The Epic Quest for Six Pack Abs

Six Pack Abs and a Band.

Six Pack Abs – and a Band.
Image Courtesy of imagerymajestic and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In Death of the Diet, I stress the importance of determining your Why – the true motivating force driving you to improve your eating and physical activity habits.  While many people “would like” six pack abs, not everyone realizes the amount of effort required to not only attain, but sustain such a low percentage of body fat (likely in the mid-to-high single digits for men, and the low double digits for women).  However, I understand some people still want to give it their all and see what they can accomplish, so this blog post is my contribution for those committed to the epic quest for six pack abs.

 

1. A Disclaimer: Genetics Often Dictate the Effort Required to Attain and Sustain Six Pack Abs

Consider that six pack abs are the “pinnacle” of body composition, much like professional athletes or CEOs achieve the pinnacle of their respective fields.

Genetics play a tremendous role in how easy, or hard, it is for a person to attain the highest levels of performance, or six pack abs (see my “proprietary” drawing below).  While it would be nice to achieve them, do not place your entire self-worth on seeing those six abs.  You are more than just a set of abs – appreciate the healthy eating and physical activity habits you will be performing to achieve those results, and consider which ones you can continue long-term.  Everyone can be healthy, fit and happy, regardless of the number of abs you see.

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

While I sincerely hope you do achieve them, be ok with the fact that the effort you put in to achieve six pack abs may not be sustainable long-term.  Even the leanest of the bunch, bodybuilders, only maintain their shredded physique for a few days of the year for their competitions.  Look at them two weeks after a competition, it’s usually a whole different story.  Just like other accomplishments, give yourself a major pat on the back for achieving something many others will never do (myself included, thus far). I’ll discuss my personal attempt at six pack abs at the end of the post.

2. Make Your Body Inefficient

Research has shown that those who tend to lose weight easily (ectomorphs), have more “inefficient” bodies.  They have more brown fat – a type of fat that burns calories (researchers don’t know how to apply these findings…yet).  They tend to have more non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), a.k.a. they fidget and move around more.  And they are also usually quite active. In other words, their bodies require more fuel (calories) to perform their daily routines.  While you may not be able to channel your inner brown fat, there are methods for eating and physical activity that can increase your personal inefficiency:

Nutrition / Eating

Increase your thermal effect of food (the amount of calories needed to break down and digest the food you eat) by having less processed, whole foods rich in fiber, water and protein such as fruits, veggies, lean meats, oatmeal, nuts, beans and dairy (for those that are lactose tolerant).  Think of it this way: The less processed the food is, the harder it is for your body to break down those plant cell walls and proteins to get the available calories.  For example, recent research has shown that your body actually attains about 20% less calories from raw almonds than listed on the package.

On the flipside, consider that in many cases processing = pre-digestion.  Machines are doing the digestion for you so absorption is faster and easier.  However, the easier it is for your body to suck up the calories, the more likely they will go to fat if you’re not burning them.  For that reason, the pursuit of six pack abs often means bye-bye to most highly processed foods, sugary foods/beverages, baked goods, alcohol, etc.  Each person is unique – you’ll have to learn how often you can indulge while still maintaining progress towards your ultimate goal – six pack abs.  For some it will be monthly, others weekly, others daily (see the genetic component above).

Exercise

From an exercise perspective, staying inefficient means performing exercises that require large amounts of muscle groups to work, whether it be cardiovascular training, kettlebell swings, upper/lower body splits, interval training, density training or circuit training.  But remember, the more you do something, the better and more efficient your body gets at performing it.   So as soon as your body starts to adapt and an activity starts to feel too easy (usually within 3 to 5 weeks), throw in a deload week to recover, and then change up the routine completely to keep the body learning…and the calories burning.

Also, throw in a heavier weight strength day or two each week to ensure your body does all it can to maintain its metabolically active lean body mass during the weight loss.  Well controlled, multi joint lifts such as pushes/presses, rows/pulls, squats, hip hinges and loaded carries (thanks, Dan John!), not only work the hell out of your muscles, but they also burn a ton of calories.  In summary, tell your body to burn fat, not muscle through what you eat and how you move.

3. Maintain Your Metabolism by Periodizing Your Nutrition

Unsurprisingly, your body doesn’t like feeling starved. That’s why your body burns calories, and fat, best by being in a slight calorie deficit – consuming slightly less than you burn.  If you burn more, you can eat more and still get results (see energy flux topic below).  If you burn too much and eat too little, however, your body will quickly recognize the significant imbalance and return the favor by stalling your metabolism and potentially burning precious lean body mass.  That’s why periodizing your nutrition is so vital.  I discuss the finer, scientific points of stalled metabolism in Death of the Diet’s latest e-book, 12 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Weight Permanently, and How to Beat ‘Em, available for free to newsletter members.

You can periodize your nutrition on either a daily, or weekly basis (or both – but don’t drive yourself nuts over it):

  • On a daily basis, you could eat a little more on training days (with the extra fuel focused on your workouts and recovery), and have less on off days while aiming to maintain a slight calorie deficit each day.  Once a week, aim to eat a little more than usual to keep the metabolism churning.
  • Or you can couple a few weeks of higher intensity calorie imbalance (eating less, burning more) with recovery phases (increasing your food intake to achieve calorie balance, or even slightly above), much like you need a deload week every 3 to 5 weeks with consistent, hard training.  In fact, you could pair your deload nutrition week with your deload training week. While you may gain a small amount of weight due to the replenishment of your fluid and glycogen stores during a deload week, the act of eating a little more and training a little less will send a signal to your body that all is well metabolically, and it has no reason to horde calories and fat.  Then you can resume your higher intensity phase the following week. It’s all about resting for a moment before the next ascent.

4. Move and Exercise Consistently to Increase Energy Flux

The “afterburn” effect of most exercise sessions is minimal – only about 10% to 20% of the calories actually burned when performing the exercise.  There are two moderate exceptions to this rule: the time immediately after significant, high intensity training (as great as this sounds, be sure to train safe since an injury will undoubtedly derail your six pack dreams), and people/athletes who have “high energy flux.”

High energy flux is a result of being very active each and every day.  It’s why Michael Phelps and sprinters can eat like a horse (pizza, pasta, etc.) and look ripped.  The amount of physical activity they do each allows them to burn through whatever they want and not gain an ounce.  Not only are those calories going to fuel their workouts, but it’s going to replenish glycogen stores, increase intramuscular triglyceride stores (specialized fuel stores for active people), repair their muscles and maintain their significant lean body mass.  Research has shown that achieving significant weight loss, especially six pack abs, is best served by maintaining a high level activity, not just cutting calories alone.  Like the previous point mentioned, your body does not like to feel starved.

Keep that metabolic fire stoked 24/7 by sitting less, walking more, training often and recovering well.  The biggest threat to not achieving six pack abs is an injury.

5. Putting It All Together: Assess Where You Are and Create a Plan

Achieving six-pack abs can be a considerable undertaking, similar to climbing a mountain.  Research recommends climbing mountains over 10,000 feet high in 1,000 foot stages and then resting before continuing on.  Do the same with your six pack ab pursuit.  Are you just getting off the couch (below base camp), or are you halfway up (physically active, but no six-pack)?  The amount of effort you should be putting in should be just a bit beyond your current position.  Get there, get comfortable, then forge ahead.  Perform the six pack abs ascent in stages.  If you go too far too fast, you may get gassed, or worse yet, injured.  Climbing a mountain is a process.  So is achieving six pack abs.

Using the information and ideas above, the best first step you can take to achieve six-pack abs is to create a personalized action plan to get there.  Choose the one or two ideas that resonate most with you, and then write down exactly how you’re going to do them.  The more details, the better. Why is creating a plan important?

  • It organizes your thoughts.
  • It gives you immediate actions you can take to start getting results.
  • You can track, and manage, the execution of your action plan to see which changes are getting you the best effects and make adjustments as needed.

Epilogue: My Personal Attempt at Six Pack Abs

My personal attempt stopped at around 9.8% during my initial weight loss in 2005.  I looked good, but still only had the initial outline of four abs.  And I realized that I was cutting out many of the foods and cooking experiences I enjoyed, which took a toll on my overall happiness in life.  My personal Why evolved into one more focused on confidence in my body (even if I could only count two abs, not six) along with my long-term health, strength and happiness – which means staying active, but also giving in to my foodie self on occasion.  When asked what I eat, I typically tell my clients and workshop attendees, “I eat chocolate and broccoli.  I just make sure I eat more broccoli than chocolate.”

TELL ME: Have you attempted, or achieved six pack abs?  What did it take?  Share your story and help others learn about the process.

Do You Eat to Live, or Live to Eat?

Mmm, food.

Image courtesy of: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Use the Healthy Food Preference List and Indulgence Frequency Questionnaire to determine how you can strike the right balance between Eating to Live, and Living to Eat.

When you ask this question to someone, it can definitely elicit a reaction. They usually pick a side and talk about what food means to them (fuel or comfort or family). Or they will talk about how they started on one side of the statement and switched to the other. Or they discuss how they are trying to manage balancing both sides of the question. In the end, it’s the same three words, “to”, “Live” and “Eat”, but the order and perception of those words creates vastly different meaning to people, and likely to you.

Those who “Live to Eat” view food as something more in their life than just fuel. It can mean comfort, family, friends, happiness, lifestyle or stress release. When food takes on greater meaning than its nutrients, we start running into conflicting desires, commitments and priorities. What drives our subconscious to make decisions? Emotions, desires and internalized commitments. That’s why those who “Live to Eat” may find making healthy, positive eating changes very challenging. To you, it’s more than just food…it’s about what food means to you. When it comes to making positive eating changes, fear of change can significantly impact those who “Live to Eat”, especially in two cases:

Foodies – When Food is a Lifestyle

When foodies are asked to make healthy eating changes, they may immediately think that they can no longer enjoy cooking, eating or socializing with their friends. They imagine a shackle being wrapped around the tasting menu at their favorite restaurant or a steel cage surrounding their favorite piece of chocolate cake. And then they imagine that they can no longer go to eat with their foodie friends because they need to eat “grass” or “rabbit food” or any other derogatory term that can be created for fruits, veggies and whole grains. By asking a foodie to make changes, they feel that their lifestyle is under attack and of course, when someone feels under attack, they get defensive and resist change.

However, making positive changes to eating and physical activity does not have to mean giving up eating well or tastefully. It means understanding how healthier foods can fit into your lifestyle rather than making your lifestyle fit into the demand for healthier foods. Try cooking with some new spices rather than butter or oil. Discover new flavor profiles by adding a new fruit or vegetable to a dish. Start splitting scrumptious meals when you go out to eat…then you and your friends can discuss the same foods and each eat less of them. And when you do want to indulge, do so without guilt and enjoy it. Go out with your friends once or twice a week and have fun! In the end, one or two meals do not make or break a healthy lifestyle. It’s the meals we eat on a regular basis that dictate our lifestyle.

Emotional Eating – When Food is a source of Control or Feelings

Call it stress eating or emotional eating, but in the end, those who turn to food to cope with challenges, changes and feelings will find that they very thing they turn to when times get tough may no longer available to them. For others, people who have very hectic or demanding routines (work, family, etc.) may view food as the last bit of control that they have in their day. So they will choose what they want…and “to hell with” what anyone else may want them to do or eat. They rebel with food. On the other hand, sometimes we eat because it is a joyous occasion such as a party or a wedding. What happens is, we no longer listen to our intuitive (aka natural) hunger and satiety systems and instead override them to a point where we feel ravenously hungry or exceedingly full. Over time, we lose a sense of these systems and we start turning to our feelings and emotions to dictate our eating habits rather than our bodies. As Fat Bastard eloquently said in the Austin Powers movie: “I eat because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I eat.”

In essence, food has become a dependency, equally as strong as drugs for addicts, cigarettes for smokers or booze for alcoholics. Research shows (Farley, A. C. et al. – 2012) that when people quit smoking, they tend to gain weight. It can be partially attributed to the fact that nicotine is an appetite suppressant, but also consider whether food becomes the new “coping mechanism”. When someone who smoked used to get stressed, what would they do? Smoke! Now that the cigarettes are no longer there, they need to find a new coping mechanism. While there are positive ones out there such as exercise, yoga and meditation, a more convenient one may be food. Hence the weight gain.

Also consider this: What is one of the main ingredients in preferred “comfort foods”: sugar or carbs. Carbs, particularly high doses of sugar can have an impact on the brain, stimulating dopamine and opioid receptors: our brain’s “feel good” chemicals. The stimulation has been compared to drug addiction (Hoebel, B. G. et al – 2009), including cocaine or marijuana use. But of course, after a while, the effects wear off and we need to look for the next hit if we did not solve our original source of emotion or stress.

For people who deal with emotional eating, the best thing to do is consider alternate ways of coping with stress or feelings of lack of control. Brainstorming and solving any existing sources of stress is a great first start. Next, it’s about finding other ways of stress management that you can feel comfortable turning to during tough times, especially during challenges you face in the health, fitness or weight change process. Exercise, yoga, meditation, knitting, cooking, favorite hobbies and sleeping are just a few, but you are more than welcome to determine your own. When you are able to start turning to other activities to handle stress, we can become better tuned to our body’s natural hunger and satiety (feeling full) systems and eat when we are actually hungry, rather than when we are happy, sad, mad, etc.

***Note: In the end, we are all somewhere in this continuum between Eating to Live and Living to Eat. The key is striking the balance that allows us to enjoy food when we want while being mindful of and listening to our natural hunger and satiety signals. We choose nourishing, healthy foods whenever we can because we know there will be special occasions when we will choose not to and instead will indulge and enjoy it. It’s not about restriction…it’s about balance.

What About those Who Eat to Live? Attention All Those Who Want to Gain Weight

Those who “Eat to Live” typically view food as fuel to nourish their body and keep it running strong. However, there is one notable exception, and that is those who view food as an inconvenience to their lifestyle and only choose to eat because they know they will pass out otherwise. In this case, you are likely facing weight gain issues, because when you get stressed or challenged the last thing on your mind is eating. But if you are trying to gain weight, and you stop eating (and exercising…or increase exercising without maintaining your eating), guess what will happen to your weight? Yep, back down to where it started.

The keys to overcoming this situation are similar to emotional eating, except the actions are reversed:

  • 1. Make a personal commitment to food, eating consistently and maintaining adequate physical activity, particularly strength training.
  • 2. Determine ways to handle stress or challenges that allow you to maintain your focus on eating more (or maintaining the amount needed for weight gain) and being active.

Do You Eat to Live or Live to Eat? How do you strike a balance?  Comment below or share on Twitter (@JMachowskyRDFit) or Facebook (JMWellness)!

Crucial First Steps to Eating Healthier

A Woman Eating Healthier - with Apples!

Apples are one of her preferred healthy foods. Discover Yours!
Image courtesy of Microsoft Images

An assessment I previously created exclusively for clients, you can get your own personal copy of the JM Wellness “Healthy Food Preference List” by clicking here.

Eating healthier is a clichéd term that benefits from greater specificity.  In previous posts (Part 1 & Part 2) I’ve discussed the idea of organizing foods by nutrient density: “the amount of nutrient bang for your calorie buck.”  In essence, all foods can be generally categorized into one of four categories:

1. Low Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: Most fruits and vegetables

2. High Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: High starch vegetables (potato, sweet potato, corn, etc.), whole grains, avocado, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, minimally processed oils, low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish

3. Low Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Lo-cal/”Diet” foods, hard candy, Popsicles

4. High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Doughnuts, ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, fried foods, triple bacon cheeseburgers, alcohol

Eating Healthier

Eating healthier is a two-step process:

Step 1: Move from lower-nutrient foods to higher-nutrient foods.

Step 2a: If looking to lose weight, focus more on the low-calorie, high-nutrient foods and portion control of the high-calorie, high-nutrient foods.

Step 2b: If looking to gain weight, get in your low-calorie, high-nutrient foods, but also focus on increasing your portions of high-calorie, high-nutrient foods.

Makes sense, right?  But of course, common sense isn’t always common action. (A great quote I got from my Wellcoaches training, I’ll be using it a bunch in the future.)

When confronted with the general task of eating healthier, I found people typically respond with general questions like, “What’s healthy?” or “What foods should I eat?”  And my response is: high-nutrient foods you like.  There’s no point in me telling you to eat cabbage, lima beans, plums, and almond butter if you hate cabbage and plums, and are allergic to almonds.  However, I quickly realized that people still wanted a little more specificity – a little more guidance – so I created my “Healthy Food Preference List” assessment form which has been a huge hit.  A form I previously created exclusively for clients, you can get your own personal copy by clicking here.

The Healthy Food Preference List provides you with a relatively comprehensive list of healthy foods (guidance), while still allowing you to choose which foods you like, or dislike, or have never tried (flexibility).  From this assessment form, you’ll have an extensive list of foods that you can use as a springboard for meal, snack and recipe ideas.  

When you download the file, you’ll notice the assessment is broken down into separate sections: grains/starches, veggies, fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats.  Veggies & fruits can generally be considered low-calorie, high-nutrient foods while grains/starches, lean proteins and healthy fats will fall under the high-calorie, high-nutrient food category.  Obviously, if you’re allergic to a food, avoid it.

*Note: Depending on your eating philosophy, you may feel that certain foods on the list aren’t “healthy” and that’s your decision to make.  I tried to provide a comprehensive list of foods that are generally accepted as healthy to reach, and benefit, the greatest number of people.  If you feel differently, feel free to mark it as “Don’t Like.” 

Taking It a Step Further

If you’re up to a challenge, consider doing the following with the results of your Preferred Healthy Food Assessment:

1. Find three to five recipes using some of your preferred healthy foods that look good to you and you can imagine yourself preparing given your current schedule.  If you can, aim to use a fruit or vegetable in most, if not all of the recipes.

2. Select at least two menu options at all of the restaurants and take-out places you frequent that primarily focus on your preferred healthy foods.  Take a moment and sit down with the menu (either online or on paper) and mark the selections.  Then consider making an easy-to-access comprehensive list on a single piece of paper.

3. Consider trying a new food each week (a food you marked at “Never Tried”) – this can expand your healthy food repertoire, promote variety, and help avoid burnout from eating the same five foods every day.

Combat Food Cravings, Part 2: When to Fight and How to Indulge

Berry Delicious, Berry Tempting?

Berry Delicious, Berry Tempting?

Hopefully you’ve taken the past week to identify your food craving triggers (Step 1).  Feel free to use the Death of the Diet Indulgence Journal.  And as promised, here’s the second part, which contains steps 2 and 3 to combating  cravings.

How will you be combating your food cravings?  Comment below.

Step 2: Determine How You Fight Back Best Against Food Cravings

Once aware of your triggers, you can take steps to fight them.  While there are many tactics, the only ones that matter are the ones that work for you.  How do you know which ones work for you?  Educated trial and error.  Start with the list below for ideas – give one a shot for a week and see how it goes.  If it’s working, keep going.  If not, try another.  I’ve broken down ways to fight back into four categories – omission, substitution, preparation and distraction.

Omission – Get temptations or cravings out of sight, and therefore out of mind.  Get rid of the candy bowl at work or remove tempting foods from the house.

Substitution – Making a healthier choice, or having a healthier choice available, in response to a temptation or craving.  Choose a piece of dark chocolate after dinner instead of cookies.  Think of, and write down, non-food ways to cope with a stressful day: problem solve your work issues, exercise, meditate, or just sit up tall and take ten deep breaths.

Preparation – Plan ahead to give yourself options to make a better choice.  Bring healthy snacks to work from home, so you’re not at the mercy of the office vending machine at 3 PM.  Or review the menu of a restaurant you’re going to ahead of time and choose a healthy option so you’re not tempted when you’re actually there and hungry.

Distraction – Do something that will get your mind off the craving.  Bored at work?  Drink water instead of eating.  Sitting around the house?  Do some housework, call a friend, go exercise or start a hobby that involves using your hands like knitting or playing the guitar.

Another great resource that I was interviewed for: http://fitbie.msn.com/slideshow/print/9115

For Emotional Eaters – This is by far the hardest craving to deal with, but my friend Adam Gilbert, founder of MyBodyTutor.com has a great piece of advice:
When we get emotionally “hungry” it’s worth asking ourselves a few questions:

1. How long has it been since I’ve eaten?
2. What am I really hungry for?
3. Is anything bothering me?
4. If I had an ‘EASY’ button to magically help me with what I’m dealing with, right now, what would I use it for?

Perhaps, what you’re really hungry for is affection, assistance, rest, excitement, peace of mind…

Is it possible to have the need met by someone? How about by yourself?

Here’s the challenge: Many times we feel like our needs can’t or won’t get met – so food becomes our escape.  When we’re “hungry” that is a need we feel like we can actually control. Sometimes, it can be very helpful to explore what it feels like to have the need go unmet by simply writing about it. Many clients have reported that this eases the discomfort tremendously. This is also how you can find out what you might really want out of your life because typically we’d shovel food into our mouth so we don’t have to experience or face the feelings. Because when we’re not suppressing feelings, they’ll come to the surface, and we’ll be able to see what it is we really want.

Food is ONLY love when it is used to feed our true physical hunger and we actually enjoy and relish and savor the experience. Otherwise, we’re using food to cover up feelings. Feelings that are preventing us from becoming the person we really want to be.

Step 3: Decide What’s Worth Indulging On – How Much & How Often

Effectively dealing with food cravings doesn’t mean you have to swear off all sugar, alcohol and chocolate for the rest of your life.  The goal is to be in control of how and when you indulge, so you can enjoy it without guilt – and still get the weight loss or fitness results you want as well.

First: List your five favorite indulgences.  Think about what satisfies you the most.  Make sure you only have one of those as an indulgence – not the random doughnut lying around the office (unless that’s one of your five).  You can always change your “fav five.”

Second: How often do you feel like you need to have an indulgence to feel satisfied, not restricted?  Note that “how often” and “how much” are usually opposites.  In other words, do you prefer to have a little treat every day, or one day per week where you can have what you want.  Regardless of what you choose, moderation is still important.  Two slices of pizza, not half a pie.

Interestingly, research has shown that smaller portions work just as well as larger ones in satisfying cravings.  If you’re taking from a larger bag or box, place your portion in a bowl or on a plate and put the larger container away.  One client told me she’s safer with a gallon of ice cream in the house than a pint because she can’t sit down on the couch and polish off a gallon of ice cream like she can with a pint.

Third: Plan where and when you will have those indulgences.  Will you be going out to dinner twice a week with friends?  Will you have a piece of dark chocolate at home after dinner every evening?  Planning your indulgences keeps you focused on what you want most, gives you something to look forward to and allows you to savor some of your favorite, less-healthy foods guilt-free.  The other great thing about plans is that you can adjust them: If you end up having an unplanned indulgence, choose which planned indulgence it’s replacing – guilt-trip free.

*Extra Tip: Make sure any treat you keep in the house or at the office is one that you have a low-risk of overeating.

After combating food cravings for a few weeks, track your indulgences again to measure progress and see how your patterns have changed.  Remember, with permanent change comes permanent results.

How will you be combating your food cravings?  Comment below.

Effectively dealing with temptations and cravings is so important that it’s one of the Easy Eight Habits (Habit #5) in Death of the Diet, available on Kindle and in print!

Close It