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Chiseled Abs
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Ellington Darden, Ph.D.

Chiseled Abs:
A Little Understanding Means a Lot

A shredded midsection is as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Or is it 3, 2, 1, or 2, 1, 3? Even the experts can’t agree.
The truth is . . . that great,
cleanly defined abdominals are some of
the most difficult of all muscle groups to accrue.

Andy McCutcheon’s six pack is a result
of strong, well-developed rectus abdominis
muscles and 3.4 percent body fat.


"Burn fat so fast your abs will pop," heralded the Muscle & Fitness cover line for January 2005. If you looked through the introductory material of their Cardio-Ab Slam, it promised a plan that would burn fat and chisel a serious six pack in a matter of weeks.

Can you really get a six pack, or great abdominals, in a few weeks — or even a few months?

For the vast majority of fitness-minded people, the answer is . . . NO, absolutely not. For a very few gifted individuals . . . YES.

The primary difference between the no and yes answer is genetics.


THE RIGHT GENETICS

Genetics control the size of your biceps, the shape of your triceps, the contours of your calves, and just about everything else involved in bodybuilding — including your abdominal formation and overall body leanness. To have really chiseled abs requires exceptional genes. In short, here’s why.

* First, you have to possess the ability to achieve a very low level of body fat. A very low level of body fat means less than 5 percent for a man and less than 10 percent for a woman (as determined by Lange skinfold caliper readings and Dr. Michael Pollock’s tables).

To give you an idea of how extreme those percentages are, I calculated percent body-fat numbers on each of 150 people who started and finished my six-week, A Flat Stomach ASAP course. The starting and finishing averages for men were 27.3 percent and 17.9 percent. For women, the averages were 33.7 percent and 26.1 percent. The finishing numbers, 17.9 and 26.1, are a long way from the 5-percent and 10-percent levels that are necessary for success on this aspect.

I’ve trained individuals, however, who have achieved very low levels of body fat and several are pictured in my ASAP book. Kerry Hamilton (8.8 percent) and Mike Derringer (4.3 percent), from the Gainesville Health & Fitness, had the lowest level of any woman and any man that I worked with in Gainesville. Both Kerry and Mike possessed excellent genetics for leanness.

It’s also important to understand that fat cells inside the body can vary — from a low of 10 billion to a high of 250 billion. Having a low number of fat cells is primarily genetic, since over 90 percent of your fat cells were already established prior to your birth.

Fewer fat cells allow you to reach a smaller percentage of body fat. But that in itself is not always enough for chiseled abs.

* Second, you must have a favorable ordering of the spots that you lose fat from. In other words, when you lose fat it must come off your midsection first or second in the selection process and not last.

Most of the fat that an average person has is located between the skin and muscle all over the body. Thin layers are around the feet, hands, and head. The layers increase toward the body’s core. The upper arms and thighs, for example, have thicker layers than do the forearms and calves. The heaviest layers of fat for a man are located on the waist, usually around the navel and over the sides between the lower ribs and pelvic girdle. A woman sometimes stores fat there, too, but usually her thickest layers are over the buttocks and upper thighs.

Fat deposition and fat reduction are ordered processes. A typical man might deposit fat first on the sides of his waist. Second, it might go over the navel area; then the hips and chest; then the upper arms and thighs; and finally the calves, forearms, hands, feet, and head. When he reduces fat, it comes off in reverse: first from the head, feet, hands, forearms, and calves; then the thighs and upper arms; followed by the chest and hips; and finally the navel area and sides. Once again, the ordering above is typical.

But there are a few people who have different orderings of where fat is stored. These people lose fat first or second from their waist. Rather than be a huge struggle, as it is for most of us, their waistline fat comes off rather easily. So these few people have an advantage on the road for exceptional abs.

* Third, once the fat is off the midsection, you still must have symmetrically paired, well-developed, rectus abdominis muscles. Most people who are extremely lean in the midsection can display three paired blocks of muscle. These formations are often called six packs, even though some people have a fourth pair of blocks. These blocks are caused by tendinous intersections. An inch-wide strip of tendon, called the linea alba, runs vertically down the center of the waist. Then, three or four other tendons stretch horizontally and connect to the vertical tendon.

But as is often the case throughout the body, many times the left muscle blocks don’t match the right muscle blocks. Sometimes the right muscle is thicker than the left. Or the tendons on the left side are not parallel to the right tendons. Or perhaps the tendons are wavy instead of straight.

In a bodybuilding contest, the judges usually prefer evenly developed blocks with parallel tendons.

Thus, the highly sought after, symmetrical six-pack look for the rectus abdominis muscles is another characteristic that is genetic. The rare individual who has inherited this characteristic, however, does have a distinct advantage.


PARADOXICALLY SPEAKING

Here’s the paradox: The very few people who have all the right genetics have had it too easy. They have chiseled abs almost in defiance of their training, not because of it. They would have had well-above-average abdominals with absolutely no training of any kind. But because they were not able to recognize their own exceptional genetics, they felt that whatever dieting and exercising they did produced outstanding results.

Thus, is it any wonder that these individuals often identify with highly promoted fad diets, quickie exercises, and easy claims?

On the other hand, typical people with average genetics — and this includes about 80 percent of the population — have to work very hard to get into decent shape. But after years and years of training, they will not have the same level of abdominal muscularity as do the people who have exceptional genetics and do only limited training or even have poor eating and exercising practices.

Genetics is almost everything when it comes to great abs.


REALITY AND DISCIPLINE

If you’ve got the right genetics for outstanding abs, then you will have already achieved exceptional results from whatever fitness program you’ve been practicing.

If you have average or slightly above-average genetics, then I hope you’ll apply some of my routines described in my books: 32 Days to a 32-Inch Waist, A Flat Stomach ASAP, and The New HIT (chapters 23 and 25).

Above all, be realistic in the assessment of your genetic potential. With discipline and persistence, your personal-best abdominals will soon surface.

 

Discuss this article | Text Version

Drew Baye

Florida, USA

The hardest part, but by far the most important, is diet. I did no direct abdominal exercise for months prior to a contest in '95 to prove the point that you could develop a ripped midsection without doing a single crunch or direct ab work of any kind, with absolutely no aerobics, and still ended up with pretty good definition on contest day. In addition to a strict diet, I drank at least one gallon of cold water every day, and made an effort to always get plenty of sleep.

I think I probably would have had thicker abs had I done some direct abdominal work, but I wouldn't have made my point as effectively.

Abdominal exercises are important, but no matter what exercises you are doing for your abs unless you are strict with your diet you're never going to see those cuts.

Drew Baye
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buddy_46268

Wow Drew, how long did it take you to get cut like that??
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Drew Baye

Florida, USA

I stayed relatively lean all the time back then, so to get down to that level only took a few weeks.

Drew Baye
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buddy_46268

I wanna be like you when I grow up!!!!! :)
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Drew Baye

Florida, USA

Don't concern yourself with being like anyone else, just focus on maximizing your own genetic potential. Chances are, you could be much bigger than I am any way (about 150 in those photos, about 180 now).

Drew Baye
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serf

New Zealand

When I was doing karate 10 years ago I had 8 ripped abs, but mainly because I was so skinny back then.

At 30, I'm still skinny but I have a bit of fat right across the navel, which I don't like but it seems a necessary sacrifice. If I try to keep my abs ripped, then I might not consume enough calories to maximize muscle gains in the rest of my body.

So it seems that if someone like me is trying to grow, I should let a bit of fat build up around the primary fat deposit areas, and once I reach my target weight, simply cut back on the calories to get the abs back. To get larger, cut abs, train them to failiure. Any comments?
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Drew Baye

Florida, USA

It seems that you have to put on a little bit to grow, since you do need to take in more calories, but it is important to keep it in check. I try not to allow my bodyfat to get above a level where I can still see my abs in good light.

The older I get, the more difficult this seems to be, however.

Cutting my caffeine way back and upping my water intake a bit starting today, which will help.

Drew Baye
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BrianS

New Mexico, USA

My question/dilemma is this: Having never been below 12-13% bodyfat, am I genetically destined to never be lean. I did the Body for Life program 4 years ago and got to about 12%. I still could not see a bit of ab definition. Right now, I am in my first week of Flat Stomach ASAP along with HIT training from the book. I am planning to follow the '6-month' Transformation Plan. I am about 17% BF right now. At what point will the weight I am dropping (4 pounds so far this week, probably 3 of which is water weight)start to take the form of fat loss? When can I reasonably expect to see some ab definition? Can I get to 7 or 8% bodyfat (about a 25 pound loss right now) in the 8-10 weeks I am planning to do the Phase I of the program? Muscular size is not at all my concern as I have been weight training a long time and have built a decent amount of muscle. I just want to be lean, and eventually ripped. Please help.
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Ellington Darden

Brian,

Look back to your parents and grandparents. When they were your age, what kind of leannest did each one have?

Reread the "Chiseled Abs" article and be realistic in your apprasial.

Ellington
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BF Bullpup

Massachusetts, USA

Drew Baye wrote:
The hardest part, but by far the most important, is diet. I did no direct abdominal exercise for months prior to a contest in '95 to prove the point that you could develop a ripped midsection without doing a single crunch or direct ab work of any kind, with absolutely no aerobics, and still ended up with pretty good definition on contest day. In addition to a strict diet, I drank at least one gallon of cold water every day, and made an effort to always get plenty of sleep.

I think I probably would have had thicker abs had I done some direct abdominal work, but I wouldn't have made my point as effectively.

Abdominal exercises are important, but no matter what exercises you are doing for your abs unless you are strict with your diet you're never going to see those cuts.

Drew Baye


Just curious, what was your '95 program like? HVT or HIT, frequency, and such? Not that I'll duplicate it or directly compare myself with you. :-D

After 7 years of more or less HVT, I'm in my 2nd month of HIT (still a HIT newbie, obviously) and so far down to 12% from 16%. To be fair, I was injured for a month before starting HIT, but I'd like to see how shredded I can get with my typical diet, very little abs work, and no cardio other than HIT lifting. See how far down I can go before I'll diet down for the summer. Thanks.
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a.adams

South Africa

a.adams

After my last rugby season i did very little training only about a broken two month period, i had run out of weights to train HIT. So for about eight months I did no actual serious training I decided to get back to training. At university I had my first evaluation they measured my height weight flexiblity and body fat. the results are 1.81m (6feet) 66kg (140lb) 11-12% bf. My waist was 70cm (28") but when i do ab work I have lost about 5cm (2") in two weeks while training only 5 times in the two weeks.
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Thorwalsh

Dr. Darden,

I believe many people that are trying to get chiseled abs make the mistake of attempting to do so with high repetition exercise and not use weight bearing movements as they believe they will get a "big stomach".

I once told a bodybuilder friend of mine to start doing weighted crunches as he was lean but could not get that chiseled six pack look. Within one month his abs looked fabulous. Do you think too many people are looking at diet and cardio when in fact they should be thickening their abdominals instead?
Dave
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freddyaudiophile

My question is this: What should you do if you are over the 12% body fat range? I'm male, 6'0" tall and currently weight 235 lbs -- I estimate my BF at 16%. I've previously done strength training, Max OT and a few more programs, but still have not been able to drop the last 35 pounds or so (most of which is around my waist and on my back)... most other parts of me are getting ripped. I eat 6 clean meals a day, mostly cottage cheese, lowfat yogurt, chicken, tuna, etc. and run around 2100 cals a day.

I'm on a number of discussion forums about fat loss and lifting, etc., and nobody has really given me an answer... it seems that every place I go, somebody suggests a new method to get these last 35 pounds off. I've tried nearly every method known to man (except lipo) and just cannot seem to get the weight off.

Any ideas?
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extremesgs

Massachusetts, USA

Freddy,

How old are you? I'm turning 30 in a few weeks, and I've noticed that things don't change as fast on my body. I used to gain (muscle or fat) quick, and be able to lose quick, too. Not the case anymore... past few years have slowed down.

I'm 6'2 235, about 16% BF... If you find the Holy Grail you're looking for, PM me!!

Lenny
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pauli D

Michigan, USA

Freddy,

How long have you been running your body on a calorie deficit?
If it's been operating at a deficit for a long while, it may have just become quite efficient at it.

Also, if you're running a deficit AND overtraining (i.e. HVT, endless cardio -or multiple sessions throughout the week) your body will hang on to those extra pounds with even more resolve!

You may need to give your body a good long rest. Begin by slowly adding calories back to your diet until you reach a good, healthy maintenance level. Continue training (wisely), and cut out cardio altogether.
Let your body recuperate!

I'm certain that once recuperated, your body will again respond to a calorie deficit by shedding those remaining pounds. You'll lean out -at least to your genetic potential.

Try Dr. Darden's "Two Week Quick Start"
(After you've recuperated!)

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Mid-Sized Tex

California, USA

freddyaudiophile wrote:
My question is this: What should you do if you are over the 12% body fat range? I'm male, 6'0" tall and currently weight 235 lbs -- I estimate my BF at 16%. I've previously done strength training, Max OT and a few more programs, but still have not been able to drop the last 35 pounds or so (most of which is around my waist and on my back)... most other parts of me are getting ripped. I eat 6 clean meals a day, mostly cottage cheese, lowfat yogurt, chicken, tuna, etc. and run around 2100 cals a day.

I'm on a number of discussion forums about fat loss and lifting, etc., and nobody has really given me an answer... it seems that every place I go, somebody suggests a new method to get these last 35 pounds off. I've tried nearly every method known to man (except lipo) and just cannot seem to get the weight off.

Any ideas?


Here's a thought, maybe worth a try. It sounds like you are eating a high-protein, low carb diet. If that's true, you might like trying to get at least 30g of fat (so you're sated and your body perceives no stress), about 94g of protein (235 x .4), and the rest of your calories from complex carbs and fresh fruit.

Amigo, if you try that in conjunction with 1.62 gal of cold water daily and plenty of sleep, you should see some improvements, especially because you're already eating 6 meals/day, which is spectacular.

Additionally, if you're still not seeing the results you want, I'd try going to 1800 cal/day, then 1700, then 1600 (all while working out hardcore), and then you SHOULD be reposting with, "Oh my gosh! It works!"

Good luck,

Bill
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Mid-Sized Tex

California, USA

pauldarcy wrote:
Freddy,

How long have you been running your body on a calorie deficit?
If it's been operating at a deficit for a long while, it may have just become quite efficient at it.

Also, if you're running a deficit AND overtraining (i.e. HVT, endless cardio -or multiple sessions throughout the week) your body will hang on to those extra pounds with even more resolve!

You may need to give your body a good long rest. Begin by slowly adding calories back to your diet until you reach a good, healthy maintenance level. Continue training (wisely), and cut out cardio altogether.
Let your body recuperate!

I'm certain that once recuperated, your body will again respond to a calorie deficit by shedding those remaining pounds. You'll lean out -at least to your genetic potential.

Try Dr. Darden's "Two Week Quick Start"
(After you've recuperated!)


Freddy, I have to say this is great advice: I'd do this first, and then more of the stuff I previously posted, much of which is endorsed by Dr. Darden in his Body Leanness Plan alluded to above.

Bill
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yitmy

Ohio, USA

I have a question, I find no difference with the legs abducted or adducted as it was written in your new hit book. I find in the abducted position that it stretches the groin slightly but it does not change the orientation of the abdominal muscle insertion. So why do you recommend that abdominals are done in that position?
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yitmy

Ohio, USA

I have a question, I find no difference with the legs abducted or adducted as it was written in your new hit book. I find in the abducted position that it stretches the groin slightly but it does not change the orientation of the abdominal muscle insertion. So why do you recommend that abdominals are done in that position?
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