Five Things You’re Overlooking in Your Quest for Abs

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abs 3
photo: Richwell Correa Studios

As an athlete who’s eaten Paleo for almost 4 years, it’s my passion to help others learn to fuel themselves with nutritious Paleo foods and still perform at a high level. To that end, expect to see a lot more from me about how to put good quality fuel in your tank…because we all know you can’t put 87 octane in a race car and expect it to do great things, right? (You’ll still see all the other good stuff you’ve come to rely on me for like easy recipes, free resources and DIY tutorials…so if you’re not an athlete, I’ve still got you covered).

On that note, what you came to read about: abs. Look in any mainstream women’s health magazine, on billboards, and on television and all you see are abs. “Lose weight. Get abs. Find happiness,” is the fantasy being sold and sometimes the cost is greater than you’d think.

the image being sold

Let’s get one thing straight before we start. If you want to have visible abs, you’ll need to decrease your body fat. No amount of crunches or sit ups will reduce your body fat percentage enough to start seeing abs. This percentage body fat to see a “six pack” varies for everyone, but for females it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 15% and males, 10%. This is considered very lean and usually requires discipline with clean nutrition and / or training to maintain. For some females, getting too lean is also a recipe for hormonal disregulation and amenorrhea. Not good.

However, lowering body fat (16-20% for females, 10-15% for males) for overall health is a good thing. How actively you pursue cutting fat past that is going to depend on some combination of dedicated nutrition and training.

While I can’t tell you if the pursuit of abs is the right thing for you or not, I can point out some things you may be overlooking if you’re hellbent on a chiseled midline. Let’s start with food.

1. Abs are made in the kitchen: nutrition is King.

Chateaubriand Steak
Nic Taylor via Compfight

If you want to reduce body fat, cleaning up your diet is a must. You can’t out-exercise a bunch of junk that you’re eating and hope to get leaner. Okay, there are some people who seem to be able to do this effortlessly – and we all hate them for it – but if you’re someone who isn’t that “lucky” (let’s not talk about all the other markers of poor health that person could have despite being lean), you’re going to need to pay attention to what goes in your pie hole. If you’re eating crappy, processed food, simply cleaning things up and sticking to a general Paleo template is a good first step. Moderating fat intake is also a factor for most active people trying to lose body fat. Read more here.

On the other hand, if you’re starving yourself, severely restricting calories, or eating a very low fat diet, this could be working against you as well. Being in a chronic hypocaloric state (hypo = below), is a stressor that increases cortisol…and that is one of the known causes for increased abdominal fat. Being sure to include adequate protein, lots of veggies and some fruit (if you’re trying to lose a lot of body fat, consider looking into a ketogenic Paleo approach) and an adequate amount of  healthy fats is a general formula for improving body composition. Of course, rarely is it ever *just* that simple, which leads to the second point.

2. And if nutrition is King, sleep is Queen.

Many Things can't live Without Such as 
عبدالرحمن بن سلمه via Compfight

If you’re trying to get all your nutrition and exercise ducks in a row, but getting fewer than 8 hours of sleep a night, you’re missing a huge piece of this puzzle. To sum it up, chronically undersleeping whacks out your hormones…and that’s not a good thing. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study (here) that concluded that lack of sleep could be causing people to gain weight. Why? Less sleep can slow your metabolism, raise your cortisol (hey, there it is again) and cause your appetite to increase. It also disregulates ghrelin and leptin, hormones which essentially tell you that you’re still hungry. You can see where this is going.

Just getting horizontal for 8 hours isn’t enough. The quality of your sleep matters…a lot. Making your bedroom pitch black and reducing blue light exposure at night (by not staring into the bright screens of laptops, phones and TVs…I realize this may go over like a lead balloon) can go a long way to improving sleep quality and getting cortisol and melatonin regulation back on track. Blue light screws with melatonin. Melatonin puts you to sleep.

Do you absolutely have to be on the computer at night? Try installing a free program like f.lux to minimize blue light emission or get a pair of these sexy amber glasses like Nom Nom Paleo wears – she works the night shift AND still manages to get enough sleep.

3. Find other ways to work your midline stability, like squatting and swinging kettlebells.

Me, training the low bar back squat

If you’ve worn your tailbone raw from sit ups, it may be time to start working in some other exercises to strengthen your abdominals. Believe it or not, I’ve got visible abs without having done a single sit up (see points 1 and 2) in the past oh, year or so. I had a cyst above my tailbone that made any sort of sit ups or crunches excruciatingly painful so they were a no-go. I did, on the other hand, do lots of squats, cleans, kettlebell swings, overhead presses, Turkish get ups, etc. Challenging the midline to get stable is pretty damn effective for strong abdominals compared to isolation moves like sit ups.

Oh, and if you’re sacrificing sleep and clean eating at the expense of working out more, more, more don’t expect to cheat the system for long. Priority list: nutrition >> sleep >> then exercise.

4. How much of a six pack you have depends a lot on…genetics.

recuerdos de verano via Compfight

Gosh, this one can be a bubble burster which is why I put it toward the end. While there’s not a lot of primary research to support this claim, it just makes logical sense that the patterns of body fat deposition on your person vary from other people. I carry most of my body fat around the upper arms and my butt / thighs, for example. Please don’t misunderstand me. Can you get lean enough to have a visible six pack even if genetics aren’t on your side? I’d argue yes, but at what cost? If the solution is to spend your time frantically counting macros and obsessing over it, then maybe it’s not worth the pursuit of the “perfect” midsection. Only you can decide that.

So often, the body types we idolize are 1) airbrushed or 2) of folks at the most elite level of sport. When you see athletes at the CrossFit Games, completely shredded to bits, with 8+ packs, what you’re not seeing is the story behind that body…the discipline, the sacrifice, the training, the injuries. For some, the ripped physique is a natural by-product of the training but I guarantee that at that level, any athlete you ask won’t cite “a hot body” as their prime motivator. Food for thought which leads me to…

5. There are many other ways to gauge your health and fitness levels besides the visibility of your abs.

You probably knew this was coming. Abs are not the only measure of your health (or for that matter, your self-worth).

What else is there to focus on if getting abs at any cost isn’t your priority? TONS. Get yourself on the road to health if you’re just starting out. If your body fat is very high, consider dietary intervention first, exercise second. Track blood markers of health and disease. Keep a mental note of your sleep quality, mood and energy levels throughout the day. What’s your mental clarity like? How about your skin, hair and nails? If you’re physically active, consider doing some benchmark workouts, then testing them on a semi-regular basis to track improvement. These are just a few things to consider. For an extensive list of other ways to measure your health, check out this article.

What do YOU think? Leave a comment below.

Confident athletic woman with sixpack abs posing

Sources:, How Artificial Light is Wrecking Your Sleep, and What To Do About It

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Short sleep duration increases energy intakes but does not change energy expenditure in normal-weight individuals., Robb Wolf Answers Your Paleo Diet Questions, Robb Wolf

Paleo for Women, How Extremity Can Make Even the Best Diet Fail, The Real Deal on Adrenal Fatigue, Diane Sanfilipo, Why Do We Sleep?, Science is Hot: Fat Loss Edition, Mathieu Lalonde

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