Why you aren't getting your six-pack despite working out your abs - the myth of spot reduction.
One of the great things about working out is making progress. That feeling of being able to see the impact of your fitness regimen on your body, being able to see a particular set of muscles 'pop', being able to run back to the café you were just at to collect your phone that you left behind without getting breathless.
It's a great feeling.
Something that isn't a great feeling is looking in the mirror after putting your heart and soul into your workouts, and seeing little to no progress.
If you've been hitting your abs hard when you workout and ensuring you get the right nutrition (and sleep), but you still can't see a six pack in the mirror, it'll be tempting to just give up, or at least, to stop trying so hard.
But you shouldn't do that, and here's why:
If you've been working out your abs well enough for a long enough period of time, chances are you WILL have a six pack, you just won't be able to see it?
Because of that pesky demon, fat.
There's a popular phrase in the fitness world; "Abs are made in the kitchen". And, while you shouldn't neglect the gym, you should listen to anyone who tells you this. One part of having a six pack is muscle, the other is fat.
So, let's take a look at that:
Fat: The two types.
There are two main types of fat you should worry about in fitness, and they are:
- Visceral fat
- Subcutaneous fat
These fats are both forms of adipose tissue, but are positioned differently in the body.
Visceral fat wraps around the organs, while subcutaneous fat lies just underneath the skin. Subcutaneous fat is mostly stored in the lower body, such as the thighs and buttocks, whereas visceral fat is stored in places like the abdomen. Subcutaneous fat is pinchable, and visible from the outside, whereas visceral fat is not visible.
However, those with lots of subcutaneous fat often also have significant amounts of visceral fat, and visceral fat is the more dangerous of the two.
Next up, we'll move on to a commonly touted myth:
The myth of spot reduction:
'Spot reduction' is the idea that if you work out an area of your body, you'll lose fat in that area. For example, if you were to work out your abs, believers in spot reduction would tell you that this would cause you to lose fat around your stomach, and that if you worked out your legs, you would lose fat around your legs.
In a response to the question "Are there any exercises I can do to target fat reduction?", Carolyn Nickol of the University of Cincinnati's fitness centre responded:
"Weight reduction occurs throughout the body, not in specific areas. `Spot reduction` is not possible. Aerobic exercise helps burn calories and therefore should be encouraged for weight reduction in general. Cardiovascular exercise performed 3-5 days per week for 30-60 minutes per session will help shed body fat."
The 1984 'Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport' features a study whereby subjects participated in a 27 day situp program, and found that by the end of the study, body fat levels hadn't changed. If the spot reduction myth was true, there would've been a decrease in abdominal fat.
This myth has been around forever, just look at this 1922 product:
Marketed as a weight loss belt, this product was supposed to massage your skin, causing fat to break down. In 1936 the FCC launched an inquiry into the product, eventually issuing a cease and desist since no proof could be provided that the belt could cause weight-loss.
Spot reduction is just a big old myth, and I don't want you to fall for it.
What can (and should) be done to get that six pack:
So, as we've established, for you to get those rock hard abs, you need to do two things:
- Gain enough abdominal muscle to have prominent abs
- Lose enough abdominal fat for those abs to be visible
And, as we've also established, the only way to lose abdominal fat is to lose fat everywhere.
So, now we have to ask, how do we lose fat everywhere.
There are a lot of answers to this, but they all boil down to just one key point:
Run a caloric deficit.
What this means is that you should be taking in less calories than you are using up. For example; if you burn 2500 calories a day but only take in 2400 calories through your diet, you are on a caloric deficit of 100 calories.
Where does your body make up the difference? It burns fat.
When this fat is broken down, energy is released, and your body can get those extra 100 calories that it needs to function.
One way to run up your caloric deficit without reducing how much you eat is to increase how many calories you burn.
The simple way to do this? Exercise.
Think about it; if you're now burning an extra 300 calories a day from working out, but still only taking in 2400 (eating the same amount), you've now reached a 400 calorie deficit!
The combination of working out (High Intensity Interval Training is often recommended for losing weight. For more information click here) and caloric restriction is what produces fat loss, but there are some key things to remember if you're going to attempt this or are in the process:
1: Ease into it.
Caloric restriction is a challenge, and often a tricky one. If you jump right into a significant deficit you may be unprepared and face the mental challenge of going from being well-fed one day to hungry the next. No matter how steel-willed you are, you're likely to give up, or at least to have a bad time with it.
Instead, you should ease into it. If you cut your calories by just 50 a day, you can reach a 500 calorie deficit in only 10 days, with much less psychological stress and a much lower chance of falling off the wagon and devouring a whole pantry.
2: Drink lots of water.
Staying hydrated in general is important, but in this case it's not about hydration.
When you drink water, it first goes to your stomach, before diffusing into the bloodstream and eventually passing into your bladder where it then exits.
The stomach portion of that is key. When water enters your stomach, your stomach sends a signal to your brain that it is full. When you're trying to lose weight and you just feel too hungry, drink some water and that feeling should ease or go away entirely.
Something important to remember here is that drinking too much water can cause an electrolyte imbalance in your body. To counteract this, squeeze a lemon or lime into your water (the ratio should be half a lemon to one pint of water), or eat some fruit if you've drunk a lot of water (remember to factor this into your daily calories). This will stop your electrolyte-water ratio from becoming imbalanced.
You can also eat nuts for electrolytes, but due to their high calorie and fat content, it is not recommended when you are trying to lose weight.
3: Eat enough protein!
The right ratio of protein to carbs to fats is important when cutting weight down. Your diet should be low in fats, high in protein and moderate in carbs. A good template to use is that fats should be around 20-25% of your diet and carbs should be around 45-50%. You should consume a lot of protein to prevent your muscles breaking down from the reduced calories, but protein shouldn't exceed 40% of your diet (It won't give you kidney failure, it's just excessive).
Since that paragraph was a bit wordy, I'll break it down in a bullet point list:
- Fats - 20-25%
- Carbs - ~45-50%
- Protein - High (but not exceeding 40%)
Eating enough protein ensures that your body won't start to break down your muscles to provide energy, and also means you can keep gaining muscle, even while you're on a caloric deficit. That being said, I don't advise shooting for too lofty goals for muscle gain when losing weight - it's best to focus on one or the other.
We have an article on some non-meat high-protein foods here.
4: Don't exceed a 500 calorie deficit.
Your body does need a minimum amount of energy to survive each day. I wouldn't recommend having a caloric deficit of more than 500. I'll explain why:
One pound of fat is equal to roughly 3,500 calories, meaning on a 500 calorie deficit you can (relatively comfortably) lose a pound of fat a week without risk to your health. For beginners, and the more seasoned, this is what we would recommend.
With all that in mind, a comfortable and consistent caloric deficit, coupled with regular exercise such as HIIT or running is the path to the six pack. There is unfortunately no other way.
Nothing beats the gratification, however, of seeing your work pay off, and if you follow the advice laid out in this post you'll be able to see regular improvement. Remember: you should treat 'get fit quick' schemes the same way you treat 'get rich quick' schemes.
Tell us about your experiences on a caloric deficit, and what advice you would give to someone looking to lose weight. Share this article with your friends!