Six Month Six Pack
This Skinny White Girl’s Journey to Abs
I wanted them. The coveted six pack hunks at the beach swagger around with and fitness models strive for. I’ve always admired fit males with rippling six packs and had seen a few photos of women rocking them too. But I didn’t personally know any females with a six pack. Could I get one?
I decided to go for it; boldly assuming that if anyone could do it I could, and auspiciously setting my 29th birthday as my deadline. That gave me an entire six months to formulate a plan, develop healthy habits, and overhaul my shapeless midriff.
Spoiler alert: I did reach my goal of unveiling a subtle (but countable) six pack on the morning of my 29th birthday. However, this would not have been possible without countless hours of research, experimentation, theorizing, trial and error, getting advice from everyone I knew that had a six pack (all of them male) and of course a lot of relentless, sweat-producing dedication.
A bit of background about me; I’m a skinny white girl. While my weight has fluctuated at times due to activity levels and diet (think way too many pancakes freshman year of college) one thing I’ve never had much success at was building muscle. I was a weakling in the gym in high school, cycled across the US in 2010 only to emerge a stick figure on the other side, and bouts of weight training at the gym as an adult were always short lived because I didn’t notice any real changes.
Bottom line I didn’t have a great track record for building a six pack. What I did have in my favor was a passion for achieving goals, healthy eating habits and a wicked stubborn streak.
We All Have What it Takes
I want to begin by assuring you that you contain all the necessary parts for a six pack. We are all composed of essentially the same 640 skeletal muscles and 206 bones. We all have six packs! They are just buried under excess stored calories, stress and subcutaneous water. Time to send out a search party and reclaim your abs.
The average American adult gains one pound of body fat a year. Which makes sense; as we age we generally have more disposable income, less free time, more stress and slowing metabolisms. All of which add to an ever expanding waistline. We need to be conscious of this to make changes and curb that trend.
Hypothetically if we severely reduce our caloric intake and don’t lift a finger otherwise we’ll eventually expose those abdominal muscles. I bet many anorexics have subtle six packs until their bodies start cannibalizing their muscles for energy. But anorexics also suffer from a host of health issues from malnutrition. We want to build muscle and reduce body fat to achieve a shredded stomach without compromising our health.
Let’s Talk Nutrition
The first step before anything else is to build your six pack foundation on eating habits. This is key. Not only for your abs but also for investing in your overall health and quality of life.
Photo courtesy of Arya Ziai at his flickr account (link to www.flickr.com/photos/aryaziai/) no alterations
Body builders refer to this as “eating clean” and that’s not a bad way to visualize it. By eating clean I mean cutting out processed, fried, carbonated, sugary, empty calories that will only work against you and cling to your body in the form of muscle masking fat. There are even many protein bars and other fitness marketed foods I would steer clear of because of their processed nature.
Six Pack Principle #1 Build your nutritional foundation on whole, live food that you prepare yourself
If you don’t like cooking it’s time to adjust your perception of it. Preparing your own food is the only way to fully control all the important elements of a successful abs nutrition plan, especially near the end of the process. (Unless you can hire Curtis Stone as your own personal chef of course). By the sixth month I began feeling like part obsessive chef part mad scientist–with my body as the super rad science project!
Let’s summarize the categories of foods your nutritional plan should be built upon:
This is probably the most controversial category depending upon your eating ethics. I personally do not consume farmed animals (pesco-vegetarian that’s me) and I got some funny looks when my body building friends realized I would not be eating chicken three times a day. But there are options when it comes to protein as vegan bodybuilders are evidence of. Some of us just have to get strategic (more on that later).
Lean meats (lean cuts of beef, chicken, turkey)
Seafood (salmon, tuna, cod, shrimp)
Legumes (lentils, beans, peas)
Eggs, lots and lots of eggs
Tofu, seitan, tempeh
Greek yogurt, cottage cheese
Protein Supplements (whey, egg white, hemp, pea)
Six Pack Principle #2 Incorporate healthy lean protein into every meal
These packs of energy are vital for our nutritional plan. Don’t turn paleo on me just yet. We will cut back on them later in the process, but for starters let’s focus on the good sources. Learn to love sweet potatoes and steer clear of anything that starts with “white”.
Whole Grain Oats
Whole wheat bread and pasta
As carbohydrates are your fastest fuel source consume them earlier in the day to power you through your morning and your workouts. For example, eating oats for breakfast to fuel your morning, sweet potatoes or brown rice during lunch and having dinner consist of protein and vegetables or greens.
Six Pack Principle #3 Eat carbohydrates earlier in the day to satiate hunger and fuel your workouts
Lipids aka Fat
We love fat! But we love the right kind of fat in the right amounts. I really like this article’s overview of fat despite their emphasis on animal fats. Whatever oils you choose to cook with, make sure it is made from real food and isn’t heavily processed (steer clear of sunflower, canola and vegetable oils).
Fat for Eating
Nuts (almond, walnut, pecan, cashews)
Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, pine nuts, chia)
Supplements (fish oil, hemp seed oil, flax seed oil)
Fat for Cooking Purposes
The fats from eating sources have many health benefits but are also very high in calories. Enjoy them for their health benefits and culinary perks at first and we will reduce their intake near the end of the six pack process.
“I use coconut oil for cooking purposes and olive oil for fresh purposes.”
Greens and Veggies
Eat away! Especially raw greens and veggies. These guys are so full of vitamins and minerals we’ll rely on their super powers throughout the process.
Our Beloved Veggies
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage
Spinach, kale, bok choy, collard greens
Asparagus, okra, green beans
Carrots, beets, radishes, zucchinis
Cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes
And many many more
Vegetables are the champions in terms of providing vitamins and minerals at a low caloric cost. Plus they are a great source of vitamin C which is vital for immune response, cell repair and iron absorption.
Six Pack Principle #4 Veggies rock! Make raw veggies your new favorite snack
Fruits should be consumed in moderation. As delicious and healthy as they are, they are still simple carbohydrates that are loaded with sugar. They are best eaten on an empty stomach after a run. We will cut back on them more later in the process. The one fruit I consumed daily through my six pack journey was blueberries; their rate of nutritional return for the calories is exceptional.
A Word on Drinks
Drinks should definitely be considered in your nutrition plan as they are an inconspicuous contributor to caloric intake. In particular fresh fruit juices, which are lauded as the fountain of youth in some circles actually contain far too much sugar stripped of naturally occurring fiber and starch. Save fresh fruit juices for special occasions and instead eat a whole piece of fruit after cardio.
Drink Your Way to a Six Pack
Water, water, water
Any kind of tea really (sans sugar and milk)
Coffee (sans sugar and milk)
Rant Alert: The proliferation of sugary carbonated beverages may be one of the greatest injustices done to our species and our planet. Sodas serve no health benefits, contribute to obesity and diabetes, and their discarded bottles now fill our oceans and are killing off marine species. Bottom line, there was no place for soda in my six pack journey even if I had wanted to accounted for the calories.
“I start every morning with warm lemon water with a splash of apple cider vinegar sweetened lightly with stevia. In this way my body began in an alkaline state with a boost a vitamin C.”
More about dietary alkalinity here.
“I drink green tea before exercising to get the most out of my workout”
Once you have outlined your nutritional plan put it somewhere you will see it every day. Like on your fridge to get your head right before preparing meals or as the wallpaper on your phone so you can glance at it while at the grocery store. Trust me, it will make a difference!
The first draft of my six pack nutritional plan. I emphasize first draft because this evolved over the process. For example I ditched chickpeas and hummus because of the high calories, stop using any sweetener but stevia and diversified my protein supplements.
Let’s Talk Exercise
When we think abdominal exercise the first thing that comes to mind are sit ups and crunches. But there is a huge problem with this thinking. Crunches and sit ups quickly succumb to the law of diminishing returns–whereby the more time you spend on them the less reward you reap (and you will eventually strain your back as well!) So dedicate this next principle to memory:
Abs Principle #5 Increased repetition makes lean muscle, increased resistance builds muscle
Regularly doing crunches are great, to a point. But we are very adaptable creatures. Once your core has adapted to doing crunches it will plateau, your muscles developing only enough to complete the task. It takes the same muscle strength to do 50 crunches as it does to do 500. To strengthen and build core muscle you need to increase resistance. You need to add weight to the exercise to encourage your muscles to strengthen beyond that plateau.
Learn to Love Cardio
Forget sit ups and crunches as your primary six pack achievers. Cardio is your biggest advocate for exposing your hidden muscles. If you did nothing else but balance your nutrition and increase your cardio you will be leaps and bounds closer to abs than if you did 1,000 crunches a day.
Abs Principle #6 Cardio first thing in the morning before eating utilizes glycogen stores and accelerates body fat loss
I, for one, hate treadmills. There is something incredibly mentally defeating about running so hard and going nowhere. So I got outdoors. Even when the snow was piled high here in Boston I made running a priority because I knew it was vital to my abs goal. In addition the fresh air and opportunity to explore felt great. Lastly, running outdoors where you encounter bends in the road and uneven terrain makes your muscles work harder, respond to diverse stimuli and yep even requires more core strength and balance. So ditch the treadmill and go explore!
“I pick a point on a map and just go, because then I have to run back to return home as well. It’s a lot easier for me to push the stop button on the treadmill than to walk home from an outdoor run feeling defeated. When I get home I track my distance using google maps and reward myself with breakfast or a delicious piece of whole fruit.”
Make an Abs Journal that Makes You Want to Write in It Every Day
My abs journal was undoubtedly one of the most important tools in my six pack tool kit. I wouldn’t have succeeded without it. Many goals in life require a way to manage progress. An abs journal is vital because there are many aspects to building your abs that need to be tracked daily for long term consistency. Make your abs journal visually inspiring so it makes you want to write it in every day.
My first abs journal
Abs Principle #7 Track your nutritional and athletic progress in an abs journal every day
You can design your abs journal in any manner you like, but I divided mine into four main categories: Core, cardio, nutrition, hydration
I also kept track of things like my weight, how I was feeling on that day and any cheat items I had (pastries, alcohol, sweets etc.). Because I wrote in this journal every day it became part of my daily routine and having spaces to fill for core and cardio encouraged me to do something in that category every day. I also passed on some cheat foods because I didn’t want the guilt of writing them in my journal. On days I didn’t work out I just wrote in “rest” and there were a few days of caloric mayhem that I simply wrote “travel” or “Indian wedding ate 1,000,000+ calories”.
Creating Your Abs Game Plan
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of what kinds of food and exercise to incorporate into your abs game plan and how to track them it’s time to get strategic. After all, timing is everything.
Your overall game plan is going to depend on where you begin and where you want to be. If you have a high BMI dropping weight will be a high priority from the get go. If you have a low BMI but no muscle mass your goal is going to be building muscle from the start.
Know Your BMI
You can get a vague idea of your BMI by using an online calculator such as this one by the National Institute of Health.
Know Your Daily Recommended Calories
Next get familiar with your recommended daily calories for your age, body type and activity level. I like this online calculator because it tells you how many calories you need to consume to maintain your weight, lose fat and lose fat extremely fast.
Knowing your BMI and Daily Recommended Calories will give you a sense of your caloric intake goal. That being said, in the beginning it’s more important to eat the right foods than the right number of calories. Cutting calories too sharply will be jarring to your body and risk your dietary diversity. Dietary diversity is important in ensuring you are getting plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. All the good stuff.
Abs Principle #8 In the beginning it’s more important to eat the right foods than the right number of calories
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of your caloric needs and goals it’s time to get in tune with your strength. It doesn’t matter if you can hardly do a push up or if you are a master of burpees, the name of the game is progress and diversity.
Abs Principle #9 Start with bodyweight exercises to increase your baseline core strength
The first phase of fitness doesn’t even require a gym membership. You can increase your strength, flexibility and endurance greatly with a yoga mat, pull up bar and pair of running shoes.
While pull ups and pushups sound like they only target your arms they are actually great for engaging your core as well. Here are a list of body weight exercises you can incorporate into a routine at home:
This may seem like a short list but remember that each of these exercises has countless variations. This article is not long enough to list them all here but check out this article for great descriptions and photos of some of my favorite exercises: ultimate six pack abs workout
And I find this bodyweight exercise video killer motivating even though I can’t do all of these exercises. Yet:
Choose what exercises you want to accomplish and complete them in sets of three. This gives you a little variety and continual motion without burning out. Then rotate through them 3-5 times. Throughout every step remembering to breath to maximize your energy efficiency and pushing yourself to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. By pushing yourself to this point each time you work out you gradually encourage your muscles become stronger. For example:
10 Spiderman push ups
10 Hanging knee to chest
40 Jump squats
Finishing the last set by doing as many of each as you can
Six Pack Principle #10 pair abdominal exercises with back strengthening exercises to Prevent Back Strain
Before we get too carried away with these exercises that emphasize core strength it is important to remember the part of our body that is prone to weakness: our backs. Too much abdominal strengthening will leave our backs weak in comparison leading to more problems. Be sure and pair abdominal exercises with back strengthening exercises such as Planks and Supermans.
Counting Calories and Understanding Ratios
Once you begin counting calories you’ll want to be more specific about your protein intake. Counting calories will likely decrease the number calories you consume yet you need to make sure you are still eating adequate protein to build muscle. The rule of thumb for increasing muscle mass is:
Abs Principle #11 Consume one gram of protein per lb of body weight
This is where you’re going to start getting nerdy and technical. Remember the abs journal from before? Well now’s the time to step up your game by measuring your food and calculating the protein and calories of everything you eat.
“I purposely waited to start counting calories with real precision until the last 1.5 months of my abs journey because I didn’t want to drive myself crazy.”
It is also important to start paying attention to when you eat. Most importantly:
Abs Principle #12 Eat small meals at regular intervals
I ate my meals in the following time intervals:
Plus raw veggies sprinkled throughout the day. Plus I didn’t consume anything aside from tea or water after 7pm.
In order to more easily calculate calories and grams of protein I created an excel sheet (I warned you of this nerdiness!) with all my most commonly consumed foods. I also calculated their protein to calorie ratio:
calories per 100g / grams of protein per 100g = calorie to protein ratio
For example: 100g of Salmon has 208 calories and 20 grams of protein giving it a calorie to protein ratio of 10.4
A Glimpse at My Excel Sheet for Ratios In Order of Higher Protein Ratio
Increasing Resistance Training a.k.a. Hitting the Gym
To be honest I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable navigating gyms. Thinking in my head, don’t mind the awkward girl messing up your reps! I was relegated to the easy-to-adjust resistance machines and felt subconscious about people watching me. I also had PTSD from being a weakling in highschool PE that could barely bench press the bar without any added weights.
Fuck that. If I was going to reach my goal I had to get over it. There is only so far our muscles will develop without additional weight training equipment. So I did. I preemptively researched workouts online to map out which exercises to do with which equipment. I started doing bench presses, working with free weights and owning the badass cable machine.
Here is some great gym inspiration. I definitely recommend the cable crunch and weighted russian twists on a decline bench. Add weight as you increase in strength and confidence and remember the importance of listening to your body to reduce the risk of injury. There is a big difference between gradually increasing demand on muscles and overexerting your body to the point of damaging tendons and ligaments.
Additional Tips for Abs Success
A nutritionally dense breakfast of whole oats, diced pear, blueberries, goji berries, chia seeds and soy milk
Eating breakfast is the single most important thing you can do to start your day. It will fuel your work out and boost your metabolism. I recommend whole grain oats to start your morning off right and stave off hunger.
Be Smart about Protein Supplements
Protein supplements are meant to be just that; “supplements”. I disagree with using protein supplements as meal replacements. Be advantageous about your protein intake and don’t worry about introducing a supplement until you either: A) Increase resistance training with the intent of building muscle or B) Reduce your caloric intake to a point where you need protein supplements to reach your 1 gram per one lb of body weight goal.
Here are my specific suggestions:
Consume a protein supplement or shake directly after a resistance workout to repair muscle
Buy quality protein supplements that don’t have a million ingredients
I began my abs journey by getting all of my protein from foods. Then as I began counting calories and calorie to protein ratio (thereby reducing my overall caloric intake) I started introducing protein supplements to get more protein in my diet at fewer calories. The protein supplements I recommend are:
In terms of whey protein Tera’s Whey is the best of the best. Organic, grass-fed, rBGH (hormone) free and while some whey products are overloaded with fillers Tera’s Whey is 75% protein. Plus the vanilla is absolutely delicious.
Jay Robb’s egg white protein is lactose free and made from eggs of chickens not treated with hormones. Sweetened with stevia and packing 72% protein the chocolate version is decadent; more akin to chocolate cake batter than traditional protein powders.
This hemp protein by Nutiva was my favorite non-animal protein I tried. Unlike other plant based protein supplements hemp protein contains all nine essential amino acids and was composed of 50% protein. It is a bit grainy though so I recommend mixing it with something.
One of the scariest parts of shouting our fitness goals from the rooftop is the accountability it creates. If we fail everyone will know. But creating that accountability can also be leveraged as an incredible source of inspiration. When we tell people what we are doing they get excited for us, check up on us and perhaps become inspired themselves!
Make Little Deals with Yourself
I believe in the compound effect; small changes resulting in big changes over time. So make little deals with yourself that will add up. For example I always take stairs two at a time, try to opt for stairs and do calf extensions when I find myself waiting for cross walk signals.
Don’t Get Boxed in by Gender
I am continually frustrated by the articles and online advice for women seeking to achieve abs. They often show shapeless little women with colorful 3 lb dumbbells. I intuitively knew this wasn’t going to cut it. Don’t be afraid to seek out men’s fitness sites for abdominal workout advice and modified them to work for you. Equally, men don’t be afraid to seek out yogic principles to increase flexibility.
This is lame and uninspiring
Photo courtesy of Rance Costa at his flickr account (link to www.flickr.com/photos/djrome/) no alterations
I can work with this
Photo courtesy of leanitup.com (link to www.leanitup.com/the-ultimate-six-pack-abs-workout/) no alterations
Mix It Up
Abs are a game of diversifying both your diet and workout. You need a balanced diet with all essential micronutrients as well as diversified workouts that keep your muscles challenged and yourself mentally refreshed. Whether reps at the gym or toppings on a salad, mix it up!
We’ve talked a lot about eating the “right nutrition” but there is a time and place for everything. The mental importance of cheat meals deserves mention. Not allowing yourself cheat meals simply isn’t realistic. We are social creatures living in world where food and snacking abound. You don’t have to be antisocial to achieve your abs goal. When eating out opt for the healthiest option. When allowing yourself a cheat meal enjoy it with gusto!
Don’t Eat Late at Night
Eating late at night leads to weight game, heartburn and gastrointestinal distress. Plus cravings for sugary treats and simple carbohydrates seem to increase at night. Establish your eating intervals and stick with them. Train yourself to reach for water or tea in evenings.
Keep the Big Picture in Mind
When I first starting asking people with six packs about how they got them, I repeatedly heard the old adage “Abs are made in the kitchen”. Meaning that abs are all about diet. While I agree with this to some extent, I have modified this to:
We need to keep the bigger picture in mind. While nutrition is the foundation, resistance training and musculature development are key, with healthy weight loss through cardio being the final step in exposing that six pack that we all possess.
Six Month Six Pack Outline
First Month – Set Your Foundation
Start to outline your plan of attack. Understand your motivation and goals. Research the kinds of foods you want to include in your nutritional plan and try new recipes. Experiment with different exercises you can incorporate to your daily routine; whether at home, at a park or at the gym. Start to make cardio, even just jogs around the block, a habit. Cut out soda, fried foods, sugar and white flour as much as possible.
Second month – Build Healthy Habits
Ok you’ve had a month of time to play around, decide that you hate quinoa and love planking or whatever the case may be. Don’t obsess about counting calories yet. Focus on eating the right foods, hydrating and listening to your body. Do something physically rewarding for your body everyday whether jogging, pushups or stretching.
Third month – Create Your Abs Journal
Get in the habit tracking what you eat and how much and often you exercise.
Fourth Month – Cardio and Resistance Training
If you don’t have a gym membership get one. Now is the time to making resistance training a habit so you can gradually build the musculature you want. Increase your cardio to facilitate weight loss.
Fifth month – Diligent Calorie Counting and Exercise of Every Kind
Buy a kitchen scale. Now is the time to weigh, measure and calculate the caloric and protein content of everything you consume. Your kitchen will start feeling like a laboratory and your workouts a religion.
Sixth Month – Homestretch
This is where things get serious. All the months prior have been your time to try new things, mix things up, find out what works for your body and your mind. Now it’s time to use everything you’ve learned and apply it. Your abs are begging for exposure.
Optional Final Step: Cutting Water Weight
If you have put in the work, reduced your BMI and increased your muscle mass there is only one thing left you can do to make your muscles really pop. This process of cutting water weight I have adapted from how pro bodybuilders prepare for competitions. It is very important to stress that cutting water weight is not a sustainable method and should only be used in short durations to prepare for specific events.