Health & Body & Mind

Six pack abs 101: STOP KIDDING YOURSELF

Not another fitness article! Not yet another “lose body fat” post!

I didn’t think I’d be writing this article, either.

I thought, in today’s day and age, getting six-pack abs is a sailed ship, isn’t it? Surely, the internet has moved on from this done and dusted topic?

Turns out: nope.

Turns out: there is a LOT of GARBAGE, a TON of clickbait, and a whole WORLD of misleading information out there.

PROMISES of get-slim-quick schemes and losing body fat in JUST 10 DAYS! plastered all over Youtube and Google.

It’s almost like we never moved on: people still looking for FAST answers, and loads of CONMEN still trying to sell them a solution.

Pair Shaped takes on belly fat mis-information: our goal is to spread authentic, genuine, and helpful tips on how to lose belly fat and get that six pack – but more importantly, is it even worth it?

We inaugurate Pair Shaped’s posts on Health topics with one that addresses all this misinformation out there on body fat and body shaping. We aim, as always, to bring authentic, genuine, non-sponsored and helpful advice. We’ll also link to other reputable and genuine sources as well that I’ve found useful in our own fat loss experiences, so you can find everything you’re looking for on this topic, in one sincere place.

Because there’s so much to go over on this topic, we’ll cover the basics in this post, and then provide follow ups addressing some more specific matters, like:

  • Another aspect of fat loss and belly fat that is becoming more and more relevant, but not as explored – and that is how fat gains and losses are affected the more you do them, and the older you get
  • You know we love a good PROS and CONS list – whether having a six pack is even a goal that you should have in the first place, or whether we’re just being taken in by unhealthy body standards and images.

So let’s get started!

My credentials: I’ve cycled through body fat loss many times in my life, and have been pretty fit. BUT I had a true SIX to EIGHT PACK ab rack ONCE in my life.

The two photos are separate by about 6 months. You can see, in the “before” photo, I’m generally fit, have some layers of fat over some muscle mass. We’ll get you into how to determine the percentage of body fat later, but just looking at these photos, I remember the “before” – I was close to 180 pounds, and was probably holding c.20% body fat.

January, as with most people – I was fed up with the holiday celebrating, the excess booze and food and sweets, and like everyone else in the new year, my motivation kicked back in to get in shape.

But this time, something happened.

I think I just hit the right phase in my life. For once, I wanted to go all the way and get down to as low as I could.

For the longest time i thought a six pack wasn’t physically within my capability, for whatever reason. I was always fit, played sports when I was younger, I did LOTS of running, gym and weightlifting, but while I was fit, I was never six pack abs fit. Just look at the photo.

Step one: take a good look at your lifestyle

And this is the trap A LOT of us are in – the slippery slope, the uphill battle. Of burning calories, or building muscle to burn more calories, versus the eating, the binging, the partying, the drinking.

In fact – the most difficult time to get a six pack was in my 20’s and even early 30’s because of the lifestyle. I was out socialising two, three times a week – and that meant the drinks, the late nights (erratic sleep patterns can play havoc on fat loss!), the takeaway meals, the dinners out – all because I was on a carefree, socialite lifestyle.

And it didn’t really matter, I was fit enough, and constantly exercising – but there was almost ZERO chance for me to get down to a really low body fat percentage with all that… variability.

Lifestyle has A LOT to do with it. So if you aren’t ready in your life, I promise you it will be wasted effort.

You gotta be ready to get that lean.

Step two: please adjust your head first. No quick fixes! AVOID

These false promises will do you more harm than good and will DERAIL you if you aren’t seeing the results promised

It is STILL such a hotly searched topic: how to lose belly fat, how to lose body fat in general, and how to get those coveted six pack abs – it seems as though no matter what, no matter how much research is out there, no matter how long this has been covered, this topic continues to be one of the most popular, and searched, topics out there on google and on youtube.

In my research however, I’m seeing a lot of the top search results and most watched vids returning some concerning headlines and titles. Videos labelled “how to lose belly fat in 10 days” and “how to lose it on the lemon diet” or “get washboard abs FAST” … everything seems to be aiming, like it always has, at getting results, and getting them QUICK.

First off, news for everyone out there searching for this topic – a little reminder that ABSolutely (apologies!) nothing’s changed in the decades I’ve been alive in the way this topic is advertised. As clickbait-y as ever, but just in different format, there are countless offers and methods out there trying to convince you that you can do it too, and you can do it quick.

Here’s the good news:

  1. Everyone can do it. It is NOT genetics. It is effort. Ever thought at some point in your life – maybe a toned belly just isn’t for me? Maybe I’m just not physically capable of it? Nonsense. Yes, we all will look different once we can start to reveal those rocks underneath, hence genetics will determine what kind of abs you have
  2. Once you get into it, and you start to see visible results, you will be more motivated than ever to keep going.
  3. Once you do it, maintenance is far easier than the initial hump of getting your body fat down.

Here’s the bad news:

  1. There is NO QUICK FIX. Getting down to six pack ab land takes EFFORT.
    • AVOID anything that tells you you can speed up the process. “TEN DAYS and LOSE BODY FAT!” Avoid! AVOID. It will do you more harm than good if your expectations is to get it quick. If you don’t see it quickly, you’re more likely to quit. Adjust your head for the longer haul. Trust me, once you start seeing results, the time will not seem long at all.
    • Use what I found to be the 4-6 rule of thumb: First time? expect to spend 4-6 months (obviously depending on your starting point – so using my photos as an example – it was about 4-6 weeks until I started to notice a visible difference, then 4 months until I was at a SIXER, then by 6 months I was starting to see my EIGHT pack! It gets slower by the end, because you can’t lose as much as your body adjusts to your new diet changes
  2. Just because everyone CAN do it, doesn’t mean everyone CAN do it. I mean – physically, yes, but mentally? There’s A LOT of WILLPOWER involved. A LOT. I repeat: A LOT.
  3. 90/10 rule: 10% exercise, 90% diet. This is not some precise formula, but more a mantra for you to realise – abs are indeed made in the kitchen, as the saying goes – but also, you must do some exercise in order to avoid losing muscle mass and being flabby skinny.
    • You have to lift weights or do body weight exercises as well. Some might say this is one for the good news category. You can diet your way down to a slimmer body, and eat the right proportions, but as you drop weight, you need to retain muscle mass in order for your abs to show. More on this below.

Step three: the diet. Yes, it has to happen. No, it’s not hard

First, the TWO BIGGEST TIPS that will move this needle big time for beginners of the fat loss journey:

  • If you’re a drinker – STOP. At least for the early stages. This will move the progress needle quicker and bigger at the beginning. You can reintroduce alcohol back into your diet later, but for so many reasons, stop drinking if you’re new to the process:
    • Willpower gone when drunk – a night out can lead to a late-night takeaway, pizza, or snack
    • The volume of calories – a beer can be around 350 kcals!
    • The kind of calories – spirits and beer are empty carbs – not fibrous, fill-you-up carbs, but just plain empty. Terrible.
    • The effects of ethanol on muscle building and retention

Your hormones play a big part in your fat loss journey. Just know that as you cut fat, you will lose more of the ability to lose more fat – it gets harder and harder as you lose testosterone. You need testosterone for muscle building and retention. And this is something that alcohol depletes – so don’t.

  • Use a nutrition tracker. I used MyFitnessPal, by UnderArmor – they provide a great app or desktop version. This is a MUST for beginners unless you’re a nutritionist who inherently knows how many calories are in a serving of ice cream, a bowl of rice, etc. I didn’t, and most likely, you won’t.
    • I was SHOCKED at just how much food you get (or lack thereof) per calorie, depending on the kind of food. SHOCKED. And it isn’t necessarily the obvious stuff, like junk food, or fried food – things like a portion of rice has a lot more calories than you think it does.

THE DIET: THE EASY VERSION

As stated above, understand that DIET is THE NUMBER ONE REASON people get abs, or don’t.

But dieting information is so complicated, and there’s loads of calculators and science, and new studies… so much information to wade through – how do you know what’s right and what’s just a fad? Or just plain wrong?

In times of complexity, trust fundamentals.

So here it is, dieting for a six pack at it’s most simplest form.

  1. Get comfortable with the concept of MACROS
    • Macros are just a fancy way to describe the 3 main categories of food: PROTEIN (P), CARBS (C), FAT (F)
    • Get comfortable with the kinds of P, C, and F are allowed here (more below)
  2. Figure out your starting caloric level
    • This is where it can get complicated – you need to know what your currently eating, on average, per day. And this is where you can monitor your eating for a week, or two, to get a detailed sense of your average caloric count, or where you can start using online calculators to figure out your starting point (more on this below, for theose of you that want the details)
    • But the SIMPLE VERSION, for those of you who are impatient and want to get started: I’d use ballpark numbers to start, and make adjustments as you go.
    • So use these pics to ballpark your starting point:

THIS IS WHAT 2,000 CALORIES LOOKS LIKE – in order of junky to more fulfilling:

This is A meal from your local burger joint – looks like the larger portions available.

This is A meal from your local taco / burrito joint. Again, larger portions, but nevertheless, ONE meal.

Same again – about ONE meal.

Throw in a glass of wine, and some cheese and pasta – and you get about ONE meal again.

Ok – still got a glass of wine, but notice how the meal size is expanding. This is because the main is smaller, has no cheese, and is likely healthier.

Now – the more wholesome it gets, the more food you get.

Another look at 2,000 calories, just about.

This isn’t rocket science, and it’s an approximation.

But when you look at these daily intakes, do you get a sense of what you are personally ingesting on a daily basis?

For me, this is what my daily intake used to look like, give or take. I knew I was in this ballpark, but the main difference was the number of snacks and drinks. I’d probably add in here a couple of biscuits, or packets of crisps throughout the day – which easily knocked my daily intake to somewhere above 2,000 (more like 3,000).

And if I had a takeout meal – a McDonald’s for lunch – I’d still have a small dinner later.

So I guessed my starting point was about 2,500 calories or so.

3. Cut calories. Know that 3,500 calories a week is about 1 pound of weight a week, which is about 500 cal a day.

Ok, you’re now about to start taking things out of your daily routine. This is the basic principle you gotta know. Think of your body like a simple mathematical equation: from your starting point, if you eat less, you will trim up; if you eat more, you will get bigger.

That’s it. So, eat less than your starting point.

I say start with a far less aggressive cut, like 200-300 calorie reduction to start. Why?

Do not RUSH this. It’s tempting to drop the caloric reduction even further at the start – impatience and faster results right? DON’T. You will only hurt your progress in the long run. The slower you go, the more your body gets what it wants along the way, and the more muscle your body will be able to retain whilst burning fat. Trust me, it will get much harder later to shed more fat, so do this slowly.

4. Assign and stick to a basic macro split. A good ballpark split to start is 40%, 40%, 20%. This is where your knowledge of those macros comes back in. So the remaining calories you are taking in – make sure you get 40% of those calories from P, from C, and 20% from good F.

Your nutrition tracker will help you determine what your food looks like in terms of macros, but you should also start understanding the labels on the back of packaging. But most importantly, you will develop an intuitive sense of what is good for you to eat, and will be a good source of the macros you need.

The simple goal? You generally want foods that provide the most concentrated, pure forms of the macros per bite. So for example, you want P, then go for a P that is mostly P, and less F – like yep, chicken breast (when without skin, is lean, and mostly just protein!)

Imagine now, the above 2,000 calorie picture, with just chicken breast, broccoli, and brown rice. You’d be amazed at how much portion you get!

So the takeaway here is – the purer the food is in terms of good macros, and if you keep to the percentage split of 40/40/20, you’ll end up with a TON of food.

Here’s yet another 2,000 calorie view of good macros.

Dietary variety

I’m split on this topic. I hear from many people and read from many sources that variety is the key to sticking to a diet plan, so you would want to incorporate all sorts of sources to keep your palate interested.

Me personally, I think the opposite when starting out. KEEP IT SIMPLE, and pick a couple of items that you know are good for you and just stick to them. I think less choice is better so you don’t have to think so much, and you can just stick to the plan.

As you advance, you’ll get a great handle on flexing the kinds of food you can use to fulfill your macros (like BAKED GOODS, CANDY! see below).

Whichever camp you fall in, it doesn’t matter too much, just as long as you stay disciplined and keep at the macro targets and caloric reduction.

The more complex version

So I haven’t deterred you too much, and you’ve got a keen mind to get more details. Check out some great resources that I have used myself.

You will want to understand:

  • basal metabolic rate (BMR)

What is your BMR?

Your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is an estimate of how many calories you’d burn if you were to do nothing but rest for 24 hours. It represents the minimum amount of energy needed to keep your body functioning, including breathing and keeping your heart beating.

Your BMR does not include the calories you burn from normal daily activities or exercise.

This calculator uses the Mifflin-St. Jeor equations to estimate your BMR which is believed to be more accurate than the more commonly used Harris-Benedict equation

  • physical activity
  • thermic effect of food

A quick calculator for your starting caloric intake taking into account daily activity in this link.

Now that you have a more accurate starting point, that’s great. However, the rest is the same – learn your macros, keep to your percentage splits, and have an overall reduction in caloric intake.

Simple, right?

Step four: know your macros (GOOD macros)

There are LOADS of sources of good versus bad macros – so much that it’s kind of pointless to list them all out. A lot of it is intuititve, but some actually not so much.

Here’s a good chart to get you started:

Notice under Carbs this chart has listed candy. The reason why I’ve used this chart is because while processed sugar is generally not good for you for nutrition reasons –

it’s a BIG MYTH that you have to limit your diet to, well, “diet” foods.

When I cut down to 8% body fat, I was actually eating ALL SORTS of treats and SWEETS. It doesn’t really matter (too much) as long as you stick to the principles I listed: macros, %, and overall caloric reduction. That IS IT. I promise.

Yes, there is fine tuning, and more tricks, and a lot more stuff you can get obsessive over, IF YOU’RE A PRO BODYBUILDER (which for completeness, I’ll reference some of below).

But my main message to anyone who is trying this out for the first time is to not be afraid of some moderation.

You can eat. Don’t worry so much, and trust the process.

Step five: the measurements – TRUST THE PROCESS

Stop MEASURING so much. The body will fluctuate BIG TIME, especially in the first stages as your body water retention changes. You’ll feel bloated, and fatter, even though you’ll be hungrier, and SCREAMING inside “I’ve put in all this dietary effort – WTF am I getting FATTER?”

Just calm down and as they say: “TRUST THE PROCESS”. Know that if you’re doing everything right, eventually, it will show. And it will just pop one day. Honest. Suddenly it will hit you.

The tools you ACTUALLY need: abandon the scales, and even mirrors

Those of you relying on scales, and using your weight as a indicator of progress – STOP.

I will tell you the only times you need to use the scales: TWICE, at the beginning of your progress, and then at the end of your progress.

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – in reality, as you get more adept at fat loss and muscle retention, you’ll start to use the scales as a “nice to know” tool, but by no means a meaningful indicator of progress. Why?

Muscle – which you will need to build and retain – is heavy. Heavier than fat. And as you lose fat, and gain muscle (called body recomposition) you will actually likely GAIN WEIGHT.

Get it in your head, that actually, GAINING WEIGHT (the right kind of weight, through the right process) is GOOD!

The tools you can rely on:

  1. Your eyes, sort of. Do you have a favourite mirror? And one that is less flattering?
    • Mirrors are like snowflakes – because of unique composition, slight variations in convexity or concavity, etc. mirrors can bely an actual reflection. In fact, if you want to get really philosophical about it, you will never truly know what you yourself actually look like because every image of you is captured through an imperfect surface (mirror or lens) that does man’s best attempt to mimic the mechanism of sight.
    • Anyway, armchair philosophy aside, use 2 or 3 mirrors that you know – if you can use a combination of flattering and un-flattering mirrors – great! Use these mirrors, and keep using them over your journey.
  2. Your hands. Squeeze and get a sense of how much flab your grabbing. You can literally feel your skin tightening, the ridges of your newly exposed abs, the disappearance of flab, over your journey – and it will amaze you.
  3. Fat charts. See here, and again, use several sources (not just one). Get comfortable with what it might look like in certain ranges (body fat percentages are also VERY different person to person, and without getting too technical, just know the ballpark you’re aiming for).
  4. Other measuring tools (measuring tape, calipers, etc.). I don’t use these because if you’re doing the above, and making progress, you’ll just not need to, but this is something I’ve read that people can and do use. Personally, I’d say if you need to take constant measurements, you’re doing it wrong.

Step six: exercise. Yes, you have to – BUT NOT AS MUCH AS THEY SAY YOU DO

As mentioned earlier, you don’t want to end up just dieting, and end up smooth and flabby, and smaller. This is about revealing your muscles, your definition – which means keeping, or increasing, your muscle mass.

The current school of thought is that you NEED to hit the gym and do HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or high intensity weight regimens.

While this is definitely a HUGE PLUS and will GREATLY aid your fat loss journey, it isn’t necessarily mandatory for revealing your six pack.

You DO however need to exercise, and you can do this using body weights (pushups, squats, ab movements, and all the variations the internet has to offer!).

You DO NOT have to live in the gym, or even need to necessarily use weights – you can do a lot with just body weight exercises.

I also don’t want to make this post about exercise, which I might do later – just know that there are loads of resources on exercise out there if you’re interested. What’s important is that 90% is your diet.

Other dietary tricks

The “tricks:

  • cinnamon
  • caffeine
  • drinking tons of water
  • intermittent fasting

ALL of these actually have a place in the fat loss toolkit, but I only mention it here because it is such a marginal difference to do these, and of course, can also not work if you don’t adhere to the first principles I mentioned.

I can go into intermittent fasting at another time – it seems to have taken the dietary world by storm these days. While I do practice intermettent fasting at times, I also know that if you gorge yourself in your feeding window and eat more than your daily need, you will GAIN weight.

Other factors to watch out for

Ok, you’re well on your way. You’re counting calories, you’re watching macros, you’re exercising properly. Here are a few other factors that will speed up or hinder your progress.

Hydration

Do not underestimtate the importance of drinking enough water to aid fat loss. Fat cells actually lose size (that’s how you get leaner) through a process of first WATER RETENTION before they lose that water. Besides the fat loss component of it, drinking loads of water helps with hunger management, and having better glowy skin as well.

Sleep

One of my biggest problems when cutting, sleep loss can really wreck your progress.

Hormonally, chronic partial sleep loss may increase the risk of obesity and weight gain, resulting in metabolic and endocrine alterations, including decreased glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased evening concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin, decreased levels of leptin and increased hunger and appetite.

What’s worse, is that when you are cutting calories, hunger and certain mineral decreases in your diet will cause you to sleep less. I remember waking up at 4 in the morning, partly because I was raring to work out, but also because my body just was rewiring itself.

Sleep lovers out there, be warned. There ARE steps you can take to combat this side effect of dieting – some practioners out there swear by increased intakes of zinc and magnesium (ZMA) help to regulate this and get the body back on track.

It didn’t work for me, but I was so into the process, that when I woke up, I’d go hit the gym.

Starting body composition

What I mean is: different results for different people. If you’ve never exercised before in your life, or your body composition is one where you have little comparative muscle mass, then you will need to focus more on building core muscle density to help regulate your metabolism.

Stay tuned: there’s LOTS more to go over!

That’s the “basics” – a lot of information, but the number one take away is STOP looking for fast promises and schemes.

Dedicate time using the 4 to 6 rule, but don’t even bother starting if you just aren’t in a good place in terms of lifestyle.

There’s much more on this topic that I’d like to specifically cover, including how repeated fat cut cycles change as you get older, and IS IT EVEN WORTH ALL THIS?

There’s plenty of DRAMATIC sources out there saying that fat cutting can really mess with your head, and it isn’t worth it etc. – personally, I think it’s all a bit too sensational and OTT.

If you’re like me, you’re an average guy or gal who wants to improve their body image (but you aren’t a narcissist, or have some kind of inferiority complex).

Definitely worth giving a go – and I’ll go into all that in a few future posts.

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