Got abs? The flat truth about getting a washboard stomach.

So you want to know the secret to a washboard stomach, do ya? Ok, let’s just bypass all those snake oil diet goofballs who claim to have a secret that doesn’t involve some sweat, hard work, smart nutrition practices and time.

Yikes, is that crickets I hear? Did I just lose everybody?

Stay with me guys. 6-pack abs are the result of lucky genetics, diet, being in top physical condition and striking just the right muscle to fat ratio. Obviously you can’t do anything about your physical inheritance. Even the fittest people are programmed to carry their excess fat in particular spots on their bodies. For some it’s their bellies, for others it’s their butts and thighs, and even breasts. This propensity to store fat in certain areas is why there is no such thing as “spot reduction”. You can’t crunch yourself to 6-pack abs. If there’s a layer of fat over them, the only way to reduce it is by reducing your entire body’s fat percentage.

Body fat percentage is the total weight of fat in your body divided by your total body weight. Body fat includes essential body fat and storage body fat. Essential body fat is, as its name suggests, critical for life and the body’s natural functions.  Due to childbearing and hormonal requirements, women’s essential body fat is much higher than men’s. Storage body fat includes the adipose tissue that protects internal organs in the chest and abdomen, and everything else that we’re storing above and beyond it.

Because men have a naturally lower body fat percentage than women, they have an easier time popping the 6-pack. (Alas, so why is it that so few have them?!) Unfortunately, most men have traded in their natural washboards for 6-packs of beer, couches and video games and spectator sports.  We women have to work much harder for abs given that our bodies naturally higher fat %. I read somewhere that female breasts are 80% fat. Bottom line, if a woman wants 6 pack abs, she may have to sacrifice some inches up above. This is why most women with a low fat % and 6-pack abs are small /flat-chested. Great washboard – no (natural) rack syndrome.  Of course there are always the exceptions – the case where the woman naturally stores fat in 2 spots, her breasts (lucky wench). Very rare. In any case, most women aren’t going for that extreme fitness look anyway and can simply maintain when they reach their goal of a flat stomach.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to 6-packs. As someone who started out skinny and is blessed with good genetics, I’ve always had a flat stomach, but no ab definition per se. As a runner, I was in great aerobic condition and generally lean, but not enough so that my abs popped. (Perhaps if my diet had involved less chocolate and fat, my abs would have popped then.)  My 6-pack didn’t appear until I added weight lifting to my routine. Lifting heavy weights on a fairly regular basis was enough to shift my fat / muscle ratio to reveal my abs. Years later when I started competing in triathlons, my emphasis changed from spending hours in the gym to spending  hours in the pool and on the bike. I quickly dropped the excess muscle weight I was carrying and leaned down even further due to all my endurance activity.

Do you have to know your body fat in order to reduce it? Nope, just like when you lose weight, you will be able to see and feel the difference in your body (firmer, toner). Keep in mind, you may not lose weight (lbs) since muscle weighs more than fat.

There are several body fat measurement methods. Skin fold caliper – a bit of an old school method that requires another person. You may have seen it used in the gym back in the day. The tester pinches your fat at different sites on your body, take measurements, performs calculations and comes up with a total. The gold standard, Hydrostatic Weighing, is expensive (~$150) and requires going to a testing site and being submerged in a specialized tank of water to obtain a reading of fat free mass and fat mass. For around $250 , a Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) takes analysis even further by dividing the body into total body mineral, fat-free soft (lean) mass, and fat tissue mass. Interestingly the DEXA also allows for body fat distribution analysis, so you can figure out precisely how fat is distributed in various parts of your body. (As if you need a machine to do this for you.) The most practical and convenient for most of us are bioelectrical impedance scales such as such as the Tanita Body Fat Monitor Scale (~$50). These scales work by measuring your body’s resistance to a low, safe electrical current and taking into account your height, gender, age and weight. The current passes more easily through muscle (since it is approximately 75% water) than fat, which is more dense. While the accuracy may vary some with your hydration levels, these scales are certainly accurate enough to monitor your progress.

Do you have to become a weight lifter or an exercise fanatic to get 6-pack abs? Of course not, (though it doesn’t hurt). But you do have to do something consistently with good effort. Exercising vigorously (there’s that V word again) and eating smart are the real, rarely revealed “truths” about 6 pack abs.

The American Council On Exercise Fat Percentage Chart

Description Women Men
Essential fat 10–13% 2–5%
Athletic Range 14–20% 6–13%
Fit Range 21–24% 14–17%
Average Range 25–31% 18–24%
Obese Range 32%+ 25%+
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