Does a six-pack equal health?
Ripped. Shredded. Diced. Cut.
No, I’m not describing the options control panel of an abattoir, these are all actually ways to compliment someone’s physique.
What it means is that you have very low body fat to the point where you have a lot of definition, most noticeably in the stomach area: basically you have the famous ‘six-pack’ of abdominal muscle that marks you out as ‘fit and healthy’.
Like the bicep, the six-pack has become one of those universal symbols of health, strength and vitality.
It’s probably ranked equal first with the bicep as the most discussed topic for fitness magazines and media, with pretty much a whole core industry revolving around the ideal of the ‘ripped’ six-pack that is apparently the key to looking good, getting girls and basically making your life ten times better.
How hard is it to get a six-pack?
Having a six-pack is not actually that hard. Everyone has abdominal muscles, you just need to get your body fat low enough. If you starved yourself so your body was consuming your fat stores to survive, you’d get one pretty quickly.
The difficulty is having one whilst also holding a lot of muscle.
If you starve yourself your body looks to get its energy from itself, and while it will use fat stores it makes more sense to break down muscle tissue as well, because muscle tissue actually uses a lot more calories than fat.
So if you decide to try and reduce your calories to make your body use fat and reveal your abs, you’re going to lose some muscle too.
It’s annoying from your fitness goals perspective but from your bodies point of view it really doesn’t give a damn about your upcoming beach holiday or your muscular goals. It wants to survive.
Does having a six-pack mean you’re healthy?
As we just discussed, having a visible six-pack means that you have low bodyfat (like 10% and below for men).
That’s pretty much all it means.
It doesn’t necessarily mean you have good cardiovascular fitness. It doesn’t mean you’re strong. It doesn’t mean you are fast, or have good cholesterol, or are better than anyone at anything.
To be in that condition it is likely that you follow a certain lifestyle but again, it doesn’t mean this lifestyle is 100% healthy.
Look at bodybuilders for example, whose whole lives are spent in the pursuit of muscle and low body fat.
When they’re on stage they are all muscular and have incredibly defined six-packs. They are meant to be the embodiment of classical power and strength as first depicted by the statues of ancient Greece.
But ironically it is in this state where they are actually weakest. In order to get that level of leanness they have been dieting for weeks, causing low energy levels and an inability to train to the best of their ability.
In the days prior to a show many dehydrate themselves to the point of passing out. There’s a lot of examples of them fainting on stage.
Outwardly, they are pictures of lean and muscular vitality.
In reality they’re physical wrecks. You could push one of these muscle behemoths over on stage, and they couldn’t fight back.
In most cases, even with so-called ‘natural bodybuilding’ there’s been a lot drugs, diuretics, and questionable methods to get them into this idealised state of muscle and definition.
They definitely couldn’t be described as healthy.
The thing is, being lean enough to have visible abs doesn’t necessarily make you better at anything, apart from looking ‘stereotypically’ fit and in shape.
You can certainly have good cardiovascular fitness whilst not having single-digit bodyfat, and having a bit of bodyfat can actually help you when building strength because it means your body is well-fed and therefore you have high energy levels.
Obviously though, having low body fat is sometimes useful. It means more of your weight is ‘efficient’ weight, which means that you have better pound for pound strength. If you’re into endurance sports then having less ‘useless’ matter like fat means you have less bodyweight to transport around, saving you energy.
In terms of diet, it also means that you’re probably eating healthy and in line with your calorie demands.
Very lean AND very muscular?
An important point to note is that as a natural it is basically impossible to be extremely muscular at the same time as being very low bodyfat.
It’s because of the reasons I mentioned above: if the body is finding calories from itself due to not enough being supplied from sources like food, it WILL sacrifice muscle.
You can reduce this effect slightly by continuing to weight train heavy, as this will ‘remind’ the body that it still needs muscle to perform for the demands asked of it.
But you will still lose some muscle tissue.
Even the bodybuilders and fitness models who take drugs to preserve mass and burn fat will still lose some, but they will be able to retain a lot more than a guy just eating food and taking protein powders.
Put simply, if you are natural then you can be either very lean or very muscular (to natural standards, I don’t mean having 20 inch biceps). But you can’t be both at the same time, no matter what the industry will try and tell you.
In reality, a natural lifter who has trimmed his bodyfat to a genuine 8% will not look very impressive with his shirt on. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to really tell if he lifted weights at all.
It is because the human body is not meant to hold a lot of muscle and have very low fat at the same time. From the point of view of survival of the fittest being in such condition is actually dangerous if you happen to be caught in a situation where food was scarce, which would have been a frequent scenario for our ancestors before supermarkets existed.
If you have very small fat reserves you won’t survive as long without food. If you have a lot of muscle that has a high calorie requirement your demise will be even faster.
In such a scenario you’d be better off being fatter: in an evolutionary game, you’d win.
Having a six-pack was clearly not optimal, back in the day. And come to think about it even a few hundred years ago being fat was a coveted sign of affluence and prosperity- it showed that you could take care of yourself.
It shouldn’t be a goal anyway
I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a goal of losing fat, but training to look a certain way shouldn’t be your goal. In a logical world people would train to be healthy.
But I know that in the real world, looking good is what it’s all about. “Does having a six-pack mean I’m healthy? Who cares, I look good!”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, but the best way to achieve that is to actually not think about it too much, when it comes to training.
Pick something you like to do. Make fitness and exercise a habit. Learn to enjoy and value your performance. This will all help you to develop consistency and be as good as you can be at your chosen activity.
And you will look good. But more importantly you’ll also be healthy.