Aaron Chy, BSc General, PharmD Student
“Tighten up that stomach. Build up those lines. Look great on the beach!” Sound familiar? With all the six-pack shortcuts gurus out there, you don’t have to look hard to find the next groundbreaking secret to losing fat and shredding that stomach. For whatever reason, we’re obsessed with the goal of achieving a lean, toned midsection, and we’ve come to associate that image with looking good and being healthy.
The Flawed Concept Behind “Getting” Abs
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: we all have abs. The rectus abdominus muscles run along the front of our body and serve to maintain posture, and hold in our vital organs. Each segment of muscle is connected to each other by a segment of connective tissue, creating the “six-pack” arrangement so popularized by media. Along the sides of the body run our oblique muscles, which provides the contoured, ridged appearance when viewed from the side.
Between the abdominal muscles and the skin is a layer of subcutaneous fat. This layer exists around the body, but generally focuses in the midsection, and varies from person to person. It’s not until someone reaches a profoundly low body fat percentage that the muscles and cartilage of their abdomen become visible beneath the skin. Usually, this tends to occur at 10% or less body fat.
Therefore, getting a washboard stomach isn’t about working the muscles. It’s burning the fat that’s hiding what’s already there. Think about having a beautiful, green lawn in the front yard of your house, except its covered by snow.
The Myth of Spot Burning Fat
There’s no shortage of hodgepodge out there on spot-burning exercises that target the fat around the stomach, or supplements that do the same. The reality is, spot burning is a myth. The body doesn’t pick and choose what areas it’ll tone down first. Engaging certain muscles will make no difference in making that area of the body leaner. In fact, from a fat burning perspective, muscle building exercises are one of the worst ways to burn fat.
The not-so “secret” to burning fat is as simple as calories in versus calories out. If you spend more energy than you eat in a day, you’ll run at a deficit, and your body will naturally respond by using stored fat as energy. If done safely and gradually, you can expect to start seeing yourself lean out: your skin begins to tighten, and the contours of your muscles begin to show.
To increase calorie expenditure, cardio-type exercises like running and biking are the classic go-to method, as an add-on to a balanced weightlifting routine. All put together; these components make up the general workout plan of 90% of the people who go to the gym. Whatever their individual workouts may consist of, the majority of gym-goers have the same goals: lose fat, gain muscle, and build a strong, balanced figure.
Where Things Get Complicated
As simple as the formula may seem, the act of achieving a caloric deficit is actually quite difficult. As far as calorie-burning workouts go, the truth is that something as difficult as a 30-minute run burns calories roughly equal to just one slice of pizza.
That’s where the other half of the battle comes in; keeping an eye on what you eat. Now, that’s not the same as restriction dieting – no one should ever aim to starve themselves in the name of progress. But it does mean learning a thing or two about what proportions of proteins, fats and carbohydrates work the best for you, to give your body the nutrients it needs while leaving out the excess. Sound complicated? It can be. It’s not an exact science either, but there are plans and formulas out there – a discussion for another time.
In the meantime though, here’s some real food for thought. Looking like someone from a Marvel movie with that picture perfect stomach and being fit and healthy are not the same thing. As you may now recall, building a 6-pack pack figure requires you to achieve an extremely low body fat, by essentially putting your body into a mild starvation mode. For anyone who isn’t a professional, this is far above and beyond what it means to be in good shape. In fact, many well-known bodybuilders and athletes have publicly talked about how this isn’t a healthy thing to do.
So why do it at all?
What to Take Away From This
There’s nothing wrong with going to the gym, working towards a better figure, and improving your fitness level. Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or just a casual gym goer, the benefits of exercise are universal. That said, being real with yourself regarding your goals and aspirations is the most important thing. If you truly have the competitive, driven desire to achieve that perfect physique, and you have the knowledge and tools to pursue that – then all the best. However, if your goals are to improve your well-being, take care of yourself down the road, and have confidence doing it, know that you’ll find the most success working out at the level that you enjoy most and that no-one else’s standards should ever be your own.
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