Five Things You’re Overlooking in Your Quest for Abs

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photo: Richwell Correa Studios


As an athlete who’s eaten Paleo for almost 4 years, it’s my passion to help others learn to fuel themselves with nutritious Paleo foods and still perform at a high level. To that end, expect to see a lot more from me about how to put good quality fuel in your tank…because we all know you can’t put 87 octane in a race car and expect it to do great things, right? (You’ll still see all the other good stuff you’ve come to rely on me for like easy recipes, free resources and DIY tutorials…so if you’re not an athlete, I’ve still got you covered).

On that note, what you came to read about: abs. Look in any mainstream women’s health magazine, on billboards, and on television and all you see are abs. “Lose weight. Get abs. Find happiness,” is the fantasy being sold and sometimes the cost is greater than you’d think.

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the image being sold

Let’s get one thing straight before we start. If you want to have visible abs, you’ll need to decrease your body fat. No amount of crunches or sit ups will reduce your body fat percentage enough to start seeing abs. This percentage body fat to see a “six pack” varies for everyone, but for females it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 15% and males, 10%. This is considered very lean and usually requires discipline with clean nutrition and / or training to maintain. For some females, getting too lean is also a recipe for hormonal disregulation and amenorrhea. Not good.

However, lowering body fat (16-20% for females, 10-15% for males) for overall health is a good thing. How actively you pursue cutting fat past that is going to depend on some combination of dedicated nutrition and training.

While I can’t tell you if the pursuit of abs is the right thing for you or not, I can point out some things you may be overlooking if you’re hellbent on a chiseled midline. Let’s start with food.

1. Abs are made in the kitchen: nutrition is King.

Chateaubriand Steak

Nic Taylor via Compfight

If you want to reduce body fat, cleaning up your diet is a must. You can’t out-exercise a bunch of junk that you’re eating and hope to get leaner. Okay, there are some people who seem to be able to do this effortlessly – and we all hate them for it – but if you’re someone who isn’t that “lucky” (let’s not talk about all the other markers of poor health that person could have despite being lean), you’re going to need to pay attention to what goes in your pie hole. If you’re eating crappy, processed food, simply cleaning things up and sticking to a general Paleo template is a good first step. Moderating fat intake is also a factor for most active people trying to lose body fat. Read more here.

On the other hand, if you’re starving yourself, severely restricting calories, or eating a very low fat diet, this could be working against you as well. Being in a chronic hypocaloric state (hypo = below), is a stressor that increases cortisol…and that is one of the known causes for increased abdominal fat. Being sure to include adequate protein, lots of veggies and some fruit (if you’re trying to lose a lot of body fat, consider looking into a ketogenic Paleo approach) and an adequate amount of  healthy fats is a general formula for improving body composition. Of course, rarely is it ever *just* that simple, which leads to the second point.

2. And if nutrition is King, sleep is Queen.

Many Things can't live Without Such as 

عبدالرحمن بن سلمه via Compfight

If you’re trying to get all your nutrition and exercise ducks in a row, but getting fewer than 8 hours of sleep a night, you’re missing a huge piece of this puzzle. To sum it up, chronically undersleeping whacks out your hormones…and that’s not a good thing. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study (here) that concluded that lack of sleep could be causing people to gain weight. Why? Less sleep can slow your metabolism, raise your cortisol (hey, there it is again) and cause your appetite to increase. It also disregulates ghrelin and leptin, hormones which essentially tell you that you’re still hungry. You can see where this is going.

Just getting horizontal for 8 hours isn’t enough. The quality of your sleep matters…a lot. Making your bedroom pitch black and reducing blue light exposure at night (by not staring into the bright screens of laptops, phones and TVs…I realize this may go over like a lead balloon) can go a long way to improving sleep quality and getting cortisol and melatonin regulation back on track. Blue light screws with melatonin. Melatonin puts you to sleep.

Do you absolutely have to be on the computer at night? Try installing a free program like f.lux to minimize blue light emission or get a pair of these sexy amber glasses like Nom Nom Paleo wears – she works the night shift AND still manages to get enough sleep.

3. Find other ways to work your midline stability, like squatting and swinging kettlebells.

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Me, training the low bar back squat

If you’ve worn your tailbone raw from sit ups, it may be time to start working in some other exercises to strengthen your abdominals. Believe it or not, I’ve got visible abs without having done a single sit up (see points 1 and 2) in the past oh, year or so. I had a cyst above my tailbone that made any sort of sit ups or crunches excruciatingly painful so they were a no-go. I did, on the other hand, do lots of squats, cleans, kettlebell swings, overhead presses, Turkish get ups, etc. Challenging the midline to get stable is pretty damn effective for strong abdominals compared to isolation moves like sit ups.

Oh, and if you’re sacrificing sleep and clean eating at the expense of working out more, more, more don’t expect to cheat the system for long. Priority list: nutrition >> sleep >> then exercise.

4. How much of a six pack you have depends a lot on…genetics.

recuerdos de verano

jesuscm.com via Compfight

Gosh, this one can be a bubble burster which is why I put it toward the end. While there’s not a lot of primary research to support this claim, it just makes logical sense that the patterns of body fat deposition on your person vary from other people. I carry most of my body fat around the upper arms and my butt / thighs, for example. Please don’t misunderstand me. Can you get lean enough to have a visible six pack even if genetics aren’t on your side? I’d argue yes, but at what cost? If the solution is to spend your time frantically counting macros and obsessing over it, then maybe it’s not worth the pursuit of the “perfect” midsection. Only you can decide that.

So often, the body types we idolize are 1) airbrushed or 2) of folks at the most elite level of sport. When you see athletes at the CrossFit Games, completely shredded to bits, with 8+ packs, what you’re not seeing is the story behind that body…the discipline, the sacrifice, the training, the injuries. For some, the ripped physique is a natural by-product of the training but I guarantee that at that level, any athlete you ask won’t cite “a hot body” as their prime motivator. Food for thought which leads me to…

5. There are many other ways to gauge your health and fitness levels besides the visibility of your abs.

You probably knew this was coming. Abs are not the only measure of your health (or for that matter, your self-worth).

What else is there to focus on if getting abs at any cost isn’t your priority? TONS. Get yourself on the road to health if you’re just starting out. If your body fat is very high, consider dietary intervention first, exercise second. Track blood markers of health and disease. Keep a mental note of your sleep quality, mood and energy levels throughout the day. What’s your mental clarity like? How about your skin, hair and nails? If you’re physically active, consider doing some benchmark workouts, then testing them on a semi-regular basis to track improvement. These are just a few things to consider. For an extensive list of other ways to measure your health, check out this article.

What do YOU think? Leave a comment below.

Confident athletic woman with sixpack abs posing

Sources:

ChrisKresser.com, How Artificial Light is Wrecking Your Sleep, and What To Do About It

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Short sleep duration increases energy intakes but does not change energy expenditure in normal-weight individuals.

MarksDailyApple.com, Robb Wolf Answers Your Paleo Diet Questions, Robb Wolf

Paleo for Women, How Extremity Can Make Even the Best Diet Fail

RobbWolf.com, The Real Deal on Adrenal Fatigue, Diane Sanfilipo

ThatPaleoGuy.com, Why Do We Sleep?

Whole9Life.com, Science is Hot: Fat Loss Edition, Mathieu Lalonde

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31 thoughts on “Five Things You’re Overlooking in Your Quest for Abs

  1. Danielle

    I love this line. It’s amazing what dietary changes (not talking calorie counting here) can do for people that are moderately active. As you mentioned, Abs shouldn’t be your benchmark but rather a by-product of eating healthy and training intelligently.

    Reply
  2. Kelli

    I’m miles away from having abs, but this article still applies. This is going to be my new mantra, ” Priority list: nutrition >> sleep >> then exercise.”

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Hi Kelli…ahhhh you found out my secret intention ;) I think that for a lot of folks who want to lean out, they’re forgetting to put nutrition and sleep first, which in many cases will help them reduce body fat without as much work in the exercise department. I like that mantra…rock it!

      Reply
      1. Fiona

        I probably put sleep and exercise at about the same priority… but then again, sleep has ALWAYS been a priority for me! However, exercise to me is more about lifting heavy things than it is running around a lot. I know that for my workouts to be effective I need to get enough sleep.

        But agreed, they’re ALL important! Nutrition most of all. What goes INTO your body will have more impact than everything else.

        Reply
        1. Steph Post author

          Sounds like you’ve got a good grasp on things and what’s working for you. I like lifting things a lot more than running (though I used to run a lot) :)

          Reply
  3. Anna Marie

    This is really nicely put information. Thanks for your recipes as well! I’m working towards my abs and inner shred. Thanks again

    Reply
  4. Jen

    “Abs are not the only measure of your health (or for that matter, your self-worth).” Well said!!!! If I never have visible abs but am healthy, eating nutritiously and exercising regularly I am a happy woman!!!

    Reply
  5. Linda Hess

    Love this:
    “then maybe it’s not worth the pursuit of the “perfect” midsection. Only you can decide that.”

    My 1st two years of Crossfitting was the leanest that I have ever been in my life. I would CrossFit 5 days a week & run 2-4miles 1day a week, got down to a size 0 & still NO SIX PACK! Genetics definitely plays a role. I am 5ft 1′ & my mom is 4ft 11′ even though I was a size zero I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin so to me it was so not worth it!

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Great example, Linda and thank you for sharing your personal story. I used to be much leaner but I was 1) weaker and 2) starting to show some early signs of strain on my adrenals.

      Reply
    2. Fiona

      Yeah, I THINK I have the potential for a six pack (or maybe 4 pack if I can’t get rid of all the post baby flab), only because you can see the start of tummy muscles showing up now (at 29% BF!) but my husband has never, ever had visible abs, even when he was young and lean and strong. Now maybe he just wasn’t lean ENOUGH but he’s got really odd tummy muscles. He and I were lying in bed one night discussing some article I’d read about a Crohn’s disease and how they diagnosed it by feeling a girl’s “hard” intestines through her stomach. I was poking my belly and all I could feel under the layer of fat was muscle, which was comparatively hard. My husband is feeling his and saying “it’s not hard unless I tense it”. Sure enough I poked his belly and when he wasn’t tensing his muscles they were super squishy. When he tensed them they were very hard. Mine were harder when tensed, but still hard when not tensed. So I do wonder if there are differences between people in this sort of way too.

      I don’t think height is much of a factor though, as I’m only 4’11″ haha. It seems women who are naturally more prone to tiny waists struggle more with visible abs than women who are more thick waisted though, so this could have something to do with it?! I mean, women with abs usually don’t have big waist circumferences, but they don’t generally have typical hourglass figures, either. I’ve seen women with little waists, and lean bodies, struggle to show six pack abs even though they should typically be lean enough.

      Reply
      1. Steph Post author

        Hi Fiona…lots of good points you bring up. There’s so much variability in how we’re constructed as humans (even though we’re meant to have all the same parts and pieces). How long ago did you have your baby? :)

        Reply
  6. Yaya

    When I saw the photo for #2, I thought “how did Steph get into my bedroom?” lol. I really try to keep the laptop out of my room now and still working on some cheap way to blackout my room. Great ideas…as usual.

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Thanks Yaya! I definitely struggle with the electronics at night but I’ve installed f.lux and try to stay off the phone when it’s late.

      Reply
  7. LJ

    It must be genetics for me…I am a national level competitive bodybuilder…my bodyfat has been tested by bod pod at 10%—NOT ONE SINGLE AB :(
    I will NOT give up!

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      Keep working, LJ! If it’s a goal and you enjoy the quest, I don’t see anything wrong with going after it.

      Reply
  8. Ole

    What an absolutely brilliant well written article! But it is so hard, to try and transform all the ” Idiots ” out there, who still believe the lies about ” Fat “, in all kinds of weird diets, and sadly, from all the health boards and food industry :( SHAME ON THEM!

    P.S, the past 3 days, i’ve seen this guy on tv, who had terminal prostate cancer, which spread to his bones 6 years ago, he tried the Budwig-Protocol ( German Biochemist ), and he is today alive and in perfect shape :) His PSA ( How they check cancer cells ) was back then at 600, if it is above 10 you most likely have cancer… Today, they can’t even measure his PSA levels :) Out with Sugars and Starch, except for Natural Sugars of course :)

    Anyways i thought that could give some interesting reading, if anyone is watching this HAVE cancer, then you can cure yourself without the need of Kemo, which just makes your body worse! But again, the planet needs to go Paleo, so we don’t even get Cancer :D

    Reply
  9. Merced Arce

    I got down to 15% body fat and stopped getting my period. Never again! I won’t get to body fat levels that jeopardize my fertility.

    Reply
  10. Hassan

    Thanks to the anonymity of the internet everyone feels like they should share their opinion, so here’s mine: You said, “You can’t out-exercise a bunch of junk that you’re eating and hope to get leaner.” Why not? Various (if not numerous) athletes out-exercise horrible diets and I have experimented on myself and become leaner while eating crappy junk food (pizza, Doritos, Oreos, ice cream) simply by increasing my frequency of training. I’ve also gained considerable weight by following paleo and keto diets at different times when exercising less frequently. It would seem that regardless of what you eat, your weight and body composition is generally dictated first by calories in vs. calories out then macronutrient partitioning. Why is food quality important in regards to abs??

    Anyways, I appeciate the site, I really enjoy the layout and content.

    Reply
    1. Steph Post author

      There certainly are exceptions to this rule but it’s been my experience and observation that it’s not true for a majority of folks. Genetics makes some people “harder to kill”. Also, performance isn’t always tied to body composition. Just something to chew on :)

      Reply
  11. Ashley

    I love this article! Thank you for touching on the fertility aspect and on sleep!! I have been amennorheic for over three years now due to overexercise and restriction. Thankfully I had my kids before this all happened. My bf% is around 7%. I’m working on slowly bringing it up because my husband and I are tossing around the idea of having another baby. It’s so important for women to realize that having abs at the risk of their fertility is not worth it. I am 5’4″ and at my worst was down to under 100lbs and never had abs. Genetics, I guess. Now the sleep part…gotta get better at that!! Great article! Can’t wait to read your book!

    Reply
  12. Greg

    Crossfit clubs should mention how sit ups are the worst possible exercise for your abs and your lower back. There is something called specificity in body mechanics.This means that a sit up will make you effective at pulling your ribs into your guts. This is great if you are a diver. Or a wrestler .. But the only time we do this motion is getting out of bed.. Sit ups won’t make your lower back stronger and can actually make lower back pain worse. Sit ups also do nothing to shrink your waistline that happens in the kitchen . So why are you still doing them?

    Reply

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