The first time I took a gym membership in my late-twenties, I remember starting out my session with bicep curls and ending with crunches. Whatever the number of crunches I did, I remember vividly that my stomach was sore for days. Despite the soreness, I persisted in my pursuit with a combination of crunches and other abdominal exercises that I spotted people fitter than I doing in the gym (and in movies). Even after a month, the love handles mocked me and not even a faint crease appeared where abs ought to be. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any signs of abs for many years after consistently sticking to some sort of fitness routine.
“By all counts, the abdominal region is the final frontier for fat loss,” says AK Abinav, coach and founder of NammaCrossfit and Akada Life fitness centres in Bengaluru. “The six-pack is a superficial muscle below the chest… everyone has it. Unfortunately, for most of us it isn’t visible as we tend to have fat accumulation in the trunk and stomach region. It becomes apparent only when one has lower levels of body fat in the trunk region,” he explains, adding, “Our body generally stores fat first in the trunk region and as you cease physical activity you tend to store fat closer to the palms, legs and face.”
However, resuming a fitness regimen doesn’t mean you start losing fat around your belly first. It is the fat in the extremities that goes first and that around the trunk is the last to go, earning its “stubborn fat” tag. “The stubborn fat cannot be altered through mere training or nutrition plan. Patience is key here,” advises Vinit Mathew Baptist, a certified nutritionist from the UK-based Mac-Nutrition University and co-founder of the Kolkata-based National Fitness and Nutrition Academy.
Beyond nutrition and workouts
“If your nutrition and rest are on point, the stored fat in the abdominal region is used to feed the muscles involved in your exercise programme,” says Abinav.
However, for your abs to pop out, you might have to rethink your current approach. Abdominal muscles, like all other muscle, need resistance and rest to grow in size and strength. “Focus on stimulating skeletal muscle by implementing training programs like weightlifting, calisthenics, gymnastics and sprinting. Most of the exercises in these training programmes involve the use of your abdominal muscles to stabilise the body. So, forget crunches, do hanging leg raises instead. Do the single arm plank instead of the regular plank hold; it enhances strength and makes your abs want to pop out. Once the ab muscles are stimulated, they are subject to micro tears and undergo the repair process like any other muscle,” says Abinav.
Along with the exercise regimen, a calorie-deficit diet or consuming less calories than what you burn is key to getting the elusive six-pack. However, maintaining this over long periods of time is tricky, warns Baptist. “The fat loss journey becomes harder and harder as a person stays on a calorie-deficit routine for long periods of time. This results in hunger skyrocketing, activity levels dropping gradually, and the metabolic rate slowing down too.”
Abinav advises against adopting drastic routines that involve depleting yourself of energy and water content like fitness models, bodybuilders and professional actors often resort to. “You could make those abs visible in a short period of time for a limited time. By resorting to extreme methods, you are putting your health at risk. Also, when you resume your regular lifestyle, the abs will go back into hibernation,” adds Abinav.
Seek inspiration from boxers, sprinters, gymnasts and martial artists, he says. “Notice those abs. They aren’t just made for the mirror or the camera. They are made through intense training, sound nutrition and recovery practices. They are iron clad.” This is a healthier method to minimise body fat while elevating strength and conditioning levels.
Maintaining the six-pack
One day, out of the blue, I spotted a proper six-pack in a mirror selfie that a friend took. This was unexpected as I was eating and drinking as per normal and work had been rather hectic. At the time I had been following CrossFit workouts regularly for over two years. Just six weeks later when I was at a beach we took another picture. Just like they appeared without warning, my abs had also disappeared without one. It had been just a week since I had stopped working out. On other occasions too that abs have managed to sneak up on me, I have found it impossible to hold on to them for long.
It is difficult to maintain such low levels of body fat all year round to be able to flaunt the six-pack, says Baptist. “Your lifestyle,i.e. physical training, nutrition and recovery, largely determines whether those abdominal muscles will be visible as you age. Even most professional athletes tend to give up the athletic way of life once they stop competing. So it is hard enough for them to maintain their six-pack after retirement. And here we are talking about the common folk who spend hours in front of monitors sitting in once place,”, says Abinav.
In order to maintain the six-pack, you need to partake in activities or sports that involve weightlifting, sprinting, throwing or jumping. The more diverse the stimuli directed towards the skeletal muscle, the more efficient the process of feeding muscle from stored body fat, adds Abinav.
A well-rounded athletic lifestyle is likely to help you maintain your body fat at really low levels and make those muscles visible.
You really have your task cut out.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.