As a personal trainer, it’s an important step in establishing the trainer-client relationship to start an open dialogue with each client about the client’s wants, goals, and expectations. In all of my years of experience as a trainer, the biggest want (by far!) that my clients express to me? Abs. Six pack, rock hard, fully defined abs.
⇒This, of course, is when I need to start swinging a gentle 2×4 at ’em.
Don’t get me wrong; I fully believe that just about anyone with enough drive to do the necessary hard work can achieve that oh-so-coveted set of abs. But the fact is: abs don’t come easily. Not only do they require rigorous control of day-to-day nutrition, but they also demand an extremely low body fat composition.
The low body fat composition needed in order for abs to show varies for each person, according to body type, genetics, and other factors. In general though, men might start seeing abs at around 15% body fat, but more likely within the 10-12% range. Full-on abs, however, won’t start showing until 6-7%, and male bodybuilders will drop to an even lower 3-4%. As for women, who naturally have a higher body fat composition than men due to breasts, hips, and thighs, women might start seeing abs at around 22% body fat, but generally within the 10-12% range abs become more prominent. And female bodybuilders? They can drop below a very low 8%.
Not only do abs require an extremely low body fat composition (which, for some, might not be healthy since your body does, in fact, need fat), but those abs you’re coveting are often merely representative of a person’s body at their physical peak. In essence, you’re comparing your everyday physique to someone else’s pinnacle. Female and male bodybuilding competitors (and even female and male fitness models— such as the ones you see on television and in magazines), in reality, simply do not look like that year-round. Most go through bulking and cutting cycles, and during a bulking cycle their body fat composition (along with their nutritional intake) will be much, much higher.
These people prep in advance for these events, be it a big competition or a photo shoot, but they don’t necessarily maintain that look year-round. Tactics they resort to can often include extreme dieting, carb restriction, sodium restriction, utilizing diuretics, taking supplements, and even intentional dehydration. Since retained water causes cells to expand— thus looking fuller (i.e. less lean)— all of these methods are often used to emphasize a person’s lean physique. In layman’s terms: they’re shedding water weight. Is this healthy for a day-to-day lifestyle? No, of course not! But for those who work and/or compete in the fitness industry, these methods are a temporary measure used only to highlight each person’s body for that big event— competition, photo shoot, press event, whatever the case may be. After that— they immediately return to a healthier lifestyle.
Truth be told, in addition to all of this, you could be lusting after a set of abs that just doesn’t exist. Numerous fitness magazines have been exposed using shady maneuvers such as drawing on abs and/or using photoshop enhancement to create abs that simply aren’t there or to enhance not-so-prominent abs. When you take this into account— well, the whole notion surrounding “must-have abs” becomes more than a little bit murky.
So, while abs may be attainable, are they really maintainable?
For most, the answer is no. For those of us who are truly passionate about fitness, day in and day out, the idea of strict daily nutrition, living a meal prep life, an athletic body composition, and the high training demands… it’s just a part of who we are. It’s our life’s passion, and it brings us happiness.
But for those who simply want to look good, feel good, and be healthy, those same things are incredibly daunting tasks. What is the cost of those abs? Counting calories, tracking macros, meal prepping… being the person who is always saying “no” to dinners out, a glass of wine, etc. I tell my clients: “this life is what it takes to have and to keep those abs; is this the life you really want to life?” I always stress that, yes, I can help them get there— but they have to be willing to do the hard work.
In the end, most of my clients choose to amend their goal of six pack abs. Armed with the facts about maintaining abs, they’re better equipped to make a more realistic choice about their goals. For this reason, it’s critical that a trainer not only understand their client’s goals, but also that the trainer clearly explains what attaining AND maintaining those goals requires. Otherwise, we, as trainers, are simply setting our clients up for disappointment when they inevitably realize that the lifestyle those abs demand isn’t a lifestyle they want to live.
As for the few who do choose to commit to the ab-centric lifestyle, they are truly the most dedicated, passionate, fitness-centric folks I have ever come across, and it is always a pleasure to work with those who are willing to go down a road knowing all of the hard work, sacrifice, and commitment it takes.
No matter what, abs or not: the goal is to be happy and to be healthy! At the end of the day, that is really and truly all that matters.