Abs. The holy grail of physique transformation?

Abs. Nearly everyone chasing physique transformation wants that coveted six-pack. A slick slab of undulating goodness that speaks to all that hard work. But sadly, many never achieve their dream, despite making good progress with fat-loss. But why? What is it that makes seeing abs such an elusive goal?

First, let’s be clear, a six pack isn’t for everyone. It’s not necessary, serves no practical purpose and is seen by many as an expression of extreme vanity. And if you’re reading this with a skeptical frown, thinking what the fuck is the obsession with abs in this industry, I totally understand.

However, having just got my coveted six-pack back again after a three-year hiatus, I can assure you that there’s a LOT it teaches you about yourself, the body and most importantly, the mind.

In short, the reason the six-pack is so damn synonymous with success in physique transformation is that it takes a lot more to achieve than the vast majority of people are prepared to give.

Now, you’ll be surprised and no doubt pleased to hear that the process to attaining a six (or four, or eight) pack is simplicity personified!

But before you extend your hand to receive the magic beans, I must regrettably bring you down from your euphoric state and say that while it is indeed simple, it’s certainly not an easy task.

So let’s start by saying what it’s not.

That is, the list of things you possibly thought were important to achieving a six-pack but really aren’t.

  1. Cardio
  2. Endless crunches or sit-ups
  3. A banned foods list
  4. A must-eat foods list
  5. Special supplements
  6. Topical creams
  7. Fasting
  8. Eating every 2 hours

… and there’s more, but you get the point.

Now don’t get me wrong, you can do all of these things. And some of them can absolutely be additive to your physical well-being. For example, walking is restorative, cardioprotective and can have the same effects on your body as meditation (if you let it). Certain foods are irritants for many people, and frequent small meals can help those with a poor appetite to increase their food intake over time. Point being, this is not some “anti” list (ok, maybe the topical creams is a no-no). I’m just making the point that these are the things commonly associated with getting abs or otherwise losing weight.

But to deliver on the promise of stripping away fat to reveal that six-pack? No. A definite, firm and irrefutable no.

So let’s get back to simple.

A six-pack means fat loss, and there is only one true mechanism of fat loss. As such, our simple, six-pack strategy can be stated thus:

Revealing your abs is as simple as establishing and sustaining a negative energy balance for an extended period of time sufficient to remove the abdominal fat from your body.

You see, simple! Just as I promised…

But unfortunately not easy.

Let’s break that down.

Establishing and sustaining a negative energy balance…

A negative energy balance means consuming less energy (calories) than you expend (living, working, exercising) on a daily basis. And given you can’t generally change how much energy you need to live or work, this means regulating your food intake and/or increasing your level of exercise.

Both of these equate to some level of commitment and yes, concession! Neither of which are easy for many people.

And having calculated (or approximated, or determined) the required energy deficit, you must then sustain that state.


Because a few days of negative energy balance is easily accommodated by your body’s internal mechanisms for riding out fluctuations in energy balance – otherwise known as homeostasis.

…for an extended period of time.

Oh my. How long then? Are we talking weeks? Months? Years?!

Well of course, the answer is, it depends.

If you are 50lbs overweight and hormonally challenged, your journey is undoubtedly going to be longer than someone who is already at normal levels of body fat.

But the real challenge here, and why fat loss is not easy, is that sustaining a negative energy balance for an extended period speaks mostly to behaviors, your emotional state and overall relationship with food and exercise.

…sufficient to remove the abdominal fat from your body.

Even for those of you that make good progress and drop body fat, the abdominal area is a hotbed of fat cells for many. And sadly, this means that you could drop pounds of fat from your body and still not be able to claim your coveted six-pack. Unfortunately, that means going even deeper into fat loss, which although still simple, becomes increasingly difficult.

This is why the six-pack is so damn elusive.

It really does speak to a level of discipline and commitment that many are unable or unwilling to give.

So ask yourself, do you really want that six-pack?

How much do you want to be part of that club?

And frankly, whether your answer was yes or no, I applaud you.

A six-pack may well speak to a level of commitment and adherence you are not willing to make, but in no way does it necessarily equate to “healthy”. In fact, to see their abs, many people have to dip into very low levels of body fat that are often flat-out unhealthy and generally unsustainable.

Also, if you opted for no, you’ve likely got a healthy and realistic sense of what’s possible for you right now. Understanding your motivations and what’s important to you can save huge amounts of wasted time, false starts and unnecessary angst.

But if you’re in, here’s how the journey begins.

  1. Join the group and get some support and accountability. Traveling alone can be fun, but having friends on-hand to share in the experience can make it so much more enjoyable.
  2. Get real. This journey will require a sustained level of commitment, and you might as well start to rub-up against the idea of tough choices, concession and even a little discomfort.
  3. Set interim an interim goal. If you have 50lbs to lose, seeing your abs might be the long-term vision, but it’s not a realistic goal that can carry you forward. Instead, set a meaningful goal that’s rooted in a positive outcome for you. Maybe that’s moving up a belt hole, or dropping a single dress size. Either way, make it real and have it speak to how that outcome will make you feel.
  4. Identify early behaviors in the way of that goal. These are the things that will likely unravel your progress before you even get started. For example, are you a habitual snacker? Do you struggle to make your workouts stick? Do you self identify as “small” making the idea of getting leaner hard? Whatever it is, identifying it now will save you time and anguish later.
  5. Set at least one behavioral goal. Think of it like this. Losing 10lbs is an outcome goal, cutting out late-night snacking is a behavioral goal. So look back at the potentially troublesome behaviors in #4 above and set a goal to change one or more of them. Just be realistic about what you can achieve and how many changes you can accommodate at once. Behavior change can be hard.
  6. Assess where your deficit going to come from. Going back to establishing and sustaining a negative energy balance, you’ll want to assess whether you’ll start with reducing calories, increasing exercise, or both. For many, one or the other often stands-out as the place to start. For example, if you are already hitting the gym 4 days a week but you can’t put down the doughnuts, you’ll start with diet. And if you eat comfortably, but don’t yet get regular exercise, you’ll start by committing to regular activity. If you’re failing hard at both, you’re a winner, as almost any changes will bring early results. But if you are already eating somewhat well and training somewhat smart, where to start is a more nuanced question. Bottom line: If in doubt, start with the diet. Almost everyone has room to tighten their belt and make one or more smart changes around food.

In the next post, I’ll get into the details of how to determine that energy deficit and basic approaches to tuning your diet and training. I’ll also go deeper into those behavioral issues that you are going to have to contend with before you’re tracing the outline of your abs through your shirt while standing inline at ‘bucks.

Want to start without me?

In case you want to make a start without me, here’s a few principles that will help sustain you until we talk again.

  • Eat as much as you can while still making progress.
  • Aim for the minimum effective dose of exercise.
  • You are shooting for progress, not perfection.
  • You WILL fuck-up. Expect it. Accept it. Move on.
  • Obsess enough to stay the course, but don’t get obsessed.
  • Food is not the enemy, if you’re starving, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Early progress comes easy, expect it to get harder.
  • Progress will stall, repeatedly. Expect it, AND DO NOT PANIC.
  • When changing diet and exercise, make a single change and give it time to work.

And remember, when you question the whole damn process–and you will–the answer is almost always harder than you thought your could for longer than you think you should.

Don’t make these simple mistakes!

When it comes to diet and exercise, basic mistakes are often attributable to someone’s lack of progress. So if you’re stuck in a rut or not enjoying the progress you once did, chances are you are failing to follow one or more of these important principles.

Tell someone you want to lose weight and the first thing you’ll likely hear out of their mouth is “cut out carbs”. Other’s will tell you to reduce fats, eliminate bread, increase vegetable intake. And they are all right; and they are all wrong.

The trouble is, the average person changes a lot things on their journey to finding what works, and the reality is that they seldom know what led them to success. Worse still, they’ll make assumptions about what worked and then doggedly double-down on that approach out of fear of stalling. And that, sadly, is often the start of a nose-dive into something that is neither sustainable, nor good for your mental and physical health.

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I want you

I’ve not posted here again for a while, but I’ve not been idle. Workouts are good, nutrition is on point, and I continue to make progress. I’ve been writing too, but mostly for my new Facebook group: Uncommon Sense Physique. With this post, for your reading pleasure, I am re-posting the Facebook note that started that venture.

Verbatim, from the inaugural Facebook post:

Many of you know me as that guy into fitness (actually, I’m not “fit”, but we’ll get to that), and you often see me posting things here on Facebook, as well as Instagram and Twitter. I even have blog (doesn’t everyone?) that has some interesting and relevant content at times. You’ll also probably know that just like the rest of you, I still have a full-time job, and that means everything health and fitness related for me is a combination of life-style and hobby.

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Weak-point training and how not to waste your time

Let’s face it, in terms of our physique, we’ve all got weak points. That one (haha!) lagging muscle group that just doesn’t seem to respond as well as the others. But before you jump on the specialization train, let’s make sure you earned that ticket.

First-up, weak point training — do you need it?

The [harsh] reality is that unless you’re at or approaching your genetic limit in terms of overall physical development, you really don’t need a specialization protocol. Or, said differently, any time spent working to improve a single body part is probably better spent focused on your big rocks, and improving your overall physique development.

So let’s say objectively, we often don’t need specialization. What about emotionally? What if you just can’t get past the fact your arms are too small? (Because they are, you know)

Here’s what you need to understand:

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Fundamentals: Focus on your big rocks

If your goal is hypertrophy–building muscle–there are a great many variables to consider. And on some level, they all matter.

Consider the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid below. Putting aside nutrition–which has its own pyramid–this pyramid covers six (well, eight) variables that affect our training.

While the topics of sets, reps and how many days a week to train do get a lot of air time, a great many of you are still spending too much time worrying about the stuff at the top of the pyramid.

Stuff that frankly, unless you have your fundamentals in order, just don’t matter.

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Snacking is wrecking your progress

Are you a habitual snacker? Do you spend more time justifying your indulgences than considering how to better manage your treats? Well we’ve been talking about this over in my Facebook group, Uncommon Sense Physique. Here’s what I had to say on the topic.

When you pop that snack in your mouth, in almost all such situations, there is one simple reality.

That the individual–in this case my beautiful wife–wants/seeks the joy of eating the [insert favorite snack food] more than they want [insert desired outcome here].

Worse still, we’ve also found all sorts of ways to make this okay – to rationalize our decision.

  • “It’s just one chocolate.”
  • “Life’s too short to not have a treat.”
  • “It’s been a long day and I just don’t want to think about it.”
  • “I had a salad for lunch.”
  • “I worked out today, I can afford this.”
  • “I’ll work this off at the gym tomorrow.”

This is but a partial list, a list we could probably expand indefinitely. But you get the idea. Can you spot the theme?

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Lessons learned from a year of bulking

In 46 weeks, I managed to add 39 lbs of body weight, with over 21 lbs of that coming as muscle. And topping the scale at 209 lbs was a huge achievement for me. But what did I learn from almost a year of bulking?

First, a little context.

There’s nothing exceptional about my genetics. I’m an average 5’9” and my natural set-point is a soft welterweight. I’ve played sports casually over the years and spent my entire working-life sitting behind a desk. But I’m certainly no bodybuilding noob, and I definitely know my way around the gym with many years of training under my belt. I’m also in pretty good shape considering my forty-six years. In the realm of physique transformation, I’ve been as low as 148 lbs and single digit body fat, and previously topped the scale at 187 lbs.

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Progress on my cut: Master of straight lines?

Just a progress update and some observations as I push deeper into this cut. Between my hamstrings and body weight charting, I am proving to be the master of straight lines.

As progress on this cut continues, I hit a new low weigh-in this morning of 188.5 lbs.

At the the start of this cut, I was torn. Do I simply drop the chub or look to push deeper into lean this time around? However, I ended-up deferring that decision, opting instead to change the nature of the game and see how far I could get without any kind of food tracking or unnecessary restriction.

So far, so good, and a full account of the cut will be posted at the end – whenever that is. But for now, I wanted to share a few thoughts and observations from my progress so far, ten weeks and three days into my cut.

For reference, in terms of hard data, 5.5 lbs ago, I was 10.4% body fat at 194lbs. So my guess, assuming minimal loss of lean mass, is that I’m very roughly 8.5% body fat at 188.5 lbs.

  1. I am the master of straight lines.
    Joke. Kind of. I mean, beyond my weight-loss progress, my hamstrings, too, are the shortest distance between two points!
  2. Notice how body weight change moves in waves.
    Loss, loss, flat, increase, loss, loss, flat, increase. And even then, the magnitude of the tides vary greatly in the Scalar Sea.
  3. 8.5% body fat, and not an ab in sight.
    Seriously. There are people that can walk around at 10 or 11% body fat with a nicely defined midsection, but genetics have a huge roll to play here. This is in part why I have always wrestled with the commitment to getting lean enough to have a six-pack. I have to go really deep into my diet to see those kind of results.
  4. I’m going to keep pushing, for now.
    Despite the likelihood I will not be entirely happy with the visual results at the end, I am feeling more and more inclined to go deeper into this cut. Bottom line: We’ll see.
  5. Tracking schmacking.
    20lbs down from my bulking peak, and absolutely no food tracking at all. Just diligent monitoring of body weight and a common sense approach to hunger management.

There’s likely a lot more to discuss on some of these points, and a full account of the bulk and cut will eventually be posted. Just wanted to drop a short update and bring people along on the journey in something close to real time.

If you want to discuss my approach or ask questions about my diet or data, hit me up in the comments, or find me on Twitter or Facebook.

I want a six pack

I was chatting to colleague recently, who declared that I’d given a friend who wanted six-pack abs “bad advice” with regard to his diet and exercise. I was taken aback, and pushed to understand why they felt my advice was bad. Reason? Dogma.

I want a six-pack. Isn’t that always how it starts?

The holy grail of physique transformation where abdominal muscles stand proud, and ripple and glisten in response to your every movement. It matters not that this is invariably happening beneath your shirt, that few may ever know of your condition.

You know, and that’s all that matters.

But this post isn’t about the magic of ripped, lean abs. At least not directly.

It’s about the dogma surrounding diet and exercise which likely goes some way to
explaining why so many people fail to achieve their desired results.

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The gains monster is an attention-seeking child

The gains monster is everywhere, just waiting for you to slip-up. Make a mistake. Leave yourself vulnerable. And then, without warning, it’ll suck you dry of everything you’ve worked for.

Yesterday was absolutely manic from start to end.

Up at the crack of dawn, fighting with traffic to get to a four-hour training course. Dashing out ten minutes before the end to get a jump on traffic to race back home in time for another two hours of conference calls.

Breakfast was so-so, and only moderately nutritious.

Lunch was skipped in exchange for making it to my next meeting.

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