, Exercise AC. Ace Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant Manual, The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals, edited by Cedric X Bryant and Daniel J Green. £38.28. Buy online here.
**During March, Thatgirl has collaborated with Bodyscan to offer all Get the Gloss readers a 20% discount, (discount code: THATGIRL). Visit www.bodyscanuk.com to book in.