Having Abs Won’t Change Your Life, But Here’s How to Get Them, Anyway
Alright, well, let’s get this over with. Here’s a picture of my abs.
and another one…
Having Abs Won’t Change Your Life…
I’ve had a six pack now for over a decade, and I can tell you one thing for certain: It has had next to zero impact on finding the meaning of life or making me feel like I’ve finally got to where I needed to go. I say “next to zero” because all the usual, suspected things have come true. You get more YouTube views, and people are impressed by your stomach at the pool–yes, those things happen. Only they don’t happen as much for me, because I’m maybe without a shirt on around other people (at most?) three or four times per year. First, I’m hardly ever at the pool–too much work to do, you know how it is. And second, I’m not one of those YouTube Fitness-Heads who has their shirt off in every video. That’s fine and all, just not something I’ve ever wanted to do. Maybe it’s the piety in me, or maybe it’s that I want people tuning in because what I’m saying makes sense, not because I’m flaunting a particular look, of which almost any village workout enthusiast is capable of achieving, with the right stroke of genetic luck.
That said, when I first got abs, I remember thinking this was my defining moment. I remember thinking, “Finally, the world is mine.” And I can tell you exactly when that was: It was my junior year of high school, and I very specifically remember stepping out of the shower and seeing something of a 2 pack sifting through the steamed up mirror. Are those mine? Seriously? Oh, I was so excited; I could hardly contain myself. Do I call the president? And certainly that enthusiasm propelled me to finish the job–to go all the way, to speak–and obtain the full thing, that ever-enviable six pack. Though, I guess, *technically*, I’ve never obtained the full thing, have I? Because for reasons unexplained I’ve always seemed to stall out at a 5 and 1/2 pack. My lowermost left abdominal has just never been visible. Maybe it fell off and got eaten by a cat. I don’t know. But a 5 and 1/2 pack is still pretty good. Especially for a former chubster like me.
So, if I were to list all the things having abs has done for me, that list would be pretty succinct. Maybe a handful of times I felt just oh-so ravishing and spectacular while attending a graduation pool party, knowing I had the fittest bod there. But there were also times at pool parties or the beach where, even though I had a fit body, it wasn’t the fittest body there. So, there’s problem number one. If you’re pinning happiness on looking a certain way, that is exactly what’s going to find unhappiness.
And I think that’s a big part of why I don’t take my shirt off too often. I don’t want to fall into that trap again. I don’t want to define my self-worth by how visible my abs are on any given day. I don’t want to be depressed when I’m bloated, or elated when I’m dehydrated and looking like an underwear model in the morning, until I eat breakfast. I want to be happy regardless of random fluctuations of sodium intake. Perhaps it seems I’m working up a bit of psychoanalysis on myself, but maybe you’ve been there? Maybe you know what I’m talking about? Or, maybe you just want me to get on to the part about getting abs?
OK, but just one more thing before we do. Because if getting abs taught me anything, it taught me that nothing hard comes easy. Well, you might think, if that isn’t just the tautology of tautologies!
But think about it. So many people want to do hard things, yet so many people are looking for the easiest ways to do them. People want to lose weight and they want to keep it off. That’s a hard thing, you know, and we’re not even talking about getting abs, yet. They look for pills and supplements to do the job instead of a program. And those are easy, at least in theory, the pills and supplements and what not. So getting abs has taught me a ton about process and even more about patience and just how worthless all those so-called fat-burning supplements are. In those ways–and maybe in those few ways alone–maybe getting abs has change my life: It refined my diligence and attention to detail. It taught me to grind and suffer for a goal; two skills I’ve since applied to (almost) every other area of life, including business, music, religion and spirituality, etc.
But having abs themselves? I suppose they’re more for me than anyone else, at this point. They’re a personal monument, a reminder that I’ve chosen to live in a way that is disciplined and not impulsive or child-like. They’re a sign that I haven’t given up, haven’t let myself go, just yet. (Oh, it’s coming. You wait.) So, maybe having abs has changed my life; I might be willing to admit that at this point. But it’s not been in the way I thought they would. It’s not because I have abs that I feel special or complete. It’s what I’ve had to go through, and what I’ve learned along the way.
Funny enough, I think getting abs has also taught me to be more accepting of myself. I say funny enough, because often you’ll hear of somebody losing their abs and then accepting their self. Oh, I didn’t really need abs to be happy, so now I’m 395 lbs and–honestly, guys–I couldn’t be happier. I get that. And I even agree with it, at least on principle. But surely it doesn’t have to be one way or the other, does it? Surely you can accept that you don’t need abs to be happy and still work hard to maintain a physically fit body. Because while I seriously doubt if I lost my abs that all happiness would exit my body, as well, I also seriously doubt letting go of them would make me happier, either. I just don’t see how the visibility of muscle striations on my stomach is linked to my contentment, at this point. That said, I enjoy the challenge and have found meaning in the disciplined structure of my life that produces them. So, it’s not so much the effect that has changed my life, but rather, what I did–and continue to do–to achieve it.
… But Here’s How to Get Them, Anyway
And so it is to that process to which we now turn. But let me make a few disclaimers. This post is entirely a personal one. Because–no surprise here–one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is how *I* eat, and what *I* do. So, that’s the question I’ll be answering. And by answering that question I’m making no assertion of “the best” or “most effective” plan for everyone. All that is hogwash anyway. There is no “best” or “most effective” plan for everyone. There are only principles (caloric control, resistance training, etc.), whereas the specifics–the tactics, if you will–may vary. So I’m going to restrict my analysis to the tactics that have worked for me, in accordance with those principles. If you want other tactics-tactics I’ve used to great success with so many of my clients–I’ve got plenty in Strong ON!
But for those who are interested, here’s what I do.
My primary strategy is to use a mix of a strategies. All I mean is that I rotate the intensity and approach of my diet and training throughout the week, month, year, etc. I’m not doing the same thing all the time. In other words, the tactics change, while the principles remain the same.
Mostly, I eat a high protein, moderate fat, and low(er) carb diet. I also make generous use of meal replacements, a strategy I’ve talked about a number of times on my podcast, since it’s great for not only losing weight, but keeping weight off, as well.
Generally speaking, I have 1 – 3 shakes a day, then one normal, “healthy” meal at night. This allows me to fuel to an absolutely precise and persnickety level–just enough to feed my workouts, but not overshoot anything. Shakes are useful because they’re easy to control calories with and utterly convenient and above tasting like trash. I’m a sloth when it comes to making and preparing food. At night, I don’t have to worry about this, because Christine prepareths the table. So meal replacements, aside from being precise, work because I can actually, believe it or not, put protein and berries into the Magic Bullet, and hit “swirl”, or whatever. If you don’t believe me, then I’ll film a video if I need. I get people want proof of everything these days. Who can blame them?
Also, about once per week, I’ll engage in an extended fast of some kind. Sometimes I’ll go all the way around the clock without eating even the tiniest piece of brown, withering lettuce, which, if you’ve ever done a 24-36 hour fast, can come to look as juicy and satisfying as a Big Montana. Other times I simply skip breakfast and call it at that. This helps me to create a downward dent in my calorie trend, which I sometimes bump up by eating a wee-bit too much at dinner. The nice thing about this way of eating is I haven’t counted calories in years. It’s all very intuitive and flexible. The shakes are low-calorie enough that a certain “budget” is built in, so even if one gets a mite peckish at dinner, you’re probably OK. But just to be sure, I still partake in a more intense fast on occasion. Nothing but water and coffee and tea.
As for my meal at night, I suppose you could say it’s somewhat Mediterranean/Paleo, usually. We eat foods that are close to nature, and rarely if ever have pasta or bread or anything considered an industrial corn product. Not that I don’t think such foods can be gobbled up and a person remain relatively lean, but mostly I can’t gobble up such foods and remain relatively lean. I’m somebody who does not do well with moderation; I prefer rigidity, in fact. I’m better at cutting things out most of the time, and then having them on occasion, rather than trying to moderate their intake on a daily basis. Again, this is about what works for me. I wouldn’t argue my particular into a universal–that is, because it works for me, it must work for everybody. Obviously that’s not the case. But the principles are true, no matter who you are. (Control calories, lift heavy things, go for a walk.)
What else? Well, about 2 – 3x/year I go keto for about a month or so. I don’t think this is majorly attributive to my having a six pack, but I do enjoy the challenge and feel it offers a nice reset, of sorts. So, take that however you will.
As for training, I’m a Generalist, as you know. So I have strength days, mobility days, metabolic days, and so on. I focus on fitness skills, rather than movement patterns or body parts. I want to be better than most people, at most things, even if I’m not the best at any one. This philosophy is the very foundation of Strong ON!, and it’s something I’ve personally adhered to since my college day, though sometimes the specifics may vary. This is important, however, because I want all my aesthetics to come with some improvement in performance. That is, if I’m getting better looking, than I better be getting better at something in the gym, whether that something be handstand push ups or hanging leg raises or what have you.
My abs also look the way they do mostly because of how I train. They’re sort of big and blocky and shield-like, and not very much like most bodybuilders, with all those veiny ripples and whatnot. And there’s a reason for that: I don’t train like most bodybuilders. I train more like a gymnast, particularly when it comes to abdominal exercises (hanging leg raises, levers, that sort of thing). So my abs tend to look more like a gymnast’s. Not everybody is keen on this look, and that’s fine. Personally, I like it. Personally, I think my abs look like they might actually be able to do something, rather than be merely appealing. (And yes, I get that genetics play a role in that, as well. I am aware of this phenomenon, but thank you. You’re very perceptive.)
And before anybody asks, direct abdominal work does matter, though it shouldn’t be the only thing you do–shouldn’t even be the majority of what you do. When I’m training, particularly on my strength days, I’ll do a fair amount of direct ab work, either at the beginning or end. Hollow holds are one of my go-to almost-daily exercises. In fact, I think working up to a 60-second uninterrupted hollow hold is a good standard for almost everybody. You’ve got a pretty strong set of abs if you can do that.
Other ab exercises worth doing? I’ve hinted at a few already: “Hanging leg raises and levers and what not.” Planks are good, rack holds are good. Windmills are good, too, especially for the sides. “Sides” is non-professional jargon for obliques/transverse abdominus, etc. I never do sit-ups or crunches. Not because I think they’re unhealthy exercises, I just don’t think they’re severely effective. People way overstate sit-ups as being “bad for your back”, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. (What I think is bad for your back is being overweight and slouched over all the time, like I used to be). I would simply argue you could be getting more abs for your reps doing HLR or whatever. Search around my Youtube channel if you want to see any of those.
Most of all, remember to use progressive resistance, whatever exercises you choose. Your abs aren’t a sort of special muscle group that are immune to the basic principles of strength training. You need to challenge them in the same way you do everything else. This is a mistake so many people make. They’ll add weight to their deadlifts, squats, pull ups, etc, but then they’ll be “doing abs” with the same exercises and the same amount of weight they started with. How silly. If you want your abs to grow, you need to make the movements challenging. You need resistance.
Can you train abs everyday? This is another question I get a lot. My answer is “sure, if you want”, but maybe don’t always do it the same way. I train my abs “heavy” about 3x/week. But I train them in other ways (stability/inner core stabilizers, etc) almost every day of the week. Some of this training is inherent to the kinds of skills I’m practicing, like hand-balancing, say. So, I’d recommend the same to you. Have at least a few days a week where you get in some dedicated, direct ab work, and then choose exercises that in themselves demand a lot from your middle. Most of the big lifts (front squat, deadlift) and gymnastic-style moves are like this. Fundamentals, you know.
So, if we were to boil it all down, the summary would run something like this:
- My eating is very disciplined; I hardly ever “cheat.” And I like that about the way I eat.
- I find more pleasure in discipline than I do deviation. Maybe I’m weird, maybe that’s just me. But I do think something like that kind of mindset is what it takes to both get and maintain a sleek set of abs.
- My training is heavy and consistent. Consistent in the big lifts and in using progressive resistance; varied only in that I focus on a lot of different fitness “skills.”
- Calories count, but you don’t *technically* have to count calories.
- I do direct ab work.
- But I don’t think crunches or sit-ups are great.
- I’m a fan of both boxers and briefs.
- And at this point, I’d take an alpacas over a llama, any day.
The end. Thanks for coming. Leave a comment if you have any questions.
PS – Everything I said here could in most circumstances be equally useful for anyone who simply wants to lose weight. You don’t have to want abs for this advice to be relevant, is what I mean.
PPS – If you’re looking for specifics (“just tell me what to do to get abs”), my 5 Day Kettlebell Fat Furnace offers an effective and simple plan using meal replacements, like what I talked about in this post.
It’s also free, here: www.chroniclesofstrength.com/5dkbff