How to Eat (and Exercise) to Get Six-Pack Abs

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An online search for how to get abs without dieting yields a raft of eye-popping results: There are YouTube videos with instructions, and a piece on the dating site promises advice. Want to achieve ripped abs by eating pizza and ice cream? There’s an article on that on a healthy eating website. A piece in a fitness magazine describes the 10 best foods for flat abs.

coach doing abs with the medicine ball(Getty Images)

You can find myriad articles, blog posts and videos offering advice on how to develop a six-pack, the kind of chiseled abs you’d expect to see on world-class athletes, like Olympic gymnasts, members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team or world-class swimmers. While Olympians and pro athletes developed their physiques by eating well and investing countless hours to working out, lifting weights and doing sit-ups and crunches, you could pick up a six-pack just by eating the right foods, these articles and videos suggest.

The reality isn’t that simple, experts say. The answer to whether it’s possible for someone to develop abs without adhering to a diet or by simply cutting back on calories is “maybe,” says Evan M. Chait, a clinical nutritionist, physical therapist and acupuncturist based in Ramsey, New Jersey. He’s a co-founder of the Kinetic PT and AcuWellness America centers. Anyone can cut calories and lose weight, Chait says. Dropping fatty pounds from your midsection can reveal the abdominal muscles that everyone has. “Six-pack” isn’t a physiological term; rather, it’s a shorthand way to refer to the rectus abdominus, the outer band of stomach muscle connecting the rib cage to the pelvis.

There’s no magic bullet eating or exercise regimen that will change your body to reveal your abs, Chait says. But adopting a healthy eating and exercise regimen can help you achieve your health goals. “In order for your health to change, you must change,” he says. “It’s a long-term process.”

As part of that process, here are eight strategies that can help you attain six-pack abs:

  • Consume fewer calories than you’re burning every day.
  • Cut out refined sugar.
  • Beware of smoothies.
  • Increase your protein intake.
  • Engage in abs training.
  • Seek guidance from experts.
  • Calculate your body’s caloric and macronutrient needs.
  • Stay positive and realistic.

While exercise can be an important and even necessary element of a successful effort to develop a six-pack, it won’t be the most important one, says Ashley Hagensick, a sports dietitian with Intermountain Healthcare in the Salt Lake City area. “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet,” she says.

Exercise also can’t erase a couple of factors beyond your control, experts say. “I think age plays a critical role in how easy or hard it is to get ‘six-pack abs.’ It’s all about hormones – when we are younger, we have more circulating androgen hormones, which affords us the ability to not eat clean and yet continue to be shredded,” Chait says. Our androgen hormone levels decline after we reach age 27, he says. (Testosterone is an androgen hormone in men. In women, a primary purpose of androgens is to be converted into female hormones known as estrogen.) After that age, “we need to focus more on dietary adjustments to maintain a lean body,” Chait says.

Genetics is another unchangeable factor that affects your ability to develop a six-pack, says Holly Herrington, a registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Digestive Health Center in Chicago. “We get things from our families,” including our musculature and build, Herrington says. The offspring of volleyball star Gabrielle Reece, who is 6 feet, 3 inches tall and muscularly lean, with well-defined abs, will almost certainly have a different build than someone who is short and stocky, for example. But exercising regularly an boost your health no matter your genetics. “It doesn’t mean you can’t strive (for defined abs), but some of it is genetic,” Herrington says. Nonetheless, exercising regularly can boost your health regardless of your genetics.

Hagensick estimates that developing defined abs comes down to 80% good nutrition, 10% exercise and 10% genetics and age. Whatever your age or genetic makeup, there are eating and exercise approaches that can help you achieve defined abs. Experts offer these eight strategies:

1. Consume fewer calories than you’re burning every day.

Job one when trying to achieve a six-pack is to lose weight, which means expending more calories than you take in on a daily basis, says Dani Singer, a certified fitness nutrition specialist and certified personal trainer in Baltimore. He’s the director of Fit2Go Personal Training. To optimize losing fat and not muscle, you need to be in a caloric deficit, eat adequate protein and strength train, he says. “The source of your food will affect health, but will have zero effect on your body composition,” Singer says. “It’s the total calories and macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs) from your foods that will determine how your body looks.”

To achieve six-pack abs, you need to be exceptionally lean and shed stomach fat. The first step is to burn more calories than you’re consuming, Singer says.

2. Cut out refined sugar.

Not all calories are equal when you’re trying to lose weight and develop a six-pack, Herrington says. For example, 200 calories from a robust serving of beans or from a cookie laden with refined sugar provide vastly different amounts of nutrition. A serving of beans would typically contain good amounts of protein, potassium, magnesium and dietary fiber, while a cookie packed with sugar is mostly empty calories, Herrington says. She advises staying away from foods like white bread, cakes and pies and white crackers that are laden with refined sugar. You should also eschew sugary sports drinks, fruit juices and sodas, in favor of plain water or milk. “The biggest thing I advise people to avoid is added sugars,” Herrington says. “If you want to cut out body fat, cut that out. Refined sugar isn’t doing you any good. You get a temporary boost of energy, then you crash and crave more. It’s like burning money; it’s a waste.” Eating too much refined sugar is also linked to fatty liver disease, obesity and diabetes, she says.

Too much added sugar can make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight and increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes, Herrington says. Ideally, most of your carbs should come from sugars that are considered natural sources, like fruit and milk. You can also get carbs from highly nutritious foods such as beans, brown rice and quinoa.

3. Beware of fruit smoothies.

Many of Hagensick’s clients tell her they have a smoothie for breakfast. A typical smoothie could consist of a banana, a cup of spinach, one or two cups of mixed frozen berries and milk. Hagensick says she tells her clients to think about how many calories such ingredients total. “A half cup of frozen mixed berries is one serving of fruit. A small banana is a serving. You could have four or five servings of fruit, and each serving will have about 60 to 80 calories. That adds up,” she says. “When you add a cup of low-fat plain yogurt, that’s 100 calories.” Smoothies, on the other hand, contain a lot of calories. A medium-sized smoothie could easily have more than 400 calories. You can consume a smoothie in a matter of minutes, and it won’t satisfy your hunger for long, Hagensick says. You might end up feeling hungry a couple of hours later and therefore consume more food – and calories – than if you’d eaten a healthy breakfast.

When you consume calories in liquid form – like fruit smoothies – you’re removing two major components: chewing and fiber. Chewing is the first step in digestion and allows your brain time to register when you are full. You get the benefits of dietary fiber by eating whole fruit rather than drinking a smoothie. Fiber makes you feel full, helps prevent constipation and lowers cholesterol, Hagensick says.

4. Increase your protein intake.

As you lower your calorie intake and cut down on processed foods and refined sugar, be sure to consume enough high-protein foods, Singer says. “Prioritizing protein will help you maintain muscle mass,” he says. Lean meats, skinless chicken and turkey, beans and lentils, tofu and soy-based foods, eggs, nuts and low-fat dairy products are good sources of protein. Your body breaks down protein into amino acids, which it uses to build muscle, according to Harvard Health. A study published in 2016 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that eating higher amounts of protein and engaging in high volumes of resistance and aerobic exercise while consuming fewer calories than you’re burning is more effective in promoting increases in lean body mass and loss of fat mass than consuming a diet lower in protein.

If you’re in a caloric deficit, you will lose weight. However, losingweight and losing fat are not synonymous. “Consuming enough protein will help support your muscle and cause your body to burn fat instead,” Singer says.

5. Engage in abs training.

In addition to eating right and losing weight, doing certain types of exercises can help you achieve a better-defined abdomen, Singer says. “I’m sure everybody knew somebody in high school who had tremendous abs who ate whatever he or she wanted and had tremendous abs without working out,” Singer says. “Most of us aren’t that lucky.” If developing a six-pack is your goal, doing abs training can be part of a successful regimen. Such workouts would include weighted crunches and weighted sit-ups, he says. Cardio workouts are helpful for shedding pounds, but won’t, on their own, lead to defined abs.

Everyone technically has a six-pack, Singer says. “The game is all about strengthening your existing rectus abdominis (six-pack abs) to make them more prominent, and shedding the fat to make them visible,” he says. “With that in mind, traditional ab workouts composed of high-rep bodyweight exercises will help, but you’ll likely benefit from training your abs with resistance, just like any other muscle group.”

6. Seek guidance from experts.

As with many health issues, getting assistance from experts can be enormously helpful. If you want to lose weight, particularly fat, seeking guidance from a registered dietitian or a nutritionist can be very beneficial, Herrington says. Similarly, if you want to build on weight loss to achieve more defined abs, consulting with a certified sports trainer can aid you in developing a workout regimen that will help you reach your goals, Singer says.

A great fitness professional will teach you what to do to lose weight and improve your fitness, Singer says. More importantly, he or she will teach you what not to do. “With all of the pseudoscience and myths floating around today, it’s important to have someone who can help you wade through all the contradictory information,” he says.

7. Calculate your body’s caloric and macronutrient needs.

The most efficient way to be lean and healthy is to figure out your body’s daily caloric and macronutrient needs and developing an eating and exercise regimen that you follow 80% of the time, says Jonathan Jordan, a certified personal trainer, weight loss specialist and group fitness instructor for an Equinox health club in San Francisco. “Tools like MyFitnessPal (an app) make this pretty simple and increasingly accurate,” Jordan says.

Losing weight is a matter of math: Burn more calories than you consume. Developing an eating and exercise plan that you’ll adhere to 80% of the time can help you reach your fitness goals.

8. Stay positive and realistic.

Don’t be disappointed if you can’t achieve a well-defined six-pack. Because of your genetics and age, you may not be able to get the six-pack you want, but you can still be healthy, Hagensick says. “To be healthy, you have to have a certain percentage of fat,” she says. “Some people simply have more fat than others around their midsection, but they can still improve their overall eating habits and exercise routine.”

Summary: Adopting healthier eating and exercise habits and losing weight won’t guarantee you’ll get a six-pack, but that doesn’t mean your regimen’s a failure. Everyone has to carry a certain amount of fat, and adopting a consistent eating and exercise regimen can improve your overall health.


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