Six-pack abs
May 27, 2007 6:45 AM   Subscribe

If you have kept yourself lean, with a flat stomach and possibly visible abs, for some time - what is it that you eat every day?

Especially if you are over thirty.

I'm hoping for some example practices of those who actually manage to do this, not so much what someone thinks might work.

I'm someone who exercises, lifting at least three days a week, eats reasonably well, but can't seem to go from average to looking like someone who, well, works out.
posted by objdoc to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I have a flat stomach but not the male model-style visible abs. (I've had them from time to time, but they are a real project to maintain, and when my body fat is that low I have trouble staying warm, skipping a meal is a big deal, and so on -- I feel a lot healthier twenty pounds above a six pack ab situation.) I don't eat anything special (no supplements, no special regime), but I eat almost no prepared foods (eg tv dinners, candy, pop tarts) and instead eat almost exclusively things that are prepared from scratch. Things like, I make a big pot of chili now and then rather than buy chili in the can; lots of seasonal vegies; oatmeal from scratch instead of the sweetened instant stuff; etc.

But there is nothing in my diet that is outlandish or weird, nothing that requires a trip to the hippy store, or anything like that. Three meals a day plus some snacks (but the snacks are small, and almost always fruit, or a small bowl of tortilla chips if I want something salty). No "fourth meal" or midnight snack late at night. I eat plenty of meat (although I only buy it from small-scale local producers, mostly for ethics, but maybe there is a health implication?) and dairy, but maybe half of my meals are vegetarian, not by plan but because that is the best-tasting way to cook what is in the fridge.

To be honest, I don't know if this actually tells you anything. The sizes of my portions probably matter more than what I'm eating, as does what exercise I do or do not get.
posted by Forktine at 7:06 AM on May 27, 2007

Oatmeal for breakfast. Salads for lunch, perhaps tuna fish on whole wheat. Mostly vegetarian dinners, meat as a time to time Jeffersonian condiment rather than aliment. Wine for dinner. Not large portions.

I run four to five miles a day or better, rather than weights. Then again, I was lucky in the genes department.

Hope this helps.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:38 AM on May 27, 2007

Super flat abs, for me, meant eating very very clean. Grilled chicken breasts with some sort of sauce/salsa. Eggs for breakfast. Heavy on the protein, light on the calories. Protein shake at 3. Only water to drink.

I gave it up because it's a lot of work and the difference isn't noticeable unless you become Mr. Always Walks Around Shirtless.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:58 AM on May 27, 2007

Oh, and I assiduously avoid anything with partially hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup. Avoid processed food in general, in fact, but outright refuse to eat those two. Soy milk rather than bovine. The lunch salads tend to mix beans, nuts, cauliflour, broccoli, cranberry, with the leafy greens. Oil and vinegar. Fruit rather than cake.

(Eat this stuff long enough and you begin to get a taste for it. More importantly, you get a distaste for standard commercial fair. I can't eat American sweet stuff anymore, and even chocolate has to be on the bitter end of the scale.)
posted by IndigoJones at 8:02 AM on May 27, 2007

If your body fat is on the mid-low end of healthy then you need to work your abs if you want a 6 pack. Just like any muscle that you want to define, you have to tone it.
posted by missmagenta at 8:16 AM on May 27, 2007

My body fat percentage hovers around 11-13 most of the time. I don't know if that's in your target range (I don't have visible abs, but I'd certainly be described as lean). I'm 31 and have returned to being leaner after a few years of slight weight gains.

I'll mostly echo what other people have said, but here's some data points :

I very rarely eat meat (about twice a week).
I never drink colas - I think this is the easiest and most dramatic dietary change you can make.
I walk everywhere. My job involves some standing as well (I'm a teacher).
I don't eat food with sugar (I eat things with stevia in them, which helps me to eat fewer sweet snacks).
I don't eat boxed foods - partly because I moved to Dublin and so it's easier to pick up a few veg or whole foods and just eat simply.
I run three times a week (about 5 miles each time).
I do eat some starchy foods occasionally such as chips, Guinness or bread.
posted by Slothrop at 8:43 AM on May 27, 2007

posted by caddis at 8:53 AM on May 27, 2007

I have been increasingly inclined to believe that for the general amount of the populace (2-3 sigmas from the curve) that the six pack ab is just not possible. Well defined abs are somewhat of a genetic anomaly, the same sort of people who have well defined muscles in other areas. I say this as people I know with classic six packs are nearly all people who obtain them normally and with no work. I have had outline of abs at lower weights, but never the chiseled abs on men's magazines. I simply do not believe it is possible for some people, it is not something you can work on.

For a flat stomach: chicken breast and salads. I would assume eggs would be fine and some other high protein foodstuffs, but I have known people that needed to get into shape for roles or photo shoots and it always an extreme diet of chicken breast and salads. Not really sustainable in the long-run, though I suppose you could achieve something close by doing chicken breast and salads during the week and eating more normally once or twice on the weekend. Unfortunately, I do not know how healthy this is, I would say not very.

If you're really determined and want to do a hard diet and workout, you probably could get an amazing look. Doing the notorious "300" workout, which is basically an incredibly intense workout nearly all day, hardly ever repeating an exercise (to combat muscle memory). Again, not something that would be healthy in the long run.
posted by geoff. at 9:05 AM on May 27, 2007

If your body fat is on the mid-low end of healthy then you need to work your abs if you want a 6 pack. Just like any muscle that you want to define, you have to tone it.

Not so much:
Spot Reduction Myth

Contrary to what the infomercials suggest there is no such thing as spot reduction. Fat is lost throughout the body in a pattern dependent upon genetics, sex (hormones), and age. Overall body fat must be reduced to lose fat in any particular area. Although fat is lost or gained throughout the body it seems the the first area to get fat, or the last area to become lean, is the midsection (in men and some women, especially after menopause) and hips and thighs (in women and few men). Sit-ups, crunches, leg-hip raises, leg raises, hip adduction, hip abduction, etc. will only exercise the muscles under the fat.

Lower Abdominal Myth

It is widely believed the lower abs are exercised during the leg raise or other hip flexor exercises. However, it can be misleading to judge the mechanics of an exercise based on localized muscular fatigue. The primary muscle used in hip flexion is actually the Iliopsoas, one of many hip flexors. The Iliopsoas, indeed, does happen to originate deep below the lower portion of the Rectus Abdominous. During the leg raise, the entire abdominal musculature isometrically contracts (contracts with no significant movement) to:

* Posture the spine and pelvis
o Supports the weight of the lower body so the lumbar spine does not hyperextend excessively
o Maintains optimal biomechanics of the Iliopsoas
+ Hips are kept from prematurely flexing if the lumbar spine and pelvis does not hyperextend excessively
+ Iliopsoas can contract more forcefully in a relatively slight stretched position
# Bent knee (and hip) sit-ups actually place Iliopsoas at a mechanical disadvantage
* Counteracts Iliopsoas's pull on spine
o Many people with weak abdominal muscles are not able to perform hip flexor exercises without acute lower back pain or discomfort

The combination of the local muscular fatigue, or a burning sensation from the isometrically contracted abdominal muscles, and from the working hip flexors produces fatigue in the pelvis area which we mistakenly interpret as the lower portion of the Rectus Abdominous being exercised. In movements where the Rectus Abdominous does Isontonically contract (contracts with movement), it flexes the spine by contracting the entire muscle from origin to insertion. The spine is not significantly flexed during the leg raise. Incidentally, both the spine and hip flexes during the Sit Up and Hip Raise. See Spot Reduction Myth above.
posted by geoff. at 9:09 AM on May 27, 2007

I eat anything I want. The real key to staying ripped in the gut dept is moderation and metabolism. I do enjoy oatmeal some mornings- but not every morning. Mid-morning snack is usually some kind of fruit and a few pieces of dark chocolate. Lunch is probably fish, sandwich, salad but never, never ever fast food and no coke or pepsi. If nothing else is available I just assume skip it. Afternoon snack I will have some yogurt, piece of cheese (this one is hit or miss). Dinner is always light and I eat it standing up, behind the stove as I dole out the grub to my family eating at the bar in front of me- I often wonder if this helps with digestion? Then I am done- nothing else to eat until morning.

I work out in 8 week blocks, then I take two weeks off and start back up but changing my routine around. Right now, I'm using free weights five days a week and go for a run or walk with my dog every night. I do abs and calves every day.
As for the abs... 140 reps on the preacher seat, sometimes weighted, then leg lifts- three sets of twenty five- toes pointed out. I have four beverages that I drink with any regularity... Water, Green Tea, Beer and Vodka.

Then there is the genes, I have a lot of Cherokee Indian in me, very little body hair and a solid metabolism strengthed by the fact that I eat many times a day. Good luck.
posted by bkeene12 at 9:15 AM on May 27, 2007

Reading the comments above has deepened my conviction that, attractive as they may be, six pack abs are definitely not worth it. Looking great without a shirt on may be very nice from time to time, but getting to eat lots of good food all the time (and be perfectly healthy in doing so) has a lot more overall happiness value, for me at least. The same is probably not true for everyone.
posted by sindark at 9:23 AM on May 27, 2007

To lose weight you need to create a caloric deficit, i.e. eat fewer calories than you consume, which will cause your body to break down both muscle and body fat for energy. You can do this by reducing caloric intake, increasing exercise, or preferably both. To minimize muscle loss while operating at a caloric deficit, increase protein consumption (to offset the increased rate of muscle breakdown), maintain carbohydrate consumption (to minimize the rate of muscle breakdown), and reduce fat consumption to create the caloric deficit.

So, you want to target foods high in protein and low in fat. A good goal is 25-30% calories from protein, 10-20% from fat and the rest from carbohydrates. Personally, I just try to pay attention to and reduce fat intake, and make the rest of the calories count by avoiding "empty" calories, and eating more natural, less processed foods for the extra fiber, protein and nutrients. Fruit juice mixed with water instead of soft drinks, whole wheat instead of white, brown rice instead of white, fruit and veggie snacks instead of garbage. I'll often down a protein/banana/fiber smoothie instead of lunch, and supplement with snacks after breakfast and before dinner.

I like to skip fat where I barely notice it. No butter on my bread or mayo on my sandwich, creme in my coffee, or whip cream on a dessert, just a dab of salad dressing on the greens. I trim the fat and skins from most meats, and try to consume leaner meats such as chicken breast and fish. I prefer to get my fats in my dessert for my crazy sweet tooth.

Lifestyle factors such as getting plenty of sleep help, and scheduling your eating so that it fuels your activities rather than going hungry while active and eating afterwards. Binge drinking specifically increases abdominal fat, so avoid the hard stuff and have your beer in moderation.
posted by Manjusri at 9:39 AM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Reading the comments above has deepened my conviction that, attractive as they may be, six pack abs are definitely not worth it. Looking great without a shirt on may be very nice from time to time, but getting to eat lots of good food all the time (and be perfectly healthy in doing so) has a lot more overall happiness value, for me at least.

This is absolutely the case for me. At 175 pounds (plus lots of exercise) I have great abs -- not good enough for the cover of Men's Health, but pretty good for an amateur. At 195 my stomach is flat, but with no visible ab definition, and I feel great, much better than with the visible abs. But (and this connects to the original question) for me the real difference between 175 with abs and 195 without abs is exercise, not diet. I eat the same regardless, but dropping the 20 pounds and gaining visible abs takes a really intense exercise regime that is, for me, not all that interesting or sustainable.
posted by Forktine at 9:39 AM on May 27, 2007

"attractive as they may be, six pack abs are definitely not worth it."

True, but it's still good to go ahead and eat a little better and exercise a little more. :)
posted by drstein at 10:13 AM on May 27, 2007

True, but it's still good to go ahead and eat a little better and exercise a little more. :)

Absolutely. I am all for fun exercise like cycling or hiking in the mountains. Interminable crunches are much less enjoyable, and sacrificing cheese consumption for more perfect personal appearance is unthinkable.
posted by sindark at 10:16 AM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I did this early in '02 and maintained my diet for about 9 months or so. I was 32 at the time and living in the UK. My diet consisted mostly of high-fiber, low net carb cereal for breakfast (Fiber One from the US, since the UK version is tricky to find), lots of water throughout the day, a leafy greens salad with tuna or lightly-dressed Quorn protein for lunch, lots more water and perhaps some fruit, and plenty of steamed vegetables and protein (often a fat-free Quark or cottage cheese) for dinner. Oh, and I did sometimes drink diet soda and wine (very small quantities of wine).

For exercise, I did some pretty high intensity cardio (about 1150 kcal/hr) for 30 minutes or so (running, elliptical, rowing), and then followed that up with another half hour of cross training on machines. I did this 3-4 times a week, plus walking or biking everywhere.

The result was fine, and noticable on a summer vacation that August, but nobody really sees your abs most of the time, and my problem is that the part of me that everyone saw every day--my face--looked too gaunt. So I stopped. I have a flat stomach now, without the defined abs, and I'm doing a harder workout these days. The benefit is that I can drink wine now and eat food that I enjoy and don't go into a tailspin when a friend has a birthday cake. With clothes on, I look better than before. Without, the difference is negligible.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:03 PM on May 27, 2007

Don't underestimate the amount of photoshop that goes in to abs you see in magazines. Just like female models don't actually look like that, so do the males. And while I think I might be too young to participate and don't have any hard advice; one thing that I do is keep a mental tally of calories throughout the day in my head. Not counting every one, but more or less keeping an idea of whether or not I should have seconds or ice cream if I don't really need it. I avoid the junk food and love eating fruits and whole grains, but once in a while I'll eat an entire cake or something which confuses my friends to no end.
posted by JackarypQQ at 12:19 PM on May 27, 2007

geoff: Yes/no. Crunches won't get your stomach flat, but if you have a flat stomach already they'll give you defined abs. Not eating as much will give you a flat stomach, but no defined abs.

My (muttermutter) ex has an always flat stomach and an off and on six-pack. His diet appears to consist of McDonald's for breakfast, McDonald's for lunch, and happy hour for dinner. Sometimes if he goes off of this diet, he appears to lose weight and become (more) unhealthily thin. I'm not sure how he does it, as he is the same height as me and around 30 pounds lighter (and eats way more). Anyway, when he does crunches he develops a decent amount of muscle, the rest of the time it just kind of dips in where most people poke out. Oh, and he just turned 29. Hope this helps (although I'm a bit doubtful, sorry, better luck next incarnation).
posted by anaelith at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2007

50+ here, and very modestly defined abs. I do second slothrops comments, no pop, little meats - other than chicken and tuna, and no fatty foods- especially not snack foods. This is easier for me as I am fighting high blood pressure, so salted stuff is not in my plan.

You also need to exercise to bring your metabolism up. Cardio is the best for reducing body fat, but don't count weights out as you need to keep your muscular strength in balance.

Genetics are also important. I trend to the lean side (<2 0% bf), so i have a set of defined abs, but this is more accidental than>
5 or six small meals a day. Studies have apparently shown that eating two or so larger meals per day trains the body to store extra calories as body fat.

Good question!
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 12:30 PM on May 27, 2007

During the brief period in my life where my weight dropped to the point that my abs were visible, I was riding my bike 40-100 miles a day, every day, and eating very little. I tend to think that eating very little was the key part of this equation. In an entire day, I would drink 2 cups of coffee with a teaspoonful of sugar each; a bottle of Gatorade or some such; a roast chicken breast or thigh (not both), and maybe a small order of fried zucchini.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:39 PM on May 27, 2007

As per other comments, for most people the real six packs only come with extreme exercise, and that's starting with a lean body. If you want to go that route, get "The complete book of abs" by Kurt Brungardt. It has a very well worked out exercise program that can get you there with the minimum of daily effort... about 20 minutes per day, but those are 20 minutes of boot camp style pain.

Now as for the getting a lean body, as you can tell from the comments so far and the millions of mutually contradictory diet books, everyone has a different opinion. And there is a good reason for this... different body types (as per your genes, i.e. genotypes) respond differently to diet and exercise. In fact just a few days ago the results of a scientific study that confirmed this were in the science news.

My observations, which seem to be consistent with that study, are that the two major successful weight loss strategies are caloric restriction (eat about 200 calories less per day than you burn) and low-carb (avoid all high-glycemic carbs and crank up the protein). Which works well for you is fairly easy to figure out... just try them both. A clue is that people who won't be successful on a low calorie diet tend to also be the ones who are more miserable on it and can't keep themselves from cheating. This is because they overproduce insulin after taking in any amount of carbs, so they process and store the calories too fast and a little later they have a "sugar crash" and crave more. To break that cycle you have to go low carb.

To not merely lose weight but actually be lean and fit, in either case you need to also do some regular aerobic exercise of course, but this can be fairly moderate so long as it's regular.

If you're the type that doesn't have a problem with the caloric restriction diet, then getting leaner is just a problem of balancing food intake and exercise with a bit of discipline. You don't need any help with this... just make up your mind to do it.

Low carb is trickier. There are many different varieties of low carb diets, but my advice is this... eat meat (especially fish), eggs, nuts, veggies and fruits and nothing else. DON'T eat bread, rice, pasta. Avoid potatoes because they are too starchy. Avoid dairy, even though it's not high carb, because it messes with your hormone balances and other things. DO NOT avoid fat in the form of fatty meat, butter, fatty fish, eggs, and nuts! Also, be liberal with olive oil. This is IMHO very important on a high-protein low-carb diet, getting all your calories from lean protein alone is difficult and has its own problems. And the fat will help you feel satiated. But do avoid vegetable oils other than olive, coconut, and maybe canola.

I know I go against practically all other diet advise with respect to fat, but there is good scientific support for the hypothesis that fat is only a problem when you're also eating a lot of high-glycemic carbs. If your glycemic load is low then fat will be very efficiently and completely processed by your body. In fact, people who are on this type of reduced carb diet with plenty of fat often report a DROP in serum cholesterol!

One last word... things EVERYBODY should avoid like the plague because they not only will make you fat but they are also the cause of countless modern health problems: hydrogenated vegetable oils and high-fructose corn syrup. These two are killers, especially together, and unfortunately they are found in practically all junk foods and most processed foods today.
posted by jbotz at 2:25 PM on May 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

Don't worry too much about crunches. If you are lifting 3X a week and you don't have a flat stomach, you need to work on your table pushaways.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:28 PM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't have six-pack abs. I have friends who do, though. Most of them are genetically gifted with fast metabolisms, but they also are very, very active and eat very healthfully.

The ones who are not gifted with fast metabolisms exercise a lot and watch their food intake obsessively. Like, borderline eating-disorder obsessively. Low-fat, high-protein, low-carb. Lots of vegetables.
posted by Anonymous at 8:21 PM on May 27, 2007

If your body fat is on the mid-low end of healthy then you need to work your abs if you want a 6 pack. Just like any muscle that you want to define, you have to tone it.

Not so much:

Spot Reduction Myth

I never said you could target the fat on your abdomen. Thats why I said if his bodyfat is already on the low side of healthy then he needs to exercise his abs. You can target your exercise to specific muscle groups. Most people dont have a rippling 6 pack under their beer guts - it takes work to get a stomache like that - not just a dietary change.

Some people are naturally more muscular than others and maybe they can get semi-visible abs just by being thin but thats not for everyone, think of all the skinny geeks who have very little body fat - they dont have 6 packs under their shirts because they dont have any muscle definition.
posted by missmagenta at 1:27 AM on May 28, 2007

I have an okay stomach - about 4/7ths of a six-pack as I describe it. I'm under 30, though. Anyway
Thirding no sodas, no processed food (with some exceptions like chocolate).
Eating a little and often I find has worked for me to lose weight (I was a fat teenager) as well as eating well. Snacks will always be fruit or vegetables (I usually take raw cauliflower or broccoli to school since I love it) or pretzels if I crave salty. I hardly ever eat out and make most my stuff from scratch. Buy about 12 different kinds of vegetables every week and work from there. No butter, only olive oil. Bike or walk everywhere, assuming weather permits. Swimming once a week is good, too. I think that varied workouts are very healthy. No food at least 2-3hours before sleeping. And I drink about 5 liters of water a day.
posted by shokod at 4:18 AM on May 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Abs Diet is written to answer precisely the question you asked. It's not a diet. It's a guide to sensible eating.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 5:56 AM on May 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

25 years old vegan: lots of water, lots of fiber, and basically anything else I want beyond that, but it tends to be healthy -- fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, chick peas, etc. I avoid sugary drinks (of any kind) and I occasionally drink alcohol. I don't really watch out for fats.

Exercise: lift three times / week, cardio twice / week (generally a pick-up game of soccer, frisbee, or whatever entertaining and low-commitment team sports I can find; in the winter I tend to go running or swimming.)

The six pack crept up on me after about a year of this and has stayed around since.
posted by mharper3 at 9:21 PM on May 29, 2007

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