The skinny on the six-pack

It was a good two weeks of watching jaw-dropping athleticism in the Summer Olympic Games. Well, all right, forget the events; the athletes’ impressively toned physiques were too distracting to bother with whatever it was they were chasing after.

The six-pack abs of the US swim team’s Ryan Lochte, Ricky Berens, Conor Dwyer and Peter Vanderkaay were just too “out there” and “in your face” to bother with personal bests, world records, team standings and medal tallies.

Someone poked fun at this preoccupation-bordering-on-obsession of mine this past two weeks saying, “What’s with the six-pack anyway?”

What? Have you not taken a close look at those massive shoulders with wingspans from here to eternity, perfectly sculpted torsos, ripped abs that taper down into hollow hip sockets that finally disappear into itty-bitty, skin-tight Speedos? Too raunchy a visual? All right, then we could go PG and say that these Olympians are in peak physical condition. They are paragons of the extreme possibilities of the human body and the ultimate expression of strength, agility and grace. In addition to representing physical perfection, these athletes also exemplify dedication, discipline and good old hard work. But seriously, it’s hard to get past those abs.

Just when I thought I could have a respite from that Olympic drool-fest, along comes Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco and its ripped acrobats. I mean, really! Hellooo! Did you see the show, and more importantly the torsos on those men? I swear, the moment those sculpted demi-gods took off their vests on stage to do their hand- and headstands, lifts, flips and other gravity-defying moves, the collective sigh from the audience — yes, men and women alike — was so loud, I was sort of embarrassed for the acrobats. Okay, maybe not, but that’s how remarkable their bodies were — toned abs till kingdom come. One can’t help but “ooh” and “aah” at the sight of them — straight men included.

So what is it, really, about the male six-pack? It’s a difficult question but what readily comes to mind is that it cancels out the face — if I may be so candid. It doesn’t matter how a man looks as long as he has a six-pack, much in the way spectacular boobs render a woman’s modest looks inconsequential in men’s eyes. A man with six-packs just has to figure out a way to keep taking his shirt off to display them. A woman, on the other hand, doesn’t have that worry. Finding reasons to make her take her shirt off is mostly a man’s problem. Sorry, life is unfair that way.

What if one does not have a six-pack? Well, then one has a big problem because, unlike big boobs, which women can buy, male six-packs aren’t for sale. According to Dr. Todd Schroeder, professor of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy at the university of Southern California, an Olympic athlete might have the same number of muscle cells as someone watching them on TV, but training makes each of those cells much larger. He says that, “When it comes to building big muscle cells, if there’s no pain, there’s no gain. When you work out, you get sore. That soreness is muscle damage, and that’s okay. Muscle damage signals the muscle cell to produce more protein, so that you get more proteins within that muscle fiber. The more protein that’s generated within each of these fibers, the larger and stronger the muscle becomes.”

The sad thing is, unlike we mortals, Olympians tend to have an advantage when it comes to building muscle: good genes. Genes that encourage muscle development are most active when we are children, according to a recent article in Scientific American, but in some people — lucky blokes — these genes stay very active even into adulthood.

Another stumbling block on the journey to a great six-pack is that “the ability to build the right muscles is only part of the equation,” says Schroeder. That’s because beautifully toned muscles might not be visible if they are hidden under fat around the stomach or elsewhere. “Everyone has an insulating layer of fat that resides under the skin, but an Olympian diet and intense training, specifically aerobic and endurance exercises, significantly reduce it,” adds Schroeder.

There are surgical procedures such as liposuction that claim to remove stomach fat and give you a swimmer’s six-pack. But Schroeder says that, “Results often don’t last; a large part of how you look is again heavily influenced by the genes you’re dealt. People can have liposuction and suck out a lot of that fat that’s overlying the abdominal muscles. But their body will self-regulate. Everyone has that genetic set point of fat cells and the body knows when all of a sudden that’s changed, and it’s going to take you back to that... number of fat cells that you had before.”

Mike Rowlands, founder of the website says the “six-pack” is the biggest fitness myth of all time because “the idea that a six-pack is a goal that is obtainable by everyone and for an indefinite period is an allusion that is well-promoted but impossible.”

Rowlands explains that most actors and athletes who have a fat level percentage of less than 10 percent, which is what six-packs demand, gain it sporadically with a specific goal in mind, whether to win a competition or achieve a certain physique for a film.

He says, “The rest of us should concede that although with the right diet, exercise plan and dedication, we might very well be able to achieve success for a short period of time, the likelihood of sustaining such a lifestyle is practically nonexistent. The 95 percent failure rate of all diets confirms this. Perhaps we should do as actors do and only undertake the task of aiming for six-pack abs only if we have a specific reason to do so such as a holiday and then accept that they might disappear as fast as they arrived.”

It’s not very encouraging advice from Rowlands but it shouldn’t stop one from aiming for the six-pack goal. According to an article on, which, as the name says, is a site devoted to everything six-pack, “One should concentrate on doing compound exercises, which is the fastest route to a six-pack. The number one most common bodybuilding mistake is doing too many isolation exercises: moves that target only one muscle group.”

According the article, a compound exercise utilizes multiple muscle groups in order to execute one move, building more muscle mass on more parts of the body. This stimulates more total body mass gain and increases metabolism faster, making the body burn fat more efficiently.

It enumerates the “Big 10” compound lifts, which are exercise routines that should be in every man’s exercise bible.

• Squat: a compound, full body exercise where one lifts weights from a bent knee position.

• Dead Lift: a loaded barbell is lifted off the ground from a stabilized, bent over position. It is one of the three canonical powerlifting exercises, along with the squat and bench press.

• Stiff Leg Dead Lift: like the dead lift but finishing the move with straight legs.

• Power Clean: a move that refers to the lifter explosively pulling the weight from the floor to a racked position across deltoids and clavicles.

• Clean and Press: a lift in which a barbell is raised from the floor to shoulder height where it is brought to rest and then, with a lunging movement by the lifter, is thrust overhead so the arms extend straight in the air.

• Flat Bench Press: a lowering of the barbell to the level of the chest, then pushing it back up until the arm is straight.

• Incline Bench Press: same as bench-press but done while lying on an incline bench.

• Military Press: a move in which the barbell is lifted to shoulder height and then smoothly lifted overhead from there.

• Pull-up: an exercise consisting of chinning oneself on an elevated horizontal bar.

• Bent-over Row: is a variety of rowing exercise done with the torso bent and the dumbbell dropped down with extended arms and then pulled up.

So, only after one performs all 40,000 exercises of these, should one dare move on to isolation ab exercises in a bid for the elusive six-pack. Let’s face it, there just isn’t any shortcut to Ryan Lochte abs. To those who currently have kegs instead of six-packs, I believe a reordering of priorities is the answer to a happy life. Please work instead on your sense of humor, which, in my book, remains the all-time foolproof, heavy-duty chick-magnet.