‘Six-pack Abs’ are considered the international benchmark of a fit physique by many, and while generally speaking, lean abs are associated with healthier bodies, in reality this level of fitness is more about rocking an aesthetically appealing physique than it is a requirement for health & wellness, or a strong core.
In fact most of us should know by now that we all have ‘six-pack abs’ hiding under there somewhere, and that it is just a matter of revealing them by reducing the subcutaneous layer of fat lying over top of and obscuring them. Furthermore, we should all know by now that we cannot spot-reduce this layer of body fat, no matter how many abdominal exercises we do, but rather we most reduce our overall body fat % to approximately less than 8% to begin revealing our abs, through a combination of diet, exercise and genetics. Of course having visible lean-abs and having as strong core usually go together, but not always. One can have very strong core yet look as soft as a baby seal, and vice versa - one can have the most shredded abs ever, yet be as weak as this same baby seal, (I apologize for the lame analogy).
So we can reveal the six-pack abs, (anatomically known as the Rectus-Abdominus), by reducing the layer of subcutaneous fat lying underneath our skin, but over top the ab-muscles. But to really complete the ideal look of fitness and buff beach-god we need to have a slim waist and flat stomach as well. This is accomplished in two ways primarily: One is by strengthening and toning the Transversus-Abdominus muscle, which is a corset-like band of muscle lying underneath the Rectus-Abs mentioned above, that pulls our belly in and is actually a bigger player in maintaining a solid core. We can also maintain a slim waist by reducing the internal, visceral belly-fat, lying underneath our abdominal muscles within our abdominal cavity. This is the unhealthiest way to carry fat by the way, and is the dangerous, inflammatory fat that squishes are organs and is associated with many obesity-related diseases, such as Adult-Onset Diabetes, Fatty-liver, and heart disease. This type of internal fat, or adipose tissue, is usually more of a problem later in life as we age into our forties and beyond, especially as more stress is piled on to us, and actually is the only kind of fat that does tend to ‘spot-store’, (on the Omentum), and so therefore theoretically we can spot-reduce it. We can target internal belly fat by reducing stress, eating less sugar, by sleeping better, and by incorporating more high-intensity exercise. These are all lifestyle factors that also contribute to dysfunctional metabolism or Metabolic-Syndrome as well.
Also contributing to a solid core are the Oblique muscles which are responsible for twisting motion and stability, and frame the abs, setting off a desirable ‘V-shape’ tapered, torso. The hips, Glutes and Intercostals are players too - they all work together! Which brings me to my main point regarding building a strong core: This is how you should train your core – through functional, compound movements that cause all of the abdominal, hip and butt muscles to work together. If you have the time in your training plan to specifically focus on abdominal isolation, exercises like crunches or sit-ups, than by all means, add in these traditional ab exercises. Otherwise you can stick to compound, full-body, functional movements, like burpees, planks, squats, pull-ups, etc, which in all honesty, are probably going to hit your complete abs & core muscles more effectively than any crunch, leg-lift or vee-up will. And if you’re able to incorporate sports into your routine, well it is almost impossible to play any kind of sport without engaging your core. Have you ever noticed what your abs are doing during an all-out sprint?
I rarely recommend doing weighted, ab-specific exercises, because while we all desire a strong, lean core, we do not want to build too much mass or bulk in our mid-sections. This could cause the obliques to be mistaken for love-handles or lead to a look of a thicker waist. (So be sure to wear your board-shorts below your obliques while you’re at it!) Body weight is usually plenty of resistance when it comes to our core. If you suspect you have a really weak core right now to start with, or you tend to be easily affected by lower-back pain, then perhaps you could begin by doing Swiss/stability ball assisted exercises. The stability ball does an excellent job of supporting your lower-back and is a great supporting-tool, to roll out on for torso and spine flexibility benefits, and to assist in planking type of movements as well.
Genetics too, play a substantial role in the structure and proportion of our abs, in all honesty: How symmetrical they are, how much of a gap we have in our Linea Alba, and the ratio of our shoulders to our hips, and even whether or not we’re ‘barrel-chested’ or wide hipped. Even how much fascia surrounds and encapsulates are ab-muscle bellies, may mean there is less potential for muscle separation and ‘chiseled-ness’ (is that a word?!) But we cannot do anything about our genetics, so don’t worry about it! Instead worry about things you can control, like your lifestyle. Most folks over look one of the simplest, lifestyle changes of all that you can do to directly contribute to a leaner mid-section, and that is getting a good night of sleep! A good night of sleep means not only a long fasting-window in your 24 hour day, but it more importantly means a bigger Growth-Hormone secretion window. Growth Hormone is the most powerful lean-body mass hormone we produce – it literally incinerates internal belly fat – and we produce it during our deep-sleep phase primarily. Don’t miss this easy opportunity to flatten your belly and improve your overall health and function!