I want a six pack

I was chatting to colleague recently, who declared that I’d given a friend who wanted six-pack abs “bad advice” with regard to his diet and exercise. I was taken aback, and pushed to understand why they felt my advice was bad. Reason? Dogma.

I want a six-pack. Isn’t that always how it starts?

The holy grail of physique transformation where abdominal muscles stand proud, and ripple and glisten in response to your every movement. It matters not that this is invariably happening beneath your shirt, that few may ever know of your condition.

You know, and that’s all that matters.

But this post isn’t about the magic of ripped, lean abs. At least not directly.

It’s about the dogma surrounding diet and exercise which likely goes some way to explaining why so many people fail to achieve their desired results.

Getting a six pack is simple

Individual musculature aside, the how of getting a six pack is indeed incredibly simple. Drop enough body fat to reveal the outline of your abdominal muscles. And as we all know, dropping body fat is also simple. Establish and sustain a modest calorie deficit over an extended period, ideally combined with a program of resistance training and increase in lean dietary proteins.

See, it’s simple.

Trouble is, it’s not remotely easy, and that explains why very few guys (and gals) are walking around with a lean mid-section and clearly defined abs.

Dropping some body fat really is pretty easy. But going deep into the sort of fat-loss needed to see vacuum-packed abs, especially while preserving lean body mass, takes discipline, persistence and, truth be told, a pretty good amount of personal sacrifice.

Factor in individual genetics, and the fact that you can’t target fat loss, if you’re anything like me, you need to go well into single digit body fat to reveal a decent set of abs.

What do I need to do?

I talked with my friend for a good half hour or so, adding the detail behind the high-level headline of eat less, move more. Advice that while undoubtedly true, gives nothing of practical value to help you make progress.

Letting my friend drive, the conversation was fast-paced and erratic, and we covered a lot of ground in short order.

I took a role not unlike the bumper rails in bowling,
there solely to keep the ball out of the gutter and heading in the right direction.

First, it was evident that despite their earlier enthusiastic proclamation, my friend was prepared to make few concessions toward their new-found goal.

In fact the list of things they were NOT prepared to do was long:

  • No limitations
    • No cutting carbs
    • No cutting fats
    • No cutting alcohol
  • No wanting to “think” every time they go to eat
    • No cutting snacks
    • No juggling portion sizes
  • No meal preparation
  • No counting calories
  • No additional exercise

Long, but not entirely unreasonable

Despite the long list, I personally don’t find it [too] unreasonable.

Here’s a guy in his late twenties with a busy career and active social life. Should he really be prepared to have his goal for a six-pack consume his every waking thought?

Regardless, the fact remains, we need to move him to a negative energy balance, and that means some combination of reducing calories below maintenance, or significantly boosting activity levels.

On the upside, my friend is not overweight, does visit the gym with good pretty good frequency, and likes the occasional run at the weekends. Moreover, his weight has been consistent for a very long time, holding steady around two-hundred pounds.

Taking into account the long list of nos, I ended-up proposing an intermittent fasting schedule for him. Something along the lines of 16/8, applied five days a week.

Heresy, I hear you scream

But is it?

Here’s a guy, willing to make to make almost no dietary concessions. They want the abs, but they also want a fuss-free approach with little to no impact on their daily life.

So many individuals graze throughout the day, mindlessly snacking from the moment they rise, right up until they stumble in to bed, usually comfortably full. Limiting your daily eating window to just eight hours invariably has the effect of restricting calories.

And while you might think you would just gorge yourself in the eight-hour window, immediately negating any of the benefits, it seldom ends-up that way in reality.

Intermittent fasting works.

I’ve previously run this protocol myself, more than once, and a great many people live the fasting lifestyle.

By following this protocol just five days a week, he can likely make a substantial change to his food intake, with minimal impact on his daily life.

I also advised him to not change any other facet of his diet or exercise. No cutting snacks, no dropping foods, no extra workouts. Just do what you’ve been doing. That way, if we see progress, we know it was the introduction of the fasting window, and not any of the other changes he might have made.

I also told him to weigh himself every morning, same time, same protocol. We won’t look at the daily numbers, but would use the weekly moving average to help quantify progress.

Back to the bad advice

So back to this conversation with a colleague who overheard us talking fasting and felt compelled to tell me “I feel like you’re giving him really bad advice!”.

When pressed her as to why, the dogma flowed…

  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
  • Why wouldn’t you just drop your carbs?
  • Fasting is so extreme
  • It’s all about the cardio

I just smiled. Took a breath. And smiled again.

I could have pointed out that breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. That from a physiological perspective, there’s nothing special about eating early in the morning and it magically triggering weight loss.

I could have asserted that restricting carbs is no less extreme than fasting, and is certainly not the poster-child of fat loss it’s purported to be.

How you can lose fat by building muscle, and that an excess of cardio is both unnecessary and detrimental to retaining lean body mass.

Instead, I simply proffered this:

The most effective approach to diet or training is establishing a protocol that you can actually stick to.

Consistency is the foundation of progress

To be fair to my colleague, she did quickly acknowledge this fact. But it was, as always, interesting to me how many of these dogmatic principles toward diet and exercise are so deeply ingrained in wider society.

Consistency is the foundation of almost every dietary approach, and consistency is achieved through adherence over the long term.

My friend was completely unwilling to embrace many of the other possible choices that might lead to a calorie deficit, and wanted an approach that afforded maximum freedom in his day-to-day life.

Will intermittent fasting work for him?

Who knows?

That question is largely moot, but principally comes down to how diligently he follows the practice. There’s also a risk that he it just won’t work for him. It’s certainly not for everyone.

And yes, we’ll certainly have to make additional changes. No approach works indefinitely.

But if it works for him now, if only to get the ball rolling, then I’d say it was good advice.

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