Opening Up a Six-Pack: The Awful Truth About Abs
Even if you are someone who doesn’t work out on a regular basis, you have probably fantasized about the “holy grail” of the fitness aesthetic: rippling six-pack abs. Chances are you have probably spent hours wrenching your neck while doing sit-ups and crunches in pursuit of your goal to look like the man or woman on the VHS cassette box of the workout video you bought in the early ‘90s. Maybe you even bought an “ab roller” to bolster your attempts to impress everyone with washboard abs that would put the fear of God into a mustard stain on your favorite t-shirt.
We use the term “holy grail” with good reason: the chances of getting six-pack abs while living a normal life and regularly enjoying tasty foods and drinks are pretty slim. Developing strong abdominal muscles is just one part of the equation and it’s the easier part of it. People with six-pack abs (and people with very defined muscles) generally have a very low body fat percentage. When they get photographed for fitness magazines or compete in a fitness competition, they will go through a “cutting” phase where they restrict their calorie intake for up to 3 months in order to drop their body fat percentage down to the ideal level for muscle definition. This is around 4% for men and 12% for women, just above the minimum essential body fat percentage levels.
While this body fat percentage is great for showcasing the definition of the musculature they have worked countless hours on, it is not sustainable. We need a certain level of body fat to be considered healthy. The standard healthy body fat percentage ranges are between 10-22% for men and 20-32% for women, well above the aforementioned levels. At the low end of these ranges, there will be some definition of the abdominal muscles, but nothing like the “ideal” look you will see in most fitness magazines.
You might be thinking, “Why even bother with ab exercises?” at this point. While six-pack abs might not be the best goal, core strength still plays a major role in overall health and ab-related exercises play a part in strengthening the core. Having a strong core makes everyday movements, also known as functional movements, easier; core exercises will improve your balance and stability. This will enable you to stay more physically active to burn the calories to keep your body fat percentage in that healthy range. Inadequate core strength can also make you susceptible to injury when engaging in functional movement.
Start making core strength a priority in your life for the right reasons. While an ab crunch will help strengthen our abs (also known as the rectus abdominus muscle), do not neglect the rest of your core muscles, such as your lower back muscles, obliques and pelvic muscles; all of these muscles work together in concert to provide a strong core. Try exercises such as the plank, side planks, back extensions, bird dogs, and leg raises to round out your ab routine and make it a true core routine!