A New Look At The Old Question:
Are Abs Made In The Kitchen Or In The Gym?
Burn the Fat Q & A with Tom Venuto
Q: Dear Tom: I've managed to get my body fat down to about 6.5%, according to my skinfold calipers. I'm starting to see the outline of my abs in certain lighting conditions, but they certainly don't "pop out" like a washboard. I must also say that I've only been training my abs with a vengeance the last few months. What I'm wondering is do I keep dieting to lose more body fat to expose them (am I not lean enough?), or do I focus on training them more to increase the abs muscle size?
A: EXPOSING YOUR ABS is a matter of getting very low body fat levels. The lower your body fat level, the "thinner" your skin will be (actually the "skinfold" which contains skin and subcutaneous fat), and the more your abdominal muscles will show through. High body fat covers up your abs.
DEVELOPING YOUR ABS - is a matter of training them, and in that respect, the popular cliche, "Abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym" is not entirely true. It's only true that without the proper diet ("kitchen"), the ab exercises by themselves are useless because well-developed abs can remain covered up with a layer of fat, and it's possible to out-eat any amount of exercise.
In this case, being at mid-single digit body fat already (6.5%), I'd say that's almost always lean enough to show what you've got and if you're still not happy with how your abs look with body fat that low - if you don't have 6-pack abs that "pop out" - it's a matter of more ab training - especially with added resistance.
However, this question has a lot of layers to it, including the genetics factor, so let's go deeper...
I've Discovered That There Are Two Personality Types With Regards To Geting Great Abs...
Personality A is the person with the mindset that, "As long as I get super lean, my abs will show," so they blow off ab workouts or train them minimally thinking their abs will show just by getting lean (dieting) alone. This is the "Abs are made in the kitchen" philosophy.
Personality B is the type of person who trains abs consistently or even cranks out a 30 or 45 minute ab class every day, but they're not informed about the importance of low body fat - or they are, but they don't put the effort into nutrition so they never get their body fat low enough to see abdominal definition. This is the "Abs are made in the gym" philosophy.
Here's the true secret of exposing your abs and getting them to "pop out" more: It's a combination of both - low body fat to EXPOSE or UNCOVER them (reveal the muscle that's already under there), and training to DEVELOP the ab muscles, or build what is not there yet.
Some people find abdominal development difficult. I've always found it fairly easy - the removal of the fat covering my abs was the harder part for me. It took me years before I figured that out.
The good news is, after I learned how to get ripped just once, I owned it for life. It's like riding a bicycle - you can always get back on and ride even if you haven't ridden for years, once you know how.
So which personality type are you? Are you toiling away like the person in the class with an hour of abs a day (utterly unnecessary and a total waste of time) but you still can't see enough abs because your skinfolds are too thick...
Or, are you personality B? You're super strict on nutrition and you are very lean but you're still frustrated with your abs because they don't pop like you want them to... meanwhile, you blow off ab workouts or treat them as an afterthought...
Or... could you be personality C? That's the person who takes nutrition (exposing the abs and removing body fat) and training (developing the ab muscles) as equally important and can recognize which area needs the most work? Personality C always gets the best results.
The Value of Body Fat Percentage Vs. Skinfold Measurements
Another suggestion I have is not to put so much stock in the body fat number by itself. That number is valuable for tracking your week to week fat loss progress, assuming you can measure consistently. But body fat testing is not a perfect science - and operator testing errors are common.
Also, outside of personal progress tracking, the body fat number itself is worth little more than bragging rights if it's low, because people store their body fat differently and can look different at the same body fat percentage. One man could look ripped at 9% body fat, while another man may not look ripped until 6% body fat.
Furthermore, the body fat percentage number doesn't tell you how thick your skinfold is. Some people are tracking overall body fat percentage, but not paying much attention to the individual skinfolds. It's very possible for skinfolds on the extremities and even in the hip bone area (illiac crest skinfold site) to be quite low and to have body fat more concentrated in the abdominal area near the umbilicus.
In trying to figure out if you need to get leaner and get "thinner skin" to reveal your abs more, you should not just look at bf% but also the actual skinfold thickness over your abs.
This means that skinfold testing is more useful than fat testing methods like bioelectric impedance when youre trying to gauge your progress towards getting visible 6-pack abs, because you know the skinfold thickness covering the abs.
Remember what gets measured gets improved. I recommend you track skinfold thickness well as overall body fat percentage, and then you will have more feedback to judge your progress.
For example, a hip bone (illiac crest) skinfold of 3.5 mm is ultra lean. That skinfold is not going to get much lower than 2.0 to 2.5 mm because that's the approximate thickness of skin, without the fat. I dont recall seeing below 2 mm except on a scant few occasions when I had a digital SKYDEX caliper which can show readings like 1.9 mm or 1.7 mm.
But also remember, that the illiac crest usually becomes the lowest skinfold. Let's not kid ourselves. Two areas on a guy retain more fat than the illiac crest: One is the area right around your belly button - just draw an imaginary circle around it and there is almost always a pocket of fat there EVEN when the illiac crest fat has "run dry" and even when the very lower lower ab region is starting to show veins.
If you have veins running across your belly button area and your abdominal skinfold is 2.0 to 3.0 you are ripped, no doubt about it. The abdominal skinfold is usually at least a few millimeters higher than the iliac crest. Your abs are showing as much as they're going to show - if you want them to look different, it's all training at that point.
The other "stubborn" area is the love handles and lower back. Reach around and pinch, not gingerly, but for real - grab the biggest hunk of skinfold you can around the side of your waist, toward your back. Tell me it isn't WAY bigger than the illiac pinch? But guess what - that's not an official skinfold site at all.
If you want to be brutally honest with yourself on your level of leanness, find the largest skinfold and use that as your benchmark, not your smallest skinfold. Testing the abdominal skinfold and keeping an eye on the umbilicus area is most telling. It certainly is for me...
Abdominal Shape and Genetics: What Training Can and Cannot Change
As for DEVELOPING the abs more - that's achieved with training. I realize that some people say they have a tough time getting the abs to develop, but many are probably training their abs wrong.
I'll cover ab training in another article, but for now I can say that the biggest mistake is doing easy ab exercises for endless high reps. To make the abs pop you have to do ab exercises with additional weight, or at least choose advanced and challenging exercises where the body weight is providing maximum resistance (such as the hanging leg raises and so on).
Admittedly, how easily your abs respond to training is partially related to genetics. Some people have "easy to develop muscles" (mesomorphs) and some have "hard to develop muscles" and that's dictated by genetics on an individual level.
What you also have to realize is that whether you have the best or the worst genes for muscle size, the shape and structure of your abdominal musculature is entirely genetic. Not everyone has a perfectly even 6-pack. The six pack is three rows of rectus abdominus separated by tendinous horizontal bands and one long vertical tendinous band in the middle called the linea alba.
In the photo to the right, you can see a bodybuilder with a wide linea alba - aka, the "abs gap." No amount of training will fill in that gap - the muscle shape is genetically determined. However, these abs are very well developed and still look great - they sure POP don't they?
If you have a wide abs gap, that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just an individual's genetically given muscle shape.
Some people have only 2 visible rows of abs and below that, where the 3rd row is usually located, is only a flat sheet of tendinous tissue - no 3rd row (that's known as a "4-pack"). Others have 4 visible rows if you count the lowermost portion of the abs - that's the rare 8 pack. Some people consider having the 8-pack the ultimate in "genetic freakiness."
Some people have even rows of abs horizontally, while others have the abs offset or slightly "checkered." Most people consider the even rows to be more aesthetically pleasing (though there have been plenty of Mr. America's, Mr. Universes and Mr. Olympia's who did NOT have even rows of abs).
If you have a 4 pack, all you can do is train to develop the 4 pack you have. You can make that 4-pack "pop out" more, but you can't build a 3rd row to give you a 6 pack where there is no muscle fiber to begin with. If you have a 6 pack with even rows, you are considered genetically gifted, at least in a muscle aesthetics sense. If you have a nice, even 8 pack, then we are probably going to call you a genetic freak!
Ladies and gentlemen - YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANY OF THIS! In this sense, your abs are not made in the kitchen or the gym, you can thank your parents for the abdominal shape you inherited. All you can do is accept the abs shape you have, develop them to the max with training and diet off the fat so you can see them.
Developing Abdominal Muscle "Size"
Given that you understand the limitations of your genetics, the abdominal muscle fibers that you do have can be developed like any other muscles - they can hypertrophy with direct training. The difference between the abs and other muscles is that the abs don't grow out as much as some other muscles and they don't increase in circumference like your arms or legs do.
That's because the abs are a long flat sheet of muscle, whereas a bicep is a muscle with a large belly and therefore will "plump out" and become more round and peaked ("popping out" literally), as it hypertrophies.
That said, the abs DO grow out a little bit with the right training. I often joke about well-hypertrophied abs looking like 6 giant raviolis popping off your stomach! (check out the photo below and tell me it ain't so!)
Adding weight to abdominal exercise may also help your abs pop, by increasing hypertrophy.
The abs are a muscle that can often be trained very effectively just with body weight. The problem is, most people stick with bodyweight exercises exclusively, even when they can do more than 25 reps per set, sometimes even 50 or 100 reps. At that point, you're training pure endurance and not hypertrophy.
It's a myth that endless high reps gives you better abs - you are better off with lower or medium reps and adding some weight.
I know some women who can do abs for an hour, it seems. I'll never figure that one out... guys, unless youre related to Jack LaLanne, don't try to keep up with those instructors who teach ab classes, they will embarrass you... I bow to women's ab endurance.
But that doesn't mean doing abs for an hour or doing hundreds of reps is necessary or even a good idea. Always remember that muscle hypertrophy is achieved best in the 6-12 rep range and even if abs really are a slighly more high-rep responsive muscle, 15-25 ought to do it. If you can do more than 20-25 reps, it's time to add weight if possible, or progress to a harder ab exercise.
If it's abdominal muscle development you want, there is simply NO reason whatsoever to do hundreds of reps of ab exercises. If your goal is endurance or personal satisfaction about your endurance and conditioning abilities, that's one thing, otherwise doing hundreds of reps on abs with bodyweight is the wrong approach.
Warning: Build Your Abs, But Don't Build Your Obliques!
I do have one final warning though, about weighted exercises: don't train your obliques with heavy weight if you're prone to easy muscle growth there. Exercises like weighted side bends can make your waist larger and blockier and throw off your symmetry.
Pro bodybuilders who are naturally blocky and NOT born with the "Frank Zane tiny waist" and symmetry are not doomed - just look at Jay Cutler, Mr Olympia. However, Jay had to blow up his delotoids up to ridiculous size to compensate visually and be utterly paranoid about doing anything that would make his waist wider.
Here's another secret of the physique pros: Building larger, wider shoulders, developing your rectus abdominis muscles and simultaneously shrinking your waist size and reducing body fat produces a visual effect that is absolutely stunning!
So, I think I've made the case pretty clear that abs are made in the kitchen (with diet) AND in the gym (with exercise), not one or the other. And, that the "shape" of your abs is not made in the kitchen OR the gym. If you have "crooked" abs with a "gap" you can't change that - it's all genetics.
Speaking of genetics, if you're a freak mesomorph body type, you might diet down and find that your abs are already there. It's true! I know people who never train their abs and they have amazing six packs (yes we hate them). On that note, I know people who have freaky calves who never work them either. Chalk up both to genetics.
The good news is, even for those of us who are in the normal range of the genetic bell curve, if you put in the hard work on your diet as well as in the gym training, then you can get great looking, lean abs that pop out like a washboard!
If you want to learn more about how to properly combine nutrition and resistance training together, along with the other 3 elements necessary for optimal results, click on the link below to check out the new "Burn the Fat 7 Day Body Transformation."
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